The contemporary opposition movements in the Arabian Peninsula have their origins in two processes of radicalization in Middle Eastern politics. The first was the rise of radical nationalists, Nasserists and Baathists, and of communist parties in the 1950s and 1960s, and the second is the spread of the radical Islamic groups in the latter part of the 1970s. The political organizations now engaged in opposition politics in the peninsula spring essentially from these two competing trends.
The first wave of radicalization produced a variety of groups in the peninsula. In three cases, pro-Soviet communist groups emerged: the Bahrain National Liberation Front, established in 1956, the Popular Democratic Union, established under the leadership of ‘Abdallah Badhib in the two Yemens in 1961, and the Communist Party of Saudi Arabia, originally the National Liberation Front of Saudi Arabia and known as the Saudi Communist Party after 1975. In the Yemens, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, various Baathist groupings were set up, owing loyalty either to Syria or Baghdad or, later, to neither. Until the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 at least, the Baathist leadership in Baghdad included representatives of the Yemeni and Saudi parties in their National Command.
By far the most influential opposition elements in the peninsula came from the local branches of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). From the mid-1960s on, all of these broke away to form separate groups that nonetheless retained some contact with the more radical Palestinian branches — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPF). The South Yemeni branch joined with other local groups to formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1963 and it was in this form that it took power in 1967 upon the British withdrawal. In 1975, the NLF merged with the local PDU and Baathist groupings to form the United Political Organization of the National Front. In 1978, the UPONF became the Yemeni Socialist Party, now the ruling party in the PDRY. In North Yemen, the local ANM branch founded the Revolutionary Democratic Party in 1968. In 1975, the RDP merged with four other groups to form the National Democratic Front, and in 1979 these five merged completely to form the Yemeni People’s Unity Party.
In Saudi Arabia, the ANM elements formed a number of groups. The Arabian People’s Peninsula Union, founded in 1960 and led by Nasser Said, carried out guerrilla actions in 1967. Its successor, the Peoplersquo;s Democratic Party, lasted until the mid-1970s, and from 1972 onwards became known as the Socialist Labor Party. In Kuwait, where no parties are permitted but where some legal opposition work can be carried out in Parliament and the press, a group of individuals around the journal al-Tali‘a, led by parliamentary deputy Ahmad al-Khatib, has continued to criticize the government on some issues and to maintain distinct political profiles since the 1960s.
In the smaller states of the Gulf, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates, and in Oman, there was from 1968 to 1974 a single opposition party based on ANM cadres, the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). This organization carried out guerrilla activity in the Dhofar province of Oman and political resistance in the smaller Gulf states themselves. In 1974, the PFLOAG divided into the Popular Front in Bahrain and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman. The PFB has continued underground political activity in Bahrain, but has faced increasing competition from rival Islamic groups. In Oman, the PFLO guerrillas were defeated by the end of 1975 by a combination of Omani, Iranian and British military forces. The majority of the fighters then retreated into the PDRY. A few remained inside Dhofar and carried out spasmodic guerrilla actions during the following years, and the PFLO retained a radio facility inside the PDRY until it was closed down in November 1982, following the establishment of diplomatic relations between Oman and the PDRY.
The PFLO has had to face a number of political difficulties following its military defeat: The influx of oil money into Oman has transformed the social and political context in which the PFLO had previously worked; the signing of an Oman-US military cooperation agreement in 1980 has given the regime added strength and repressive potential; the appeal of the more radical regimes in the Arab world to youth in Oman has declined substantially; defeats endured by the Palestinian resistance and by the guerrillas in Dhofar have affected local morale; and a significant number of PFLO members, including some of its leading cadres, have accepted offers by the sultan’s regime to return home and have become employees of his state apparatus. In 1982, the PFLO held its third congress. There it proclaimed itself ready to form a broad united front with all those opposed to the regime. Its three main current aims are: the expulsion of foreign forces from Oman, the securing of democratic liberties, and a non-aligned foreign policy. The Islamic groups which have arisen in the peninsula are not easily identifiable and it is extremely difficult to assess their strength and policies. The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted an armed coup in 1981 and was, for some time, openly supported by Iran. The Islamic Movement of Bahrain has now apparently fragmented into a number of different groups. That in Saudi Arabia also appears to be fragmented, between the Shi‘i groups in the east of the country and the group which seized the Mecca mosque in 1979. An Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oman has been openly backed by Iran, and in North Yemen an Islamic Front has also become active, aided by Egyptian schoolteachers working in the country. Here we publish interviews conducted last year with representatives of two of the main secular opposition parties in the peninsula: the Yemeni People’s Unity Party and the Socialist Labor Party in the Arabian Peninsula.