Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t. By Toby Matthiesen. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2013. pp192. PB. £11.95
The author of this book is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, and he writes regularly on Middle Eastern affairs for many newspapers and journals. This book focuses on a topical subject and provides an overview of political changes and upheavals that has been taking place across the Gulf region especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
According to the author, “The mass protests against authoritarian rule that swept the Arab world in 2011 have changed the Middle East, and perhaps the world, forever. They contributed to the biggest global turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a wave of demonstrations, economic crises, and austerity measures with wide-ranging implications for the future. 2011 was the ‘year of dreaming dangerously,’ a year in which various counter-hegemonic ideologies briefly challenged the capitalist world-system.” (p vii) How true is that? I remain unconvinced. Why?
If the Arab Spring “reaffirmed the importance of people power”’ then there is no doubt that the subsequent events in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf as a whole proved that the old guard are entrenched as ever. If the Arab Spring was meant to have signalled a new start, fresh vision and different ways of doing things in that part of the world, then democracy is not what Middle Easterners got. What the author of this book has failed to see is that those who are currently calling the shots in the global geo-political arena do not, in reality, want to see true democracy and freedom prevail in the Middle East as this would directly challenge their social, political, economic and cultural interests across that region. The status quo cannot and must not be challenged!
Unsurprisingly, as the author rightly points out, in the face of mass uprising and protests across the Gulf region especially in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman with people openly calling for democracy, freedom, fair distribution of wealth and respect for the rule of law, the ruling oligarchy “resorted to old tactics of denial, repression, economic largesse, and defamation. None of the Gulf states initiated significant domestic political reforms or managed to engage the emerging youth movements in a manner that would pave the way for a stable future. While the Gulf regimes often embraced the new politics and discourse of the Arab Spring abroad, they refused to acknowledge that this new era in Arab history also had a profound impact at home.” (p ix)
As expected, the world’s leading powers said and did virtually nothing; why should they endanger their own political and economic interests for the sake of democracy and freedom in the Arab world?
Consisting of seven chapters, and a useful conclusion, in this book the author has briefly surveyed how the Arab Spring affected the Gulf countries and how the ruling elites responded to calls for politico-economic change at home and in the rest of the Middle East. This book is a journalistic overview of the Arab Spring, and certainly not a critical study of current affairs in the Gulf region. Even so, I commend the author for his efforts.
Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)