Crimcast spoke with Toby Matthiesen, Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge (England) and author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t(2013). His book presents a detailed account of the protest movements in the Gulf Arab monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia in the last few years, explaining how the movements formed, what they hoped to achieve, and why they have been unsuccessful in creating substantial reform or regime change. In particular, the book focuses on Gulf governments’ use of Shi’a and Sunni sectarian political tension to shore up the status quo and delegitimize the potential for change.
You describe a “new sectarianism” that has emerged alongside the Arab spring movements. What do you mean by this?
This new sectarianism spread around the region since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the sectarianism unleashed to counter the Arab Spring, by regimes in the Gulf, in Syria, and elsewhere, has reached new levels and has become worse than ever. States now think strategically in sectarian terms, and social bonds in many mixed Middle Eastern societies have broken down almost completely.
"The people want the reform of the regime!" was a chant repeated in the Pearl Roundabout during the Bahrain Spring movement in February 2011. You were on the ground during many of the demonstrations in Bahrain in early 2011. What impressed you most about the Bahrainis who took to the streets to demand human rights and democracy in their country?
That the movement was initially very peaceful, and that it seemed to try to be as inclusive as possible, crossing sectarian and generational boundaries. And that people dared to defy power and risk their lives just to show that they wanted to live under a different political system.
Of particular interest to Crimcast is the role of police and security forces in suppressing the movements. What did you witness of the government crackdown?
Particularly in Bahrain, the role of the security forces was key. Much of the security apparatus consists of foreign mercenaries, particularly South-East Asians or other Arabs, and as such are totally dependent on and loyal to their patrons in the country, the royal family. This make-up of the Bahraini security forces is a historical product of Bahrain's position within the British empire, and a pre-emptive strategy of making Bahrain secure against army coups (as outlined recently by Strobl and Louër in two very informative articles) .
What were some of the criminal charges and punishments meted out for opposition figures in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia? Are any of the opposition figures still imprisoned today?
The charges range from insulting the ruler, to spreading rumors on social media, inciting hatred, undermining national security, and conspiring with foreign powers, and they are all spelled out in very Orwellian terms. The discourse directed against dissenters and opposition groups in the Gulf has become increasingly totalitarian, with "others" being described as "filth", a "fifth column", or "malicious elements". Sadly, much of this language is addressed against the local Shia Muslims, and has become mixed up with derogatory religious hate-speech.
Across the Gulf, opposition figures have been put in jail, most notably in Bahrain, where a so-called "cell of 21" opposition leaders has been convicted, some of them to life sentences, for inspiring the uprising in 2011.
What has changed since the Arab spring movements began? Will they ultimately be successful or have they stalled?
The outcomes of the Arab spring are still unpredictable. But it is quite clear that the language of politics in the Middle East has changed, probably forever, and governments will eventually have to come to terms with this. At the moment it looks like the counter-revolution has gained the upper hand, in Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf, but the processes that have been set in motion are not going to be stopped from one day to the other, and street politics has already become the most powerful force in Arab politics.
What are you working on these days? Will we see more from you about Gulf social justice and political change?
I am working on a political history of the Shia in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a book that is based on my PhD dissertation. Thereafter, I want to work on the Gulf in the Cold War era, and the history of the leftist and Arab nationalist movements in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.
Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, at the University of Cambridge. He has published in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Middle East Journal, and Middle East Report, and has done extensive fieldwork in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. He previously worked as a Gulf Consultant for the International Crisis Group.