Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Sectarian Politics in the Gulf - Working Group II

Sectarian Politics in the Gulf - Working Group II

On May 15–16, 2012, CIRS held a second working group meeting to conclude its research initiative on “Sectarian Politics in the Gulf.” Scholars and experts on the topic were invited to return to Doha for a second time to share their chapter submissions and to solicit feedback from members of the working group. CIRS will gather the complete chapters into a monograph under the title, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf. The first working group meeting took place on October 9–10, 2011.

The working group members began the meeting by discussing their different disciplinary definitions of what the terms “sectarian” and “sectarianism” might mean. In the literature on the topic, it has been notoriously difficult to come to agreement on a single workable definition of the terms involved. The CIRS project does not aim to reduce the term “sectarian” to a single definition, but to reveal the diversity at the heart of the subject and to open the debate up to its complexities. Although the term “sectarian” has strong—often negative—religious connotations, it is not based simply on religious difference, but implies a multifaceted mix of communal identifiers ranging from ethnic and tribal distinctions to political and philosophical beliefs and orientations. Regardless of the many theoretical and epistemological assumptions making up the discourse, the participants agreed that the heterogeneity of the subject was one that merited further nuanced study, especially in the context of the Arab uprisings. The participants emphasized the conditional nature of sectarian issues and examined why ethnic and religious differences come to the fore in some Gulf societies and not in others.

Topics discussed during the meeting include explorations of Baluch communities in the various Gulf states; Sunni-Shi’a communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; identity and politics as they relate to language, religion, ethnicity, national-minority status, and tribal affiliation; the historically cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities in Oman; among other studies into the history of sectarian communities in the Gulf states.

Most countries in the Middle East are heterogeneous societies that were created as a result of the design of colonial empires and their subsequent dissolution. Littoral settlements on the Gulf were born of maritime cultures based on pearling, fishing, and trade, allowing tribes to travel freely across waterways, intermingle with other cultures, and defy the limited and arbitrary borders of modern nation-states. As a result of independence, newly formed Gulf nations had to contend with the breakdown of the political order of the past, and many different ethnic, tribal, and religious groups clamored for political control, thereby unleashing sectarian struggles that may have been dormant, suppressed, or non-existent in the past. The dominant group that rose to power had to engage in the formation of a new identity for the nation—often one that was based on glorifying the regime’s own particular sectarian or tribal history at the expense of others. These new articulations of a largely unrecorded past had to be cultivated in these new Middle Eastern states in order to create a new sense of nationalism as well as to bolster political legitimacy for the ruling elite. Ruling groups created an official narrative of the state’s formation, which did not always reflect the reality of diversity and heterogeneity on the ground.

The participants agreed that the historical reference to cultural and tribal purity is a symptom of modernity, as nations attempt to rebuild cultural identities after years of colonial struggle. In these states, newly formed citizens were the first generation to grow up with a national, rather than a regional identity—a process that was not without friction to notions of identity. In this sense, many national heritage and renovation projects are state-sponsored and are in service to the idea of the patriotic, rather than loyalty to a certain communal sect. Today, the media plays simultaneous key roles in both upholding national unity and enhancing sectarian divisions. The Al Jazeera network in particular has given voice to the fragmented regional discourse with many taboo topics on sectarian issues being openly discussed.

The more contentious issues surrounding sectarian politics in the Gulf states, the participants agreed, are primarily shaped by shares in the rentier economy and the resulting political status of privileged groups over others. Mass protests in Bahrain, for example, were largely a product of socio-economic frustrations that ran along sectarian lines. The participants argued that it was important to examine how ruling regimes choose to either engage these sectarian elements or subdue them depending on how much extra wealth and benefits that the state is willing to share.

In the new political order of Iraq, the ascendance of Iraq’s Shi‘i has worried many Sunni governments who question the loyalty of the Shi’a communities in their states. This has been especially prominent in Bahrain, with Saudi Arabia having to intervene in order to militarily control the uprisings. The participants argued that these recent events have shown how sectarian struggles in one Gulf state has direct implications in another. A sectarian issue, therefore, cannot be thought of as indigenous to any one Gulf state, but as something that affects all of these countries and their identity formations.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, analyzing the varied sectarian communities in the Gulf is especially relevant to understand long silent and marginalized groups who have found a space to voice their discontents as a result of successful public uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The CIRS initiative is designed to not only study the different social groups who feel marginalized, but to also highlight those that have existed peacefully and who perceive themselves to be an inherent part of the social fabric of Gulf states.


Participants and Discussants:

Zahra Babar, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarLois Beck, Washington University in St. LouisKristin Smith Diwan, American UniversityMichael Driessen, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarRenaud Fabbri, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMark Farha, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarJustin Gengler, Qatar UniversityFanar Haddad, University of LondonMehran Kamrava, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarJackie Kerr, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarSuzi Mirgani, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMari Luomi, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarJohn Peterson, University of ArizonaLawrence Potter, Columbia UniversityNadia Talpur, CIRS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMarc Valeri, University of Exeter


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications