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New Texts Out Now: Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't

[Cover of Toby Matthiesen, [Cover of Toby Matthiesen, "Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't"]

Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Toby Matthiesen (TM): I wanted to show how the Arab Spring impacted the Gulf countries and how they tried to counter the challenges arising from the revolutions spreading across the region. I felt that this was a story that was generally under-reported and under-studied, and my book is a small attempt to try to change that. I probably would not have written this kind of book had I not experienced the sectarianization of politics, in the Gulf and beyond, first hand.

I had already spent five years researching the political history of the Gulf Shia, particularly those in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, when I arrived in Bahrain in mid-February 2011 to do some more fieldwork and visit some archives. But this initial fieldwork plan soon unraveled as the uprising in Bahrain gained pace. I ended up interviewing activists, going to the protests and to Pearl Roundabout—Bahrain's version of Tahrir Square—and taking notes. At the time, I never thought that I would end up writing a book about these events.

I left Bahrain before the crackdown in mid-March 2011 started and Saudi troops rolled in. The harsh suppression of the uprising, and the employment of sectarian rhetoric and violence by the Bahraini regime, crushed the uprising. I went back to Bahrain in May 2011 to write a report for the International Crisis Group, and met with representatives of most political groups, as well as government officials. The situation in Bahrain remained dire, and I, like many others, became disillusioned. It was only after research trips to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in late 2011 and 2012 that I realized the impact of the Bahrain uprising, and increasingly of the civil war in Syria, on the other Gulf states. What I saw, particularly in Kuwait and Saudi, was a complete break-down in cross-sectarian relations, and a veritable barrage of hate speech directed at Shia Muslims.

This is when it became clear to me that I wanted to write a book about what had happened in the Gulf and how it influenced the Arab uprisings more generally. Travelling to all the Gulf states since 2011, I sensed that a much larger story remained to be told. Mainstream media and many academics were generally unwilling or unable to talk about these developments in the Gulf, in part because they were afraid that Gulf funding to universities and advertising in news outlets might be cut.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TM: I attempted to combine some of the findings of my PhD research about Saudi Shia politics, sectarianism, and the relationships between Gulf governments and opposition movements more generally, with some of my personal observations from travelling across the region since 2011.

The book is essentially an account of the petitions, protests, and crackdowns that occurred across the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. In particular, it focuses on the protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, but also discusses the protests in Oman, as well as the developments in the UAE and Qatar. The book shows that contrary to popular wisdom, the Gulf states did experience popular protests, and the political consciousness of many Gulf residents has changed significantly since 2011. This also undermines the notion that the Arab uprisings were mainly about the economy, and not so much about ideas. While economic grievances were of course key, the protests (and other challenges) in the resource-rich Gulf states show that it was not just the "poor" countries that revolted. Nevertheless, Bahrain and Oman, who probably saw the largest protest movements in the Gulf, are the poorest countries in the Gulf, and no Gulf ruler has had to abdicate or institute major political reforms (the Emir of Qatar did not resign due to popular pressure). 

In addition, the book tries to explain the new sectarianism in the region through an analysis of the reactions of Gulf governments to popular protests (or the threat thereof). I think there are quite a lot of similarities in how Gulf governments, the Assad regime, and the regime in Iran have stirred up sectarian tensions to ensure regime survival. One concept that I worked with in my PhD, and that I also used for this book, is the notion of the sectarian identity entrepreneurs, who use sectarian identity politics to strengthen their own positions.

J: How does this book connect to your previous research?

TM: I wrote a PhD on the political history of the Shia in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia since the late nineteenth century, which I defended in 2011. So I was in some ways familiar with the structures of political opposition in the Gulf and with the ways in which sectarianism is created and perpetuated. Given the timeliness of and the different style of writing that I employed for Sectarian Gulf, I decided to finish this book first, and am thus still working on the book manuscript 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. As such, all these works are connected by a desire to uncover some of the political, social, and religious debates and struggles in the Gulf region. Theoretically, I am interested in how power is constituted, and how power structures disintegrate. Studying the cracks on the surface of power in the Gulf states, then, has been a great case study about some of the larger themes of authoritarianism, popular protests, the role of new media, civil society, the construction and instrumentalization of collective identities, and the role of culture and religion in the political field.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TM: This book is based on years of fieldwork and archival research, and I hope it will be read by academics and students interested in Middle East politics, as well as by policy makers, economists, and journalists. It could be particularly interesting for scholars and students of popular protest, urban space, social media, social movements, identity politics, opposition movements, sectarianism, the Gulf states, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and American and British foreign policy.

Nevertheless, it was written with the general reader in mind and should therefore also be accessible for anyone who wants to know more about the role of the Gulf states in the Arab uprisings and about Sunni-Shia relations.

One thing that I certainly do not want to do is to deepen the sectarian divide that I describe in the book. I rather want to explain political sectarianism, the use of sectarian identity for political aims, or the discrimination of one group against another due to sectarian belonging. In such a context, religion is used as a tool, and struggles are more about political economy than about an age-old conflict that dates back to the schisms in early Islamic history. So the hope is that the book might contribute a little to explaining how sectarian conflict arises, how it is constructed, who profits and who suffers from it, and how sectarian identity could be made less salient.

Excerpts from Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't

From Chapter 1: Oil, God, and Pearls

Three years later, on 15 February 2011, when I made another flight to Manama, the world was quite different. Arabs were toppling dictators across the region. Only a few days earlier, Tunisia’s Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile and is a vital symbol of how contradictory the Saudi approach to the Arab Spring has been. While 2011 saw protest movements from Chile to the United States, Europe, and Russia, the Arabs were really showing the world how to mobilize and how to bring down dictators, and the Egyptians had just ousted Mubarak from power. Even still, politicians and analysts were busy consoling themselves that Country X was not like Country Y, that Tunisia and Egypt were exceptions in the sea of authoritarian states, that Syria and particularly Gulf countries such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia could not experience protest movements.[1]

A day before I boarded the plane to return to Bahrain, on 14 February 2011, one protester had been killed while trying to march to the Pearl Roundabout, a central traffic intersection in Manama. A bit frightened, I asked the two Bahraini women sitting next to me on the plane what they thought, but they replied that I should not be worried as there are protests all the time, and had been in Bahrain for decades. They were referring to the period of sustained popular mobilization from 1994 onwards that did not stop until 2000–2001, when the new King Hamad reached out to the opposition groups, brought them back from exile, and promised profound political reforms, which were supposed to follow a National Action Charter. Incidentally, this charter was approved almost unanimously by a referendum on 14 February 2001. But the promises of fundamental political reform were broken, as Hamad Al Khalifa promulgated a new constitution that significantly differed from the charter Bahrainis had voted for, ensuring that the ruling family maintained a tight grip on power and that the elected half of the parliament had only limited powers. Also in 2002, Hamad Al Khalifa changed the name of the country he was ruling from “State of Bahrain” to “Kingdom of Bahrain,” and declared himself king rather than amir.[2] The Bahraini regime had intended to use the ten-year anniversary of this referendum as a propaganda tool with planned festivities and advertisements praising the ten-year reform path posted throughout the country, but this idea backfired.

At Manama airport, all seemed normal, and driving to the hotel was no problem. But when I went to the Arab restaurant on the rooftop of my hotel late that night to grab a bite, I could hear sirens and the sound of helicopters circling over the city, and particularly near the Pearl Roundabout. I had arranged this research trip weeks before, unaware of a Facebook page that called for a Day of Rage on 14 February 2011. I had wanted to interview veterans of the leftist, Arab Nationalist, and communist movements in the Gulf. But when I met a friend of mine for a late lunch on 16 February, he understandably did not want to speak about the history of popular protest and leftist political mobilization in Bahrain. Rather, he wanted to discuss current events. And he wanted to go to the Pearl Roundabout, which was now apparently controlled by the protesters and increasingly being referred to as Tahrir Square, in homage to Cairo’s epicenter of protests. Protesters had gathered at the Pearl Roundabout in the afternoon of 15 February, after a second protester had been killed, and his funeral procession on the morning of 16 February was attended by over a thousand people who walked from the main hospital and morgue in Bahrain, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, to a cemetery.[3]

My friend and his wife took me in their car that evening, and we drove to the roundabout, leaving the old city of Manama to our left and passing the skyscrapers of the financial district. But a few hundred meters from the roundabout in the financial heart of the city we had to stop; the roads were blocked, not by riot police but by a sheer endless mass of empty cars. Thousands had come out to witness what was going on. Unlike in Cairo, where most protesters came by public transport, here most came by car, and this added a whole new disruptive dimension to the protests. When I pointed out to my friend that the mass of silent cars felt like the start of a “car revolution,” he replied with a smile, “This is the Gulf, after all.” We got out of the car and started walking toward the white glowing monument at the center of the roundabout.

Illuminated in the night the white pearl monument had an almost magical appeal. In its center stood a sculpture of a dhow—a traditional local sailing vessel—with six arches for its sails, representing the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. At the top perched a simulated pearl, as pearl diving had been one of the cornerstones of Bahrain’s economy before the discovery of oil. Approaching the monument we could hear the voices of thousands, the shrieking of megaphones, fanfares, music, engines.


[1] See, for example, Stephen M. Walt, “Why the Tunisian Revolution Won’t Spread,” Foreign Policy, 16 January 2011.

[2] International Crisis Group, Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt, 6 April 2011, 3f.; J. E. Peterson, “Bahrain: Reform, Promise and Reality,” in Political Liberalization in the Persian Gulf, ed. Joshua Teitelbaum (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 157–185.

[3] Because the Salmaniya Medical Complex houses the main morgue in Bahrain, and dozens of people were killed and severely injured by the security forces in February and March 2011, protests and funeral processions regularly started at Salmaniya and there were protests outside the hospital. The regime later claimed that protesters had taken over the hospital and used it as a communications base for their planned “coup.” The regime launched a massive media defamation campaign against medical personnel that treated wounded protesters at Salmaniya, and put several of them on trial. For a discussion of the events at Salmaniya, see Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 23 November 2011, 171–217. See also Doctors Without Borders, “Health Services Paralyzed: Bahrain’s Military Crackdown on Patients,” April 2011.

[Excerpted from Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't, by Toby Matthiesen, by permission of the author. © 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here. The preface to the book is available to read here.]

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