GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
The "Gulf Spring": The Uprising in Bahrain and Sectarianism in the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper will propose a new approach to the study of sectarianism in the Gulf. It will argue that a multilevel approach is needed, one that studies the importance of key historical events, state policies, political economy, transnational networks and international actors. The empirical evidence for this approach will be the uprisings and demonstrations for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech that have occurred in Bahrain in 2011, and, to a lesser extent, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It will also particularly study the state responses to these events and argue that these policies were key in creating a new sectarian reality in the Gulf that will dominate Gulf politics and Gulf security for years to come.

Relations between monarchical regimes in the Gulf and their Shia citizens, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, have soured to levels as bad as after the Iranian revolution in 1979, when they were seen as an Iranian fifth column. While the popular uprising in Bahrain was not sectarian in its demand or its outlook, the Bahraini regime and its regional allies were rather successful in casting it as such, thereby largely scaring liberal Sunnis from participating in the protests that after initial cross-sectarian protests were driven by the Bahraini Shia. Since the crackdown on protesters in mid-March, and the Saudi and GCC intervention in Bahrain, a publicity campaign has spread throughout the GCC countries warning citizens of the "sectarian" Shia protesters and the dangers they pose to the "nation". The "Shia threat" has again become the catchall answer to demands for democratic reform and accountability in the Gulf.

As a result sectarian relations within the Arab Gulf countries, as well as with Iran and increasingly the Shia-led government of Iraq, have reached a new low point. Small steps that have led to 'marginal recognition' of Saudi Shia after a deal with King Fahd in 1993, for example, have been reversed and sectarianism is the new old reality of domestic politics and international relations in the Gulf.

This paper is based on several fieldwork trips to Bahrain in 2011, including one at the height of the uprising in February 2011. During these times, I did participant observation and carried out fieldwork with protesters and interviewed key opposition figures and decision makers in the Bahraini government. In addition, I did a fieldwork trip to Saudi Arabia in late 2011, upon which the analysis of the demonstrations in the Shia areas of the Eastern Province in spring and November 2011 is based.