The Second Annual Arab Spring

14 February 2012


In the northern hemisphere we are beginning to see the first signs of spring. A week ago I saw snowdrops in bloom, and I suspect that primroses are blooming in quite a few places, although I haven’t seen any yet. That is my experience of early spring in the wet, temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. Elsewhere in the world, the Second Annual Arab Spring is getting underway. The remarkable events of 2011 have now receded far enough in history that one year anniversaries are being celebrated (or suppressed), and in some cases these one year anniversaries are the occasion for new protests (as in the case of Bahrain: Bahrain restricts protests on uprising anniversary), and possibly the gathering of renewed momentum for change in regions long without substantive political change.

On at least a couple of occasions I have been scolded by a reader for the amount of commentary I have devoted to Libya and Syria while neglecting the situation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Obviously, I feel that Libya and Syria are important and worthy of attention. Of course, the events in Bahrain and the non-events in Saudi Arabia are also important, but I haven’t had much to say about the Kingdom of Saud, and I don’t think that I’ve written anything about Bahrain. Partly this is a function of the difficulty for a Westerner of obtaining anything like candid reports of life within these nation-states. They are largely quiescent on the surface, but it is to be expected the subterranean forces are moving below the surface, and these forces could probably only be discerned by an expert in these societies.

It is often implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, that Arab nation-states that remained largely quiescent throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, like Saudi Arabia, and those that decisively put down their protests, like Bahrain, are able to remain quiet or engage in successful repression due to their close relationship with the US. Here is an example of an explicit statement of this thesis:

“If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans, the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt, and if you succeed despite US efforts, the US will sponsor the counter-revolution against you directly and indirectly through its local allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, but now also Qatar. This of course applies to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and in Saudi Arabia itself. If you happen to live in a country whose dictator, though friendly to the West, maintains an independent line on foreign policy or at least a line that cannot always be guaranteed to serve Western interests — and this applies to Syria and Iran (and lest we forget their services to the West, both countries helped actively the US effort to unseat Saddam, and the Syrian regime helped with US efforts in supporting rightwing forces in Lebanon against the Lebanese left and the PLO in the 1970s) and less so Libya, then the US will help sponsor your revolt against your dictator to bring about a more pliant dictator to serve its interests without equivocation, and it will do so in the name of supporting democracy.”

The struggle for Syria by Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York

I am not going to attempt to parse this piece in detail, as that would take me rather far afield. Most of what Professor Massad writes in this Al-Jazeera opinion piece is utter garbage. (The above quote, which is at least coherent, is not necessarily representative of the whole piece.) It more than strains credulity to identify the Arab League as an instrument of US policy, as the professor explicitly does. I have no doubt however, whatever my opinion of Professor Massad’s conspiratorial ramblings, that he speaks for many, and that his analysis of the Arab region as being divided between US clients who will receive support suppressing rebellion and non-US clients who will be allowed to fail and fall would be endorsed by many. Indeed, this part of the analysis is not entirely wrong, though it is set in a context that casts everything else he writes into question.

The real question is not whether the US presence in the region influences events — it would be impossible for the most powerful nation-state in the world not to influence events wherever it is present — but whether this is the central and determining influence upon regional dynamics. It is not. The regional dynamics are regional. The US presence is felt, even disproportionately, but it is an influence that is exercised upon a regional dynamic that is defined by the peoples and nation-states of the region. And the distinction between peoples and nation-states is crucial, because almost all nation-states in the region are divided to some extent along sectarian lines: two or more peoples in one state structure.

Bahrain is a very small country, only three and half times the size of Washington, DC according to the CIA Factbook (760 sq. km.). Even as a very small nation-state, it still hosts a divided population. The population of 1,214,705 is split between approximately 70 percent Shia and 30 percent Sunni. As in several states in the region, the majority population is Shia, while the ruling class is Sunni. This is widely perceived as a highly problematic demographic, since Iran is presumed to represent the vanguard of Shia Islam in the region, with the implication being that the essentially disenfranchised Shia majority looks to Iran for leadership.

Given these demographic realities, it would be no surprise that the ruling elites of Bahrain would come down very hard on a Shia uprising whether or not the US was present in the country. (They did, and while they have recently expressed some misgivings over the repression — Bahrain admits using ‘excessive force’ during protests — the renewed repression of anniversary protests suggests that there was no deep soul-searching among Bahrain’s elite political class.) In a nation-state in which the majority population is political disenfranchised, a popular revolt is indistinguishable from an ethno-sectarian insurrection.

Although the Saudis have a more homogenous population (The Shia constitute 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s population) but the more profound division in Saudi Arabia is between those who are satisfied with the status quo and those who want radical change, and most especially those who want to violently end the rule of the House of Saud and deliver over the holy places of Islam to rule by a transnational Caliphate. The Saudis have engaged in a predictable two-prong campaign of spreading around a lot of money while seeking to quell dissent. They have been remarkably successful in keeping the country superficially quiet, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that things are simmering under the surface in the Kingdom.

Saudi failures are occasionally highlighted by an interesting story that surfaces, as in Saudi dissidents turn to YouTube to air their frustrations. Like young dissidents elsewhere in the world, some Saudis have turned to social media outlets. Governments can attempt to shut this sort of thing down, but it is a cat-and-mouse game. Everyone knows that sensitive material is likely to be removed, so as soon as it is posted, someone else usually copies it and re-posts it later. In China, despite the Great Firewall, social media has become so pervasive that micro-blogs overwhelm the efforts of censors when there is a big story. This was the case with the high speed train wreck that killed many people. However, just as dissidents are not shut down by a single action, so censors do not cease their efforts when a single story breaks free and a crack appears in the official media facade.

Youtube videos have a particular immediacy, not only because it allows the viewer both to see and to hear the story, but also because interesting stories usually have long, involved, and detailed comments sections in which people bluntly debate the merits of the video being presented. It is the very bluntness — often vulgar, and often profane — that makes people aware that they are seeing something real, unlike the slickly produced “news” stories of official media.

The Youtube videos mentioned in the above McClatchy story particularly highlighted ongoing poverty in Saudi Arabia despite the oil wealth and despite the efforts to spread money around, so we clearly get the sense that, however successful the House of Saud may be in silencing dissent, its attempts to buy off its people with luxuries are not entirely successful. One can easily guess, in a kingdom ruled by an obscenely wealthy extended family, benefits are not distributed among the people on an egalitarian basis, but are much more likely to flow through client-patron networks. If you don’t have a well-connected patron, you probably get little or nothing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Second Annual Arab Spring”

  1. MisterEgo said

    Hello, and thank you.

    I wanted to write this comment earlier but never found time. Now I have a few minutes.

    A solid piece about Bahrein and Saudi Arabia. When I first red it, I wanted to write, “solid piece for an American”, but in truth, it’s solid enough without that remark. I hope you will continue to write about subjects like these from time to time, when information and inspiration arives.

    It might be interesting to write about the course of events, in, for example Bahrein, had there been an international response to the crackdown there. I understand though, that it’s “the chicken or the egg” problem. Syria exemplifies it. Libya… oh well, maybe for another comment.

    I need to mention that the crux of my oposition to American interference lies in it’s hypocrisy, not the fact that it interferes. Double standards are obvious to everybody who is even vaguely familiar to western democracy and/or western history.

    It’s really pointless to disscuss democracy, human rights and yada yada, the mantra of every western govermenent since god knows when, when Realpolitik is the word of the game.

    Empty words. There lies the heart of the problem. A true world leader would solve that problem. But then, that’s not in the leaders intrest, or at least it thinks that…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo,

      This post was largely due to your intervention, so I thank you for the inspiration and I’m pleased that you found it to be a “solid” piece. Any information you can steer may way will be welcome.

      Just out of curiosity, do you find American hypocrisy any more irritating than the hypocrisy of any other nation-state or political actor? I find that even the non-state actors are spectacularly hypocritical.

      I have never been much moved by the charge of hypocrisy, because sometimes hypocrites are the ablest and most energetic among advocates for a given cause.

      as Deng Xiaoping said, “What does it matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse?”

      Best wishes,


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