Book Review

Review of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t by Toby Matthiesen


Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, published Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t with Stanford Press in 2013. The book is an autobiographical account of some of his travels in the Middle East and conversations he had with protestors, politicians, and public intellectual figures. As such, the book reads fluidly. The reader flies with Matthiesen to Saudi Arabia, lands in Kuwait, and escapes the authorities in Bahrain. For a Westerner—or anyone completely oblivious to the intricate details of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) reaction to the Arab Spring—this book is a welcome introduction.

For a Middle Easterner or anyone already familiar with how the GCC does politics in our region of the world, the book simply reiterates common knowledge. Sectarian Gulf states that the Arab Spring resurrected three visible threats to the Middle East’s ancien régimes. The first is the “Shia threat,” encapsulated by Iran’s looming presence and aggressive vociferation. The GCC countries are all governed by Sunni ruling families, and any Iranian interference in the region threatens old hierarchies in favor of Islamic states that follow the Shia sect.

However, in addition to the fear of growing Shia sentiment, the GCC’s royal families also worry that the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which regained its intensity after winning elections in Egypt and Tunisia, might also destabilize the region’s power structures. Hence, Sunni Islamism has become just as much a paramount threat to the status quo as Shia Islamism.

Finally, the GCC regimes have had to contend with a third, even more dangerous threat: people power, which succeeded in toppling dictators in various other Arab countries. To prevent “the people”—the secular majority who view themselves as disenfranchised by current political systems—from uniting against the Gulf monarchies, the GCC’s royal elite hired sectarian identity entrepreneurs to help this group maintain its dominance. “[S]ectarianism,” writes Matthiesen, “was not just a government intervention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their own aim” (p. ix).

The book is divided into seven chapters, only one of which—“The Orange Movement”—focuses on Kuwait. The rest mostly tackle the cases of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as these are intricately intertwined.

When the protests took place in Kuwait and “the people” took to the streets, calling for the removal of Prime Minister Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Subah, I told my friends, “If there ever is a revolution in Kuwait, it will be because the rich are envious of the superrich.” Kuwait is a welfare state. Our bureaucracy is stagnant—true. Our media, education, and quotidian life, in general, feel more “morally oppressive”—also true. The moral stronghold in Kuwait is a result of an influx of Muslim Brotherhood members who came to this country in the late 70s and early 80s, fleeing from a republican Egypt. In addition, the situation is compounded by the Wahabi mentality that came from Saudi Arabia after the Kuwaiti ruling family started to naturalize tribal groups that had previously settled on the periphery of our border with Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait, an age-old conflict—germinating with the discovery of oil and developing mature features during Nasser’s Arab socialism—has taken shape between the ruling family, who view governance as a hereditary business, and wealthy merchant families. The latter view governance as belonging to a democratically elected group of people who represent society, which, they ultimately hope, will be themselves and not the tribal or Islamic factions that include more members.

The chapter on Kuwait details the bizarre solidarity between the secular—even utterly liberal—wealthy merchant families and opposition leaders or salafis—dogmatic Islamists who believe that the solution to our present problems is recreating our constitution using sharia law. Tribal figures, the Bedouin, are a third party to this solidarity, believing that, since they are the majority, the government should give them more political power. With regard to this opposition in Kuwait, Matthiesen writes, “Economically, these people could not complain” (p. 94).

Overall, while Sectarian Gulf is merely an introductory account of the GCC’s political reaction to the Arab Spring, it remains highly relevant. This book illustrates how post-Arab Spring sectarianism is a particular strategy to divide “the people” and ward off the threat of serious, structural reforms.

Matthieson-SectarianTitleSectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t

AuthorToby Matthiesen

Publisher: Stanford Press

Year of Publication: 2013

Format: Paperback

Where to get it

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