The emirates crackdown
Vijay PrashadRarely reported in the West has been the concerted repression of democracy activists on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, the first among equals in the peninsula, has been ruthless against any suggestion of democratic reform. Most recently, the Saudi authorities arrested the Qatif-based cleric Nimr al-Nimr, shooting him in the leg and killing several people during the operation in the village of al-Awwamiyya. Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz said that al-Nimr is “the spreader of sedition” and “a man of dubious scholarship and dubious mental condition, and the issues he raises and speaks about show a deficiency or imbalance of the mind.” In the Kingdom, to champion democracy is a mental illness. Al-Nimr is not alone. The authorities have arrested Ra’if Badawi, editor of Free Saudi Liberals, and activists such as Mohammed al-Shakouri of Qatif, the hotbed of unrest. The Saudis cleverly use blasphemy laws to hit the democracy activists hard.
For a year, the Bahraini authorities have been unrelenting in their crackdown against democracy campaigners. Most recently, Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a veteran of the al-Khalifa prisons, was arrested for an insulting tweet. On June 22, about thirty activists of the al-Wefaq party, led by their leader Sheikh Ali Salman, marched east of Manama with flowers in hand. The police fired tear gas and sound bombs, injuring most of the demonstrators. Unsurprisingly, the United States, the United Kingdom and seven European Union states sat silently.
Matters have taken a turn for the worse in the United Arab Emirates (of the seven emirates in this union the most famous are Dubai and Abu Dhabi). There the authorities have shown no mercy to al-Islah, the Association of Reform and Social Guidance. Since March of this year, the UAE has arrested at least fifty activists, including the human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori as well as Khaifa al-Nu’aimi, a young blogger and twitter user. The attack on al-Islah began in December 2011, when the full enthusiasm of the Arab Spring reached the gilded cities.
John Harris, the architect of Dubai, wrote in a 1971 master plan that the UAE’s political system was a “traditional Arab desert democracy [which] grants the leader ultimate authority” (this is quoted in Ahmed Kanna’s fabulous 2011 book Dubai: The City as Corporation). The term “desert democracy” had become clichéd by the 1970s. In 1967, Time ran a story on Kuwait as the “desert democracy,” a title the magazine reused in 1978 for its story on Saudi Arabia. The idea of “desert democracy” refers to the Gulf monarchies allowance of a majlis, a council, to offer advice to the monarch, at the same time as the oil-rich monarchs pledge to provide transfer payments to the citizens for their good behavior (in 1985, the leader of the illegal Saudi Communist Party said that these payments made the Saudi workers “the favorites of fortune”). If this basic compact is violated by the call for greater democracy, for instance, the monarch is enshrined to crack down. It is almost as if the Gulf Arab monarchs had read their Bernard Lewis, the venerable Princeton professor, whose What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Modernity and Islam in the Middle East (2001) notes that the “Middle Easterners created a democracy without freedom.” All the usual Orientalist props come tumbling in: Tribal society, Arab factionalism and so on.
The fog of culture is convenient, but it does blind one to much simpler explanations. The emirs of the Gulf have no interest in sharing power with their people who might ask embarrassing questions about the extravagant living of the royal families off the petro-dollars. No elite willingly submits to democracy, the “most shameless thing in the world,” as Edmund Burke put it. It has been piously hoped since the 1950s that the “next generation” of the Gulf Arabs will be more moderate then their forbearers, that distance from their Bedouin tents will turn them into Liberals. The Saudi King Abdullah is 87, his crown prince Salman is 77 and sick. Their younger descendants have not shown any eagerness to move a reform agenda. The costs would be catastrophic to their family’s control of the wealth. The U.S. government is well aware of this situation.
The power of the Gulf sovereigns is increasing, although the sovereigns are less stable. The people have already been through the stages of al-mithaq (the pact) and al-hiwar (the dialogue). Far more is wanted. Night descends. The mukhabarat (political police) and the mutaween (religious police) are on the move. There is gunfire. There are shreaks. There is silence.
Vijay Prashad is professor of International Studies at Trinity College in the U.S. This abridged article originally appeared on the bi-weekly newsletter counterpunch.org.