DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Gulf has been the slow burn of the Arab uprisings.
The fraternity of rulers in the oil-rich region has remained intact with tactics ranging from withering force in Bahrain to arrests of perceived dissenters in the United Arab Emirates. And it’s been done without too much serious blowback from their Western allies, which count on the region’s reliability as an energy supplier and military partner against Iran.
But that now could be put to the test as Gulf states attempt to muzzle voice of opposition by adopt sweeping measures, such as protest bans and clampdowns on social media.
“The Western governments have taken essentially ‘do what it takes’ policies with the Gulf regimes,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University. “That requires a certain level of silence and a practice of looking the other way from the West.”
Last week, however, State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued unusually blunt criticism of a decision by Bahrain — a strategically located island country that is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet — to temporarily outlaw all anti-government protests amid rising violence in the nearly 21-month-old uprising against the Western-backed monarchy. Early Sunday, protesters rained homemade firebombs on at least three police stations in yet another sign of the deepening tensions.
Kuwait also could bring further questions from the West over its widening clampdowns on an Islamist-led opposition ahead of Dec. 1 parliamentary elections, including bans on public gatherings of more than 20 people. Protesters, however, have defied the order, and on Sunday, thousands staged a march in a Kuwait City suburb as security forces countered with tear gas and stun grenades.
The UAE, meanwhile, has angrily challenged a European Parliament resolution last week that denounced “assaults, repression and intimidation” against rights activists and suspected members of an Islamist group that officials consider a threat to the state. More than 60 people have been detained in the past year in one of the quietest ongoing crackdowns of the Arab Spring, rights groups say.
And Saudi Arabia said last month it was “insulted” by a British parliament inquiry into possible Saudi human rights violations and its military assistance to Bahrain’s embattled monarchy. Saudi forces also have waged an ongoing battle against groups from the kingdom’s Shiite majority that claim they face systematic discrimination.
Across the region, bloggers and social media activists also are facing increasing pressures for violating laws against direct criticism of the sheiks and monarchs that control the Gulf. Last week, a Bahraini man was sentenced to six months in prison after being charged with insulting the king.
“The Gulf is a delicate dance for the West,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs. “The Gulf leaders know they are insulated. There could be rising complaints from Washington or London about various hardline measures, but no one realistically thinks the West will do anything more than complain.”
That’s because the likely price would be too high for anything else.
The Gulf states host perhaps the highest concentration of Western military might outside NATO, including about 15,000 U.S. ground forces in Kuwait and air bases dotting the desert down to Oman. The arrangement works for both sides because of a shared concern: Iran. The West gets firepower right at Iran’s doorstep and the Gulf leaders have resident protectors.
The West also cannot ignore the rising political ambitions of the Gulf as the wider Middle East is reshaped by the Arab Spring.
Qatar, a leading backer of Libyan rebels last year and now a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, is hosting a critical meeting this week of Syrian opposition officials. The U.S. hopes to use the gathering to overhaul the anti-Damascus forces into a new leadership with fewer Syrian exiles and more rebels commanders.
At the same time, Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program will be high on the agenda for Gulf stops this week by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Those visits will also be opportunities for Gulf leaders to restate their views on the internal threats.
They fall in two directions: Suspected Iranian plots and fears about Islamists emboldened by Arab Spring victories in Egypt and elsewhere.
Authorities in Bahrain - facing nonstop clashes and unrest since February 2011 - have increasingly blamed Shiite power Iran or its proxies for encouraging the protests by the island nation’s Shiite majority. No clear evidence has emerged to back up the claims - and Iran denies any direct role - but it has become a central narrative of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council anchored by regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia.
It’s also one that boxes Washington and other Western allies into a corner. The U.S. has urged dialogue in Bahrain, where more than 50 people have died in the unrest. But any clear support for the Shiite-led opposition could seriously disrupt relations with Gulf nations and possibly complicate the future of U.S. bases in the region.
In the UAE, the main target is an Islamist group, al-Islah, that authorities worry could try to undermine the control of the ruling clans in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other emirates. Al-Islah says it only seeks a wider public voice in the country’s affairs - but even that is considered dangerous territory in a nation that allows no political parties and swiftly stamps out any signs of public protests.
Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, warned in September of an “international plot” to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries by Islamist factions inspired by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the nation state,” said the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, last month. “It does not believe in the sovereignty of the state.”
Curiously, the claim came just weeks after the UAE’s president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, offered an invitation to Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi to visit Abu Dhabi.
The belief in a Muslim Brotherhood threats runs so deep that the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - are expected to make it a main topic of talks when leaders meet next month.
By that time, however, Kuwait will have held its next election for parliament, by far the most politically powerful legislature of the Gulf Arab states. Opposition groups, led by Islamists and backers from Kuwait’s powerful tribes, have two main paths ahead: Either seek to reclaim control of the chamber or boycott the voting in protest of the tightening crackdowns.
Hours before a planned protest march on Sunday - in defiance of bans against street rallies - social media sites were awash with appeals to put aside concerns over the tear gas and stun grenades used against the last major demonstration late last month. In an apparent attempt to outwit authorities, organizers switched the location at the last minute from Kuwait City to a suburb.
Some posts cited patriotic songs from a generation ago. “We are the confident steps on the path of hope, like a strong wind that doesn’t tire.”
Associated Press writer Hussain al-Qatari in Kuwait City contributed to this report.