Thursday, September 26, 2013

How the Gulf Survived the Arab Spring (and Other Weekend Reading)

I don't normally do this, but given the recent release of several insightful publications on Bahrain and Gulf politics I thought it would be worth reviewing them, if not in a formal book review sort of way, here.

The first of these is an e-book by Elizabeth Dickinson, a journalist known for her good work at The National (which following the untimely demise of Al-Watan's English-language version is now one of the best English newspapers in the Gulf!).  At just fifty-one pages, "Who Shot Ahmed?" is a relatively short but compelling look at the life and death of one Bahraini activist -- a fellow journalist, in fact -- at the very outset of the uprising.  This it describes in vivid detail, offering a portrait of life in Bahrain's secluded Shi'a villages usually painted only in broad strokes in media coverage of opposition protests. In so doing, the narrative speaks to larger questions of justice, legitimacy and, ultimately, the uncertain future of those tens of thousands of individuals caught up directly or indirectly in the uprising.

A second publication is Toby Matthiesen's Sectarian Gulf, released over the summer.  It is also in many ways a narrative (travelogue even) of the Arab Spring in the Gulf, as he was present in both Bahrain and the Eastern Province during the onset of protests.  The book also has a larger theoretical aim, however (hence its publication by Stanford UP), which is a theme encountered often at this blog: namely, the purposeful activation and cultivation of sectarian political identities and conflict as a strategy of regime survival in the Gulf.  Matthiesen examines in detail the cases of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Kuwait, demonstrating how ruling families were able in the end to rely upon their own citizens to protect them from ... their other citizens.

Last but certainly not least is Greg Gause's very recent paper for Brookings, "Kings for All Seasons: How the Middle East's Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring," whose great title is but one of many virtues. The essay is framed as a theoretical and empirical retort to what Gause describes as two separate "extreme" views of the Gulf monarchies: on the one hand, the view (à la Christopher Davidson) that the regimes are on the brink of implosion due to chronic economic, social, environmental, and political problems; and, on the other, the notion (as embodied in Victor Menaldo's 2012 Journal of Politics paper) that monarchies as a system of governance engender a unique "political culture" (or something else) that explains their resistance to overthrow.

Hold on there, killer, says Gause.  In fact, he says, the explanation for the longevity (or not) of the Gulf monarchies is far less dramatic than either of these extremes:
Rather, the Arab monarchies have deployed their ample hydrocarbon wealth to blunt popular demand for reform; even the kingdoms that are comparatively resource-poor have been backstopped by their wealthier allies. And each Arab monarchy has maintained a powerful supporting coalition of domestic interest groups, regional allies, and (typically Western) foreign patrons to buttress regime stability.
That sounds about right.

Gause goes on to address in relative detail the subject of Toby's book (as well as that of the forthcoming volume to which I am a contributor, Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf; and Fred Wehrey's forthcoming book; see a trend here?), namely the use of sectarianism as a political strategy.  This leads inevitably to the case of Bahrain, with which Gause concludes the paper.  His final paragraph is notable in its pointedness:
That said, the ultimate rationale for keeping an American military base in a country is not to use it to exercise leverage on that country’s domestic politics. Rather, it is to serve larger American strategic interests. Maintaining a base in an unstable country detracts from its military purpose and runs the risk that the United States will be drawn into domestic conflicts in ways that would damage U.S. interests. Political instability in the host country requires the diversion of resources and attention to force protection. Most importantly, having a base in an unstable country puts American service people at risk. For these reasons, Washington has to make clear to the Al Khalifa government that it cannot sustain its military presence in Bahrain if current conditions continue. The United States should be taking serious steps to explore alternative basing arrangements for the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf region, not as a bluff to move the Bahrainis toward reform, but as a way to insure our own military interests in the area. The United States does not need bases in unstable countries.
Update: Also, for those interested in Qatar, Mehran Kamrava has just published Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Cornell UP).

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