Arab Solutions to Arab Problems?
No. 1 2012 January/March
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Changing Regional Role of the Gulf States

Beginning with Libya and accelerating with Syria, the Gulf States have sharply increased their profile and involvement in reordering regional affairs. Having largely contained the participatory pressures generated by the uprisings across the Arab world, these monarchical polities have turned their attention to finding “Arab solutions to Arab problems.” This was first in evidence in March 2011, when Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) spearheaded the international, NATO-led intervention in Libya. Since then, the escalating bloodshed in Syria has spurred Qatar and Saudi Arabia to adopt increasingly hawkish positions in favor of arming the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. More intriguingly, public opinion in these countries has also solidified in support of popular uprisings against autocratic leaderships deemed to have forfeited legitimate political authority.

This article explores the goals and strategies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies in shaping regional and international responses to the Arab uprisings.


The sudden outbreak of the Arab uprisings took most observers and governments by surprise. Moments of revolutionary change often occur when specific triggers interact with slower but no less significant changes gradually taking place. The seemingly random act of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 was the catalyst for popular revulsion at the marked inequities and indignities that people across the Arab world felt they encountered on a daily basis. The mushrooming anger following his death on 4 January 2011 engineered the convergence of socio-economic hardship with potent political grievances. This exposed a fault-line between young populations exposed to modernizing forces through the Internet and satellite television and ossified, oppressive regimes unable to provide opportunities or the reality of a better life.

Moreover, new media and advances in communications technologies transformed the terms of the debates between rulers and ruled and rapidly eroded regimes’ control over the flow of information. The Internet, satellite television and social networking sites opened up profound new spaces for discussions about the widening gap between social classes and the disparities in wealth and incomes between “haves” and “have-nots.” In Egypt and Tunisia, the hyper-modernizing forces of the Internet and satellite television hit the tired gerontocracies at their weakest point, and underscored the intense vulnerability of authoritarian governments to new methods of publicly holding them to account. Elsewhere, mobile and online communications connected greater numbers of people with each other and provided a potent platform for spreading messages of impending (and coverage of actual) demonstrations.

Although the most far-reaching instances of regime change occurred in North Africa with the removal of Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak and (eventually) Colonel Gaddafi from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Gulf States did not remain unaffected by the zeitgeist moving so powerfully through the region. Indeed, the temperature in the Gulf rose steadily during 2010, particularly in Bahrain and Kuwait, where repressive regime responses to oppositional activity narrowed the political and public space. Thus, even before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings elsewhere, the confluence of opposition demands and repressive responses suggested a tinder box awaiting a spark.

Predictably in light of its history of socio-political tension, Bahrain was the first Gulf country to experience widespread and escalating protest that briefly threatened to topple its ruling Al-Khalifa family before being crushed, in part through the intervention of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-led force of Saudi and Emirati troops. Smaller-scale (yet still persistent) protests also occurred in Kuwait, Oman (where they were galvanized after state security forces opened fire and killed demonstrators in February) and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The crackdowns prompted calls for political reform from intellectuals and civil society organizations across the Gulf. These, too, were met with force, as Saudi Arabia arrested the founding members of what would have been the Kingdom’s first political party, and the UAE detained and convicted five intellectuals who signed a petition calling for reform in the emirate.

Under these circumstances, it was perhaps remarkable that two GCC states emerged as the architects of the international intervention on behalf of the beleaguered rebels fighting a brutally oppressive regime in Libya. Aside from toppling one of the world’s longest and most mercurial autocracies, the six-month civil conflict presaged the arrival of a significant new presence in regional and even international politics. This occurred as Qatar and the UAE spearheaded a comprehensive approach to assisting regime change in a fellow Arab country. The two countries’ visible emergence in the international coalition marked a significant step-up in their ambitious attempts at global branding. It also provided the GCC states with a welcome breathing space from the pressures of the Arab uprisings as it shifted attention away from difficulties uncomfortably close to home. Moreover, it allowed the Gulf monarchs to position themselves against a repressive and eccentric regime and make a high-profile stand against tyranny elsewhere, even as they turned the other way in its brutal submission in Bahrain.

Qatar, especially, aligned its support for the protection of human rights and democratic expression with the (Western-led) international community. The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani, was instrumental in rallying GCC and Arab League support around the idea of a No-Fly Zone in March, and subsequently recognizing the NTC. He further stated that “Qatar will participate in military action because we believe there must be Arab states undertaking this action, because the situation is intolerable.” The UAE joined Qatar in leading the charge for finding Arab solutions to Arab problems. Together, they provided military and financial assistance that proved critical to the international coalition and the eventual success of the NTC. Qatari Mirage fighters participated in the NATO-led air strikes and gave the military operations the Arab support necessary to dilute concerns of another Western intervention in the region. Qatar also supplied weapons and training and provided operational advice, as well as special forces, which reportedly played a key role in getting the rebels into Tripoli on 20 and 21 August.

Both countries also extended significant – indeed vital – logistical and material support to the rebels. The UAE hosted meetings of Libyan provincial and tribal representatives in May 2011 and the third meeting of the International Contact Group in June. Non-military forms of assistance from Qatar included more than $400 million in financial aid, supplies of water, heating gas and essential goods, and help with selling and marketing Libyan oil. Four tankers of gasoline, diesel and other refined fuels shipped by Qatar Petroleum to Benghazi in June met the majority of the area’s energy needs. Furthermore, Qatar was also one of the first countries to recognize the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, and organized the first meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya in April. Hence, the sight of the Qatari flag flying alongside the rebels’ flag in Gaddafi’s Bab al Azizia compound after its capture in August 2011 was rich in symbolism.

Other GCC states, such as Kuwait, meanwhile joined with Qatar in committing to set up a $260 million funding mechanism to finance the NTC, in addition to sending humanitarian and medical aid. Even Saudi Arabia declared in favor of a managed transition, adding Libya to Syria and Yemen to its list of qualified support for regime change. This stance somewhat qualified the Kingdoms as a counter-revolutionary bulwark resolutely opposed to any challenge to the status-quo. Instead, Saudi declarations – albeit towards a dictatorship whose regime type did not constitute an ideational threat to the Al-Saud – suggested its policy towards the Arab Spring reflected balance of power considerations intermixed with regime security interests, as seen in the withdrawal of support for embattled regimes in Syria and Yemen as well.

On balance, the course of events in Libya in 2011 was favorable to the GCC states, although the NTC has since expressed unease at the levels and extent of alleged Qatari support for sub-state rivals to power. While Gaddafi’s fall inevitably energized Arab uprisings that appeared to be flagging, it provided an opportunity for the Gulf regimes to rehabilitate their reputations following the travails of the spring. The UAE and Qatar’s role, and that played by Al Jazeera in its coverage of the Libyan revolution, overturned many observers’ perceptions of the GCC states. Having withstood and contained the local pressures generated by the Arab awakening, even in a Bahrain propped up by GCC forces, their successful Libya policy signified a return of confidence and a sense that they could, after all, maintain some semblance of control over the calls for change and reform.


Qatar’s high-profile role in Syria aimed to continue where its Libyan engagement left off. Qatar held the rotating presidency of the Arab League in 2011-12, and both the Emir and his Prime Minister attempted to use their stewardship to mobilize Arab support for addressing key regional issues. As the initial protests against the Assad regime were met by overwhelming force and became militarized, Qatar led Arab efforts to resolve the escalating conflict. Emir Sheikh Hamad became the first Arab leader to call for military intervention to end the bloodshed in mid-January 2012, but his call for action attracted far less support than in Libya. While Qatari leadership of the Arab League did solidify the organization’s consensus for action of some kind, it was unable to reach agreement on the form this should take, once the initial observer mission failed to make any tangible impression.

The Emir thus sought to keep up the momentum Qatar had acquired after the Libya intervention, confirming and reinforcing its role as a responsible and progressive Arab member of the international community. However, he found it much more difficult to achieve progress over Syria, as the balance of forces is more fragmented and not as much in favor of the opposition as it was in Benghazi. In response, Qatar intensified its pressure on the Assad regime on all political, economic, media, and military fronts. This led to its public declaration of support for regime change on 27 February 2012, when Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani urged the international community to arm the Syrian opposition and assist them to overthrow Assad “by all means.”

Intriguingly, an intra-regional competition began to develop, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia jostled for positions of leadership on the Syrian issue. The Qatari call for arming the opposition occurred three days after the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, commented that this was “an excellent idea” before walking out of the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Tunisia in protest at its “inactivity.” The Saudis also took the lead in recognizing the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people several weeks before most other countries did so. On a non-state level, unofficial transfers of weapons and funding via cross-border tribal networks are also reported to be operating, adding another layer of Saudi-based support to their (Sunni) brethren in Syria.

Different motivations guide Saudi and Qatar policy-making towards Syria. Underlying both approaches is a strong layer of public sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people, and a genuine desire to bring the violence and their suffering to an end. This has been a feature of demonstrations elsewhere in the GCC states, notably in Kuwait, where protestors gathered outside the Russian Embassy to express their anger at the Russian veto of the Security Council resolution on 4 February, and where the National Assembly passed a motion calling for the Assad regime to be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Yet these aside, geopolitical considerations also play a role in framing Saudi policy, as the removal of Iran’s major supporter in the Arab world would weaken Tehran and strengthen its regional and international isolation.

Saudi officials have long viewed the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq as the major consequence of the empowerment of that country’s Shiite majority. As early as 2005, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned the George W. Bush presidential administration that the United States appeared to be “handing Iraq over to Iran for no apparent reason.” The Saudi government has also developed a firm mistrust of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they see as little more than an Iranian proxy, and Maliki’s centralization of power since his controversial re-election in 2010 and his moves to eliminate and prosecute his major (Sunni) political rivals immediately after the final U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011, have only deepened Saudi suspicions. Maliki has also realigned Iraqi policy towards Syria as the outward attacks on alleged Syrian involvement in the multiple Baghdad ministerial bombings in 2009 has been replaced by outward support for the Assad regime in its hour of need. With Iraq, Iran, and Syria forming a regional triumvirate that provide strategic depth to regimes deemed inimical to Saudi (and U.S.) interests, the fall of Assad offers an opportunity to fracture that bloc.

As mentioned above, the element of Saudi-Qatari “rivalry” may also become a complicating factor in policy towards Syria, and the Arab uprisings more generally. By virtue of its very small local population and its extremely high level of oil and gas resources, Qatar simply does not face the socio-economic or political pressures coursing through the region. Uniquely, it has embraced the Arab uprisings as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to cement its international (Western) reputation, albeit at the expense of some of its regional relationships. This has become increasingly evident in the pushback against some of Qatar’s more recent initiatives across the Middle East and North Africa. These included an alleged altercation between the Qatari and Algerian Foreign Ministers at an Arab League summit in November 2011, as well as a visit by the Qatari Emir to Mauritania that was hastily cut short in January 2012 after the Mauritanian President reacted badly to the Emir’s suggestion he might undertake a process of democratic reform.

Later in January 2012, the BBC reported that the Afghan government was preparing to meet the Taliban in Saudi Arabia to begin peace talks. The report was weakly-sourced, and promptly denied by the Taliban, and at the time of writing, has not come to fruition. Nevertheless, in light of the much-publicized announcement that the Taliban would establish an office in Qatar to commence negotiations with the U.S., it is hard not to see the BBC report as an attempt to fire a warning shot across Qatar’s bow. Equally suggestive was an article in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper in mid-February 2012, which suggested that Saudi Arabia held a meeting with other Gulf States to discuss how to combat increasing Hizbollah activity, but did not include Qatar in the meeting. One reason aired for this exclusion was that Qatar was not “reliable” on regional issues, and, whether it happened or not, seemed to confirm perceptions of a basic lack of trust between Saudi and Qatari officials on key regional issues.


Although the popular mobilization in favor of more active interventionist policies in Syria is widespread among Gulf publics, their espousal by GCC governments leaves them vulnerable to criticism of double-standards at the very least. This was evident in remarks made on 2 March 2012 by the Syrian envoy to the United Nations that the Gulf States did not represent a democratic example to follow. Moreover, the envoy demanded the UN send a force to protect protestors in Qatif in Saudi Arabia’s restive Eastern Province, and also that the Kingdom withdrew its troops from Bahrain. And while his comments could be dismissed as the lashing-out of a man backed into a corner, the problem for Gulf States’ officials is that they contain more than a grain of truth.

Indeed, the discrepancy between support both for oppressive regimes and the victims of oppression became starkly clear within the space of five days in March 2011. On 14 March, more than 1000 troops belonging to the Saudi Arabian National Guard and a smaller contingent of police from the UAE crossed the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain. While they did not participate directly in the merciless crackdown on pro-democracy and opposition groups that followed, they provided the critical backbone necessary to free up the Bahrain Defense Force to crush the uprising. Just days later, on 19 March, Qatar and the UAE spearheaded the international intervention into Libya in order to protect the civilians of Benghazi from imminent onslaught by Gaddafi forces. The juxtaposition of the two moves powerfully demonstrated how an ostensibly similar concept – of intervention – assumed diametrically opposing meanings in different contexts.

This placed the UAE, in particular, in an awkward position as it committed forces to both Bahrain and Libya. Yet Qatar, too, was complicit in the Bahrain intervention as this was done in the name of the GCC, of which it remains a member. Moreover, Doha-based Al Jazeera has faced accusations of unevenness in its coverage of the uprisings across the Arab world. Notably, its Arabic-language station has been more reticent to cover Bahrain than its sister English-language channel, which produced the award-winning Shouting in the Dark documentary. The discrepancy between Al Jazeera’s cheerleading coverage of the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings and its relative quiet over persistent unrest closer to home – in Eastern Saudi Arabia as well as in Bahrain – fuelled regional skepticism over its objectives and alleged agenda.

These were articulated by the embattled Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, as he rejected a Qatari-led GCC initiative to transfer power in spring 2011. In stating that “the Qatar initiative is rejected, rejected, rejected. We rejected what comes from Qatar or from Al Jazeera,” Saleh conflated the two entities in a manner that resonated with people across the region. The subject of Qatari editorial control over, or interference with, Al Jazeera’s editorial line had already been raised in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable released in late-2010, before the uprisings began; in September 2011, the sudden and unexpected replacement of Al Jazeera’s director-general, Wadah Khanfar, by a member of the Qatari ruling family, added fuel to the flames of suspicion.

The creation and rapid growth of Al Jazeera English since its launch in 2006 has internationalized the Al Jazeera brand and enabled it to make the breakthrough into mainstream global television markets. Its coverage of the Israeli offensive in Gaza in 2008-9 was a CNN-style ‘Gulf War’ breakthrough, while its dramatic coverage and online streaming of events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011 won it worldwide acclaim and a 2,500-percent increase in viewing figures. But with increased visibility comes increased scrutiny, and the output and content of Al Jazeera English and Arabic may be subjected to greater levels of critical reflection than it has in the past year.

Similar pressures may befall the new pan-Arab satellite television station being set up by the flamboyant Saudi media Prince, Al-Waleed bin Talal, in Bahrain. Following months of speculation, the decision to host Alarab in Manama’s new Media City complex immediately raised questions regarding its operational viability. Al-Waleed insisted that the channel would focus “on the important shifts taking place across the Arab world, with an emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of press,” which makes the decision to situate it in a country which has done more than most to curtail a free media and block independent points of view even more remarkable. Additionally, it creates a hostage to fortune, as the channel will undoubtedly be carefully monitored in terms of its coverage of local issues in Bahrain; in a subsequent interview with arabianbusiness.com, Al-Waleed spoke forcefully of the “wind of change” that eventually will touch every part of the Arab world, but the Bahraini regime has so far resisted those winds with forceful and repressive determination.

Detractors of Al Jazeera have pointed to the station’s lack of coverage of domestic Qatari affairs as supposed evidence for a ‘bargain’ between the station and its hosts. While the possibility of large-scale unrest in Qatar is currently remote, there are signs of economic overheating and increasing societal discontent with the pace and direction of change in the emirate, and it is not inconceivable that the growing schism between the Heir Apparent and the Prime Minister could escalate into open factional in-fighting. Qatar’s recent history shows that political contestation and challenges to power have originated from within the ruling family rather than bubbled up from societal pressures; the current Emir seized power from his father in 1995 who himself had ousted his cousin in 1972. As with Al-Waleed’s new station in Bahrain, the acid test will come in Al Jazeera’s response to any domestic events that require critical coverage of the sort applied so powerfully to the unrest elsewhere in the region.


As the popularly-termed ‘Arab Spring’ enters its second calendar spring, at first glance the Gulf States have confirmed themselves as the great survivors of Middle Eastern politics. Having proved wrong the political and social scientists who predicted their imminent demise under the pressures of modernization in the 1960s and 1970s, the oil monarchies have consistently demonstrated an ability to pragmatically adapt and to co-opt potential challengers to their own advantage. The course of events over the past year appears to have confirmed and reinforced that trend as Qatar, the UAE, and latterly Saudi Arabia have attempted to guide, channel, and control the forces for change. On this reading, strategies of survival and regime renewal appear to be alive and well in the Arabian Peninsula.

Nevertheless, ruling elites in the Gulf remain vulnerable on a number of fronts to regional and international blowback. The unrest in Bahrain may have been contained but small-scale protests continue daily, and the absence of a consensual political settlement means it could flare up again at any point. Moreover, the violence of the regime’s response to the uprising has torn apart the archipelago’s social fabric and polarized society as never before. Any calm in Bahrain is likely to be illusory and ‘cold,’ at best and merely biding time for the next escalation at worst. Across the waterway in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a similar intersection is occurring weekly between persistent demonstrations and repressive responses. The fact that the protests, which often result in deaths attributed to the security services, are seen by most Saudis to originate within the Shiite minority, means they are unlikely to spill over and ignite mainstream Saudi society. That notwithstanding, the regime’s reliance on the threat, and actual use, of force to deal with protests undercuts its condemnation of regimes elsewhere that respond to contestation in a similar manner.

This last scenario is less of a possibility in Qatar and the UAE, although the arrest and subsequent trial of the ‘UAE 5’ activists in 2011 did cause damage to its international reputation. Yet international politics can be a dirty game and it can generate responses and even blowback against its practitioners. In this first year of the Arab uprisings, the GCC states’ effort to channel the emotive popular anger sweeping through the region in their favor has been singularly successful and insulated them from the contagious spread of the unrest. It remains to be seen whether these policies will continue to work as well if the Gulf States prove (un)able to be resilient to the critical examinations of domestic political arrangements that may inevitably follow. Indeed, it was precisely with this in mind that the Emir of Qatar pre-emptively announced that the emirate would hold its first elections to a parliamentary assembly in 2013. Whether the elections are meaningful, or (more likely) an exercise in political window-dressing, will only become clearer with the passage of time.