We have had enough of this ridiculous, two-year-old question: Did the Arab Spring have any impact on the six Arab Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE?
The one-word answer is an emphatic yes. Obviously these states not only survived the tough challenges of the two-year-old Arab Spring, but also shrewdly utilised it to consolidate the pro-government elements, strengthened the forces of the status quo and put off any demand for the urgent need for political reform and democratisation indefinitely.
The impact of the Arab Spring on the Gulf monarchies was felt from day one and is clearly visible. It is unrealistic to think that these states are immune, unique or possess some exceptional qualities that make them different from the other Arab states. The fact of the matter is that the Gulf states do not exist in a vacuum. They are an integral part of the Arab world and do not possess a separate history of their own outside the general trajectory of Arab history.
The impact of the Arab Spring, which unleashed forces of change, demanding more freedom for the Arabs, on the oil-rich Gulf states is beyond doubt. However, its nature and intensity is another story and is a lively topic for debate. Clearly, the impact has been quite uneven, but more importantly, it has been contrary to what many had in mind. So far, the impact on the ground has been the opposite of all expectations.
For a start, while the Arab Spring has unleashed powerful forces of change that ended nearly six decades of political stagnation in the Arab world, it has ironically strengthened the forces of the status quo in the Arab Gulf states. The events of the past two years have made the politically conservative Gulf monarchies more conservative and made the majority of the people averse to radical change at home. In the Gulf states, the fear of change and the uncertainties that accompany it has been heightened.
During turbulent and uncertain times, everyone, including the youth and the reform advocates at large, seem to prefer stability over all else. The regimes are certainly on full alert and are not taking any chances. The little public desire for democracy and political reform that has been building up over the past two decades is on hold for the time being. Simply put, this is not the best time to rock the boat. The two-year-old Arab Spring is yet to deliver its lofty promises of a better democratic future. The immediate result is not very encouraging, especially given that the forces of Islamisation are the overriding civil forces wanting democratisation. Essentially, the logic of the moment calls for a cautious approach and demands a wait-and-watch strategy. Moreover, many find it politically convenient to show utmost loyalty and come forth as defenders of the status quo, no matter how hypocritical they sound.
However, more than unleashing the forces of change in an unprecedented way, the Arab Spring was first and foremost about freedom. This is supposedly the Arab moment of freedom in global history. But, while there is a notable progress on all accounts of freedom in the Arab Spring states of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, the earth-shattering events of the past two years have brought less freedom to the Arab Gulf states. Democracy in this part of the Arab world has gone into reverse and tolerance levels have dropped sharply in the past two years; 2012 was the worst year in the Gulf.
Needlessly, this is consistent with other gloomy reports about the overall quality of democracy, which has deteriorated throughout the developing world. 2012 was not a good year for democracy worldwide and incidents of political arrests of opposition members and cyber activists increased sharply throughout the Arab Gulf states in the past two years. Plenty of new legal restrictions have also been introduced. One does not see a spring of freedom in the Arab Gulf states. Many seem to agree with Gulf governments’ justification that these are difficult measures taken during difficult times.
However, the most visible impact of the Arab Spring has been felt by Bahrain, which has always been the weak link in the chain of Gulf monarchies. Bahrain was hit the hardest by the forces of change of the 2011, but thanks mainly to the decisive move by the GCC, which swiftly put its first rule into action: A threat to one GCC state is a threat to all GCC states. No member state is allowed to go down and the GCC will not let anyone of its states break up.
In the light of the difficult experience that Bahrain has been going through for the past two years, it does not make any sense to ask whether the Arab Gulf states are immune to the winds of change of 2011. Of course they are not. The real question is what kind of impact did the Arab Spring have on the Gulf monarchies?
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of political science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE