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The changing Islamist landscape of the Gulf Arab States

Freer, Courtney (2016) The changing Islamist landscape of the Gulf Arab States. Issue Paper (9). Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Washington, DC.

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Abstract

Independent political movements, Islamist or otherwise, are often overlooked in the Gulf Arab states that benefit from substantial incomes due to oil wealth. It is exactly in such states, however, that Islamism arguably becomes the most plausible means of expressing opposition to the existing order. As Hootan Shambayati explains, “Under normal conditions challenges to the state are economically motivated. Under rentier conditions, however, moral and cultural issues form the basis of the challenge.” The activity of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi organizations in the Gulf states thus influences political discourse and social life. The organizations do so, however, in different ways and to varying extents, depending on government structures and tolerance of independent Islamist movements, the latter of which has become increasingly informed by the role such groups play abroad. To facilitate analysis of Islamist groups in the Gulf states, this paper will be centered on the smaller states of that region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. While Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups influence political discourse inside Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s political landscape is too large and complicated to be included in a paper of this length. Oman’s exclusion is also logical, given that it is influenced by ideologies that differ considerably from those found in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, with Ibadi Islam and Jamaat al-Tabligh more common than Brotherhood organizations or Salafi thought. Due to these differences, the paper will, then, be limited to comparison of the four smallest and most similar states of the Gulf. Despite recent crackdowns throughout the region, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to be superseded by Salafi groups in the four smaller Gulf states, even though Salafis will likely be treated with slightly less suspicion than the Brotherhood due to their informal nature and traditionally apolitical views. However, in Bahrain and Kuwait, where electoral politics reign, Salafis have increasingly come to resemble their Brotherhood counterparts, demonstrating the preeminence of Brotherhood tactics in such political systems. Salafis are thus unlikely to be able to outmaneuver the Brotherhood in these states. Despite the recent increasing political presence of Salafis inside Bahrain and proliferation of new Salafi groups in Kuwait, they lack the organization and unity of Brotherhood groups in the social realm and rely largely on Brotherhood-inspired practices in the electoral sector. As a result, governments in Bahrain and Kuwait have tended to treat Salafi groups similarly to the way they deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Qatar and the UAE, Brotherhood and Salafi branches exert influence on government policymaking, particularly in the social realm, through informal means or through governmentgranted bureaucratic posts. Because these states lack legislative elections, policymaking remains centralized, leading rulers either to attempt to co-opt or crack down on independent political and social movements. Following the Arab Spring, the Emirati government decisively cracked down even on informal Islamist activity, while the Qatari government has historically been more receptive to Islamist complaints in the realm of social policies and allows Islamists to remain working within the bureaucracy. Overall, the persistent presence of both Brotherhood and Salafi groups insures that debates about social policies and the role of Islam in daily life will remain a major part of political discussion in the smaller Gulf states. But, on the whole, Islamist groups of both the Brotherhood and Salafi strands are more likely to be tolerated and co-opted in Kuwait and Qatar than in Bahrain and the UAE, where the leadership seeks increasingly to de-emphasize the role of religion in politics entirely. In all of these states, governments principally strive to prevent Islamist cooperation with other, secular advocates for political reform, particularly after the Arab Spring. On their own, Islamists are not powerful enough in the smaller Gulf states to pose a major challenge to the existing regimes, nor do they appear to seek to do so. This is not to say, however, that they are politically irrelevant. Indeed, Gulf Islamists lend a voice to widespread concerns particularly about government policies that downplay the traditional and religious nature of these states. Representing a segment of the population resentful of expatriate and Western influence, Islamist groups will remain a major part of the political landscape in the smaller Gulf states.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Official URL: http://www.agsiw.org/
Additional Information: © 2016 Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Divisions: Middle East Centre
Subjects: J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Sets: Research centres and groups > Middle East Centre
Date Deposited: 05 Dec 2017 12:19
Last Modified: 20 Nov 2019 04:59
URI: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/85960

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