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GULF STATES. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates stand at the intersection of several major currents in contemporary Islamic affairs. The 1978-1979 revolution in Iran inspired the sizable Shi’i communities of Bahrain and Kuwait to become much more active in their respective political arenas; this event, however, provoked little if any sympathy among the Shi`ah of the United Arab Emirates, while the predominantly Muwahhidin population of Qatar remained heavily influenced by the religious establishment in neighboring Saudi Arabia. All four societies have exhibited pronounced tensions between moderate Islamist reformers on one hand and Islamist radicals who advocate more fundamental change in the existing order on the other. Moreover, the rulers of all four continue to manipulate Islamic doctrine and symbolism in ways designed to enhance the legitimacy of their respective regimes.

Bahrain. The heterogeneous population of Bahrain has been ruled since the late eighteenth century by preeminent shaykhs of the Khalifah clan, in alliance with a collection of prominent, rich merchant families, whose younger members now occupy many of the senior positions in the central administration. The Al Khalifah follow the Sunni branch of Islam and adhere to the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, which favors relatively strict interpretations of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (hadith), but which also tolerates considerable flexibility in applying the law for the benefit of the community as a whole. The commercial elite consists of both Sunnis following the Shafi’i school, most of whom immigrated to Bahrain from the southern coast of Iran during the late nineteenth century, and rationalist, accommodationist (Usuli) Twelver Shi’is who continue to enjoy close ties to the predominant Shi`i centers of Iran and southern Iraq. There are also small but significant pockets of Sunnis who adhere to the more literalist Hanbali school of legal interpretation, and of Shi`is who accept the tenets of the more ecstatic Akhbari school, which adopts a strict constructionist view of the Qur’an and the received traditions of the twelve original imams. It is estimated that Shi`is make up almost seventy percent of the country’s general population, a substantially higher proportion than that reported following the 1941 census, the last one that registered the local inhabitants’ religious affiliations.

Widespread discontent within the Bahraini Shi`ah precipitated a wave of riots on the islands in 1923. In the wake of this episode, British agents deposed the country’s ruler and inaugurated a series of fundamental reforms in the local administration. Sunni notables opposed to overt British interference in the islands’ internal affairs responded by organizing the Bahrain National Congress to demand the restoration of the old ruler and the creation of an advisory council to assist him in governing the country. Shicis for the most part remained aloof from this early liberal national movement, but they did petition the ruler in 1934 to promulgate a basic law and to institute proportional representation on municipal and educational councils. Sunni reformers demanded the creation of an assembly (majlis) and an end to administrative inefficiency in late 1938. When students and oilworkers threatened to call a general strike in support of the majhs movement, the regime’s British protectors arrested a number of leading reformers and deported them to India.

Violence between Sunnis and Shicis erupted again in late 1952 over the sectarian composition of the Manama municipal council. Over the next two years, as workers in the petroleum sector struck repeatedly to protest the local oil company’s policy of employing large numbers of expatriate laborers, liberal nationalist activists worked to channel popular discontent against the British administration and away from sectarian issues. This effort succeeded in generating virtually universal support for a Higher Executive Committee composed of four Sunnis and four ShNs. It also precipitated the formation of a number of grassroots organizations, such as the Shi`i Ja`fari League in Jidd Hafs, whose members voiced demands for more radical changes in Bahrain’s political and social institutions. At the end of 1956 moderate reformers, fearful of losing control over the nationalist movement to representatives of more militant groups, abandoned their own platform and acquiesced in the government’s suppression of the radicals.

Smoldering unrest among the country’s Shi’ah resurfaced in the wake of the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran. Reformist associations such as the Sunni Society for Social Reform and the Shi`i Party of the Call to Islam steadily lost ground throughout the 1980s to more radical groups like the Sunni Islamic Action Organization and the Shi`i Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. In mid-December 1981, the authorities announced that they had broken up a clandestine network of saboteurs affiliated with the Islamic Front; those arrested were handed lengthy prison sentences the following March by a tribunal presided over by one of the senior shaykhs of the Al Khalifah. Sporadic arrests of members of militant Islamist cells occurred throughout the rest of the decade, but the evident efficiency of the state security services in rounding up dissidents, combined with the ruling family’s comparative magnanimity in dealing with those arrested, largely stifled political activities on the part of both radicals and moderates within the country’s variegated Islamist movement. The thirtymember advisory council appointed by the ruler in January 1993 included prominent representatives from both the Sunni and the Shi’i communities.

Kuwait. Since the early eighteenth century Kuwait has been ruled by preeminent shaykhs of the Sabah clan, in alliance with prominent members of the indigenous commercial elite, whose sons now occupy many of the senior positions in the central administration. The Al Sabah follow the Sunni branch of Islam and adhere to the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. The rich merchant community consists primarily of Twelver shi’is from both southern Iraq and Iran, along with a smaller number of Sunnis following the Shafi’i school who migrated to the country from southern Iran around 1900. In addition, Shi’i tribespeople based in southern Iraq and in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia regularly traverse the country’s northern and western borders, while significant numbers of poorer Twelver Shi`is entered the country during the years after World War II to work in the petroleum and construction industries. It is estimated that Shi’is make up a quarter of the indigenous population.

Sectarian conflict played little part in the merchantled reform movements of 1921 and 1938, although members of the elected council (majlis) that arose out of the latter accused the ruler’s Sh!’! chief adviser of mobilizing his coreligionists against the Sunni-dominated majlis. Expatriate teachers founded a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in 1951, which later evolved into the moderate Social Reform Society. Popularly elected representatives to the National Assembly mandated by the 1962 constitution soon coalesced into two broad informal blocs: one comprised supporters of the Al Sabah, including settled bedouin, prominent Sh!’Is, and moderate Sunni Islamists, while the other was made up of liberal nationalists. Rising tension between the elected assembly members and the appointed cabinet convinced the prime minister, Shaykh Jabir al-Ahmad, to tender the government’s resignation in August 1976, an act that entailed the immediate suspension of the parliament.

Disadvantaged Shi’Is staged a series of demonstrations in the capital city in early 1979; the authorities responded by deporting the country’s most influential Shi i notable, Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid `Abbas Muhri, and prohibiting the display of posters depicting the new Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Demonstrations erupted again at the end of the year in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni militants who advocated an Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia. Shortly thereafter, a group of Shi’i intellectuals publicly accused the government of removing Shl’! officers from command positions in the armed forces and police. These events prompted a severe backlash against the indigenous Shi’ah: in October 1983, for example, militant Sunnis attacked workers building a Shi’i mosque in the capital and looted the construction site. In an attempt to appease Islamists in both camps, the authorities imposed severe restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages and placed increasingly strict limits on the public activities of women, particularly at the university, during the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, Islamist militants carried out sporadic attacks on foreign diplomatic and economic installations in Kuwait throughout the decade.

In February 1985, candidates who espoused an overtly religious platform suffered significant losses in popular elections to the National Assembly, which had been reinstituted four years earlier. Members of moderate Sunni organizations suffered as a result of the publication of a Saudi scholar’s ruling (fatwd) concerning the evils of both coeducation and western music. Only one prominent Shi’i representative was elected to the fiftymember parliament that year. Growing disaffection within the Shi’ah set the stage for a suicide attack on the ruler’s motorcade at the end of May; a month later, a bomb went off at a cafe in Kuwait City that was attached to a meeting house sponsored by the ruling family for older citizens. These events contributed to the second dissolution of the National Assembly in July 1986, as well as to the promulgation of stricter state controls on the indigenous Shi’ah.

Militant Kuwaiti Shi`is responded to the regime’s stepped-up campaign of intimidation and surveillance by launching a wave of attacks on government installations. In January 1987, radical activists belonging to the clandestine Revolutionary Organization-Forces of the Prophet Muhammad were arrested and charged with planting explosive devices at three major state-owned oil facilities in an effort to disrupt the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Moderate shi’i notables reacted to the arrests by taking out fullpage advertisements in local newspapers denouncing the organization’s actions and reaffirming their loyalty to the regime.

Prominent members of both communities joined in agitating for the restoration of the National Assembly at the end of 1989. Professional associations, university students, and trade unionists petitioned the ruler in February 1990 to authorize new parliamentary elections, while a group of twenty-eight former assembly delegates presented their demands directly to the prime minister at the beginning of March. These actions convinced the cabinet in late April to approve the formation of a seventy-five-member National Council charged with assessing the past and future role of the parliament in the emirate’s affairs. Twenty members of the old National Assembly won seats on the new council in the elections of June 1990, but this body’s deliberations were interrupted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait two months later.

During the months of the Iraqi occupation, neighborhood committees and soirees (diwdniyat) provided the primary locus of popular resistance on the part of Kuwaiti citizens unable to escape the country. Two Sunni organizations, the Social Reform Society and the Heritage Revival Society, used their influence within the directorates of the state-affiliated food cooperatives to coordinate the distribution of foodstuffs, medicine, and fuel throughout the country. The hasty evacuation of Kuwait by the Iraqi armed forces in March 199i provided local vigilantes with arms, which they soon turned on suspected collaborators. Forces loyal to the Al Sabah moved to disarm these individuals with the assistance of United States military police as soon as they regained control of the emirate. In addition, the authorities immediately declared a state of martial law.

Elections for a reorganized National Assembly took place in early October 1992. Islamist candidates-both Sunni and Shi’i-won eighteen seats, giving critics of the Al Sabah a total of thirty-one delegates in the fiftymember parliament. The Islamists quickly coalesced into two distinct blocs, an avowedly reformist Islamic Constitutional Movement and a comparatively conservative Islamic Popular Alliance. Both blocs advocated amending the 1962 constitution to make shari’ah the basis of Kuwaiti law.

Qatar. Since the late nineteenth century Qatar has been ruled by the senior shaykhs of the Thani clan, in conjunction with a comparatively small number of indigenous rich merchants and a corps of religious notables. Virtually the entire population adheres to the literalist Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, and more precisely to the interpretation of Islam formulated by the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab. Consequently, the country’s Muwahhidi religious notables exercise considerable influence over judicial and educational affairs, while advising the ruler on the legality of governmental decrees according to a strict reading of the Qur’an and the hadith. A growing minority of the commercial oligarchy consists of recent Shi’i immigrants from southern Iran, although there is also a small number of Sunnis who arrived in the country from the southern coast of Iran at the turn of the twentieth century. Unofficial estimates put the proportion of Shi is in the indigenous population at around sixteen percent, making Qatar the most homogeneous of the Arab Gulf emirates in ethnic/sectarian terms.

Given the homogeneity of the country and the size of the ruling family, actions undertaken by Qatar’s liberal nationalist opposition have for the most part been indistinguishable from challenges to the status quo on the part of dissident Al Thani shaykhs. The National Unity Front formed during the early 1960s, for instance, included both oilworkers and younger members of the Al Thani. More recently, in January 1992, representatives of fifty prominent Qatari families, both Sunni and Shi`i, petitioned the ruler to set up an elected national council as a means of increasing popular participation in policy making. This demand was sidestepped by the authorities, who subsequently harrassed the signatories. United Arab Emirates. The government of the United Arab Emirates is conducted by an alliance of the ruling families of the seven smaller Arab Gulf states lying along the former Trucial Coast (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah), in conjunction with prominent members of the indigenous commercial elite, who occupy many of the senior positions in the federal administration formed in 1971 as well as in the bureaucracies of the individual emirates. The different ruling families share an adherence to both Sunni Islam and the Maliki school of legal interpretation, while the federation’s rich merchants are divided along sectarian lines in a number of ways: in Dubai, the most influential families are Sunni immigrants from southern Iran, although there is also a significant community of Twelver shi’is; in Sharjah, Shi’is from South Asia predominate; Abu Dhabi’s much smaller rich merchant elite consists primarily of Sunnis having close ties to the tribes of eastern Arabia, although there is a growing cluster of Twelver shi’is within the emirate as well. For the federation as a whole, Shi`is are estimated to account for almost twenty percent of the indigenous population.

Sectarian conflict played virtually no part in the 1938 reform movement in Dubai, and opposition to the emirate’s ruling family throughout the 1950s emanated from younger professionals sympathetic to the secular ideals of Arab nationalism, rather than from Shi`i or Sunni Islamists. The Iranian revolution elicited little sympathy and no political activity on the part of the federation’s resident Shi`ah. The few challenges the rulers faced during the 1980s arose either from the sporadic activities of clandestine radical nationalist groups, or out of persistent internecine feuding among members of the emirates’ respective ruling families, particularly among senior shaykhs of the Al Qasimi of Sharjah.


Abdullah, Muhammad Morsy. The United Arab Emirates. London, 1978. Particularly good on the 1938 reform movement in Dubai. Cole, Juan R. I. “Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shi’ism in Eastern Arabia, 1300-1800.” International journal of Middle East Studies 19.2 (May 1987): 177-204. Thought-provoking deep background.

Cottrell, Alvin J., et al., eds. The Persian Gulf States: A General Survey. Baltimore, 198o. Collection of essays on virtually all aspects of the Gulf states’ history, culture, geography, and politics, with extensive bibliographies.

Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf. Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. Cambridge, 1990. Conceptually and empirically sophisticated study of ruling family-merchant relations both before and after oil, with extensive references.

Lawson, Fred H. Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy. Boulder, 1989. Comprehensive survey of Bahrain’s political and economic history in modern times, with an extensive bibliographic essay.

Lawson, Fred H. Opposition Movements and U.S. Policy toward the Arab Gulf States. New York, 1992. Update on recent challenges to the Gulf regimes.

Nakhleh, Emile. Bahrain. Lexington, Mass., 1976. Exhaustive study of political attitudes, parties, and voting on the islands after the 1950s.

Naqeeb, Khaldoun Hasan al-. Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula. Stimulating revisionist account of societal transformation in the Gulf states from the 1700s to the present, with extensive references.

Peck, Malcolm C. The United Arab Emirates: A Venture in Unity. Boulder, 1986. Concise overview of political and economic history of the federation.

Peterson, J. E. The Arab Gulf States: Steps toward Political Participation. New York, 1988. Definitive treatment of national assemblies and reform movements in contemporary Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Said [Zahlan], Rosemarie J. “The 1938 Reform Movement in Dubai.” Al-abhath 23 (December 1970): 247-318. Classic narrative of events, including relevant documents.

Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Making of the Modern Gulf States. London, 1989. Brief introduction to the ruling families and political histories of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/gulf-states/

  • writerPosted On: June 10, 2013
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