Gulf regimes’ sectarian push unpacked

July 31, 2015

Anti-government protests in Bahrain, 2011.

Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia & the Arab Spring That Wasn’t
Toby Matthiesen
Stanford University Press, 2013

In 2011, when a wave of protest and rebellion swept the Arab world, the monarchical states making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were not exempt from the unrest.

The GCC states of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman were all hit by mass protests. In Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), calls for reform were met with a combination of concessions and repression.

A key weapon for Gulf regimes in countering the democracy movements was religious sectarianism. Toby Matthiesen writes: “In response to the Arab Spring protests, the Gulf ruling families, above all the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families, have played on and strengthened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia to prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front, something that seemed possible in the first days of the uprising in Bahrain, thereby creating a sectarian Gulf”.

The role of the media was key: “Because the media are controlled, the sectarianism in Gulf media since 2011 can only be attributed to decisions of political elites”.

But governments are not the only ones promoting sectarianism. Matthiesen speaks of “sectarian identity entrepreneurs, namely people who used sectarian identity politics to bolster their own positions”. He says that “sectarianism was not just a government invention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their personal aims”.


Mass protests broke out in Bahrain in February 2011. Protesters included both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Chants included, “We are brothers, Sunni and Shia, this country is not for sale”.

Matthiesen says “It was this early potential for cross-sectarian mobilization around basic values and demands that seemed most dangerous to the ruling family and indeed the other Gulf monarchies”.

The ongoing protests sparked repression. In March, Saudi troops entered Bahrain, followed by police from the UAE. Martial law was declared and there were mass arrests.

Repression was combined with sectarian propaganda. The protesters were portrayed by the regime’s media as “Iranian-controlled, armed, Islamist and purely Shia gangs”.

Many Sunnis became fearful of the protesters. Some began taking part in pro-government demonstrations, joined by some immigrant workers.

In some cases, immigrants were urged to do so by their managers. In other cases, it was due to the spread of sectarian hostility towards the protesters, assumed to be all Shia, amongst Sunni Muslim migrant workers.

Sunni participation in the anti-government demonstrations declined, but the Shia population continued protesting. The demonstrations took on a Shia tone, with Shia religious chants mixed in with slogans for democratic rights.

Thus the government succeeded in dividing the population on religious lines. Groups that tried to unite the population in a common struggle against the regime were severely repressed.

An example was a group called Wa’ad, which Matthiesen describes as “leftist” and “Arab nationalist”. Its secretary general Ibrahim Sharif (a Sunni) was arrested in March 2011 and sentenced to five years’ jail. Its headquarters were burned down by a pro-regime mob.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, protests broke out in eastern Saudi Arabia in February 2011 demanding the release of three activists who had been arrested during a previous wave of protests in 2009. Later in the year, protests took place involving tens of thousands of people.

These were “the largest street protests the country has ever known. Most dissent came from Shia Muslims in the Eastern Province, but there were small protests, petitions and criticisms of the ruling family in various other parts of the kingdom”.

The reason for the much greater participation of Shias in anti-government protests is the systematic discrimination against Shias in Saudi Arabia. Hence it is not surprising that when protests broke out in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, the Saudi media vilified the protesters.

Matthiesen writes: “The Saudi media, alongside the media and regimes of the other GCC member states, portrayed the uprisings in Bahrain and the protests in the Eastern Province [of Saudi Arabia] as carried out by Iranian agents, casting doubt on the loyalty of their Shia citizens”.


Kuwait also experienced youth-led mass protests. Matthiesen says: “The support for the protest movement then came from a whole range of sectors of Kuwaiti society, from all classes, sects and tribes”.

In early 2011, the Civil Democratic Movement was formed. In November that year, protests forced the prime minister to resign. A new parliament was elected in February 2012, but it was soon dissolved, leading to further mass protests.

Elections in December 2012 were boycotted by most Sunnis, but many Shias took part. This reflected the different approach of the Kuwaiti monarchy compared to those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Whereas the Bahrain and Saudi regimes promoted a virulently anti-Shia climate, the Kuwaiti monarchy had formed an alliance with Shia merchants and elite politicians as a counter-weight to Arab nationalism and Sunni Islamic fundamentalism.

Matthiesen says the Shia elite’s cooperation with the monarchy “played into the hands of Sunni hardliners, who denounced Shia participation in the elections”.

The anti-government protests in Kuwait continued into 2013, but they became smaller due to repression and sectarian divisions.

There have also been protests by the Bidun, stateless people living in extreme poverty in Kuwait. Matthiesen says: “The Bidun activists trust neither the government nor the opposition and are becoming increasingly radicalized and frustrated by their situation”.

The Gulf States used sectarianism to undermine democratic struggles both internally and externally. Matthiesen says: “Driven by the sectarian logic and the ultimate goal of regime survival, the Gulf states shaped the Arab Fall and became key in the counter-revolution across the region.

“Internally, sectarianism has divided protest movements. Externally, it has served to isolate Iran and mobilize the Sunnis across the region against Iran and the Assad regime in Syria.”

Qatar and Syria

However, there were rivalries among the Gulf states, “Qatar saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to assert its leadership in the Arab world,” Matthiesen says. Qatar helped Libyan anti-Gaddafi rebels both logistically and militarily, including by sending special forces to fight alongside them.

Qatar allowed its al-Jazeera television company to support the protests against Mubarak in Egypt, presumably in the expectation that the ultimate beneficiary would be the Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Qatar.

But the Qatar government — and al-Jazeera — took a very different attitude to the protests in Bahrain.

Matthiesen comments: “Qatar supported all the Arab protest movements, except in the Gulf states … But the protests in Bahrain, and the prospect that the ruling family there might lose control and the Shia might have more political power, shocked the Qatari ruling family …”

The Qatar government also repressed dissent at home. Muhammad ibn al-Dhib al-Ajami, a Qatari poet, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for a poem implicitly criticising the Gulf rulers.

The Gulf regimes also began to support the uprising in Syria. Given positive coverage in the Gulf media, the Syrian rebellion attracted support from Sunnis throughout the Gulf.

Matthiesen says: “Indeed, Syria became the mirror image of the Bahrain uprising, where Sunnis from the Gulf found a way of endorsing a revolution abroad while refraining from calling for one at home”.

However, support for the Syrian uprising was expressed in a sectarian way: “Gulf Islamist groups and donors framed their support for the Syrian uprising in sectarian terms, as a jihad against an infidel and Shia regime, supported by Iran”.

The Gulf media provided a platform for Sunni sectarian commentary on Syria. For example Adnan al-Araur, an exiled Syrian preacher with a history of denigrating Shia Islam, was allowed by the Saudi government to broadcast television programs from Saudi Arabia expressing support for the Syrian rebels on a sectarian basis.

The Assad regime also promoted sectarianism. Matthiesen says that “much like the Gulf states, the Syrian regime used the specter of civil war to scare Syria’s minorities and ensure their loyalty, and used extreme violence early on to divide the protesters along sectarian and ethnic lines”.

West's role

The Gulf regimes are linked to the Western powers in many ways. Qatar and Bahrain have US military bases on their soil. Western powers buy oil from the Gulf states and sell them large quantities of weapons. The US provides security guarantees for the Gulf states in the event of conflict with Iran or any other country.

In Matthiesen’s view, the sectarian policies of the Gulf rulers have been “at least tacitly backed by the West to weather the storm of the Arab Spring and to further isolate Iran”.

As an example of the West’s tacit approval of the Gulf regimes’ repression, Matthiesen cites the US signing of a US$29.4 billion arms deal to sell F15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia in December 2011.

He notes: “This agreement came weeks after tens of thousands had taken to the streets of the Saudi Eastern Province to protest against the government and mourn the death of several protestors there.”

Matthiesen says that sectarianism has been a short-term answer to the Arab Spring for the Gulf regimes. But it cannot be a lasting solution.

“The youth activism, the mobilizing force of the internet and smartphones, and the experience of the Arab Spring as the defining moment of a whole generation of young Arabs means that change has to come, be it through reform or, eventually, revolutionary outburst.”

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