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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Democracy and its Limits in the Persian Gulf

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

Partly inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters around the Persian Gulf began spilling into the streets in mid-February. The largest turnout so far has been in Bahrain where tens of thousands of people mobilized in opposition the ruling al-Khalifa. Smaller demonstrations have taken place in Oman and Saudi Arabia. And while there have yet to be public exhibitions of dissent, even the UAE has seen significant levels of dissent. Across the region, protesters share common grievances and demands. These include calls for political reform, greater economic opportunity, an end to corruption, and improved labor conditions and rights. Predictably, regional regimes have responded brutally. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have orchestrated the most oppressive and depraved counterrevolution so far, but security forces in Oman and the UAE have also responded violently to their critics.

While the outcomes of the political struggles taking place across the Gulf have yet to be determined, they still raise a number of issues that suggest some rethinking of how we teach the politics and the political histories of the region is necessary. Even though the protest movements in most of the Gulf countries have remained relatively small, the growing patterns of political expression and mobilization challenge still dominant paradigms about the quiescent nature of societies in petroleum rich rentier states. Rentier theory has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years from political scientists and economists, but much of the critical turn has focused on some of the basic assumptions about the nature of regimes, governance, and the structures of political authority. Not enough attention has been paid to why and how communities and subjects in oil states organize or mobilize or on what kinds of political-economic aspirations they share.

Perhaps most importantly and interestingly, the (failed?) revolutions in the Gulf also encourage a more direct reassessment of why democratic transformations remain unlikely in the region. The most argued reason for the “democracy deficit” in the Gulf also stems from rentier theory, which posits that oil-rich oil states enter into a bargain with their societies in which rulers redistribute oil wealth in exchange for political docility. While the nature of domestic political systems is obviously important and is clearly consequential, the almost exclusive focus on internal political and economic forces misses other equally important reasons and factors for the seeming intractability of modern autocracy in the Persian Gulf. Those that I am most concerned in have to do with the interests of Western powers (most notably the United States) in the preservation of a particular kind of political-economic world and regional order in the last third of the 20th century.

It is hardly radical to suggest that American administrations have played an important part in propping up regional autocrats at the expense of democratic alternatives in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But as Robert Vitalis has shown in America’s Kingdom and as I tried to do in Desert Kingdom, the nature, depth, and consequence of American engagement historically – and specifically in the winter and spring of 2011 – deserves more scrutiny. It has been and is increasingly important to my teaching and research to situate the United States in the political history of the Gulf – as a force of instability and insecurity. By bringing the United States in more directly and more critically than most who have studied the Persian Gulf in recent years I do not want to argue that the revolutions are about the US (or us), but that the United States has been and remains an obstacle to their ambitions. It is unlikely that understanding the why and the how of American complicity in regional authoritarianism will suggest a new paradigm. Many of us know the broad outlines of the story, if not the details. But many others do not. And, the Saudi and Bahraini led counterrevolution should also encourage both a conceptual and chronological reassessment of the patterns and trajectories of American engagement, militarization, and war in the Middle East.


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