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Arabian Peninsula
Arabian Peninsula
Saudi Arabia


Nile & Horn


Ikhwan army

Contrary to common belief, It was not always true that the most serious opposition to the Gulf monarchical regimes emerges from Islamist groups. As recently as the 1970's it seemed that the left was the major threat to regime stability in the area. The Dhufar rebellion, finally quelled in 1975, was overtly leftist and supported by the Marxist government in South Yemen. Labor unions and underground Arab nationalist movements provided the organizational backbone of popular demonstrations in the 1950's and 1960's (Halliday 1974). Observers of Saudi Arabia frequently point to the persistence of distinctive regional identities within the Kingdom -- Hijazi, Najdi, Hasawi, 'Asiri -- as potential bases upon which political opposition could be mobilized. Yet today, the most important political movements in the Gulf region are organized on Islamist platforms.

It is difficult to develop a comprehensive answer to this interesting phenomenon in so short a presentation. But a few potential answers present themselves. The most important of these has to do with protected public space. The Gulf monarchical states have inexorably penetrated, with the intention of controlling, most of the social space between the family and the state. Oil has permitted them to do this quickly and thoroughly, though it is certainly not a necessary condition for such an expansion of the state's presence (non-oil Arab states have done the same thing, though perhaps not to the same extent).

The local media is completely state-controlled (except in Kuwait, where there is some margin of freedom for newspapers); most of the expatriate media (the London Arabic newspapers, Middle East Broadcasting Corp.) are financed by the Saudis. Labor unions, an important basis for political organizing before the 1970's, have lost their clout with the "bourgeois-ification" of the local population through state employment and the import of foreign labor. Sports and social clubs, organizing bases for Arab nationalist movements in the 1950's, now have royal patronage and, in many cases, chairmen from the ruling family. The "private sector" is largely dependent upon state contracts, licenses and capital (though chambers of commerce are about the only functional social organizations that have any autonomy, or potential autonomy, from these states). Only in Kuwait are expressedly political organizations tolerated, and even there parties are officially illegal. The states have built extensive secret police networks that further inhibit freedom of speech and association.

The exception to this monopolization of public space by the governments has been the mosque and associated religious institutions. All the Gulf governments, but particularly Saudi Arabia, have built (or allowed to be built) extensive religious institutions for education, propagation and charitable purposes, besides an aggressive policy of mosque construction itself. They have funded and staffed these institutions. When Arab nationalism was considered the major threat to regime stability, the regimes encouraged the development of Islamic institutions as a counterweight. In these religious institutions people were encouraged to meet, to organize, to propagandize because the regimes saw these activities as essentially supportive of their positions. The regimes funded such activities and gave their organizers access to the local media. Even when these institutions came to be seen as nurturers of potential regime opponents, from the late 1970's, the governments could not simply shut them down. Their own legitimation strategies were too tied up with the promotion of state-Islam; their own sense of potential public reaction would not allow them to completely envelop Islamic institutions.

A good recent example of how the network of religious institutions was used political dissidents is the case of Salman al-'Awda and Safar al-Hawali, Saudi 'alims who were critical of their government's decision to invite the American forces after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Both al-'Awda and al-Hawali continued to preach in mosques around the Kingdom during the crisis and to meet with people in Islamic institutions, despite the fact that their opinions had become well known. It was not until 1994 that they were arrested, after public demonstrations in Burayda.

This is not to say that the mosque is autonomous from the state in the Gulf monarchies. To the contrary, the state controls the purse-strings of religious institutions, makes appointments in the religious bureaucracies and generally oversees their activities. It is only in the Shi'i communities of Kuwait and Bahrain that religious institutions can claim real autonomy from the state. But the states have provided substantial resources and space to the institutions of Sunni Islam (and Ibadi Islam in Oman), while at the same time shutting down the space -- both physical and metaphorical -- accorded to other social organizations. In this space people can meet, discuss and organize, even for purposes not sanctioned by the state. The extensive religious bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia has developed "fringes" around which regime opponents like Juhayman al-'Utaybi in the 1970's could cluster. It has provided positions to 'ulama like al-Hawali and al-'Awda, from which they could propagate their political views and gather a following. The Saudi Islamic universities, which now educate about 25% of the college students in the Kingdom, are places where students and professors can share ideas and develop networks that could have political relevance (Figure calculated from Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Finance and National Economy, Central Department of Statistics Statistical Yearbook - 1410 A.H./1990 A.D., Tables 2-25 through 2-31).

The regimes realize that their tolerance, even encouragement, of religious "institution building" now presents a potential political risk. They have moved to reassert control over the realm of religion. In October 1994 King Fahd appointed a new committee, including senior members of the Al Saud family and secularist technocrats, to supervise Islamic activities in the Kingdom. He had earlier replaced a number of members of the Higher Committee of 'Ulama who had refused to condemn the highly critical "Memorandum of Advice" circulated in Islamist circles in the Kingdom in the summer-fall of 1992. In Oman in the summer of 1994 over 200 people implicated in a plot organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the Omani government were arrested. Whether there was actually a "plot" is a matter of speculation, given that the Sultan later pardoned all those involved. But the move was clearly aimed at rolling up the Brotherhood organization in the Sultanate (Abdallah 1995). In April 1996 Bahrain appointed a new council to oversee Islamic activities and institutions, both Shi'i and Sunni, in the state. The Bahrain Freedom Movement immediately branded the new council an unconstitutional effort to further suppress freedom of speech and thought.

While the states now recognize the oppositional potential that institutional and financial resources provide to Islamists, they cannot treat Islamic institutions the way they treated Arab nationalist groups in earlier decades. Because Islam is part and parcel of the legitimation strategies of these regimes, they must support, and be seen to support, Islamic institutions. They can try to control these institutions more efficiently, but they cannot simply disband them or drive them underground.