Special Section on the Gulf Cooperation Council (edited by Max Ajl), Jacobin 13 (January 2014).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this special section on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
Jacobin (JAC): Over the past several years, it has become impossible to ignore the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. References to petrodollars, petro-power, and Gulf-peddled sectarianism are constant, yet somehow simultaneously elusive. It is increasingly common knowledge that the GCC and the United States work in lockstep, but the mechanisms for that cooperation can be unclear, and that lack of clarity can be extremely damaging. So one rationale for this section was to address that lacuna in the wider left literature on the region, particularly as the weight of the GCC in global capitalism becomes heavier and heavier.
Paralleling that gap in knowledge of how power operates is a gap in knowledge about ongoing labor and political struggles within the GCC. Of course, strikes by oil workers and others have been constant since the inception of the oil era, pace the claims of rentier state theory. Indeed, explicitly revolutionary struggle has been immensely strong in the peripheral regions of the Gulf. An exclusive emphasis on an excessively amorphous Gulf power masks both the details of that power, on the one hand, and the depth and history of resistance to it on the other.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the issue address?
JAC: The issue addresses two main topics. Omar alShehabi’s article is on Bahrain: how sectarianism has weakened social revolt, both there and regionally. He shows how this happened through the fascinating life story of a political activist named Ibrahim Sharif. Sharif used to be linked to the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), and went on to play a leading role in the protests that began in 2011. Through Sharif’s story, alShehabi explains how the Bahraini regime has been able to turn sectarian affiliation into corrosive sectarianism, keeping people fragmented, and thus unable to present a common front against the major center of power: the Bahraini state. Though Bahrain is one of the lesser-discussed of the larger revolts of the “Arab Spring,” what has happened there shows how breaking through sectarian divisions is crucial to any regional social transformation. Through his very detailed account, alShehabi highlights the salience of the sectarian divide and how it has erupted in the region, cleaving through the regional social fabric. The piece also implicitly addresses the rise and fall of Arab nationalism and Arab leftism as the banners of regional anti-systemic movements, by showing how sect has frequently replaced nation or class as a point of unity.
Adam Hanieh’s article focuses on the GCC’s development into a major center of capital accumulation. He also shows how its capital circuits have increasingly enveloped corporations and states in the wider region, with massive foreign direct investment in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and elsewhere. What that means is that challenges to domestic economic power within any regional state are also challenges to the Gulf circuits, which extend to those domestic political economies. For that reason, there has been extensive Gulf involvement in regional repression. For example, the GCC states have been central to ensuring that an elite transition contained the Egyptian revolt and maintained the basic structures of ownership and accumulation intact.
Hanieh’s article also touches on the incredibly important and long-standing issue of migrant workers and the creation of the regional labor pool. Of course, this is not new. Egyptian and Palestinian migration to the Gulf have been longstanding, and indeed contributed to the Palestinian capital accumulation which supported the national project at certain points. But the movement of laborers within the region has become increasingly intense lately, given increased labor needs within the GCC states and also elsewhere. Hanieh also shows how regional downturns in overall economic activity affect those flows. For example, he discusses how the class power condensed within the GCC resolves social contradictions on the back of an increasingly international pool of expendable migrant labor, running from Yemen to South Asia. In that way, he makes transparent the immanent ways in which labor unrest immediately becomes a transnational phenomenon, both within the region as well as in a belt running from North Africa all the way to the Filipino archipelago.
Another crucial issue is how the Gulf states have melded seamlessly into US capital circuits. This occurs through petrodollar recycling and arms sales. This phenomenon is also visible on the political plane, where shared interests dictate conjoint policies. In that way, he makes visible the manner in which the United States has offloaded its regional foreign policy onto the Gulf states, which have happily taken it up. Through this regional framework, he shows how simply using the nation-state as the unit of analysis eliminates the possibility of understanding contemporary regional political economy.
Both articles also bring into sharp relief the importance of the state, its role as the guarantor of the regional order, and its centrality to organizing both regional oppression and accumulation in the region. For that reason, struggles like the one in Bahrain acquire incredible importance, and so face enormous repression. And that repression assumes regional form at rapid velocity, as shown by the Saudi buttress to the Bahraini regime’s 2011 crackdown.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from the previous work of the editors and contributors?
JAC: Jacobin’s previous publications on the region have been overwhelmingly focused on Palestine and the Special Relationship. With this issue, we are starting a process of broadening our scope to offer our readers a regional perspective. Speaking generally, we have been trying to publish work on the MENA region that uses a political economy approach or is otherwise radical in its critique of law, or its treatment of leftist currents in the region. Although there has been a massive turn towards political economy, and especially materialist analyses of the region, amongst newly-minted doctoral students, much of that work is only slowly starting to percolate to area specialists, and has yet to make its way to a general readership. One index of this is that since the so-called “Arab Spring,” there have been only a small handful of stand-alone books that use a materialist approach to analyze the region, and Hanieh has written one of them! So this is a small effort, and also a down payment on what we plan to run in the future—that is, a more structural perspective on regional developments and regional struggles.
J: Who do you hope will read this issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JAC: We hope that these essays will benefit specialists concerned with Gulf issues, as well as the MENA region more broadly, along with activists as well as general-interest readers. We agree with Hanieh’s call for more, and more targeted, solidarity. We feel that often, with the exception of Palestine-related politics, solidarity can become gestural, lacking real means for engagement. But there are very substantive campaigns to be built in support of political prisoners in Bahrain and elsewhere. Such work is not needed solely in support of those resisting state repression on the political level. Labor struggle in the region is practically invisible in the Anglophone press, with the exception of Al Akhbar and Gulf News. So it would be great if this issue provokes a wider interest in concrete work to both support and make visible the constant and ongoing struggles in the Gulf.
Excerpted from Jacobin’s Special Section on the Gulf Cooperation Council
From Omar alShehabi, “Bahrain’s Fate”
Sharif’s grandfather was a mulla, but his father was influenced by the rising tides of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism then dominating the wider Arab world. Bahrain had been a British protectorate since the mid-nineteenth century, with the pax Britannica both dictating the island’s international politics and economics and heavily influencing local political affairs. A tense but dependent relationship with the Al Khalifa, the local ruling family who have controlled the island since 1783, prevailed. Previously unstable and vulnerable to threats from the Persians and the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula, the British cemented the rule of Al Khalifa, gradually rearranging the institutional governance structure, though occasionally reorganizing local rulers within the same family when their interests so required.
By the mid-1950s, Bahrain was pulsing with anti-colonial sentiment. Living minutes away from the British Royal Air Force base, Sharif’s political awakening was in Muharraq. His first political idol was Gamal Abdul Nasser, then by far the most popular leader in the Arab world, one who was held in strong affection by the local people, who still remember his stopover in the island in 1955, on his way to the Bandung conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, when, much to the British’s annoyance, he was given a rapturous welcome.
As a primary school student, Sharif participated in the March 1965 uprising—a series of strikes and demonstration which began in Bapco, the local oil company where his father used to work, and which was still under British management. A strike protesting the layoff of hundreds of local workers quickly escalated into protests and riots. They continued for weeks before the local authorities and the British jointly put them down—part of the intermittent peninsular labor unrest that has been erased from court histories of the region and rentier state theories alike.
Amid this atmosphere, Sharif finished high school, where he had exceled, and moved to Lebanon to continue his studies in the mid-1970s. Bahrain had achieved independence in 1971, after the withdrawal of the British from their posts east of the Suez. A new constitution was inaugurated in 1973, followed by parliamentary elections in the same year, which were supposed to herald the advent of democratic politics on the island. But emboldened by rising oil revenues and frustrated by parliament’s lack of cooperation, the local rulers terminated constitutional rule, declaring a state of emergency that lasted twenty-five years. Colonialism had officially ended, but despotism was coursing through the Bahraini political system.
At the American University of Beirut, Sharif found himself in the epicenter of progressive politics in the Arab world. There, he formally entered political activism. Initially approached by the Muslim Brotherhood, he rejected their overtures due to their poor reputation in Bahrain at that time, where they were seen as politically weak and unsupportive of anti-colonial and democratic movements. Instead, he decided to join the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), an organization with roots in the Arab Nationalist Movement, a pan-Arab revolutionary organization with chapters around the Arab world, which took an ideological turn towards Marxist-Leninism twinned with a tactical turn to armed struggle.
Sharif also became active in student union organizations—when he moved to Texas after the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, he established there a chapter of the Bahrain student union. It was also during his time in North America that he met his future wife, Farida Ghulam, a political activist and a student at Concordia University in Montreal. Although Farida was Shi’i, this posed no problem for Sharif, and they would eventually marry in Bahrain.
But he could not finish his studies in North America. On his way back from a student union event in Canada in 1980, he was stopped by the authorities for carrying flyers and donations in support of Palestinian and Dhofari revolutionaries. He was handed over to the Americans. They interrogated him, expelled him on charges of terrorism—a familiar incantation—and remanded him to Bahrain. There he spent two weeks in prison, where the government detained him for belonging to the PFLOAG, then, along with the communists, the main threat to the dynasty.
From Adam Hanieh, “A Petrodollar and a Dream”
This perspective reveals a stark characteristic of the contemporary Arab world: the ever-widening unevenness in the regional political economy, expressed most sharply in the polarization of power and wealth between the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world. Despite the initial puncturing of real estate bubbles in cities such as Dubai, the Gulf states emerged relatively unscathed from the global crisis of 2008-2009, and since that time have continued to accumulate growing pools of surplus capital alongside the renewed rise in hydrocarbon prices from 2010 onwards.
On the other side, the ongoing stagnation of global markets—particularly in the case of the region’s most important trading partner, the European Union—and the political and social crises that wrack states such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, have further entrenched the hierarchies of the region. These different trajectories remind us that crises are never felt uniformly, and absent political challenge are often a boon for those in positions of power.
There are many statistical indications of this growing divergence. According to a recent report from the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a “peak body” of the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, the net foreign assets (gross foreign assets minus external debt) of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries rose from $879 billion in 2006 to $1.79 trillion by end-2012. By the end of 2013, this figure is predicted to reach over $2 trillion, a figure equivalent to more than one hundred and twenty percent of the Gulf’s GDP. At the same time, the net foreign assets of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco, have fallen from a surplus of $20.4 billion to a deficit of $24.3 billion.
The same divergences are also seen in current account balances. In 2012, the six states of the GCC were estimated to have a total current account surplus of just over $400 billion, more than double their annual average over 2006-2010 (and, revealingly, also more than twice that of China in 2012). While the Gulf’s surpluses have reached these record levels, the rest of the Arab world has seen its balance sheets face parlous decline. The total current account balance of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco reached an estimated total deficit of $35 billion in 2012, more than triple the average deficit over 2006-2010.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the enormous pools of capital in the Gulf are not simply held by state institutions or Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs). The Financial Times reported in mid-2013 that the levels of wealth held by GCC banks, private companies and the wealthiest individuals and families reached $3 trillion, a figure that does not include wealth held by SWFs. Privately-held wealth in the Gulf grew by seven percent over the last year, and is now at a level ten percent higher than 2007—the peak of the boom years that preceded the global downturn. One remarkable indication of this is the Gulf’s proportion of “millionaire households.” According to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group, countries from the GCC occupy five out of the top eleven spots for the proportion of millionaire households at a global level, with tiny Qatar ranked number one in the world (14.3 percent of households).
Of course, this wealth is not spread evenly throughout the GCC and, most significantly, these figures ignore the presence of millions of low-paid, temporary migrant laborers that make up the vast majority of the Gulf’s workforce. Indeed, one of the key reasons underlying the polarization of wealth in the Arab world is found in the presence of these workers in the Gulf. Faced with the crisis of 2008-2009 and the collapse of the property boom in Dubai and elsewhere, the Gulf states were able to utilize their heavy reliance on temporary migrant labor—equivalent to at least half of the labor force in all of the GCC states—to offload the worst effects of the crisis onto those neighboring countries that provide the region with its easily deportable and highly exploitable workforce.
[Excerpted from a special section of Jacobin, Issue 13, by permission of the editors. © 2014 Jacobin Press. For more information, or to read the full text of the special section, click here.]