Musa al-Gharbi & ST McNeil
Last updated: 15 December, 2012

Watch the thrones: the Arab Spring’s third wave

We are seeing a new phase of the Arab Spring uprisings, where protesters target monarchs instead of dictators. The dynamics in the region are against the kings and emirs, write Musa al-Gharbi and ST McNeil in this analysis.

Insofar as it is helpful or accurate to understand the “Arab Spring” as a meta-movement which began with the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, we can break it into a few significant “waves.” The first wave of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were quick, peaceful and orderly, relative to the second wave with the much more protracted, chaotic and violent uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As these movements continue to evolve, some have argued that much of the Arab world would lose their appetite for civil disobedience once the revolutions got bloody, were radicalized or descended into civil war. It was even proclaimed that the Arab Spring was dead because a few similar authoritarian regimes remained quite unscathed.

While secular dictators have been overthrown, the Arab monarchs seem to have weathered the storm through a potent mix of token gestures of reform, fear-mongering, internal repression, historical/cultural hegemony, and geopolitical maneuvering. 

For their part, Western nations and the international media have tired of championing popular democratic change in the region – especially as the monarchies in question are some of the West’s closest regional allies. In spite of all of these countervailing forces, however, there has been a recent renewal and escalation of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan.

What we are seeing is nothing short of a third wave of the Arab Spring uprisings, wherein protesters target monarchs instead of dictators.

Swells and tides of the Third Wave

The Third Wave is shaped by many factors differentiating it from its predecessors. For one, the kings are harder to depose because they typically enjoy a different kind of legitimacy — and have a lot more of it — than dictators. 

The monarchs have also successfully painted third wave uprisings as Islamist-led, in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood and Shiite groups. While Egyptians and Tunisians were portrayed in the media as secular, tech-savvy leftists, and Syrians and Libyans as heroic freedom fighters, protesters in the kingdoms were painted as anti-democratic fundamentalists. This helped prevent international support of the Third Wave; after seeing the formerly secular states of Tunisia and Egypt – and possibly Syria – being replaced by Islamist-led governments, with Iran vying for power in the region, Libya descending into chaos, and al-Qaeda making an apparent comeback, the West is increasingly supportive of the royal status quo.

The specter of radicalization haunts the Arab Spring’s Third Wave – especially in the wake of the foiled terrorist incident in Jordan, the bombings in Bahrain, and explicit calls by al-Qaeda for a revolution in Saudi Arabia. The threat of terrorism enables repression and violence as countermeasures to the protests; it feeds into the monarchs’ narrative of these movements being driven primarily by extremists and outside forces (as opposed to loyal citizens with legitimate grievances against the state) – much like Bashar al-Assad’s justifications.

However, while the dictators had to confront their rebellions in relative isolation, Arab royalty has been cooperating with one another to prevent the uprisings from spreading to their kingdoms. In June of 2011, the Saudi-led Gulf Coordination Council invited Jordan and Morocco to join their “Club for Kings,” oriented towards stunting domestic revolutions and curbing Iranian regional influence. One interesting effect of this coordination is that we can see a number of these countermeasures “going viral” from one kingdom to another— the most recent example of this phenomena was the banning of all protests, which contemporaneously took effect in Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

For all of these reasons, the conventional wisdom suggests that the thrones are safe: this surge of protests will be short-lived. However, a closer look at the dynamics within these countries may sow seeds of doubt. Why has civil unrest persisted and what is the third wave’s potential significance?

The western kingdom

The response of Morocco’s King Muhammad VI to the Arab Spring was widely seen as exemplary. He quickly promulgated a new constitution with a number of significant reforms. A prime minister position was created with the power to appoint leaders and dissolve parliament, and the judiciary was given a little more independence. However, the king held on to absolute control over security forces and the military. Additionally, he was defined as the ultimate religious authority of the state. The new constitution was put to a referendum and was popularly approved.

However, the protests continued. Corruption remains so widespread that there was recently a series of sit-ins by judges demanding more autonomy. Poverty, unemployment and illiteracy rates haven’t fallen and King Muhammad VI’s legitimacy was further undermined with recent revelations his regime tortured protesters in the disputed West Sahara and deployed other inhumane tactics to put down the domestic rebellion there.

The West not only didn’t criticize the king like it criticized Bashar Al-Assad or Mummar Qaddafi, but Paris aped the Moroccan ban on protests against the monarchy and forbade demonstrations in France, as well. Washington also continued its support for King Muhammad, who is emerging as a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The Hashemites

King Abdullah II’s attempts to pacify Jordan is going up in flames to the Arab Spring chant “the people want the downfall of the regime” heard from Sidi Bouzid to Deraa. After closing roads with flaming car chassis, anti-regent protesters tried to storm a police station in Jordan’s second largest city, Irbid, on November 15. The following day, there were open calls for the King’s abdication in Tafilah. The protesters in Jordan are calling for a more independent parliament and a prime minister who is elected (as opposed to appointed). There are also widespread calls to scale back the powers of the royal line, the second oldest in the world, to being a figurehead like England’s Queen Elizabeth. And the protests are growing ever-larger.

Like his Moroccan counterpart, the American- and British-educated King Abdullah responded to the Arab Spring with piecemeal reforms and a heavy hand. The king repeatedly shuffled ministers through his cabinet (he’s done this 9 times in the 13 years of his reign) and called for elections, while simultaneously restricting protests and free-speech.

These political concerns pale in comparison to Jordan’s economic crisis: corruption and graft are widespread; unable to find work domestically, about 25 percent of Jordanian citizens work temporarily in other Arab states; 46 percent of the domestic population are immigrants, most of them doing menial labor jobs (and are subject to widespread abuses); 14 percent of Jordanians are in poverty; and more than 13 percent remain unemployed. 

These are some of the failures of Jordan’s ambitious privatization, modernization and globalization scheme, which has eroded the country’s social safety net and massively indebted the kingdom. In the face of the Eurozone crisis, the International Monetary Fund is demanding a massive austerity program. Jordan will be forced to slash government jobs, wages, and benefits and end a number of food and fuel subsidies. Each of these cuts dramatically adds to the civil unrest – however, if the king does not make a satisfying series of cuts, the IMF will not provide his government with needed bailout to remain solvent.

Exacerbating all of these problems is a massive influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict – as were the Iraqis and Palestinians before – who strain Jordanian resources even as they become dissatisfied with the conditions of their refugee camps and clash with Jordanian security forces.

The Wahhabi peninsula 

Saudi Arabia has higher unemployment than any Middle Eastern nation except Iraq. Forty percent of its citizens are below the poverty line, the middle class is rapidly shrinking, and sixty percent of the country is under 20 years old. On these statistics alone, similar other Arab Spring contexts, the country would seem ripe for revolution.

Unlike Morocco and Jordan, however, the Saudi king is flush with petrodollars. King Abdullah’s response to the revolutionary winds was a $130 billion aid package which increased wages for workers, expanded unemployment benefits, eased mortgage availability, and began the developing of 500,000 new homes.

Like Rabat and Amman, though, the Saudis have used sticks and carrots. More than 700 people have been imprisoned (162 of which remain in jail, including 62 children). Seventy-one protestors have been shot, fourteen of whom were killed. The already draconian laws inhibiting free speech have been enforced even more rigorously. Saudi Arabia has even gone so far as to send troops into neighboring Bahrain hoping to preemptively crush regional revolutionary movements.

All of these measures have proven unsuccessful – the protest movement appears to be gaining strength in Saudi Arabia – while the kingdom’s oily lifeline is being threatened. Western petroleum thirst is decreasing even as competing energy sources are increasing production dramatically: the United States is slated to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil-producer by 2017, even as Iraq should become the world’s second-largest supplier to world-markets by 2030. Things look dire for Riyadh’s large royal family and connected elite, even before considering the potential effects of eased sanctions on Iranian oil or the stabilization and expansion of Libyan production.

The Saudi bourgeoisie have already been supporting subversive forces for some time now: al-Qaeda has openly called for a revolution in Saudi Arabia, and committed waves of terror attacks there between 2003- 2006, prompting a massive purging campaign by the Saudi government. And yet, the primary funders of al-Qaeda and other terror organizations are private, wealthy Saudis (followed by citizens from Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, interestingly enough). 

Religious sectarian tensions, with a protesting minority Shi’i population, simmer below these economic shifts, reciprocally amplifying and amplified by the regional power struggle currently underway between Riyadh and Tehran, most obvious on the small, neighboring Bahrain.

The island monarchy

In March 2011, the Bahraini kingdom’s security forces partnered with 2,000 security personnel from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a co-op mission to crush Bahrain’s biggest demonstrations. They eventually bulldozed the iconic Pearl Square, lest it become Tahrir. While the uprising has killed more than 80 Bahraini citizens, the protests have continued in the face of bullets and bulldozers, prompting King Hamad to outlaw rallies, protests, and public gatherings. The monarchy has begun stripping activists of their citizenship, arresting doctors for treating wounded protesters, and blocking access to mosques where activist clerics are known to preach— and, of course, there is old-fashioned rubber bullets and tear gas

The roots of Bahrain’s third wave lie in inequality between its citizens. Two-thirds of all Bahrain is Shi’i, but the monarchy and virtually the entire upper-echelons of the government and the private sector are Sunnis. Accordingly, there are vast economic and political disparities between majority of the population and the Sunni elite; as much as 40% of the population may be below the poverty line, almost all of these Shi’i. These tensions also play into the broader regional tensions, and as the situation in Saudi Arabia grows increasingly unstable, so will the situation in Bahrain (and vice-versa, possibly).

However, Barack Obama and Washington, D.C. has a vested interest in keeping King Hamad afloat: Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and it will be at the frontline of any future coalition attack on Shi’i Iran. A democratic Bahrain, with a majority Shi’i, would likely be much more sympathetic to Iran, and much less so to U.S. or Saudi interests given their old and continued support of King Hamad’s repressive Sunni regime.

The Kuwaiti emirate

The protests in Kuwait, just 300 miles to the northeast of Bahrain, are not driven primarily by poverty or sectarian strife. And so, while the demonstrations may have significant implications for the power-dynamics internal to Kuwait, they are far less likely to result in any sweeping regime change. 

The protesters here are focused very narrowly on blocking a change in the election laws which would only allow citizens to vote for one parliamentary candidate (as opposed to their current right to choose four). This move is widely seen as a means of neutering the opposition, which had made dramatic gains in the February elections, and was proving to be real thorn in the side of Emir Jaber al-Sabah. 

The emir responded to the protests with violent force and draconian edicts. He banned gatherings of 20 or more people, arrested many, and used tear gas, stun grenades and smoke bombs on protesters. Riots have broken out, however, and the protest movement is growing. 

The Emir is in a tough spot: he cannot simply overturn his previous ruling without undermining his position as the ultimate decider of the law. However, he may have a graceful solution: the constitutional courts. He has referred his policy change to them, and has agreed to abide by whatever decision they make. Should they rule against his electoral reforms, the protestors can get their way while the emir saves face. Of course, the opposition may gain even more seats in subsequent parliamentary elections as a result of this debacle— but that is better than the alternative of continued or escalating unrest

The coalition of princedoms

For its part, the United Arab Emirates are taking these developments very seriously. Technically, the UAE is comprised of seven emirates, each ruled by their own emir but headed up by a single president. However, the first president of the UAE and the emir of Abu Dhabi, Zayed al-Nahyan held that post for 30 years, until his death in 2004. His son then succeeded him, both as emir of Abu Dhabi and as president of the UAE.

Like Kuwait, the UAE does not face many of the economic problems plaguing Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, nor must they grapple with sectarian tensions like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But as a precaution, they recently instituted a series of internet restrictions criminalizing public calls for protest, slandering of the emirs, or otherwise creating unrest in the country. The UAE’s carrot is a $1.5 billion investment in infrastructure and development, mostly aimed at the northern regions of the territory, which are less wealthy. 

Quiet Qatar

As with the UAE and Kuwait, Qatar does not face the sorts of problems which plague Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain. But the Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has preemptively instituted a number of significant reforms, despite the virtual absence of protests. And through their ownership of al-Jazeera, the Qatari government has a powerful vehicle for shaping public opinion in Qatar, the Middle West and the world – and it has used this power quite effectively to promote and obscure various protest movements throughout the Arab Spring. 

The significance of the third wave

Defying all countervailing forces, the protests continue in the monarchies. Royal repression, the threat of radicalization, and the chaos of the other revolutions have failed to deter the movements. The lack of international support, or even attention, has not dampened their revolutionary zeal. Instead, these movements have been building over the last two years, and there are compelling reasons to expect them to persist and to grow.

The problems facing these countries are severe and endemic: piecemeal reforms, populist platitudes, and increasingly costly stimulus packages will be insufficient – especially in the medium-to-long term. At best, these carrots and sticks can buy the leaders a little more time, but it’s getting harder and harder for the kings to keep it up. Barring any Israeli-led, US-backed, Saudi-supported invasion of Iran, or some other game-changing event, the dynamics in the region are against them. 

So far, the protesters have largely been calling for various political and economic reforms, rather than abdication of the monarchs. However, the revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria began in a similar fashion. And to the extent that the change in demands were the products of domestic forces, the future bodes ill for the monarchs. By all evidence, the monarchies have learned very little from the fallen dictators of the region, and continue to act from the same playbook. In fact, this is a tide already beginning to turn in Saudi Arabia and Jordan; the other monarchs may be joining them soon.

Musa al-Gharbi is a post-rationalist Islamic philosopher, a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC), and a graduate teaching assistant in the philosophy department at the University of Arizona.

Multimedia journalist ST McNeil is a dual MA candidate at the University of Arizona where he focuses his lens on immigration, deportation, climate change and other burning social justice issues. A contributor to SISMEC, Al-Jazeera, and Truthout, you can follow him on Twitter @stmcneil

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.