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GCC and the Sacred Right to Punish

[West Bay, Doha, Qatar. 13 May, 2010. Image from Flickr/ [West Bay, Doha, Qatar. 13 May, 2010. Image from Flickr/ "Bob Ramsak/piran café".]

Beneath the thin veneer of modernity, lie the mundane practices of repressive rule in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Lest we forget. we are continuously reminded of the limits of GCC rulers’ tolerance, particularly in the face of critique from their national subjects. The recent case of Qatari “Jasmine” poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who initially received a life sentence for supporting the Tunisian revolution and criticizing authoritarian ruling elites, is not an outlier. Rather, it is an all too frequent occurrence throughout a region that prides itself on not being as repressive as regimes such as the one in Syria. 

Upon closer examination, the forms and modes of violence that proliferate in the GCC countries constitute another kind of authoritarian edifice that escapes, overcomes, or buys out scrutiny in various ways. Enmeshed as these economies are in world markets, and entrenched in networks that bring together some of the most powerful states on earth, GCC regimes can violate the most basic rights of their citizen-subjects with impunity. They possess sufficient financial and military power to placate, coopt, buy-off, and/or stall—though not indefinitely—a growing local opposition and an impending fall. Although a serious setback is not within sight, such harsh measures in the face of dissent—whether in the form of a poem, a tweet, a film, or organized, peaceful civil disobedience—speak both of the shape of things to come and the growing movement against various forms of exploitation. Perhaps the elephant in the room remains the ticking bomb of the severely exploited labor force. The political economy of crushing dissent and the growing economy at the expense of, in good measure, cheap and abused labor, are not disconnected. The effects of an ever-increasing police-state-like behavior may just help connect the dots, sooner than anticipated.

Such abuses of citizen-subjects’ rights is ubiquitous in that region, and rarely reach mainstream news outlets in the United States or Europe, as well all other areas where GCC-funded media run the “reporting” show. Gross injustices that actually attract global public attention, if fleetingly, barely scratch the surface of the landscape of oppression in GCC states. They are, nonetheless, telling of the monarchies’ increasing anxiety over peaceful expressions of opposition and dissent and the power of the written word. If anything, GCC regimes attempt to capitalize on the circulation of such “newsworthy” cases precisely for their potential for deterrence. Publicizing the fate of Hamza Kashgari, Turki al-Hamad, and the myriad prisoners of conscience lingering in Saudi Arabian and other prisons, as well as that of nationals stripped of their citizenship in Bahrain and UAE for supposedly insulting “their” rulers, showcases the harsh realities that await such transgressions. It also reveals the resilience and capabilities of the Gulf monarchies and the extent to which they will resort in order to prevent the slightest sign of internal critique and opposition. Coupled with the tightening of media laws and worsening punishments for challenging the political—and at times the religious—status quo, these cases, however, have done little by way of deterring many Gulf nationals from continuing to speak out against ongoing, epidemic state abuse. Across the Gulf, even the most vulnerable of all subjects, political prisoners who bare the brunt of this repression, continue to fight their state of subjection with the one thing they have control over: their very bodies.

Not only is regime rhetoric continuing to whitewash such abuses, but a good deal of scholarship on the Gulf is implicated in such efforts, deliberately, unwittingly, or under the pressure of important perks. All too often, so-called Gulf experts lecture us in the halls of the most prestigious academic institutions about the “benevolent authoritarianism” of Gulf states and their slow yet ardent reform efforts. It is the culture of the Gulf majlis as a form of “democratic governance” and the Gulf states’ grand “development” schemes, the experts inform us, that have prevented the same popular outcry in the Gulf that unpopular Arab regimes elsewhere have witnessed in recent years. Bahrain, here, is rendered a purely sectarian problem. For the most part, these lectures are centered on regime efforts that allegedly have their subjects’ wellbeing at heart. Such depictions singlehandedly deny decades of activism and struggle of Gulf nationals who have risked life and limb to fight against sanctioned authoritarianism. They also flatten the diverse forms of local resistance and opposition that have challenged Gulf regimes since their creation, not to mention ongoing criticism of rulers in every single Gulf state. In so doing, those scholars strip Gulf nationals of what little agency they have; instead of speaking truth to power, they actually endorse and legitimate it.

Official citizen-subject socialization processes in the Gulf bequeath the monarchies an almost sacred status as fathers of the nation, ones somehow sanctioned by god, thus rendering opposition to them akin to religious transgression. At least in the case of Saudi Arabia, opposition to the rulers is equated to opposition to god and the prophet—as we have seen in the aftermath of the 2011 Saudi “day of rage”—and as such, merits an equally harsh punishment. In this order of things, Gulf subjects have to appeal to the compassion of the rulers, as they would to god, for clemency and/or leniency in the already unjust court rulings of their loved ones. Media networks and Gulf allies accord Gulf rulers this very same sacred status, ultimately buttressed by the knowledge that should they be in danger, the most powerful state on earth will swiftly come to their rescue. The holy trinity is complete.

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