Sectarian Backfire? Assessing Gulf Political Strategy Five Years after the Arab Uprisings

By Justin Gengler | Research Program Manager - Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) - Qatar University | Nov 17, 2015
Sectarian Backfire? Assessing Gulf Political Strategy Five Years after the Arab Uprisings
Pro-Bahraini government rally, 2-21-13

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


Without a doubt, the most important political development in the Arab Gulf region since the beginning of the Arab uprisings has been the rise of sectarianism. This is true both of the narrow and most common usage of the word to describe confessional conflict between Sunni and Shi‘i communities, and in the broader sense of the politicization of ascriptive group identities, whether religious, tribal, ethnic, regional, or otherwise. The violent and seemingly easy ignition of latent social tensions around early 2011 startled even members of the disputing parties themselves, and prompted several near-contemporaneous academic volumes proffering descriptions, historical context, and some explanations.[1] Of course, neither Gulf publics nor scholars could foresee how the sparks from sectarian conflict in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere would go on to light even larger and more deadly conflagrations—in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen.

Still, the more remarkable feature of the Gulf’s new sectarianism was and remains not its terrible consequences, but its origins. For most would agree that the division of citizens into confessional and other group constituencies, rather than some spontaneous outpouring of primordial hatred, was in fact a calculated survival strategy employed by frightened regimes under siege. It was and remains one premised on forestalling the emergence of cross-cutting societal factions that could challenge the political status quo, coalitions that—unlike narrow sectarian groups—could claim to represent the will of all the people and mobilize a broad base of support in pursuit of those claims. It is a strategy both rooted in and based on fear: that felt by governments, certainly, but also that of ordinary citizens who fear that the empowerment of their rivals would threaten their own political and economic resources, their physical safety, and even the country’s very independence. And, in spite of its many disastrous effects at home and abroad, the sectarian strategy is also one that has succeeded, in some ways, beyond Gulf rulers’ original expectations.

Sectarianism as a Political Strategy

Five years on, most retellings of Bahrain’s February 2011 uprising stop only a month after it began, with the surprise arrival of March 14 of several thousand ground troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia, dispatched ostensibly to squash mass Shi‘a-led demonstrations. In reality, the momentum of the would-be revolution had been checked weeks earlier by pro-government Sunnis, who organized counter-demonstrations in support of the state that rivaled the size of opposition protests. It was only when these competing rallies began to devolve into armed communal violence that the government, encouraged but not directly backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force, stepped in with deadly decisiveness, crushing demonstrations, jailing opposition leaders, instituting martial law, and putting an end to the country’s ten-year experiment with reform.

That ordinary Sunnis rallied to the defense of “البحرين الخليفية”—“Bahrain of the Al Khalifa”—was no accident. While not directly organized by authorities, the counter-mobilization was inspired by a clear and powerful message emanating from all corners of the government-controlled media: resist this attempted coup by deviant Shi‘a and their masters in Iran, or risk the same foreign takeover that befell Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Indeed, well prior to the uprising, this warning over the dangers of Shi‘a majoritarianism had been put to good use in encouraging Sunni participation and docility in the elected lower house of parliament since its reopening in 2001. With Shi‘a comprising some 55 to 60 percent of the Bahraini population, the state consistently reminded Sunnis that failure to support it in the legislature meant complicity in allowing the opposition to enact its self-serving sectarian agenda. This political dynamic has been likened aptly to a classic “protection racket,”[2] with the Bahraini state acting as Sunni guarantor.

From the standpoint of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf governments with restive ethnic or political minorities, the appeal of this sectarian model is wide-ranging. First, beyond distracting citizens by encouraging them to focus on the behavior of fellow nationals rather than on the state’s performance, sowing communal distrust can dissuade individuals from banding together even in cases where actual economic and political preferences cut across group lines. Both Sunnis and Shi‘is may agree in principle on core policy issues such as the need to tackle corruption, unchecked immigration, housing and job shortages, and so on; yet if they are unable or unwilling to coordinate politically, they lack the societal breadth required to effectively pressure the state. This is precisely the situation of ordinary Sunna and Shi‘a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

... the divide-and-rule strategy allows the state to conserve scarce resources by disproportionately excluding members of the ascriptive out-group from the generous economic benefits usually conferred by Gulf citizenship.

In addition, the divide-and-rule strategy allows the state to conserve scarce resources by disproportionately excluding members of the ascriptive out-group from the generous economic benefits usually conferred by Gulf citizenship. Since the state can be relatively confident in the loyalty of its (often co-ethnic) supporters, it need not waste additional resources attempting to purchase the political backing of its opponents—opponents whose allegiance the state believes to be fundamentally unattainable in any case—through the provision of public-sector employment and other patronage. Notably, the GCC’s two most active promoters of the sectarian political strategy, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, also are among its three poorest (along with Oman) in terms of oil and gas revenues per citizen.  With less money to distribute among nationals compared to other Arab Gulf states to begin with, segmentation of their political constituencies gives Saudi Arabia and Bahrain a higher political return on their financial investment than they would achieve from a more egalitarian allocation of benefits. Sectarianism, it turns out, is not just good politics; it also can be good economics.

The Geopolitical Payoff

Even as they have reaped the domestic political benefits of politicizing group identities, the main promoters of sectarianism have also effectively externalized the most onerous costs.  Having been impelled for so long by governments to fight the existential threat of Iranian-backed Shi‘a irredentism, many Gulf nationals eventually answered the call. Yet, notwithstanding sporadic anti-Shi‘a terrorist bombings in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, most did so by joining groups fighting in conflicts abroad rather than taking up arms at home. For a long time, Gulf governments did not seem to mind. In August 2002, three members of Bahrain’s Salafi parliamentary bloc al-Asalah, including its former leader and then-current deputy, posted photographs on Twitter boasting of their Ramadan fast-breaking with members of the Free Syrian Army. Posing with RPG launchers and other weapons, the legislators-turned-rebels said they were honored to be hosted by those waging war against the “evil Safavids”—that is to say, Shi‘a.[3]

Bahraini and other Gulf nationals would also take up prominent positions in the Islamic State (IS) organization. These include most notably the now Mosul-based imam Turki al-Binali, whose sermons and writings are said to have “set out the case for [IS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s credentials as the righteous caliph to whom all Muslims owe allegiance.” Al-Binali was openly living and preaching in Bahrain until at least the end of 2013.[4] And when Bahraini, Saudi, and other authorities finally did act to reign in citizens fighting for foreign terrorist groups, the policy measure adopted was the ultimate in externalization: wholesale revocation of citizenship for those accused of being members of armed organizations abroad.[5] Having succeeded only too well in convincing some nationals of the threat posed by Shi‘a and Iran, Gulf governments now washed their hands altogether of these trouble cases. They would now be the world’s problem.

... the stunning emergence of potent new insurgent groups and conflicts fueled by rhetoric and funds from the GCC ushered in a new geopolitical reality—absurdity—in which the Gulf states were at once the cause of and solution to the problem of sectarian-based radicalization.

Meanwhile, the stunning emergence of potent new insurgent groups and conflicts fueled by rhetoric and funds from the GCC ushered in a new geopolitical reality—absurdity—in which the Gulf states were at once the cause of and solution to the problem of sectarian-based radicalization. Once quietly questioning their allies’ political shortsightedness and pushing for needed reforms, now Western patrons the United States, Britain, and France sought vital diplomatic cover from the GCC for military operations to root out the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Contacts inside Bahrain, for instance, told of a veritable quid pro quo in which the U.S. State Department in particular agreed to silence its already muted criticism of slow progress on reform in return for Bahraini assistance against IS, spelling an end to behind-the-scenes efforts at political mediation. One imagines that similar demands for an end to American interference in internal affairs were imposed by the other Gulf participants in anti-IS operations. The United States’ subsequent unwillingness to pressure Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to end their devastating war in Yemen would seem to support such an assumption.

Moreover, independent of diplomatic horse-trading, the spread of instability to new areas outside the Arab Gulf no doubt helped to reinforce the longtime claim of GCC rulers that they alone can guarantee the security of the region and of the vital oil and gas resources that flow from it, that the certain alternative to the present Gulf monarchies is a mad free-for-all between tribal factions, terrorists, and Iranian proxies. Bolstered by the newfound strength of such arguments, as well as the nominal need to replenish and upgrade stockpiles depleted in the fight against IS,[6] the Gulf states have lobbied the United States and other allies successfully for new and improved weapons systems and, in the case of Bahrain, the lifting of export restrictions imposed in the aftermath of the state’s lethal crackdown. The sales, which in many instances have required Western governments to overcome strong domestic opposition, have sent German tanks and howitzers to Qatar; American humvees and antitank missiles to Bahrain; French fighter jets to Qatar and, it is expected, the United Arab Emirates; and, in 2014 and 2015, some $15 billion worth of U.S. hardware to Saudi Arabia alone.[7] Already the top military spenders in the world as a proportion of GDP,[8] the Gulf states have been granted open license to fortify their positions even further against threats to their security—be they regional rivals, non-state actors, or, inevitably, domestic political enemies.

Paying the Economic, not Political, Price

The tragic effects of heightened politicization of sectarian religious identity in the Middle East, a process that has been actively guided by self-interested governments themselves, are plain for the world to see. Whole countries are destroyed, millions have been displaced, millions more are stuck starving in conflict zones, and potent new ideologies have arisen that threaten still greater chaos. One is therefore tempted to conclude—as most observers have—that the sectarian survival strategy adopted by some Gulf regimes has unequivocally backfired, has come back to haunt them, only deepening the political uncertainty and insecurity from which it arose. Yet, while much of the world has been forced to deal with the consequences of confessional rivalry and conflict, little of the physical toll has been paid by the instigators themselves.

On the contrary, countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have successfully stamped out domestic oppositions, secured huge weapons deals from the United States and Europe, and, since the rise of IS and the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement, gained such diplomatic flexibility as to have almost a free hand domestically and regionally. At the GCC level, moreover, intensification of tensions between Iran and the Arab Gulf states has also provided the impetus needed to push forward Saudi-led initiatives for membership expansion and regional economic and political integration.  The post-2011 period has given birth to robust new internal security cooperation agreements, relaxed immigration rules for Gulf nationals, and progress on regional infrastructure projects including a trans-GCC rail system, energy supply networks, and a second causeway linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain.

To be sure, any substantive change in grand strategy is far more likely to arise from the declining economic fortunes of the Gulf states than from the perception that it no longer serves their political interests. The freedom to wage war both domestically and internationally with Western military and diplomatic backing is empowering, but it is also very expensive. And at a time when low oil prices are forcing GCC governments to seek a fundamental revision of their implicit social contract with citizens—slashing subsidies, reducing employment opportunities, and, generally sending the message that, in the recent words of Qatar’s emir, the state can no longer “provide for everything”[9]—at such a time, the sacrifice of untold billions in state resources in propping up other governments, funding competing rebel groups, and other dubious adventures abroad is sure to earn no little scrutiny from citizens. On the other hand, the unprecedented reduction in welfare benefits, and the warning that more is on the way, is also a issue with the potential to unite people across social classes and groups, as observed already in Bahrain after the state’s October elimination of meat subsidies.[10] As a practical policy tool of rulers of divided societies, then, the sectarian card is unlikely to be discarded completely any time soon.


[1] See, for example, Larry Potter, ed., Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (London/New York: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014); Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[2] Daniel Brumberg, “Transforming the Arab World’s Protection-Racket Politics,” Journal of Democracy 24.3 (2013): 88-103.

[3] Justin Gengler, “Bahraini Salafis Fighting the Infidels Wherever They Find Them,” Religion and Politics in Bahrain, August 6, 2012.

[4] Ala‘a Shehabi, “Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2014,

[5] “Bahrain revokes the nationality of 72 people,” BBC News, January 31, 2015,

[6] Another obvious cause is the U.S. desire to counter any potential shift in the Gulf military balance of power resulting from the sanctions relief agreed as part of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

[7] William D. Hartung, “It’s Not Diplomacy, It’s an Arms Fair,” Foreign Policy, May 14, 2015,

[8] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditure Database,

[9] Shabina S. Khatri and Peter Kovessy, “Qatar Emir: Government can no longer ‘provide for everything,’” Doha News, November 3, 2015,

[10] Ismaeel Nahr, “What’s all the beef about Bahrain’s subsidy cuts?” Al Arabiya, September 25, 2015,


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