Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't, by Toby MATTHIESEN

PR6Everybody remembers the Arab uprising as the biggest global turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These mass protests against authoritarian rule that swept the Arab world in 2011 have changed the Middle East forever. They have broken the common idea that Arab countries are fatally condemned to live under authoritarian rulers and have promoted a new Arab public sphere in which Arab autocrats no longer feel secure. Nevertheless, counter-revolutionary forces have since then rapidly set about attempting to divide the protesters along regional, sectarian, tribal, or ideological lines. Such is the sectarian line that Toby MATTHIESEN has decided to study in his book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.

Toby MATTHIESEN is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. With Sectarian Gulf, he has written a book about the events which took place in the Gulf during 2011. His aim is to provide us with a contribution to the debates around the Arab uprising.

 Having travelled to all the Gulf States since 2011, his work represents an original account of the Arab Spring in the Gulf monarchies. MATTHIESEN was actually among the protesters who demonstrated on the Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital Manama in mid-February 2011. As a result, the book combines first-rate academic research and fieldwork with some of own his personal observations, thus plunging the reader into the heart of those events.

Contrary to popular wisdom - maintaining that the Gulf states would remain beyond the fray - the book demonstrates that the latter did indeed experience popular protests and that the political consciousness of people there has modified significantly since 2011. More specifically, it endeavours to show how the Arab Spring impacted the Gulf monarchies and how the ruling families tried to counter the challenges arising from these popular protests.

Faced with the Arab Spring protests, MATTHIESEN says, the Gulf ruling families – the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families in particular – have played on and strengthened sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shias in order to suppress domestic calls for freedom, thereby creating a sectarian Gulf.  They tried to portray the grassroots revolutionary movements as a “sectarian” uprising of one sect against the other. Therefore, the hope of the book is to explain political sectarianism as a strategy used for political aims, or the discrimination of one group against another due to sectarian belonging.

To refute the argument of what he calls the “new sectarianism”, MATTHIESEN uses some of the examples of popular protest in the Gulf, to show that the legitimacy of Gulf rulers has been profoundly challenged by democratic, rather than by sectarian, demands. For example, he cites the events in Bahrain: Initially, tens of thousands of protesters went onto the streets to demand political reform. After the first shots of the security forces, a part of the protest movement became radicalized and started calling for the removal of the ruling family. The majority was indeed Shia, but MATTHIESEN points out that Bahrain has a Shia majority population (between 60 to 70 %) while the ruling family is Sunni. Therefore the demographic mix should not come as a surprise. More importantly, the demands of the protesters were not sectarian. He recalls that on the first day of the protest movement, the demand that he heard most frequently was moderate: “The people want the reform of the regime”. That's why MATTHIESEN thinks that the Bahraini protest movement was not a “Shia” protest for “Shia” rights, but rather later glossed over as sectarianism protest by the state, as part of its crackdown. According to him, this strategy of sectarian polarization aims at delegitimizing the opposition and scaring the minority Sunnis away from a possible alternative system and towards total allegiance to the ruling family.

Following this analysis, the author finally invites us to consider rather how religion is being used, and instrumented by various elites to political ends, than reverting to the usual explanation for the conflicts plaguing the region solely through reference to an age-old schism inherited from early Islamic history.

Written in a very clear and intelligible writing style, the book has the advantage of being accessible for anyone who wants to know more about the role of the Gulf States in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and about Sunni-Shia relations.

Nevertheless, the book tends to overvalue the place of sectarianism in its analysis of the Middle East. If sectarianism is real, the topic is over-debated, while other factors are missing in the analysis. Actually, the author mentions them, but only in his conclusion. For example, the need for an economic transition for these oil-rich monarchies would deserve more than three paragraphs in the conclusion. The same observation can be made about the issue of Islamism. MATTHIESEN only focuses on politics in the Persian Gulf and minimizes the role of radical Islamist groups which also work against the Shia infidels. The book was written in 2013 and the book review is written in a year marked by the jihadist horror in Middle East. Daesh, also self-proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has since declared itself a caliphate and sworn to free Iraq's Sunnis from what they describe as Shia oppression. Thus, it now appears highly relevant to observe and analyse the reactions of the Gulf States to these sectarian discourses.

To conclude, Sectarian Gulf is unquestionably an important book because it contributes to our understanding of the Middle East in a new way. The Arab Spring in the Gulf monarchies is actually an under-reported and little studied story. That's why MATTHIESEN has achieved his goal of making a contribution to the discussion. He has written an excellent and personal account of the challenges facing the Persian Gulf. But other factors requisite to an understanding of the region are insufficiently analyzed and visible compared to the sectarian explanation: Matthiessen’s study is somewhat mono-causal. Focusing on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, he only mentions the remainder of the Gulf States in a couple of lines, which may now strike the informed reader as somewhat superficial in a study which portends to be representative of the entire region.