All claims to the contrary, the Persian Gulf monarchies have been deeply affected by the Arab revolutionary ferment of 2011-2012. Bahrain may be the only country to experience its own sustained upheaval, but the impact has also been felt elsewhere. Demands for a more participatory politics are on the rise, as are calls for the protection of rights and formations of various types of civic and political organization. Although these demands are not new, they are louder than before, including where the price of dissent is highest in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the usually hushed United Arab Emirates. The resilience of a broad range of activists in denouncing autocracy and discomfiting autocrats is inspirational. As yet, there are no cracks in the foundation of Gulf order, but the edifice no longer appears adamantine.

This state of affairs poses a historic challenge to the order’s number-one guarantor, the United States. The task is not, as some might think, to reconcile the Obama administration’s professed affinity for Arab democracy with the fact of its firm alliance with the states that the activists are working to open up. It is to aid those states in managing their domestic crisis so that the regional order can remain intact.

Campaign of Oppression

Gulf regimes have responded harshly to the fresh challenges from below, turning quickly from efforts at cooptation to coercion. At first, when revolts broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait hiked public-sector salaries, subsidies and other forms of patronage, literally trying to spend their way out of potential trouble. But there has been a surge in state violence as well, with thousands detained, disappeared and killed. Authorities in the Gulf are not known for their soft touch, but the present repression is both measurably greater and noticeably more out in the open. Typically concerned to hide unrest from view, out of fear of seeming weak or unpopular, the Gulf monarchies now seem disinterested in masking their violent response. In part, the states have lost control; activists can broadcast details of riot police assaults over social media. But the brutality on display is also intentional. The authorities wish to send the message that they can and will crush dissent with impunity.

The repressive turn is collective. Save in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE dispatched troops in March 2011, there has been no obvious collaboration between Gulf militaries. There is, however, a regional pattern. Oman has arrested hundreds and sentenced dozens to jail, including prominent human rights activists, for participating in protests. The UAE has arrested pro-reform demonstrators and stripped them of their citizenship. Saudi Arabia has arrested thousands and killed a significant number of Shi‘i protesters in the Eastern Province. Kuwaiti authorities have deployed force against members of the opposition, as well as the bidun, native-born residents who do not enjoy the rights of citizenship. The Bahraini state has struck hardest of all, killing dozens, torturing hundreds and terrorizing the majority of the population with tear gas and birdshot. Major opposition and human rights figures, including ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, Ibrahim Sharif and Nabeel Rajab, have been imprisoned.

It is not just the vigor of local and wider Arab protest movements that accounts for the alacrity of the Gulf regimes’ campaign of violence and oppression. The effort is partly driven as well by anxiety, mixed with a sense of opportunity, related to the balance of power with Iran.

Arab Gulf monarchs have summoned the specter of an Iranian threat ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, however, anti-Iranian hysteria is at an all-time high, whipped up by Iran’s perceived strategic benefit from the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the rise of Shi‘i Islamist parties to power in post-Saddam Iraq, Iran’s posture of “resistance” during Israel’s wars on Lebanon and Gaza, and now the Arab revolts. Riyadh and Manama have been particularly provocative, deliberately poking their rival across the Gulf. Theirs is a conscious effort to discredit Shi‘i empowerment — Bahrain’s population is majority-Shi‘i and Saudi Arabia’s some 15 percent Shi‘i — and to undermine popular support for domestic protest. For Saudi Arabia, in particular, stoking fear of Iran is one way to keep protests from spreading from the Eastern Province, where most of the Shi‘a live, to the rest of the country. No doubt the Saudis, Bahrainis and others also believe that heightened tensions with Iran help to secure the backing of their benefactors, chiefly the United States.

Here, the Gulf regimes appear to have calculated correctly, for to date Washington has paid far more attention to Iranian maneuvering, real and imagined, than to the excessive force used to grind down pro-democracy and human rights activists on the Arab side of the Gulf. Gulf Arab rulers have turned what historically has been a source of US leverage — security guarantees and military might — to their own advantage. Indeed, because containment of Iran is a strategic priority for Washington, the US military has parlayed its withdrawal from Iraq into tighter bilateral relationships with the Arab monarchies to the south, stationing 15,000 troops in Kuwait and pushing for more naval and air patrols of the vital, oil-rich Gulf. Central Command’s chief of staff, Gen. Karl Horst, labels this shift “back to the future.” [1] And, indeed, the Obama administration’s approach in the Gulf — that its Arab allies are strategic partners indispensable to regional commerce, the war on terror and containment of Iran — is consistent with 60 years of US policy. In this regard, the Arab uprisings have changed nothing.

The US in the Gulf

Washington’s clear preference for the status quo in the Gulf has come at considerable cost to activists in the region. The US has enabled the Gulf regimes to behave badly; the regimes, for their part, have exploited geopolitical rivalries to consolidate power at home.

There is a structural weakness in the US position, however, one that has become evident over time. The US is tied to partners in the Gulf who are politically vulnerable, as clearly demonstrated by the protest of 2011-2012 and the failure of the usual buyoffs and blandishments to restore quiet. Washington has long been committed to a set of security assurances that aim to maintain a regional system that is not sustainable on its own. The consequence is a paradox: The US is by far the strongest power in the Gulf. Its Fifth Fleet, squadrons of warplanes and pre-positioned infantry and armor hold the region together. But its clout is also limited. Neither the White House nor the Pentagon is able to dictate political outcomes, not in Iraq, not in Iran and particularly not in the Arab Gulf states. The Gulf thus becomes no more stable as a result of the heavier and heavier US deployments, the increasingly more direct interventions, in the name of guaranteeing stability. Indeed, since the close of the twentieth century, US security commitments have contributed to the exact opposite trend. The US has helped to destabilize a region it claims to protect.

Gulf security, notably the “energy security” supplied by the region’s oil and gas, is a perennial American obsession. In the early days after the discovery of oil, it was corporate profits that placed the Gulf at the center of US strategic thinking, but commercial and political concerns had converged by the middle of the twentieth century. [2] The US military commitment to the regional order was stepped up in the 1970s, with the closure of British bases in Bahrain and elsewhere. For most of that decade, weary of projecting power directly, the US attempted to arm surrogates — the “twin pillars” of Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran — to do its bidding. That policy collapsed in 1979, with the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

From that point on, the US would not outsource the protection of the oil patch. In his 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter was forthright: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter’s words were directed at the Soviets in Afghanistan, but his vision has guided US strategists long after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. It has been demonstrated by the repeated use of military force since the late 1980s, in what should be considered one long war in the Gulf. [3]

Fretting about Gulf security is tied to considerations including terrorism and Israeli military superiority, Washington’s chosen method, along with bilateral treaties between Israel and frontline Arab states, for averting another major Arab-Israeli war. Most important, however, is energy. In particular, Gulf security is often framed by the argument that the outward flow of oil, critical to both the American and global economy, demands protection and that the best way to protect it is to underwrite the regional political status quo. When in late 2011 Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, thus blocking the main oil supply route, it was hardly surprising that the US scrambled additional planes and ships to the Gulf. Such resolve is entirely complementary, of course, with the stated objectives of the Arab Gulf states, which also insist on the primacy of security. Over time, it has become axiomatic in political and diplomatic discourse, and even in scholarship, that Gulf states are engaged in a “ceaseless quest for security.” This phrase, indeed, served as the subtitle of a 1985 study of Saudi Arabia by Nadav Safran, a Harvard scholar who resigned from his administrative job at the university following the revelation that the CIA had funded his research.

Yet while US and Gulf monarchy interests have been served — oil has flowed, the revenues are high and Washington’s allies remain in place — it is a stretch to call the Gulf secure, let alone stable. The region has been wracked by war for more than three decades, with hundreds of thousands dead, much of the natural environment laid waste and every prospect of a repeat performance. The reality is that when US leaders iterate their commitment to security in the Gulf, what they mean is that they are committed to the survival of their allies and the political systems that dominate in the region. The result — Washington’s blind eye to the Gulf states’ repression — is often criticized as inaction.

But the opposite is true. In spite of considerable Congressional opposition, the Obama administration found a way to sell more weapons to Bahrain in 2012. It has also overseen significant sales to other regional allies, including almost $30 billion to Saudi Arabia, all based on the pretense that these states are instrumental in checking a troublesome Iran. The reality, however, is that none of the Arab states in the Gulf are capable of mounting their own defense. They are entirely dependent on the United States for their security. It is something US policymakers know well: Since the beginning of 2012 the US has positioned the USS Ponce, a large floating base, in the Gulf, moved a squadron of F-22 fighters to the UAE, doubled its minesweeping presence and deployed the Sea Fox undersea drone. All these moves amount not to inaction to help aspiring democrats, but to forceful and purposeful intervention on the side of some of the most authoritarian states on the planet.

Thrive by the Sword

The upsurge in oppression by Gulf states in 2011 reflected their shared deep disquiet about their own weakness: They have narrow social bases and historically have sought to manufacture loyalty to governments that are corrupt and self-serving. From Riyadh to Muscat, the Arab uprisings induced a sense of looming disaster, one perhaps unprecedented in intensity. It is clear, however, that the regimes believe they have arrived at a winning formula, turning crisis into opportunity. Paradoxically, therefore, the Gulf states have thrived off the very thing — political upheaval — that they have for so very long claimed to fear above all else.

In the mid-2000s, most of the Gulf kingdoms were keen to indulge the pretense of reform. They did more talking about reform than reforming — but even the talk is now passé. Back in vogue today are the police state and the counterrevolutionary tactics that prevailed in the 1970s. Indeed, the Arab uprisings and local unrest seem to have convinced rulers in the Gulf to offer less accommodation and wield more blunt force. It is arguable that, in the Gulf of the twenty-first century, crises are no longer undesirable, but rather have considerable political utility. In fact, given the arc of history — whereby the redistribution of oil wealth has failed to ensure regime stability or political quietism — the regional system may have arrived at a moment where political survival actually requires the manufacturing of permanent crisis at home and in the region.

To be sure, the uprising in Bahrain and protests elsewhere are potential sources of revolution, but the monarchies have been successful in recasting them as threats to the system (and domestic and regional security) rather than groundswells that reflect the interests of actual subjects. Rather than engage the ruled, the Gulf states feel increasingly compelled to characterize the terms of domestic politics, and especially opposition politics, as destabilizing, inimical to the (fictional) national interest and beholden to a conspiracy of outsiders.

It may be that the embrace of crisis, at least for short-term political gain, represents the latest stage of political development in the oil-rich states of the Gulf. With new grassroots political energy and emboldened demands for change, it is apparent that old patterns of political engagement such as handing out patronage are increasingly ineffective. While the redistribution of wealth has never satisfied everyone, even in times of plenty, levels of political engagement by ordinary Gulf Arabs seem greater than ever. What has not changed, however, is the reluctance of regional authorities to part with power. They remain steadfast in preserving an antiquated and rotten political order. These contradictory vectors, the growing expectation of participation versus intensifying efforts to maintain a closed system, help to explain the power of crisis in shaping regime behavior. To the extent that the United States endorses the status quo, it is complicit not only in the Gulf regimes’ efforts to quash citizen protest, but also in the redesign of Gulf security architecture by which crisis becomes the norm.


[1] New York Times, October 29, 2011.
[2] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011).
[3] For a more fully developed version of this argument, see Toby Craig Jones, “America, Oil and War in the Middle East,” Journal of American History 99/1 (2012).

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "Embracing Crisis in the Gulf," Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).

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