Assailed by Western critics and domestic discontent, the Gulf States ruling families are feeling the heat. The state-sanctioned flogging handed down to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi last month provided another volley of unfavourable headlines about the kingdom’s tenuous commitment to the most basic tenets of human rights, but underscored the deep anxiety policymakers in the region feel about political expression, whether from liberals like Badawi, or the Jihadism of the Islamic State.
A major new report issued by Chatham House in late February, Future Trends in the Gulf, shines an unflinching light on the challenges confronting the Gulf leaderships as they struggle to keep pace with dramatic social change. The last decade has seen rapid growth in their populations, economies and education systems, coupled with deep changes in the flow of information, the make-up of the population and the economic expectations of the younger generation.
The report finds an inadequate response to these challenges. Referencing the Badawi case, it says that Gulf states are expanding their definitions of terrorism to include peaceful dissent and protest, and are using hard security measures to crack down not just on violent extremists - but crucially also on young people who have mocked a leader on Twitter or signed a petition for parliamentary reform.
Notably, in Saudi Arabia peaceful campaigners for a constitutional monarchy often face harsher treatment than the jihadi sympathisers who are wooed back to supporting the system through the deradicalisation programme, while in Kuwait and Bahrain the authorities have withdrawn citizenship from critical journalists and civil society campaigners at the same time as Islamic State ideologues and financiers, as though they posed the same level of threat.
"Saudis watch more YouTube videos than anyone else in the world"
Gulf governments need instead to decriminalise the peaceful criticism, as in the long-term it is not helpful to roll peaceful opposition into the same camp as the extremists.
“Countering radicalization more effectively needs to involve a strategy to isolate and contain extremist groups, rather than pushing peaceful critics towards them,” says the report.
The Gulf sheikhdoms have their own views on these matters. They view their combating of political Islam – which in the case of the United Arab Emirates, has seen a harsh crackdown on local political associates of the Muslim Brotherhood – as an essential tool in the deradicalisation process. And they cannot understand how their Western allies don’t appreciate the danger that even apparently civil manifestations of Islamism pose to the region’s stability.
Social and cultural norms are shifting, in an uneven and contested fashion, says Chatham House. Young people in these states live in a world that has changed almost beyond recognition. In Saudi Arabia, approximately half the population is under 25 and two-thirds under 30. Such demographics can create instability.
The global trend of far greater freedom (if not quality) of information has a particularly pronounced impact in Gulf countries where the media were previously tightly controlled by the state. Young people in the Gulf are now exposed to a far greater diversity of ideas than their parents were.
Social media is hugely popular in the Gulf, with Saudis watching more YouTube videos than anyone else in the world. The reports says the kingdom also has the highest Twitter penetration in the world, accounting for one-third of Internet users. There has been a proliferation of satirical and current affairs oriented YouTube Shows that offer an alternative to state-sanctioned and often circumscribed television channels, attracting numerous subscribers.
But social media are used by religious and political conservatives as much as liberals. Saudis appeal to religious authorities daily for advice and guidance on Islamic issues via Twitter and Facebook groups. The presence of these and other online platforms has provoked something of a religious revival among some of the nation’s western-educated, liberal-minded youth by providing an accessible, modern and popular vehicle for the spread of sacred messages.
That underlines that the growth of education, internet access and social media will not of themselves empower liberals and pro-democracy movements.
According to Chatham House, they are spheres of contestation, used by people of all political viewpoints. “Education can reinforce traditional values and discipline, as well as spreading diverse new ideas. The internet and social media propound misinformation as well as information, and are used by governments to track and identify dissidents, as well as to open up new channels of communication” it says.
Gulf states have recycled their petrodollars into education on a massive scale in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, spending on human resource development more than trebled between 2004 and 2014, rising from US$15 billion to US$56 billion. Qatar and the UAE spend even higher proportions on education, with the former spending US$8,565 per school student per year, one of the highest per-capita rates in the world.
But, says Chatham House, quantity of information does not mean quality, and young people in the Gulf are bombarded, Babel-style, with contradictory information. This will not necessarily lead to greater tolerance of different views, and there is concern that the availability of poor-quality online information on other people’s religious beliefs can add to sectarianism.
Education systems, long criticised for having little focus on analytical thinking, may need to develop young people’s skills in questioning what they read more thoroughly.
In Saudi Arabia, education has over the last ten years become a battleground for a Gulf variant of Western-style culture wars.
The influence of clerics has been circumscribed as the late King Abdullah sought to diminish their role in education. In 2002, the king capitalised on public outrage at the actions of the religious police following a fire at a girls’ school in Mecca – when the mutawa prevented unveiled girls from escaping the flames, due to their immodesty in public – by shifting responsibility for girls’ education to Ministry of Education, rather than the religious establishment as previously.
But despite efforts to remove some of the more controversial religious elements from school curricula, Abdullah’s reforms are very much a work in progress.
As one Saudi educator says, “Abdullah got 80 per cent of the educational establishment on board with what it wanted to do, but with very little result. They have ambitious plans, but very poor implementation. There’s a need to engage at a much deeper level, and to challenge the organisational structures and mindsets in Saudi Arabian education.”
Neither is education necessarily the most effective instrument in countering the appeal of jihad. As one former Western ambassador in the Gulf notes, while it's important to keep that in mind and to make sure that the educational system isn’t infected with falsehoods and misconceptions, education can only do so much. “The most effective counter radicalisation comes at the level of individual intervention, rather than educational reform.”
The rise of Islamic State will give fresh impetus for the Gulf states to renew their social contracts with their subjects, to strengthen institutions and the relations between citizen and state.
Western policymakers have a role to play here. Chatham House’s researchers say there must be a deeper outreach from Western nations to a wider range of players in Gulf society. While counterterrorism will be the major driver of cooperation with the Gulf leaderships, that only be one part of the picture.
Education is one means where Gulf populations are more receptive to outside models. And it is an area where Western soft power can make a stronger mark in draining the swamp of Jihadist poison.