Coates Ulrichsen on Matthiesen, 'Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't'

Toby Matthiesen
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Toby Matthiesen. Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't. Stanford Briefs Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. 208 pp. $12.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-8573-0.

Reviewed by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (Rice University) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2014) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Toby Matthiesen’s Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t is an important book. It serves as both an eyewitness account to the initial phase of the Arab Spring, as demands for reform cascaded across parts of the Gulf Sstates, and an analysis of how and why the regional counter-revolution succeeded in isolating and fracturing the burgeoning protest movements. The manipulation of the politics of sectarian identity has underpinned many of the policy responses to the Arab Spring in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and unleashed destabiliszing new forces that are reshaping much of the post-2011 Middle East. Gulf regimes have sought to consolidate control over a wavering base of socio-political support through exclusionary measures that sharpen the boundaries between societal groups and individuals. Sectarian Gulf examines in detail the impact of these measures, both domestically and regionally, although by placing sectarian politics at the front and centere of regime responses, Matthiesen overlooks some other factors that enabled the monarchies to survive the waves of regional upheaval in 2011.

The crux of Matthiesen’s argument is that Gulf officials responded to the challenge to political legitimacy by manipulating intra-societal fissures to fracture and prevent any mass opposition to their rule. The rapid convergence of political and economic protest in Bahrain in the days after the February 14 uprising around unifying slogans, such as “no Sunni, no Shiite, just Bahraini,” greatly unnerved ruling elites as tens of thousands of Bahrainis converged on the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Matthiesen was among those present at the roundabout and gives a vivid, first-hand description of the hope and expectation of those early days: “we could hear the voices of thousands, the shrieking of megaphones, fanfares, music, engines. What struck me most when we were finally standing on the Pearl Roundabout was how relaxed everyone seemed to be” (p. 9). Even more alarming to Gulf officials was the regional geopolitical dimension whereby Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, just a thirty-minute drive across the King Fahd Causeway from Bahrain, “were amongst the first to be inspired” by the call for democratic change (and Shiite empowerment) in Bahrain (p. 73).

To counter any such erosion of their authority, Matthiesen asserts that rulers in the Gulf sectarianized politics in order to “prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front.” This was fuelled by what he labels “sectarian identity entrepreneurs,” namely, “people whose political, social, and economic standing depends on the skilful manipulation of sectarian boundaries and who profit if these boundaries become the defining markers of a particular segment of society” (p. 127). Significantly, Matthiesen argues that this involved not only government officials but also a broad “amalgam of political, religious, social, and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their personal aims” (p. ix). Once established, Matthiesen adds, that sectarian discourse “rapidly takes on a discourse of its own and gets used by different actors for their own particular interests” (p. 127).

Individual chapters trace how sectarian policy responses took root in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and also in Kuwait, where social tensions were inflamed as Sunni and Shiite communities took very different views of the unfolding conflict in Syria and the Bahraini government’s heavy-handed restoration of political order. Matthiesen notes also how the escalating sectarian violence in Syria, although initially triggered by the Assad regime, subsequently followed a two-way logic, whereby “the support the Syrian opposition gained from the Gulf States had repercussions for local politics in the Gulf States, and the decision to support the rebels was informed by the realities of the sectarian Gulf” (p. 120). A paradox developed whereby Gulf governments cracked down hard on dissent at home and blamed any trouble on external meddling, whether by Iran or by the Muslim Brotherhood, yet extended support to protests in other Arab states if this served their regional geopolitical interests: thus, the Gulf Sstates “became key in how the Arab Spring developed, and took up opportunities that political turmoil in other Arab states offered them” (p. 119).

The points put forward by Matthiesen to depict the rise of sectarian politics in the Gulf as a policy response to the Arab Spring are compelling. So, too, are the personal observations from the author’s travels to Bahrain and Kuwait in 2011 and after, and to Saudi Arabia prior to the start of the upheaval. Moreover, the combination of the richer Gulf Sstates’ growing capabilities and policy intent means they will profoundly influence the pathways of political and economic transition as the Arab world enters an uncertain “post Arab Spring” phase. This is already evident in Egypt, where Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo was replaced swiftly by a package of political and financial aid exceeding US$12twelve billion U.S. dollars that was extended by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait to the military-led regime that toppled President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.[1] Together with other recent volumes by Lawrence Potter (a collected edition of essays, Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf [2013]) and Frederick Wehrey (Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings [2013]), Matthiesen’s work breaks new ground in analyszing both the root causes and the trajectory of sectarian tension in the Middle East.[2]

It is nevertheless important to note that the deployment of identity politics was just one of the instruments in Gulf regimes’ toolboxes as they first blunted and then overcame the immediate threat posed by the Arab uprisings. There were other factors, which are briefly mentioned by Matthiesen in his conclusion. These include a combination of repression and hand-outs of wealth in attempts to “buy off” opposition forces (p. 129). Matthiesen correctly observes that these are short-term solutions that mask, indeed complicate, the far-greater need to transition away from political economies reliant on comparative advantage in energy resources to diversified economies based on a competitive advantage in human capital. This challenge is the longer-term complement to the short-term “solution” of divide and rule described so eloquently in Sectarian Gulf, and in a book of only 130 pages, would surely have merited more than the final three paragraphs to in the conclusion. Sectarian Gulf therefore sets the scene for a much longer and more complex set of struggles that will define the politics of the Gulf for years and even decades to come.  Notes[1]. Lawrence G. Potter, ed., Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (London: Hurst & Co., 2013).[2]. Frederick M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

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Citation: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen. Review of Matthiesen, Toby, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014. URL:

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