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Sectarianism in the Gulf - A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Toby Matthiesen

In this interview for STATUS/الوضع, host Mona Kareem speaks with Toby Matthiesen about sectarianism in the Gulf after the Arab uprisings.

Toby Matthiesen gained his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2011. He is the author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford University Press, 2013), and The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

The interview is divided into three parts which you can click on separately. Please find a transcript of the interview below the player. 



Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Samantha Brotman

Mona Kareem (MK): This is Status Hour, and today we are with Toby Mathiessen speaking about his new book, The Other Saudis, but also we want to discuss current events happening in the Gulf region. Hello Toby.

Toby Mathiessen (TM): Hello Mona.

MK: Hi, thanks for coming with us on Status Hour. 

TM: Thank you for having me.

MK: Toby Mathiessen is currently a senior research fellow in International Relations of the Middle East at Saint Anthony's College, University of Oxford. He recently published a new book called, The Other Saudis: Shi'ism, Dissent, and Sectarianism, published by Cambridge University Press. Before that, there was another book called, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn't. So I wanted to ask you first, how did you work on the two projects? What was different, or what has developed in the new book?

TM: Well, I have been working on these issues and on the history of the Shi'a in the Gulf and questions of sectarian politics, for about a decade as part of my PhD. In 2011, when the uprisings started across the Arab World, and then quickly spread to the Gulf, I followed everything quite closely, but I was trying to finish my PhD at the same time. I am a slightly odd case, in the sense that I published another book first that was more about current affairs. It was really a history of the Bahrain uprising, of the protests in Kuwait, and of the protests inside the Eastern Province. This is the first book you referred to, Sectarian Gulf, published in 2013. The book that came out this year is actually an updated and rewritten version of my PhD. I should have done it the other way around, but timing and the Arab uprisings forced me to do the current affairs, the more popular book, first, and the more substantial and historical book last.

MK: So, The Other Saudis was more of the historical book about the Shi'a and Saudis. I want to ask you how the two books complete each other or speak to each other. 

TM: They complement each other in a sense. The Other Saudis is kind of a history of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, al-Aqsa and Qateef, since the late nineteenth century mainly. From the Ottoman period, to the first Saudi conquests, the emergence of the oil industry, oil towns, the labor movements that occurred in oil towns, as well as a history of leftist movements and how Shi'a Islamic movements started to become prominent in the Eastern Province and the wider region. The last chapter describes what has happened since 2011 and relates this to some of the key themes in the book. But really, the story of the protest movements is detailed more in Sectarian GulfSectarian Gulf relates very much what happens in the Eastern Province to Bahrain. Both issues are highly connected, so they can be read together very well.

MK: In both books, from the impression I had, you try to also look into the way the Shi'a organized and how they have been politicized by the pressure of state sectarianism, but also the events that keep happening. Of course the Arab Spring is one example of it. So, do you think that the two books try to keep that, how the Shi'a speak to power and challenge it? 

TM: Yes, that is certainly one of the themes. The Other Saudis is mainly about Saudi Arabia, whereas the other book is about the whole of the Gulf, and also deals with Saudi-Iranian relations, and the sectarianization of the discourse of counter-revolutionary strategies in the Gulf and the wider region.

MK: Can we maybe speak about this more? Because I was wondering how it is helpful to have a framework centered on a sectarian identity. This is the reality itself, but at the same time, how could it be helpful? Especially because there is already that problematic discourse on minority groups, the minorities and how they act. So, how are you trying to stay away from that problematic identity politics, to more of how the Shi'a mobilize. 

TM: The prominence of sectarian and other identity politics in that part of the world cannot really be ignored. So, I think one should study this. But we should not study it in an essentialist way, or try to say that these are the core causes of problems. I think the prominence of sectarian identity and sectarian politics is more an outcome of underlying processes, and is also, to a large extent, a product of state practices. In many countries, speaking about these issues was or is a taboo, and that has not been helpful either, saying that you are not allowed to talk about the history of the different religious communities and so on. In places like Syria and Iraq and other parts of the Gulf, there is basically a ban on discussing things I talked about in the book. Yet, you have an explosion of sectarianism in these countries. So, I think just ignoring the issues does not make them go away.
What I have tried to do is really trace at which point being Shi'a becomes an important factor in people's identities. I think there were a lot of periods in history when other facets of people's identities were more important. For example, Arab nationalism, leftist ideologies, or town and village identities were much more important in the Saudi and Eastern Province cases, until the 1970s. Then you had a regional emergence of Islamist movements across the region that became popular, as well as the Iranian revolution, and so on. But at the same time, state discrimination along sectarian lines has always reinforced these identities. I think that if you are being constantly reminded of what sect you belong to, for example if you want to get a license for anything or if you have to appear before a judge, or if you apply for government recruitment, and you are being turned away because of your sectarian affiliation, that obviously reinforces part of your identity. So, that is more what I have been trying to do in my work. I try to explain at what points in history these issues become important and at which points they are not so important.

MK: Also, I noticed with the two books, we spoke previously about how one is about the history and one is about the recent mobilization. But also, you noticed that we are talking about a different political generation. The Other Saudis took many paths, including armed resistance, or you mentioned the ones that came back after the pardon. Then in your other book, The Sectarian Gulf, you talk about the coming generation who are mobilizing in different ways, maybe through the internet, but also on the ground. So, can you tell us more about that? Is there any shift when it comes to the populist resistance among the Shi'a and that shift in generations?

TMYes. I think the discourse of the Arab uprisings more broadly, and the discourses of human rights, constitutional monarchy, democratization, and so on were really embraced by a lot of people in the Gulf. Obviously, one of the sad stories in the history of the region is that we are not hearing these voices so much, and governments have also done a lot so that these voices become more silent. But I think the newer generation really tried to go out in the spirit of Egypt and Tunisia and so on, and not really in the spirit of the more revolutionary Islamist style that was prevalent in the 1980s and so on.


What happened is because of the pressure and also real attempts, for example, in Bahrain, at keeping any Sunni from solidarizing himself with the protest movement. The few who did were especially targeted. Therefore, some cleavages have reemerged that have reinforced these sectarian identity politics, both from the top but also from the ground up.

MK: Do you think that with the current events–I mean, of course this sectarian discourse has always been there by the state and in practice, but after the Arab Spring it is now not only in Syria but also in Yemen–I was wondering how you see the position of Saudi Shi'as in such a tense situation, and how this makes them feel targeted?

TM: Yeah, their situation is not very [inaudible audio] February, 2011. It was largely peaceful. It went on for two years or more. The key activists were either assassinated or imprisoned, some are facing a death sentence now, or have to go into exile. So state repression really crushed this movement. Whenever it tried to reach out, in the protests they always put up pictures of other political prisoners from other regions in Saudi Arabia–they always tried to make it a national slogan and so on–that was not really accepted much in other parts of the country. There was not much coming back, solidarity from other places. Eventually, that movement more or less died down, because of repression and lack of support from other regions. Then you have an emergence of the Islamic State and a real Jihadi wave in the region, which one of the main targets in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the key target, are the Shi'a in the Gulf. Just two days ago, you had yet another attack on al-Hussainiyah in Saihat. This is an area of numerous such attacks. The community is coming under attack from [inaudible audio] the government [inaudible audio]. Now I am not saying it would be only used for good purposes. Nevertheless, a lot of people have been calling for such a law in Saudi Arabia, debating the Shuraqa, [inaudible audio] You really do not see any progress on this issue [inaudible audio]. This happens at a time of worsening security situations in the region, worsening tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the conflict Yemen. The war in Saudi Arabia partly legitimized the sectarian discourse, saying it was a struggle to purify the Arabian Peninsula, to convert their enemies or get rid of them. So, this all [inaudible audio] anti-Shi'a incitement going on while they are being killed by Islamic State militants. They are really losing face in the state as a guarantor of basic security. This, I think, can have serious repercussions in the future.

MK: One more question, Toby. What do you think of the attempt and networks of solidarity among Shi'a in the Gulf, across the nation-state border? We are talking, Kuwait-Saudi, Saudi-Bahrain, and the kind of solidarity they try to build with each other.

TM: That part of the world has always had strong transnational connections, because many states are quite small. For centuries there was a lot of movement of people and the whole Gulf region was built on networks of trade, migration, and so on. Only in the last few decades have narrow national identities been superimposed by the states, and these identities are often very closely related to the ruling family and their particular preferences. So, usually, a Sunni tribe or a mythology to which a lot of the Gulf Shi'a, particularly the ones in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have great difficulty subscribing with, because they are largely left out of these kinds of nationalist narratives. You do have Shi'a transnational networks and solidarities, particularly between Bahrain and the Eastern Province. These are very close and for a long time there has been a lot of inter-marriage. Families move from Bahrain to Qatif, or vice-versa. Or a lot of people move from Hassa to Kuwait, as you know. So, obviously, if you have a situation like the Bahrain uprising, there will be solidarity towards them. But we have not really seen this having a decisive impact in the sense of changing the course of history or anything like that. If anything, probably the protests in Saudi Arabia made Saudi even more worried about the possible fall outs from the success of the revolutionaries in Bahrain. This made intervention seem like a better option from the Saudi side. So, while there are these networks, I would also argue that actually each political movement, even though some of them have a history of being part of transnational networks, they are policies that are centered on the local level. You have political leaders of the Shi'a who take every decision in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, or in Kuwait. As you know, in Kuwait, the Shi'a are among the closest allies of al-Sabah, and have been used in the crackdown on the opposition there over the last few years. They have adopted very different strategies, given where they are and what particular moment of time they are in.

MK: Thank you, Toby.

TM: Thank you.

MK: This was Mona Kareem with Toby Mathiessen, and we were speaking for Status Hour al-Wada'.


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