Carnegie Council Essay Contest For Inn

All Arab states have large, official Muslim religious establishments that give governments a major role in religious life. These establishments have developed differently, according to each state’s historical experience. Through them, the state has a say over religious education, mosques, and religious broadcasting—turning official religious institutions into potent policy tools. However, the complexity of the religious landscape means they are rarely mere regime mouthpieces and it can be difficult to steer them in a particular direction.

Religious Institutions in the Arab World

  • Official religious institutions in the Arab world, though generally loyal to their countries’ regimes, are vast bureaucracies whose size and complexity allow them some autonomy.
  • Arab regimes hold sway over official religious structures. However, their ability to bend these religious institutions to suit their own purposes is mixed.
  • The evolution of official religious establishments is rooted substantially in the process of modern state formation.
  • Official religious institutions play multiple roles. These include involvement in endowments and charity, advice and scriptural interpretation, education, prayer, family law, and broadcasting.
  • Increasingly, the authority of official religious voices has been challenged by unofficial actors. Some of these actors stand wholly outside official structures, but others may find shelter in more autonomous parts of official religious institutions, adding to the complexity of the religious landscape in many countries.
  • International actors would like to see official religious representatives oppose violent extremism. However, religious officials have limited ideological tools to confront radical Islamists, and their priorities are different than those of actors from outside the region.

Regimes’ Relations With Religious Establishments

  • By acting intrusively in religious affairs and seeking to increase their control, regimes risk making religious officials appear to be mere functionaries, undermining their credibility. They also risk pushing dissidents into underground organizations.
  • By allowing official religious institutions some autonomy, regimes can enhance their monitoring ability and the integrity of religious officials. However, it also means they lose some control and indirectly create spaces for their critics to organize.
  • Western states should know the size and complexity of religious institutions means they are not always effective at fighting extremism as Western actors may wish. The regimes controlling them often have broader agendas than just combating radical groups.
  • For those seeking to defeat radical ideologies, aligning with authoritarian regimes and their religious establishments is attractive. However, by placing unrealistic expectations on what regimes and their establishments can and are willing to deliver, and by replicating an often self-defeating strategy of relying on authoritarian controls to combat nonconformist movements and ideas, this approach may offer only the illusion of a solution.


Nathan Brown
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In summer 2016, readers of the Egyptian press were regaled with daily stories about a very public confrontation between the ministry of religious affairs and the leadership of Al-Azhar, the sprawling educational and research complex that is constitutionally recognized as Egypt’s main authority on Islamic affairs. The ministry sought to have a single, ministry-written Friday sermon delivered in all mosques throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar harshly criticized the move and soon gained the upper hand in the battle between the two powerful institutions. The Egyptian state appeared to be battling itself in full public view over who was responsible for determining what preachers say from the pulpit.

It was a bewildering incident, touching on a controversial subject. State religious institutions in the Arab world provoke strong but contradictory evaluations, not merely in the countries where they operate but also throughout the world. Are they partners in the struggle to counter violent extremism, discredited regime mouthpieces, or incubators of radicalism? All three of these descriptions contain a germ of truth. But above all, such institutions are sprawling bureaucracies that are hardly irrelevant to religious and political life, even as they are difficult to steer in any particular direction. Their authority is often contested by individuals and organizations outside of the state, but these bureaucracies are present in many different realms. Generally loyal to existing regimes, they also show signs of autonomy. Normally hostile to radical forces, they are at best lumbering bulwarks against them.

Those who follow politics in the Arab world are accustomed to encountering religion. Matters of faith seem closely connected with many political controversies. Religion, in turn, has served as a rallying point for opposition groups and social movements as well. But focusing only on religion as it relates to personal faith and political opposition means overlooking other ways that it is woven into matters of governance in Arab states. Ministries of education write religious textbooks, ministries of religious affairs administer mosques, state muftis offer interpretations of religious law, and courts of personal status guide husbands and wives as well as parents and children in how to conduct their interactions in an Islamic way.

Focusing only on religion as it relates to personal faith and political opposition means overlooking other ways that it is woven into matters of governance in Arab states.

Yet while states structure religion in many diverse fashions, official religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar, have encountered a two-sided challenge in recent years. Supporters of existing political orders view them as useful tools. Arab regimes have sought to use the panoply of state religious institutions to cement their own rule. They have also come under international pressure to counter violent extremism through the religious institutions that they oversee. At the same time, official institutions are compelled by their religious publics to represent authentic voices of religious truth. A host of unofficial actors have shattered the monopoly over religious authority that religious officials had grown accustomed to enjoying.

In this environment, official religious establishments have retained significant influence but are unlikely to be able to wield it in any coherent fashion, whether to serve their own agendas or those seeking to use them for their own ends. Egypt and its religious institutions are particularly helpful in illustrating this reality, but other countries in the region also deserve consideration when examining the different patterns of behavior of their religious establishments.

The Modern Roots of the Religion-State Complex

It is not unusual for states to show an interest in religion. Almost all constitutions in the world make some reference to religion, mostly in a manner that accommodates religious beliefs and practices, while deeply shaping their structure. Official religions are not uncommon in many countries, and state support for, and regulation of, religious institutions comes in many guises.

What is unusual in the Arab world is not the public role of religion but the extent and range of that role.

What is unusual in the Arab world is not the public role of religion but the extent and range of that role. Some of the distinctive ways that relations between the state and religion are structured might be traceable from before the modern era to Islamic doctrine, the experience of the early community of believers, and core principles derived from sacred texts. But as the process of state formation began across the Arab world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in each place it developed differently. As a consequence of this, official religious institutions evolved quite differently as well. In its particularities—and even in many of its most general features—this evolution was rooted substantially in the process of modern state formation. Indeed, state formation and the organization of religion have gone hand in hand, so that “modern religion in Muslim countries is positioned on the platform of the state.”1

The commonalities among Arab states are straightforward. Most grant Islam official status, have institutions that offer advisory interpretations of Islamic law (fatwas), administer religious endowments and charities, oversee mosques, and apply some version of Islamic family law. State muftis are largely a nineteenth- and twentieth-century innovation. It was then that states began appointing such religious officials and establishing a designated bureaucracy for issuing legal interpretations, at times to replace or expand upon the Ottoman religious bureaucracy.

Ministries of religious affairs and the nationalization of religious endowments (awqaf) and almsgiving (zakat) are rooted in modern history as well. As complex bureaucratic states and legal apparatuses were established in the 1800s and 1900s, adjudicative, educational, training, and charitable functions—along with the regulation of public space, gatherings in mosques, and public broadcasting—resulted in state institutions active in religious spheres. Western imperialist powers, seeking to rationalize the administration of states they controlled in the region, particularly between the two world wars in the twentieth century, also sought to regularize religion, sometimes by defining its scope.

While family relations in the region had long been governed in part by Islamic legal teachings, the existence of a separate category of personal status law—perhaps the most essential element of Islamic law for many adherents today—simply did not exist before colonial rulers and independent states began marking off distinctive legislation and courts for family matters during the nineteenth century. There is no doctrinal reason to claim that conducting marital relations in an Islamic manner is more important to God than trading goods in an Islamic way. However, as different state authorities introduced legal reforms in the modern era, marriage, divorce, and inheritance were areas in which they moved most carefully. They did so by creating a legal field of family affairs for which they took care to formulate rules in terms of older Islamic jurisprudence.

In some places, the creation of Islamic law governing personal status was fostered by imperial powers, such as the French in Algeria, who were not anxious to involve themselves in such matters. In other places, for example Egypt and Iraq, ambitious local rulers sought to assert a stronger role for the state and legislated personal status law. They drew on Islamic sources and scholarship to be sure, but still ordered courts to rule according to a written code of personal status rather than according to their own individual interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence.2

But even in this distinct field, there is quite significant regional variation in who writes the law, what it says, and who implements it. For instance in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which were never under Western imperial control, Islamic religious, or sharia, courts theoretically remain the courts of general jurisdiction today. However, they have been assisted in Yemen through a body of legislated codes and in Saudi Arabia (which remains resistant to codification) through specialized quasi-judicial bodies that enforce regulations and decrees. Thus, the precise institutional arrangement has varied according to the timing, nature, and extent of state building, as well as the degree and makeup of external control.

Historical footprints have been left in an often unique set of structures and nomenclature in Arab countries, each of which has a different institutional map for official Islam. Even where there are similarities between countries, there are also distinct arrangements. In Saudi Arabia, for example, an organization that is generally referred to as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) acts as what can be termed a religious police. It has no real equivalent elsewhere in the Arab world. Many countries, in their turn, have official bodies responsible for religious research in which senior scholars are gathered. However, they take all sorts of forms. In Morocco, the council—known as the Supreme Council for Religious Knowledge (Al-Majlis al-‘Ilmi al-A‘la)—is headed by the king. In Egypt, a similar institution, the Body of Senior [Religious] Scholars, or Hay’at Kibar al-Ulama, names its own members.

Historical footprints have been left in an often unique set of structures and nomenclature in Arab countries.

The structures are not only diverse, they are also complex. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Egyptian state apparatus, which provides a particularly emblematic religious environment in the Arab world, is littered with imposing-sounding religious bureaucracies, some of which defy easy translation. These include the Office of the State Mufti (Dar al-Iftaa al-Misriyyeh), the Office of the Sheikh al-Azhar, Al-Azhar University, the Supreme Islamic Council, the Body of Senior Scholars, the Islamic Research Academy (Majma‘ al-Buhuth al-Islamiyya), and the Fatwa Committee (Lajnat al-Fatwa).

Each of these has a particular history that sometimes requires an almost archeological sensibility to understand. The Office of the State Mufti, headed by an official often referred to as the Grand Mufti, was established at the end of the nineteenth century for reasons connected with legal reform, but also to emphasize autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Al-Azhar was founded as a Shia mosque in the tenth century, but now presents itself as the preeminent Sunni authority in Egypt and even the entire Muslim world. The Supreme Islamic Council is actually not supreme, but an advisory body within the ministry of religious affairs. The Body of Senior Scholars is an older body within Al-Azhar that was resurrected in post-2011 Egypt by military decree to give the Al-Azhar leadership the autonomy it sought from a political process that at the time promised a rise in the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are clear patterns that emerge in this bureaucratic welter. In the Arab world, religious education is generally mandatory through secondary school. Mosques are licensed by the state and frequently treated as state property. The state also monitors sermons and certifies preachers, who are often provided with official guidance. Most formal higher religious education occurs within state institutions. Charitable institutions and activities are regulated and sometimes directly administered by the state. The immersion of the state in religious affairs has helped create a landscape of institutional complexity throughout the region. Official religious institutions have taken on a wide range of tasks, yet their intricacy has created overlapping authority and frequently hampered their aims.

Mapping Official Islam

Official religious institutions play multiple roles throughout the Arab world. The array of religious duties taken on by the state has spawned a series of sprawling bureaucracies that do not always have the ability to act as parts of a coherent whole. Because official Islamic institutions developed as a consequence of, and in parallel to, the rise of the modern state, so too have they reflected the reality of expanding states. This includes strengthening state control and supervision over a variety of religious activities, even if the power of the state is never absolute.

The array of religious duties taken on by the state has spawned a series of sprawling bureaucracies that do not always have the ability to act as parts of a coherent whole.

Official institutions not only have to worry about each other with their overlapping responsibilities and claims to authority. Each of these religious bureaucracies also faces competition from outside the state apparatus, adding a further layer of complexity. In particular, religious institutions’ involvement in endowments and charity, advice and interpretation, education, prayer, family law, and broadcasting is noteworthy.

Endowments and Charity

Official religious actors—generally based in a given country’s ministry of religious affairs—play a vital part in overseeing charities. This they do in two ways. First, they regulate and frequently administer religious endowments often set up to support mosques, schools, or charitable causes. Indeed, in most countries of the region, those establishing a legally sanctioned endowment find themselves having to act through such a ministry. The consequences are not merely religiously significant, but also economically and fiscally so, with large amounts of real estate and other holdings donated for charitable purposes falling under state control. Ministries in some countries have branched out from traditional endowments to engage in broader developmental projects designed to help the poor or unemployed, such as establishing producer cooperatives.

Second, almsgiving is often organized by ministries of religious affairs as well. In some countries, this function might be decentralized and run through local mosques, while in others there is a greater effort to engage in central oversight. The religious obligation to give alms, however, need not be fulfilled in an officially sanctioned setting, but is also permitted in less formal, private contexts. State actors are caught between pious donors, some of whom are leery of the efficiency and rectitude of official structures, and security-minded officials, who have faced increasing international pressures to ensure that such funds are not used in ways that are politically unsafe (such as supporting radical or violent groups).

Advice and Interpretation

Fatwas—scholarly interpretations of religious law on a particular question—are traditionally nonbinding. However, it is this very fact that can enhance their moral authority, as, ideally, they are vountarily sought out by the faithful and delivered by disinterested scholars without regard for the particular circumstances of a case.3 Fatwas have emerged as a critical medium for arguing about religious issues, since they are the form in which scholars develop their interpretations most fully. Most states in the region have a mufti (which in Arabic translates as a fatwa giver), whose opinions are sought by state actors needing guidance on questions of religious law. But there is no way to compel believers to resort to official bodies or designated figures in search of such guidance.

Unofficial scholars from a variety of orientations—whether Salafi, modernist, autodidact, feminist, literalist, or other sorts—have grown popular. They use a variety of means to answer questions, including face-to-face interaction, talk shows, emails, and Facebook. The leading Shia scholar Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has a website where followers can submit questions on any matter of concern to them.4 The popular Al-Azhar scholar Salim Abdel Galil smiles compassionately through his Islamic legal guidance given in rapid succession to callers to his television program. The youthful Saudi Ahmad al-Shuqayri claims no particular religious knowledge, but gives ethical and religious exhortation and advice on television in an earnest, lively, open, and inspirational manner. In this competitive environment, officially designated muftis have sometimes established websites, staffed telephone hotlines, and appeared on broadcasts—running hard to stay in place and make themselves accessible.

Talk of “unregulated fatwas,” which are portrayed by religious authorities as being of poorer quality than those produced by official religious representatives, has intensified in official media in many Arab countries. Some states have sought to combat such fatwas because they often advance interpretations that are unusual or radical. For many top religious officials, the forest of fatwas simply confuses ordinary believers. Thus, fatwas from competing sources, which might seem a rarefied set of scholarly writings about the fine points of religious teachings, are actually part of an intensely political struggle about who should speak in the name of Islam.


Religious education is a mandatory subject in official curricula throughout the Middle East. And with most educational systems highly centralized, the vast majority of students are taught versions of Islamic belief and practice codified in texts written within specialized structures of education ministries. Some countries have separate networks of religious schools for children from especially religious families, such as those overseen by Al-Azhar in Egypt. When it comes to higher education, state institutions predominate over nonstate centers of learning. While there has been an increase in private universities, these generally do not tread on religious ground. That is why nonstate faculties of Islamic law or other religious subjects are few in number and small in terms of enrollment.

Yet the official monopoly is not complete. Non-Muslims are exempt from official instruction about Islam, and if believers of other religions are sufficient in number, the state may allow them their own parallel religious classes and books, sometimes organized and licensed by a given country’s ministry of education. States generally do not have a full monopoly over education—many countries also have a network of private schools, sometimes more prestigious than public ones. Such schools are generally required to hew to the official curriculum in all subjects, including religion, but some still manage to evade significant official supervision. Outside of schools, whether public or private, also stand less formal systems that offer lessons in mosques, churches, and study groups. Since the late twentieth century, these informal groupings seem to have grown in popularity, perhaps driven by the simultaneous spread of education and piety.

Prayer and Control of Mosques

When believers pray in the Arab world, the state often asserts its presence. Congregational Friday prayer, like some regular weekday prayers, occurs in mosques—or, if space is insufficient, in public spaces—that are regulated, licensed, managed, and monitored by the state. Ministries of religious affairs generally oversee the staffing, maintenance, and operation of mosques. At politically sensitive times, security agencies might lend a hand to observe preachers and watch those who gather outside of prayer time.

In theory, a ministry’s control over Muslim houses of worship is nearly complete, with many Arab governments not recognizing mosques that they do not oversee. But the ability of states to monitor, staff, and maintain all mosques varies considerably. Unofficial or unrecognized mosques (or those recognized but not effectively overseen) are common, especially in more populous, fiscally strapped countries in the region.

Personal Status Law

When religion offers guidance on family life, it often does so through state structures. (This is even true in the one Arab country that does not have an official religion, Lebanon; see box 1.) In most countries, personal status law is handled in courts that are simply a branch of the regular court system. However, in a few countries—such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine—a completely distinct (though still official) court system, or set of systems for recognized sects, deals with marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For Arabs wishing to have such matters officially recognized, there is no way to avoid the monopoly of state structures. The codification of religious law in the realm of personal status can be contentious. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, for instance, have all seen public debates in recent decades often focusing on sensitive issues, such as the rights of women and the mechanisms of divorce.

This framework does not exclude unofficial actors, however, who may be sought out for mediation or arbitration, especially in family disputes. Courts and other official actors, such as prayer leaders in mosques, have sometimes recognized the need for unofficial or nonbinding mediation, and they have sometimes offered such services or sought training for their personnel in family counseling or mediation.

Lebanon: An Exception That Proves the Rules

Nathan J. Brown

Lebanon is the one state in the Arab world that does not have an official religion. But while the Lebanese arrangement is distinctive, it is hardly secular. Rather, it amounts to granting official status to various sects.

Lebanon’s constitution not only avoids any mention of an official religion but, as amended in 1989, commits itself to the abolition of political “confessionalism.”5 Though confessionalism is not comprehensively defined in the text, it is understood as a system in which specific shares in state institutions are reserved for different religious communities and political arrangements are, effectively, negotiated among their leaders. Despite the commitment in the revised preamble to ending political confessionalism, the constitution’s fine print suggests that religious sects will be recognized in matters of personal status (Article 9) and education (Article 10); that religious leaders can challenge the constitutionality of some laws connected with religion (Article 19); and that even after the current sectarian representation in parliament is abolished, sects will continue to be granted some form of representation in a newly created senate (Articles 22 and 24).

Today, the Lebanese state recognizes eighteen different religious communities—five Muslim, twelve Christian, and the Jewish community. Most have a leadership recognized by the state. There are fifteen sets of personal status laws and courts. In recent years, some Lebanese have launched legal campaigns for civil marriage, securing some limited victories. But for the most part, Lebanon’s civil courts and its political authorities defer to the sectarian courts and allow them full autonomy.6 The courts and religious leadership are thus organically linked to their own communities, but they speak with the power and authority of the Lebanese state on matters under their purview.

Other religious affairs are administered in a similar manner, by recognizing sectarian autonomy but also giving sectarian leaders a degree of state authority. Sunni Muslims, for instance, are governed by legislation that recognizes their full independence in religious affairs and charity. The law effectively designates a single authority, the General Directorate for Islamic Religious Endowments, to administer endowments, mosques, and preaching in the community.7

Lebanon does have state schools, but many Lebanese prefer to enroll their students in private schools, which a majority of schoolchildren attend—and where religious affiliation is common. The multiconfessional nature of Lebanon makes it impossible for the state to teach religion. Moreover, even a unified account of Lebanese history is elusive, with the result that—as with other areas—schools are effectively licensed to develop their own set of teachings for each subject.

Unlike in most Arab countries, state broadcasting is relatively weak in Lebanon, with television and radio in particular largely consigned to the private sector.8 The country appears anomalous in regional terms of the degree to which it allows communal autonomy. But that anomaly is not as severe as it first appears. It does not separate religion from the state so much as it folds religious leadership into the state apparatus and allows some religious leaders to speak with a measure of state authority. The effect is more cacophonous than coherent.


State-controlled radio and television in the Arab world are often full of religious programming. Quran readings, major congregational prayers, and religious lectures are a staple of the airwaves. For the most part, official broadcasters turn to official religious institutions for the content of their programming. This can include major mosques where heads of state might attend for important congregational prayers or where sermons are delivered by senior religious officials or scholars.

Starting in the 1990s, such state broadcasting was joined by satellite broadcasters, who often introduced alternative approaches to disseminating their messages. These broadcasters were backed by particular states seeking ways to reach across borders. In the first decade of this century, private broadcasters from a wide variety of perspectives entered the fray. Newer web-based media and social media outlets further increased the cacophony, with a particularly wide range of religious orientations and formats. Everything from call-in fatwa programs to inspirational studio discussions, and even religiously themed cooking and language instruction, attracted audiences. One outlet, Iqraa TV, began as a widely watched religious broadcaster in the 1980s, while beginning in the 1990s, the Egyptian religious scholar Yusif al-Qaradawi hosted an influential religious program addressing Islamic law on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel. But these stations have since been joined by legions of preachers, inspirational speakers, advice-givers, talk-show hosts, fatwa-givers, and more didactic broadcasters.

Official Islam still has a powerful voice, but it is now only one among many. Arab states continue to have many means of speaking authoritatively on religion. Judges, muftis, scholars, ministers, and university officials all lay some claim to such authority. However, none can do so in an uncontested way. Indeed, the number of unofficial competitors has grown in recent years, as has their influence. However, the line between official and unofficial religion is sometimes difficult to draw, with unofficial leaders appearing on state-owned media and religious officials attempting to build a following through unofficial broadcasters and social media.

Just as notable is the diversity within the state apparatus. Officials often have differing orientations, overlapping or competing jurisdictions, clashing senses of mission, personal rivalries, and distinct institutional interests. These forces each pull hard, but not always in the same direction.

Official Islam and Regime Islam

The Arab world’s large official religious structures sometimes seem ubiquitous. When Arabs wish to pray, make pious donations, educate their children, or listen to the radio, it is often state employees and bodies that they encounter, even if there are sometimes ways to avoid them. Regimes in the region have considerable sway over official religious structures. However, the impact of this is, at best, mixed in terms of Arab regimes’ ability to use unwieldy official religious institutions to achieve their security or policy objectives, or to bend the religious parts of the state apparatus to suit their own purposes. Even when a regime undertakes a reform widely seen as successful, such as Morocco’s 2004 family law (see box 2), the motives and ramifications are complex.

Regimes generally have three concerns in the religious realm, all related to the nature of religious space as heavily regulated yet not completely controlled by the state. First, they wish to obtain support for their policies and ideologies. Second, they seek to prevent political opponents from using religious spaces to mobilize in pursuit of their own agendas. Failing that, they seek to monitor such activity. And third, in recent years especially, they have shown special concern about radical groups, some of which may be transnational in nature. In the current parlance of Western policy circles, Arab regimes view religion as a battleground to counter violent extremism and state religious institutions as a weapon they can employ.

Administrative Oversight of Religious Structures

In attempting to use the state’s religious presence to pursue these goals, regimes have a series of imposing—but also quite clumsy—tools. They can engage in administrative oversight of official religious structures, along with control over fiscal and personnel issues. Top religious officials—such as ministers of religious affairs, senior religious court judges, and state muftis—as well as senior educational officials are often directly appointed by a country’s chief executive or governing structure. Budgeting and hiring pass through high-ranking officials, enabling political and security vetting of religious personnel.

But these levers of control are difficult to use with precision. With so many religious institutions folded into state apparatuses, they are subject to control but also become constituencies and power centers in their own right. Moreover, they are not always coordinated, as different parts of the religious establishment find themselves making rival claims. Senior figures in official religious institutions risk losing credibility if they tailor their teachings to suit a ruler’s whims. Lower-level courts, student bodies in state schools, and local preachers might not mechanically follow top-level guidance. In short, religiously discordant voices appear within state apparatuses themselves.

Reasserting State Control Over Official Islam in Morocco

Dörthe Engelcke

Morocco’s family law of 2004 is likely the most discussed law in the kingdom’s history. The monarchy garnered considerable domestic and international praise for reinforcing women’s rights. While the law improved women’s formal legal status, attention to the context within which the reform took place suggests far-reaching repercussions for an ongoing effort to reform the religious sector.

The aim of this process of legal reform was twofold. It was geared toward reinstating state control, especially the king’s authority, over the religious sector. It aimed also to modernize religious institutions so as to revive them and create a moderate official Islam that could be a motor for reform, not an obstacle to change.

The Casablanca terrorist attacks of May 2003 that killed forty-five people made it apparent that firm control over the religious sector was crucial for regime stability. The reform of the religious sector began immediately after the attacks. Two new departments were set up within the ministry of religious affairs: the department for mosques and the department for traditional education. The first is in charge of bringing mosques under tighter control, while the second controls the content of religious education.9

The 2004 family law reform was also an effort to consolidate the king’s power over the religious sector. The monarch, who is referred to as the commander of the faithful (amir al-muminin), and who traces his lineage back to the Prophet Mohammad, is viewed as the highest religious authority in the country. The reform of 2004 was officially achieved through ijtihad, or independent reasoning, carried out by the king himself. The king’s claims to authority over family law are based on the legal code being perceived as Islamic law, and therefore not open to secularization. A report by the parliamentary Committee for Justice, Legislation, and Human Rights has claimed that the family law confirms the three pillars of the Moroccan system: “Islam, the democratic choice, and the institution of the commander of the faithful.”10

The process of reinstating royal authority over official Islam was further consolidated by a 2011 reform of the constitution that specified that the Supreme Ulama Council, headed by the king, was the only institution in Morocco allowed to issue fatwas (Article 41). This reinforced the king’s monopoly over religious opinions.

A further step toward reform of the religious sector was undertaken in education in order to revitalize the religious sector. Religious education had been in decline since the colonial period. This was the result of two principal factors. First, competition with modern schools, set up by the French colonial administration, devalued degrees issued by traditional religious schools. Second, after Morocco’s independence, the monarchy attempted to devitalize traditional centers of Islamic learning such as the University of Al-Quaraouiyine. It did so by curtailing their academic ambitions in order to weaken the body of religious scholars, or ulama.

The state attempted to reverse this trend in the first decade of the century. In 2005, Dar al-Hadith al-Hasaniyya, a state institution for religious learning, underwent significant reform when its curriculum was amended. Since then, future imams have had to study non-religious subjects such as psychology, history, languages, logic, and communication. This reform was deemed necessary because graduates were seen as ill-equipped to manage the tasks arising in a changing social environment. Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Taoufiq declared that this reform would help halt the institution’s decline.11

Similarly, in 2006, the Mohammadia League of Ulama (Al-Rabita al-Mohammadia lil-Ulama), an institution that focuses on religious research, replaced the prior League of Ulama of Morocco (Rabita des Ouléma du Maroc). After 2006, twelve research centers—among them a center for the study of Sufism and women’s studies—were set up to produce high-level religious knowledge and to re-endow the state-controlled religious sector with an important role in addressing social problems.

A final aspect of religious sector reform has been the feminization of the religious field. Women have been admitted to the Supreme Ulama Council as well as local ulama councils. In 2006, the first class of female religious guides, or murshidat, graduated from a program initially hosted by the ministry of religious affairs. In 2015, the program moved to the newly created Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidins and Morchidates. Murshidat primarily provide religious instruction in mosques. This effort was aimed mainly at creating a nonviolent Islam and should not be confused with an attempt to spread Islamic feminism. Furthermore, a fatwa from the Supreme Ulama Council stated that the Imamate is reserved for men—in other words, women cannot lead Friday prayers.12 This demonstrated the limits of reform, which has not challenged traditional interpretations of Islamic law.

Many of the recruited murshidat were members of Al-Adl wal-Ihsan, the Islamist Justice and Charity movement, the largest Islamist movement in Morocco. The members of the former women’s circle of the movement are reputed to be among the best university students in Islamic studies. It also may have been that the state targeted members of Al-Adl to weaken their efforts to emancipate women within an Islamic framework, by recruiting the organization’s members that are most active in this regard. To the authorities, emancipation should, if at all, happen only within a state-led framework.

Religious-sector reform in the 2000s touched on very different elements of the religious sector. Even though some of these reforms were portrayed as feminist projects such as the family law reform, these seemingly disparate efforts all shared one decisive element: they increased royal control over the religious sector. Religious-sector reform illustrates that the Moroccan monarchy’s religious legitimacy operates not only on a belief in the sanctity of the monarch, but also requires royal control over official Islam.

Overall the reform has led to new divisions between religious institutions that have undergone reform and those, such as the sharia faculties of ordinary universities, that have not. Morocco needs to adopt a holistic approach to religious-sector reform that impacts all centers of religious learning, including the sharia faculties of universities if the aim is not only to achieve state control but also create a tolerant and moderate official Islam.

Dörthe Engelcke (PhD University of Oxford, 2015) is an early career fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg,
the University of Göttingen.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s CPVPV has periodically embarrassed the regime and has been reined in from time to time. An especially notable set of restraints in 2016 deprived it of some police powers. However, such public restriction of its role has been constrained by the regime’s simultaneous wish to mollify important religious constituencies. While diminishing the visibility of the CPVPV, the restrictions on its police powers still allow it to engage in heavy monitoring.13

Supervising Local Religious and Education Officials

Another tool available to regimes is the policing of lower-level religious or educational officials, which entails using the religious bureaucracy and the security apparatus to dictate the content of sermons or regulate what is said in classrooms. To carry out such surveillance comprehensively, however, is difficult and highly intrusive, as recent struggles in Egypt over control of mosques has shown. For instance, in recent decades, a stream of proclamations by Egyptian ministers of new monitoring initiatives suggests they have never been able to exercise the control they promised. Preachers and religious officials in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Palestine report that the state guidance they experience is often crudely applied and less than fully effective. High officials shape the content of what is said, to be sure, but not in a way that generally requires preachers to be mechanical mouthpieces. And when central control is detailed and effective, it can generate resentment. Generally, imams report that official concern tends to be episodic. It can also be very bureaucratic. Egyptian imams have said that the sternest and most specific language they have received about sermons concerns their time limit—and some have been disciplined for verbosity.14 In 2016, an Egyptian imam confided that there was virtually no training or continuing education provided to preachers once they were placed in positions of responsibility.15

Another tool available to regimes is the policing of lower-level religious or educational officials.

The Egyptian experience is hardly unique. Palestinian mosques have experienced heavy-handed management, but only on specific occasions. One Palestinian imam in Nablus interviewed in 2015 reported that under the rule of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority he was fairly free in what he could say, as long as he avoided obvious political subjects.16 The same was true when Hamas formed the Palestinian government in 2006. Only the government of former prime minister Salam Fayyad, who served from 2007 to 2013, was highly restrictive, since it regarded mosques as Hamas-friendly turf. A worshipper in a major mosque in Ramallah complained that a Salafi preacher had been installed in his mosque, simply in an effort to find a credible religious figure not sympathetic to Hamas.17

In most countries, positive guidance, such as suggesting topics for sermons, tends to be vague, consisting of general themes (such as problems of youth) that need to be addressed. Negative guidance can be much more onerous. Some imams have reported visits from security officials, especially after delivering a sermon that was interpreted as being political. Moreover, the definition of what is deemed political can itself be very political. As one imam observed wryly after Egypt held a constitutional referendum in 2014 that was backed by the post-coup regime: “If I endorse the constitution, that is not political. But if I oppose it, that is political.”18

When more direct controls have been imposed, they have generated deep resentment. In interviews with several imams in Egypt after the overthrow of then president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, one imam from a small mosque in Cairo was close to tears in 2015 when describing how tightly he was being monitored.19 Another, from the outskirts of Cairo, became visibly nervous when the conversation tilted in a political direction, before making a zipping motion over his mouth.20 In 2016, a third imam, who served at a major Cairo mosque, sighed as he explained how the ministry of religious affairs, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Tourism all demanded a say in how the mosque was being administered. A religious official who sympathized with the new regime complained in 2014, “We definitely have to root out radical preachers. But we do not need an intelligence officer in every mosque.”21

Propagating Ideological Messages

Finally, regimes can use state control of the religious apparatus to propagate ideological messages. School curricula, dictated by education ministries, are generally written in ways that are likely to be politically pleasing to rulers. But while religious curricula in the Arab world have drawn international criticism, the efficacy of the messages they contain is rarely probed. Saudi Arabian textbooks, for example, hew close to a Wahhabi interpretation in a manner that marks sharp divisions not merely between Muslims and non-Muslims, but even takes a strict line on what is held to be correct Muslim practice and belief. But most other state curricula include a far more generic view of religion, one that teaches the basics of beliefs, history, and practice while blending religion, nationalism, and good manners.22 In conversations with graduates of various school systems in the Arab world, one may hear as many comments about the ways in which students do not take religion seriously as a subject as about the content of instruction.

Regimes can use state control of the religious apparatus to propagate ideological messages.

States also can promote their own religious messages in other ways. Two international efforts to do so were the Amman Message of 2004 and the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016.23 Both were statements stressing inclusive themes along with strong denunciations of radicalism and violence in markedly religious language. These statements were formulated under the patronage of the hosting monarchs and included leading religious officials from throughout the Islamic world. Indeed, the broad participation achieved in Amman seems particularly impressive in light of the sectarian and polarized environment that prevails today, drawing as it did from an array of leading religious figures as well as non-official religious leaders and intellectuals. However, the effectiveness of the messages was limited. The consensus achieved may have been impressive then, but it was also short-lived.

A cynical reader might cite the pleasing but fairly general language of the declarations issued in Amman and Marrakesh and conclude that their main effect was to satisfy international audiences. However, it is likely that the exact opposite was true. In both cases, the impact was probably greater in the host countries. While references to the statements in other countries were rare, they are frequently cited by the Jordanian and Moroccan regimes, who seem eager to associate national pride with fairly liberal statements of religious themes and to enhance the prestige of their own religious establishments.

The credibility of official religious institutions is a matter that all regimes must consider carefully, as they use their control of such bodies to solidify their own rule. The paradox of official religious institutions is especially visible in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. It is there that one can best examine a religious establishment that looms both largely and also often incoherently.

The Struggle Over Religious Authority in Post-2013 Egypt

Egyptian regimes have steered religion in the public realm, but have habitually done so in an unsteady manner. This reality was distinctly visible in a number of controversies following the military coup of July 2013—touching on the control of mosques, “the renewal of religious discourse,” and the aforementioned disagreement over written sermons. This protracted series of episodes saw the Egyptian presidency, Al-Azhar, and the ministry of religious affairs each struggling to assert themselves in a guiding role, sometimes in coordination with each other and sometimes as rivals.

Al-Azhar and the Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood

With a dominant presence in Egypt and carrying influence beyond its borders, Al-Azhar was a particularly significant player in these events. Its willingness to join the battle was a test of strength for various actors. The effect on the religious realm was real, but perhaps the dominant player in the end proved to be Al-Azhar itself. While it is a part of the state and has a leadership that is loyal to the regime, Al-Azhar still managed to assert a measure of autonomy and demonstrate that its closeness to the centers of power did not make it totally subservient.

Indeed, the 2011–2013 period greatly increased the desire of Al-Azhar’s leadership to protect its autonomy from the political sphere and consolidate its internal control. The institution gained tremendous nominal power—in the short-lived 2012 constitution, it was given a defined role in interpreting Islamic law that it had not requested—but it also viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism as threats that it had to confront. It did so not only in relation to the Brotherhood-controlled presidency but also within Al-Azhar’s own student body and faculty.24

In the wake of Morsi’s removal from office, the official religious establishment found that it had become a battleground for what was taking place in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was largely from outside the religious establishment, but the movement did have supporters within it. And some religious officials, even those suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, came to feel that the struggle taking place between the Brotherhood and the country’s new political leadership had become one between religion and secularism and, therefore, that it was necessary to take sides.

Egyptian regimes have steered religion in the public realm, but have habitually done so in an unsteady manner.

Al-Azhar’s top leadership was less torn, but still evinced reservations. Ahmad al-Tayyib, the sheikh of Al-Azhar, and therefore the figure at the head of its vast network of educational and scholarly institutions, sat beside then–field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when Sisi announced Morsi’s removal. However, in subsequent weeks, as Morsi’s supporters gathered in encampments and demanded his release and return to power, the Al-Azhar leadership, and Tayyib personally, called for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the crisis. When the encampments were broken up by violent means, Tayyib absented himself from Cairo in what some observers took to be a silent protest against the new regime’s harshness.25

Sisi’s Efforts to Shape Religious Life

In the following year, the Sisi regime continued to move against Muslim Brotherhood supporters throughout the religious establishment, dismissing them from positions of authority, seeking to end their influence over the educational curriculum,26 and shutting down a strong protest movement among Al-Azhar students. While the largest national protests against Morsi’s overthrow were suppressed in August 2013, protests continued on the Al-Azhar campus all throughout the following academic year. The regime responded with expulsions, arrests, and the deployment of a private security force. In fall 2014, the new academic year brought a particularly severe wave of repression that all but ended organized protests at the institution, but left even regime supporters affected. Today, it is uncommon to meet an Azhari who cannot tell of having friends, colleagues, or family members detained, wounded, or expelled.

In the wake of Morsi’s removal from office, the official religious establishment found that it had become a battleground for what was taking place in Egypt.

At the time, Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa led a campaign to shut down unlicensed mosques, bar preachers who did not have official permission to preach, reorganize charitable and support activities undertaken by committees associated with leading mosques, and close mosques during periods between prayers.27 Today, even supporters of the campaign acknowledge that its reach was incomplete, with the monitoring and staffing capacity of the ministry of religious affairs, even buttressed by security bodies, simply insufficient to implement the full control intended. While there have been complaints from religious officials and others about the heavy-handedness of the regime campaign, religious spaces in Egypt—especially mosques and broadcasters—are far more tightly controlled than they were a few years ago.

By the beginning of 2015, Sisi—by then Egypt’s president—felt bold enough to move beyond policing and control and seize the initiative. He waded into the realm of religious teachings when, before an audience of religious leaders at Al-Azhar, he spoke of the need to “renew religious discourse.”28 The president’s words were strong—he warned his listeners that God and the world were watching them—but also very general. It was clear they were aimed at religious thinking that Sisi held responsible for promoting extremism, terrorism, and violence. However, it was not clear if his target was the so-called Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood, radicals within Al-Azhar’s own ranks, more traditionally minded scholars seen as obscurantist and ineffectual rather than threatening, or a combination of these.
The leadership of Al-Azhar itself was somewhat perplexed over how to respond. A direct call from the president was difficult to ignore, but many top officials did not welcome the hectoring tone of the comments from a figure with military rather than religious training.29 Nor did Al-Azhar’s leadership feel the message needed to be directed at the institution. The call for experts and scholars to refute radical ideas, strengthen Al-Azhar’s curriculum, and interpret Islamic teachings in a manner appropriate for social needs was one the institution’s leadership had championed itself. When Sisi’s speech was followed by press criticism of prevailing religious discourse in Egypt, many members of Al-Azhar came to feel that their institution was facing unjustified attack.30

Over the subsequent year, Egypt’s leading religious institutions took up the idea of renewing religious discourse in a manner that echoed the president’s words. Yet they did so in very different ways. In conferences and public statements, the ministry of religious affairs echoed the call with enthusiasm, with the minister seemingly anxious to prove himself to the regime. The Office of the State Mufti remained more guarded. The strongest and most detailed response came from the leadership of Al-Azhar, which embraced renewal but also strove to assert that this was already under way and best left to the experts within Al-Azhar itself. That is, rather than taking the president’s request as a challenge to its way of doing things, officials at Al-Azhar, led by Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib himself, worked to appropriate the language in a manner that affirmed their own leadership.31

Egypt’s Bureaucratic Struggle

The barely hidden struggle among Egypt’s religious institutions came into full public view in summer 2016 in the contest over written sermons. The minister of religious affairs issued a directive that all preachers in the country read from a single printed sermon authored by the ministry. This step caused enormous controversy. It did earn some support from those who argued that the level of sermons was unimpressive and that their length was excessive, but the real motivation seemed as much political as it pertained to the homilies themselves.

Even three years after the regime’s efforts to bring about strong centralized control over religion, officials acknowledged there were still Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and other preachers opposed to the regime able to make their voices heard. While officials within the religious establishment were divided over the call, there was no mistake where leading government officials stood. Gomaa heartily endorsed the effort, even mounting pulpits in major mosques holding a copy of the authorized sermon to deliver. The leadership of Al-Azhar initially voiced doubts about the move, arguing it would free preachers of any need to educate themselves and reduce them to automatons in the eyes of worshippers. Turning Sisi’s words to its advantage, Al-Azhar added that a single official sermon would freeze religious discourse, not renew it.32

The battle, accordingly, turned into a bureaucratic fight over which institutional voice was supreme. And here the sheikh of Al-Azhar was able to outmaneuver the minister. He began by summoning the Body of Senior Scholars to endorse his position. Then the sheikh met with the president, but now not merely as the head of the country’s most prestigious and constitutionally mandated voice of Islamic teaching, but backed by a group of scholars charged with speaking and acting authoritatively in doctrinal and personal matters. The one-on-one meeting between the two men was followed by a second in which the sheikh, now acting with clear presidential backing, met with the religious affairs minister. Gomaa tried to save face by making the written sermons not obligatory, but he had clearly lost in the unusually public confrontation. It soon became clear that the clash was not over. Sermons might be delivered without an official text (though admittedly under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Interior), but Al-Azhar and the ministry of religious affairs renewed their dispute within days over who was responsible for renewing religious discourse.33

The struggle and its outcome may have provided a rare window into the kinds of disagreements that occur on a regular basis in Egypt’s official religious domain, but also in the Arab world generally. Rumor mills are often replete with accounts of personal, institutional, and doctrinal rivalries among key official religious actors in most countries of the region. Just as interesting was the result. The minister of religious affairs, a member of the cabinet and serving at the pleasure of the president—a figure willing to identify with the president’s policies, rhetoric, and priorities—was still bested by the sheikh of Al-Azhar, a figure also close to the regime but far more autonomous in substance than other branches of the Egyptian state. Their struggle illustrated how official religious institutions are not merely tools of the regime but also arenas of conflict. It also showed these entities as having a sense of institutional mission and interests, sometimes different from each other and, while generally in line with the regime, still distinct from it.

Official religious institutions and Islamist organizations may be political opponents, but they are also often ideological cousins.

In critical matters, not least obstructing mosques from becoming focal points for opposition mobilization and activity, state religious institutions in Egypt provide critical support. But the path from a ruler’s interests to institutional outcomes is not always smooth. Some institutions have separate priorities, while efforts to enhance their effectiveness and credibility often increase their autonomy—and thus their ability to pursue separate agendas and even provide some limited, protected space for dissident groups within their own ranks. And when official religious actors engage with opponents, they often do so in a manner that treats their ideas seriously and might even incline in their direction. Official religious institutions and Islamist organizations may be political opponents, but they are also often ideological cousins.34 In short, by building institutions with a wide reach and allowing them some measure of specialization and autonomy, the state apparatus shows it is not a coherent body. Rather, it is one that can express many different interests, orientations, and voices—even, on occasion, some opposed to the regime.

The Crisis of Credibility in Official Religious Institutions

Regimes in Arab states can use their governments’ powerful presence in the official religious realm to pursue security, policy, or ideological objectives. Even a push for so-called moderation or tolerance often has clear pro-regime overtones (see box 3). However, regimes can manipulate the religious sector at best quite clumsily because the authority of official religious institutions is not unchallenged. Indeed, official religious institutions do not always serve regime interests efficiently, even when placed in the hands of supporters. Heavy-handed state actions can often undermine the credibility of official religious representatives, becoming self-defeating over the long run.

The Uncertainty of Enforced Tolerance in Oman

Annelle Sheline

Oman’s religious sphere is distinctive in two respects. The state gives special emphasis to tolerance and it also exerts greater control over the religious sphere than in most other Arab countries. These features are not unrelated.

Oman’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs conducts similar activities as its counterparts in other Arab countries. It regulates religious spaces, pays the salaries of mainstream Muslim preachers and imams, and contributes to the content of religious education in public schools. However, unlike many other countries where unofficial religious actors compete with the mouthpieces of official Islam, the Omani state has effectively monopolized religious discourse. Few civil society organizations are permitted and political parties, religious or otherwise, are prohibited. The level of control exerted over religious actors is more comprehensive than in many other Arab countries due to Oman’s small population, oil wealth, and the sultan’s position as an absolute monarch. In this, it is similar to the other small Gulf Cooperation Council states.

In recent years, a narrative of religious tolerance has emerged as a major theme for the Omani state. The regime uses its monopoly over official religious discourse to promote an image of Oman as uniquely supportive of religious freedom. For instance, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs commissioned a film called Religious Tolerance, which portrays Oman’s Islamic pluralism and tolerance of non-Muslim faiths. It also produces a magazine called Al-Tafahum (Understanding) that promotes Muslim and interfaith religious dialogue, as well as a campaign called “Act for Tolerance,” which includes T-shirts, Twitter posts, and a traveling exhibit.35

The ministry’s claims of tolerance are not mere propaganda. Indeed, they are largely corroborated by the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2015,36 which confirms that non-Muslims worship freely in homes and designated areas. In contrast to most other Arab countries, the ministry brings Christian and Jewish leaders to speak at the Grand Mosque in the capital of Muscat. Oman has experienced no acts of jihadi violence on its soil, nor have any Omanis been recorded fighting for the Islamic State. Conversations with Omanis demonstrate that they view religious tolerance as a key part of their national identity.

Official Islam in Oman dovetails well with the U.S. policy agenda of promoting religious freedom and combating violent extremism. Officials at the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs have suggested that Oman could serve as a model for other countries struggling with sectarian tensions and violent extremism. However, two factors make Oman unlikely to become a regional religious leader: Ibadism and authoritarianism.

First, Oman is unique in that its form of official Islam is neither Sunnism nor Shiism, but Ibadism. Outside Oman and small enclaves in Africa, Ibadism is largely unknown or misunderstood. Oman’s official position is that tolerance is the result of the Ibadi religious tradition, combined with trade-based cosmopolitanism. Because Ibadis have historically been a religious minority, Ibadism permits practices that allow for more effective coexistence with non-Ibadi Muslims, including marriage and inheritance. But Oman’s official Ibadism makes it less likely to be perceived as a model by other states.

The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs claims that heritage, not calculation, drives Oman’s official tolerance, but it may also defuse domestic sectarian tensions. Although Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said is Ibadi, Sunni Omanis likely outnumber Ibadis. No actual count is permitted, and the official estimate is that Ibadis constitute about 75 percent of citizens.37 However, unofficial sources say Ibadis make up closer to 45 percent of the population.38 The country’s 1984 Publications and Publishing Law forbids writing anything that would “sow discord among members of society,” which journalists understand to mean sectarian differences.39 However, regional sectarian tensions could make such identities more salient.

Second, even if Oman could successfully package its tolerance in a more generic form of Islam, the Omani state’s monopolization of religious discourse is a pitfall rather than a strength. In contrast to the multiple unofficial religious actors who compete for influence in many other Arab countries, the Omani government has successfully suppressed alternative sources of religious authority through censorship and authoritarian rule. Oman’s promotion of tolerance and its immunity from extremism may not last indefinitely, especially to the extent that both depend on political quietude bought with diminishing oil reserves. In addition, the next sultan is unlikely to enjoy the same support as the current leader, Sultan Qaboos, who has successfully taken credit for Oman’s petroleum-fueled prosperity. As a result, current levels of control might not be sustainable. Oman’s unified religious discourse could give way to a multitude of views, some of which may be significantly less tolerant.

The fragmentation of religious authority in Arab countries is sometimes viewed as problematic. However, Oman demonstrates that a religious discourse imposed by force, even one espousing values of tolerance, may not be a long-term solution.

Annelle Sheline is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University, and the director of the Undergraduate Scholars Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

It is not only rulers who face constraints and difficult choices. The way in which religious authority has operated and presented itself in recent years has aggravated problems for official religious actors in Arab states. While dominant in officially sanctioned pulpits, broadcasts, and classrooms, and on officially sanctioned occasions, official religious institutions are not the only places to talk about religion in the Arab world. Discussion takes place in many additional spaces where a variety of voices can be heard. Newer communications technologies and more traditional mediums (and often the two combined) allow for unofficial voices to make themselves heard on matters of religion. Authority does not easily move from one medium to another. Those authorized to mount the pulpit do not necessarily dominate the airwaves; those who write textbooks or issue judgments do not necessarily command wide Facebook followings. Religious authorities in the region, even when competing against one another, do so on different playing fields.

Official religious institutions and Islamist organizations may be political opponents, but they are also often ideological cousins.

Arab Gulf rulers face incentives to develop non-economic sources of legitimacy to maintain popular support while maximizing scarce resource revenues. By sowing communal distrust, highlighting threats, and emphasizing their ability to guarantee security, regimes can reinforce domestic backing and dampen pressure for reform more cheaply than by distributing welfare benefits. Survey data from four Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar) demonstrate that governments can effectively cow populations into political inaction even as the economic benefits citizens receive are dwindling. 

Key Themes

  • Gulf regimes establish electoral and legislative rules that institutionalize cleavages based on identity politics. 
  • Official national narratives in the Gulf are frequently exclusive, highlighting differences among citizens and privileging certain population segments over others. 
  • Gulf regimes increasingly treat even peaceful opposition and dissent as veritable threats to national security, rather than as ordinary political challenges. 
  • Some Gulf Cooperation Council states have conducted an assertive, adventurist foreign policy that has contributed to regional instability and promoted a militaristic nationalism.
  • Feelings of insecurity are heightened by government promises of radical economic reorganization in the face of dwindling oil and gas revenues. 


  • Analysis of survey data from the region reveals that more security-minded Gulf citizens are willing to accept lower levels of economic performance by a government in return for stability. For them, the state’s provision of security represents a substitute for the financial benefits expected by citizens in oil-rich states. 
  • In this way, Gulf governments can capitalize on the security concerns of citizens to purchase popular political support more cheaply than through the standard distribution of material benefits.
  • Gulf regimes thus have economic and political incentives to embellish or manufacture domestic and external threats, in order to heighten popular concerns over security and so lower the cost of accruing political support. 
  • Gulf rulers are often unable to manage social tensions once unleashed, and some have ended up stoking the very dissent they wished to suppress. This is a precarious strategy that carries serious risks to citizen welfare and the long-term survival of regimes. 


In January 2016, authorities in Saudi Arabia unexpectedly and unceremoniously put to death dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a perennial antigovernment firebrand and leader of Arab Spring protests in the kingdom’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province. Executed alongside 46 other individuals convicted mainly of association with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, al-Nimr was portrayed as just another “terrorist” threatening the nation’s stability and security.1

The public response was swift and predictable. While Western missions protested against the political nature of the charges against al-Nimr—which included “disobeying the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations”2—the move was cheered by many ordinary Saudi Sunnis, for whom the cleric’s calls for greater recognition and empowerment of Shia represented at once religious and political heresy.

Justin Gengler

Justin Gengler is a research program manager at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University, where he heads the SESRI Policy Unit.

Further afield, the execution sparked popular protests in Bahrain, in Iraq, and in Iran, where demonstrators overran Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Mashhad and set fire to its embassy in Tehran. The attacks prompted a formal severing of diplomatic ties between the two regional rivals, with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning that Saudi Arabia would face “divine revenge” for its killing of the “oppressed scholar” and “martyr.”3

Strategic Sectarianism

Yet, behind this latest outward manifestation of sectarian-based conflict between citizens and governments in the Middle East, most Gulf observers were quick to identify a more mundane cause. A week before al-Nimr’s execution, Saudi Arabia announced a 40 percent increase in the price of fuel as well as sweeping cuts to subsidies for electricity, water, and other goods. This came on the back of an expected $98 billion budget shortfall for 2016—equal to 60 percent of projected state revenues.4 Amid depressed oil prices and expectations of a weak market for years to come, the Saudi state, like the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),5 can no longer afford to underwrite the onerous social and economic benefits provided for decades to citizens, and faces an uphill battle in selling unwelcome and painful economic reforms without offering corresponding concessions in the political realm.6 The execution of al-Nimr, then, with the resulting escalation in domestic and regional tension, was seen as a well-timed distraction from the kingdom’s new fiscal reality, and the dubious policies—including a costly, disastrous war in Yemen—that helped usher it in. It was, in the words of one Gulf scholar, “red meat to the sectarian radicals.”7

The Saudi state and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries can no longer afford to underwrite the onerous social and economic benefits provided for decades to citizens.

It was also one episode in a larger pattern of political instrumentalization of sectarian and other group divisions that has become a defining feature of the Middle East, and to a lesser extent North Africa, since the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.8 As nondemocratic regimes have come under pressure to reform or relinquish power altogether, rulers have hit back most often by positioning themselves as the defenders of a core group of (often co-sectarian) constituents under purported threat from foreign actors or the illiberal demands of fellow citizens.

The force of these appeals has been bolstered by a heightened sense of insecurity among Middle Eastern publics in light of widespread civil war and disorder, the increased capabilities and reach of terrorist organizations, shifting geopolitical alliances, concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, and perceptions that the United States is withdrawing militarily and diplomatically from the region. The result is that a substantial proportion of citizens who might agree in principle with the need for change are expected to choose nonetheless to abstain from opposition, or even stand against those engaged in opposition politics, because of uncertainty over the eventual outcome of popular mobilization. In short, challenged rulers can capitalize on the fears of more risk-averse individuals and members of sectarian, ethnic, or other groups whose political or economic preferences would likely be overturned in the event of revolution or fundamental reform.

Challenged rulers can capitalize on the fears of more risk-averse individuals and members of sectarian, ethnic, or other groups whose political or economic preferences would likely be overturned in the event of revolution or fundamental reform.

This strategy of autocratic self-preservation, sometimes likened to “protection-racket politics,” is not limited to the post-2011 period, nor is it specific to the Arab world.9 But its seeming ubiquity and success in thwarting opposition movements in this context has begotten something of a conventional wisdom: that fear-mongering and timely activation of sectarian and other latent social divisions offer beleaguered Arab governments a critical pressure-relief valve helping to perpetuate their authoritarian rule.

As al-Nimr’s execution demonstrates, there appears to be strong anecdotal evidence to support such a conclusion. Yet, until now it has never been put to the test empirically by examining individual political behavior. In other words, is it really true that Arab citizens who prioritize stability over other aims tend to be more supportive of incumbent regimes as guarantors of the status quo? If so, does such a relationship hold universally or only for some categories of citizens or countries? Moreover, what impact does the prioritization of stability have on the normal link between the performance of, and popular support for, governments? Are status quo–oriented citizens more forgiving than others of poor economic and political performance, or are their expectations similar to those with different individual priorities?

This essay attempts to answer these questions by examining mostly original public opinion survey data collected in four Arab Gulf countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar—between 2013 and 2016. This diverse sample of cases includes societies that witnessed major political upheaval (Bahrain), limited protests (Kuwait and Oman), and virtually no popular reform demands (Qatar) during and after the Arab Spring.

In investigating the political attitudes of ordinary men and women in the region, the analysis shows that there is substance to the notion that Gulf governments can effectively scare their citizens into acceptance of the political status quo. It demonstrates that under conditions of insecurity, a majority of Gulf Arabs prefer a less than ideal situation with which they are familiar over a push for fundamental change that, while it may potentially bring improvement, also carries real risks of uncertainty and instability. This reality sheds light on the political economy of sectarianism in the Middle East, and especially the Arab Gulf region, revealing the strong incentives rulers have to cultivate non-economic sources of legitimacy in order to maintain the necessary preponderance of political support while maximizing scarce resource revenues. The exploitation of latent social tensions affords one such source.

The Logic and Drivers of Sectarianism

Writing in 1974, an economic adviser at Kuwait’s state-run development fund helped launch the rentier state paradigm when he observed that the capacity to meet citizens’ material needs without extracting taxes “helps to explain why the government of an oil-rich country . . . can enjoy a degree of stability which is not explicable in terms of its domestic economic or political performance.”10 That is to say, oil-rich Gulf governments can maintain the otherwise dubious political support of citizens through the generous distribution of resource revenues.

While the basic tenets of the theory remain valid today,11 almost half a century later political scientists and other scholars have come to recognize the diverse nonmaterial bases of authority and stability in the Arab world generally and in the Arab Gulf region particularly. These include the very institutions of monarchism,12 Islam,13 and the ruling family;14 traditional forms of political consultation rooted in tribal custom;15 stewardship of the arts, culture, and higher education16 international prestige;17 and, increasingly since 2011, the provision of security and order in the face of real and imagined adversaries.

Under conditions of insecurity, a majority of Gulf Arabs prefer a less than ideal situation with which they are familiar over a push for fundamental change that, while it may potentially bring improvement, also carries real risks of uncertainty and instability.

The provision of security, which is the focus here, comprises two distinct elements: the state’s ability to protect citizens at a time when the suffering of their Arab neighbors are on constant display, and the foreignness of the threat facing the nation, whether from a geographical or an ideological standpoint. The first exerts an attractive force, bolstering support for the status quo among more security-minded citizens. The latter acts as a reinforcing negative influence by encouraging rejection of what is branded as alien—alien countries (Iran, the West), alien political ideas (the Muslim Brotherhood, Western liberal democracy, the Islamic State), and alien religious interpretations (Shiism).

Beyond their main effect of dampening popular appetite for dissent, these threat perceptions have also helped feed the rise of a previously unknown nationalism in those places where they have been most actively cultivated, namely Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In all Arab Gulf countries, however, leaders have benefited from a visceral sense of insecurity, inexplicable forces spurring regional change, and a future replete with unknowns.

By feeding intercommunal distrust, sowing fear of external threats, and emphasizing their unique ability to guarantee security, ruling elites can reinforce backing among loyalists and dampen incentives for protest among reformists more cheaply than through the standard provision of material benefits.

This one might call the political economy of sectarianism, the latter understood broadly as the politicization of ascriptive group identities—that is, those established by birth. Public uncertainty surrounding the interests and intentions of different groups in society earns Gulf leaders a political subsidy by decoupling support among certain factions and individuals from actual political and economic performance. For these supporters, the state’s provision of stability—whether as a good as such or as protection of entrenched interests—serves as an effective substitute for the public and private benefits otherwise expected of governments and duly expected by other, less status quo–oriented, members of society.

Such dynamics are doubly enabling for regimes because, at the same time as they enhance legitimacy, they also free up resources that might otherwise have been spent buying support. By feeding intercommunal distrust, sowing fear of external threats, and emphasizing their unique ability to guarantee security, ruling elites can reinforce backing among loyalists and dampen incentives for protest among reformists more cheaply than through the standard provision of material benefits. A sectarian strategy thus carries the prospect of significant political as well as economic payoffs when compared to a traditional system of direct patronage. It is at once an allegiance-building and cost-saving measure.

Although the origin and extent of competition among sectarian and other social groups varies widely across the Arab Gulf countries, still one can identify a set of mechanisms that today contribute to polarization either directly or indirectly by heightening overall feelings of insecurity. Some purposeful and some less deliberate, these mechanisms include:

  • electoral and legislative rules that institutionalize descent-based cleavages rather than crosscutting programmatic coalitions;
  • exclusionary national narratives that highlight differences among citizens;
  • the securitization of opposition, especially among Gulf Arab Shia populations seen as presumed sympathizers with Iran;
  • an emboldened GCC foreign policy that has contributed directly to regional instability and promoted a militaristic nationalism in some Gulf states; and
  • the specter of radical economic reorganization in the face of dwindling oil and gas revenues.

Institutionalizing Group Conflict

Arab Gulf societies feature a natural tendency toward political groupings based on ascriptive affiliation. This owes, first, to the region’s political environment, which is largely devoid of open media, political parties, or an independent civil society that might transmit information about the attitudes and preferences of fellow citizens. At the same time, the rentier system privileges individual rather than group competition over private economic benefits conferred by the state, which works against the formation of programmatic or class-based coalitions. The latter factor reduces incentives for joint political action among citizens who have shared economic or normative interests, while the low-information nature of the political environment limits the ability of like-minded citizens to identify each other and coordinate politically, even if they so desire.18

Rather than implement measures to counteract this predisposition for descent-based conflict, most Gulf states have actively sought to enhance sectarian, tribal, and other group cleavages in order to avoid the emergence of a more dangerous category of actor: socially crosscutting factions with broad bases of support capable of exerting effective political pressure.

A primary weapon in this battle is governments’ design of formal representative institutions. Although Gulf legislatures wield no effective power outside of Kuwait and to a lesser extent Bahrain, still the rules governing their election and functions offer insights into the way that states structure political competition in a manner conducive to preserving the status quo. And, universally, these institutions have had the intended consequence of deepening and indeed institutionalizing group competition behind a veneer of modern democratic politics.

In Bahrain, electoral districts gerrymandered along sectarian lines undermine the electoral prospects of populist and secular candidates. The result is a lower house of parliament permanently divided among Sunni Islamists, loyalist tribal “independents,” and—when it chooses to participate in elections—an opposition Shia bloc.

Most Gulf states have actively sought to enhance sectarian, tribal, and other group cleavages.

Elites in Kuwait use similar measures. The GCC’s oldest and most influential legislature, the Kuwait National Assembly, is subject to an ever-changing set of rules governing voter eligibility, the number and shape of electoral districts, and the voting system that are crafted to suit the political circumstances of the day. To counter the strong influence of Arab nationalism in the decades after independence in 1961, Kuwait naturalized more than 200,000 Bedouin to serve as a reliable pro-government bloc in parliament. When the Iranian Revolution later shifted concern to Kuwait’s large Shia minority, the state redrew and expanded the number of electoral districts, with tribal areas and urban merchant elites disproportionately represented. More recently, a shift toward opposition among tribal factions necessitated yet another change. Following four parliamentary dissolutions in four years, in 2012 Kuwait reverted to a five-district system while also doubling the number of candidates a voter could select. The hope was that larger districts and greater choice would hamper tribal coordination of voting via informal primary elections, in which tribal blocs unify behind a single candidate or list.19

Similar if less consequential manipulations can be observed even where elected deliberative bodies enjoy a purely advisory role. For its municipal council elections, Saudi Arabia employs an electoral system seen nowhere else in the world, in which voters are able to cast ballots in all districts of their municipality. This undercuts localized bases of support, ensuring, among other things, that minority Shia candidates are unlikely to succeed outside of the Shia-dominated Eastern Province.

In the United Arab Emirates, voter franchise is limited to a handpicked electoral college that included less than 1 percent of Emirati citizens in the first Federal National Council elections of 2006.

In the United Arab Emirates, voter franchise is limited to a handpicked electoral college that included less than 1 percent of Emirati citizens in the first Federal National Council elections of 2006.20 The electorate was later expanded to allow the participation of around 12 percent of nationals in 2011, and expanded again to roughly 20 percent of citizens, or around 225,000 eligible voters, in 2015.21 There, as in Oman and Qatar, electoral results tend to follow patterns of family and tribal settlement owing to districting and voting rules. For instance, a study of Qatar’s 2015 municipal council elections found that the single greatest determinant of both voter registration and the act of voting itself was the number of candidates from the same family or tribe running in an individual’s district.22

In sum, the experience of Gulf legislatures shows how regimes have generally succeeded in structuring acceptable avenues of political participation around existing social fault lines, rather than in a way that encourages citizens to overcome narrow group identities.

Selective National Narratives

A second direct contributor to the social fragmentation of Gulf citizenries is the explicit ascriptive-based distinctions between citizens that are ingrained in the very histories propagated and celebrated by Gulf countries. Crafted in the images of ruling families, official narratives reflect the ideal of the Sunni Arab tribesman and even of specific schools of Islamic jurisprudence—Hanbali in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Ibadi in Oman, Maliki in Bahrain and Kuwait, and a more Sufi orientation in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Necessarily excluded from these supposedly national portrayals are citizens of nontribal origin: non-Arabs, including notably those of Persian ancestry; citizens who ascribe to a different Sunni tradition; and of course Shia Muslims. Additional distinctions, especially prominent in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, separate native citizens from latecomers who gained citizenship after some legally defined cutoff date. Except in Bahrain, where new arrivals receive preferential treatment as an incentive to immigrate,23 naturalized citizens are seen by more established families as dissipating state resources and thus the welfare benefits to which the latter are entitled by birth. Consequently, naturalized citizens are generally afforded fewer political and economic rights. There also remain substantial populations, in Qatar and especially in Kuwait, that have been denied citizenship altogether despite the long-term residence of their families and tribes, again so as not to dilute the state-provided benefits enjoyed by others.24

This pyramid of citizenship and belonging in Gulf states—codified both in law and in the public imagination through media, school curricula, art and architecture, and everyday life—makes clear society’s descent-based dividing lines and also, critically, who stands to lose and gain from a fundamental change in political organization. The open differentiation of social groupings means not simply that some citizens have a greater personal interest in maintaining the prevailing system, but also that the relative incentives of all groups to support the state as ultimate benefactor are understood by all—it is, in the language of political science, “common knowledge.”25

Gulf states feature in this way an inherent social tension whereby advantaged groups recognize the disproportionate propensity for opposition among disadvantaged groups, while second- and third-tier citizens understand, similarly, that members of advantaged groups are more likely to support the regime. And since the line between advantaged and disadvantaged is determined largely by ascriptive criteria—accent, dress, skin color, given or family name, and so on—outward markers of group affiliation communicate information not simply about social affiliation, but about presumed political allegiance. Daily social interaction among Gulf citizens thus entails a constant sizing up and interpretation of visible cues so as to allow the placement of others on a mental pyramid of citizenship, and their evaluation as likely allies or rivals.

Opposition as a Threat to National Security

The securitization of opposition is a third source of group fractionalization in the Arab Gulf states. This notion refers to the growing conception and treatment of dissent as a veritable national security threat, to be addressed within a law-enforcement framework, rather than as an ordinary political challenge.26 It represents the delegitimization of political disagreement itself. Specific targets are dictated by domestic politics, but include Shia activists and organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist groups, and even individual online critics of Gulf regimes.

The post-2011 trend toward securitization has increased social polarization directly by promoting an us-versus-them dichotomy that paints fundamentally political actors, along with their real and imagined supporters, as threats to the general welfare. In publically demonizing their opponents, Gulf states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have also linked domestic actors to transnational movements and rival governments, painting dissenters as foreign-inspired—even foreign-backed—traitors.

In addition to ostracizing major segments of Gulf populations, the redefinition of opposition as a state security problem also fosters group competition indirectly by raising society’s overall threat-perception level. Rather than view fellow citizens as competitors for resources within a normal political framework, individuals are encouraged instead to fear partisans of rival groups and ideologies as potential terrorists. The effect is to magnify existing apprehensions over widespread regional instability and civil strife and, moreover, to make external conflicts seem closer to home, by linking them to groups and individuals operating domestically. In this way, even citizens of apparently stable Gulf countries may come to see themselves as but a few steps removed from a fateful breakdown in law and order, and ruling families as alone equipped to protect against such a possibility.

GCC Activism and Nationalism

Another reason for heightened feelings of insecurity among Gulf publics is the newfound foreign policy activism of GCC governments themselves. Excepting Oman, which maintains a stubborn neutrality to the annoyance of other Gulf countries, and to a large extent Kuwait, which has offered mostly token participation in GCC initiatives, the Gulf states have shown an unprecedented willingness to act militarily to counter the perceived expansion of influence by challengers to their religious and political authority—whether Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Islamic State.

Beginning with the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force dispatched to quell mass demonstrations in Bahrain in March 2011, the alliance has undertaken a string of interventions spanning the breadth of the Arab world. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it has carried out air strikes and supplied weapons to combatants in Libya and Syria, financed an embattled regime in Egypt, and embarked on a full-scale invasion of Yemen. That Gulf citizens feel more vulnerable amid a neighborhood descended into chaos, then, owes in no small part to the deliberate foreign policy choices of their own leaders, whose involvement in what began as domestic political conflicts has likely increased the duration and, in the case of Yemen, the brutality of these Arab wars.

Five years of participation in armed conflict has also given rise to what Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed has called a “militarized hypernationalism” in those countries most heavily involved, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.27 There and elsewhere in the GCC, claims that countries must be protected in the face of aggressive Iranian and Shia expansionism have been transformed from the stuff of official news agencies into a general political mantra demanding action and sacrifice by ordinary citizens and rulers alike. Since 2014, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have all introduced compulsory military service for male citizens, and the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has called for his country to adopt a similar policy to help in the fight “against the enemies of religion and the nation.”28 At the same time, senior Gulf royals have also been active—and highly conspicuous—participants in the Yemen war. This includes numerous Saudi princes, the eldest son of Dubai’s ruler, the son of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, two sons of the Bahraini king, and the son of the ruler of the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, who was seriously injured in a missile strike.29

More than simply to drum up popular support for a costly and largely unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen, the GCC’s engineered patriotism is intended, as al-Rasheed writes, to “perform the miracle of homogenizing . . . subjects and molding them into one entity.”30 But this larger instrumental value also means that Gulf rulers face the perverse incentive to sustain rather than curb their engagement in external conflicts, as a temporary antidote to social fragmentation and a weak sense of national belonging. Leaders in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere thus emerge as both a primary source of, and self-styled solution to, the sectarian-based insecurity facing their nations. In that way, they draw closer to them those citizens who accept the premise of an existential threat posed by Iran and officially unsanctioned Islamic movements, while further alienating those domestic groups identified as potential sympathizers.

The Specter of Economic Upheaval

A final major source of uncertainty for Gulf publics is the process of fundamental economic transformation now being embarked upon to a greater or lesser extent by all GCC countries as a result of diminishing revenues from oil and gas. Except for Kuwait, all Gulf governments have moved to shore up enormous budget deficits by curtailing expensive subsidies on fuel, electricity, and other commodities, while at the same time investigating new sources of revenue through the once-unthinkable means of raising taxes and privatizing core state assets.31 At the regional level, all six GCC countries have agreed to implement a region-wide value-added tax of 5 percent by as early as 2018, and Saudi Arabia has publicly indicated a willingness to impose excise taxes as well.32 Rather than these being temporary measures to solve a short-term fiscal challenge, Gulf leaders have made it clear to their citizens that the changes being studied will herald a fundamental break with the traditional Gulf rentier model in place for generations. This message was aptly summarized in a November 2015 speech by the emir of Qatar, steward of the region’s most extensive welfare system, in which he warned Qataris in unusually blunt terms that the state could no longer afford “to provide for everything.”33

Thus, at a time when political anarchy lies at the doorstep of the Gulf nations, and enemies seem intent on exploiting any weaknesses, GCC citizens are facing a simultaneous unraveling of the one thing upon which they could always depend: the generous financial support of the state. Such timing, one expects, is not a coincidence. The extreme sense of anxiety permeating the Gulf region means that governments enjoy a reservoir of popular support and legitimacy simply for their provision of security in an insecure region, affording them the freedom to renegotiate their tacit social contracts with citizens more or less unilaterally.

The extreme sense of anxiety permeating the Gulf region means that governments enjoy a reservoir of popular support and legitimacy simply for their provision of security in an insecure region.

In the end, a less generous but stable state is preferable to the state of nature. And, indeed, it is precisely this argument that is being articulated by Gulf rulers themselves, alongside their partners in global financial institutions: that serious reforms are needed to avoid eventual economic collapse—to guarantee the continued security and prosperity of Gulf societies.34

How Gulf Citizens’ Preferences Enable Gulf Regimes

These conclusions find support in public opinion data collected in the region. When Arab Gulf citizens are asked about their views on stability, government performance, and loyalty to their leaders, the patterns that emerge give strong empirical evidence of a link between popular feelings of insecurity and increased political deference.35 Gulf citizens who are more worried about security are less concerned about their governments’ actual economic and political performance. This means that, for the same objective level of performance, the ruler of a fearful population can expect a higher degree of acquiescence as compared to the ruler of a population that is less preoccupied with the maintenance of law and order.

In surveys conducted in 2013 and 2016, citizens of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar were asked to identify their first and second most important priorities from among competing national goals. These goals included “boosting economic development,” “maintaining the country’s security and stability,” “giving people more say over important state decisions,” and “preserving the identity and culture of the country.36 Notably, despite similar exposure to regional sources of insecurity, the data reveal wide cross-national variation in the prioritization of stability among Gulf nationals.

As shown in figure 1, the resulting pattern suggests at first glance an unexpected relationship: prioritization of stability seems to be highest in those places where stability already prevails. A full two-thirds of Qataris and three-quarters of Kuwaitis, for instance, identify stability as their top priority, compared to a mere quarter of Bahrainis. Indeed, a majority of citizens in Bahrain and a plurality of those in Oman do not rank stability even among their top two national goals.

What accounts for this variation among Gulf countries? One might speculate that this pattern exists because those countries that have witnessed more substantial post-2011 unrest, such as Bahrain, have experienced protests and violence precisely due to citizens’ being relatively less concerned about stability compared to other political and economic objectives. However, this explanation cannot account for the divergent cases of Kuwait and Oman. Both countries have seen low to moderate levels of protest in the post-2011 period, yet their citizens have very different priorities in regard to stability. A full three-quarters of Kuwaitis name stability as their top national goal, for example, compared to just one-third of Omanis. The mechanisms underlying these popular preferences seem, therefore, to defy easy explanation: it is neither true that Gulf citizens crave stability when they lack it, nor that they take it for granted when they enjoy it.

The Link Between Stability and Political Deference

For present purposes, however, the more important question is how this variation in stability prioritization relates to the degree of political deference that citizens display. To measure deference to political authority, survey respondents were asked the extent of their agreement or disagreement with the statement that “citizens should always support the decisions of the state, even if they disagree with those decisions.” This item comes from the Arab Barometer survey that has been conducted throughout the Middle East and North Africa since 2006;37 however, it is not included in the Bahrain survey. For Bahrain, therefore, I measured popular orientations toward the state here more broadly using the survey question, “How much trust do you have in government institutions?” The distribution of responses to the first question is given in figure 2.

As with preferences for stability, the survey data reveal considerable cross-societal differences in Gulf nationals’ political deference, with Qataris demonstrating the highest levels of deference and Omanis the lowest. The responses in the Bahraini survey (the results of which are not shown here) are not directly comparable, but nearly three-quarters of Bahraini citizens reported either a “very high” (24 percent) or “high” (48 percent) level of trust, while only 7 percent said they had “no trust at all” in state institutions.38

Digging deeper to study the factors accounting for individual differences in political orientations,39 one encounters once again mostly inconsistent findings across the four countries surveyed. In Oman, female citizens are associated with lower levels of political deference, while in Bahrain females are linked to more positive orientations toward the government. Age is a significant positive predictor of deference only in Oman, and education level a negative predictor only in Qatar. Regarding the independent variable of most interest, the extent of one’s prioritization of stability is a strong positive predictor of deference in Qatar, while in Bahrain those who cite stability as their top priority are, all else equal, more negatively oriented toward the state.

The sole common thread across three of the four societies–Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar—is a positive link between economic satisfaction and political deference. Thus, based on these initial findings, one is tempted to conclude that the only compelling explanation of why individuals tend to support or oppose governments is the long-standing maxim of rentier state theory: materially satisfied Gulf citizens make politically quiescent Gulf citizens. In other words, nationals will remain loyal to a regime insofar as it lives up to its half of the implicit social contract governing state-society relations in the GCC.

However, this story changes dramatically when one examines the way in which stability preferences alter the relationship between economic and political satisfaction. Take, for instance, the case of Qatar. Figure 3 shows the individual-level link between economic satisfaction and political deference among Qataris, depending upon how a respondent prioritizes stability versus other national aims. Each line in the figure corresponds to a different group of Qatari citizens: the uppermost dotted line to those who cite stability as their top priority, the middle dashed line to those Qataris for whom it is a second priority, and the bottom solid line represents those who do not mention stability at all.40

The figure shows clearly that the extent to which economic satisfaction leads to political deference among Qatari nationals depends critically on how much an individual prioritizes security and stability. Among the most stability-conscious, there is no relationship at all between economic conditions and willingness to defer to government decisions. For this group, the predicted likelihood of complete political deference—that is, “strong agreement” with the statement that citizens should always support the decisions of the government—is 64 percent among individuals who are least satisfied with their economic situation, and a similar 75 percent among those whose satisfaction is rated at 10 out of 10. In other words, deference among security-minded Qataris is statistically unconnected to their level of economic satisfaction.

By contrast, among citizens who prioritize national goals other than stability, economic satisfaction is a strong predictor of political deference, as indicated by the sharply upward sloping solid line. For this group, a person of “low” economic satisfaction (defined as one standard deviation below the mean) is 39 percent likely to report total political deference, compared to an estimated 62 percent among citizens of “high” satisfaction (one standard deviation above the mean).41

What is more, this political subsidy enjoyed by the Qatari state due to public concerns over stability—the distance between the top line and the bottom line in figure 3—increases as economic satisfaction declines. Less financially satisfied citizens, in other words, are much more likely to remain politically supportive if they are stability-oriented. A Qatari of average satisfaction, for instance, is an estimated 70 percent likely to be deferential if stability is his or her top priority, compared to only 50 percent among those who do not mention stability—a gap of 20 percent. But the corresponding proportions for a Qatari with “low” economic satisfaction are even farther apart, at 68 percent and 38 percent, respectively. For a Qatari in the lowest possible satisfaction category, finally, this discrepancy grows larger still, with a 64 percent likelihood of total deference estimated among stability-oriented citizens, compared to a mere 18 percent likelihood among those unconcerned about stability. This difference attributable to stability preferences is significant at a high level of statistical confidence for all but the top two categories of economic satisfaction.

In conclusion, except for those at the very highest levels of economic satisfaction, concern for the maintenance of public order makes Qatari citizens willing to accept fewer economic benefits in return for the same level of political acquiescence.42

Summarized in table 1 are the corresponding results for Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. Rows indicate the boost in political deference owing to economic satisfaction conditional on stability preferences. For each of the three possible orientations—top priority, second priority, and not a priority—the table shows the difference in political support between economically dissatisfied versus economically satisfied citizens. To offer a real-world test of significance, marginal effects here are evaluated as the difference between an individual of lower than average versus higher than average satisfaction (as opposed to minimum versus maximum), operationalized as one standard deviation below and above, respectively, the country-specific means.

The upper-left cells, for example, give the relationship between economic satisfaction and deference for Bahrainis who cite stability as their top concern. In this case, there is no statistical link (p = 0.60) between these two variables when the stability condition is imposed. As in the case of Qatar, in Bahrain economic satisfaction relates to political orientations only among individuals who prioritize national aims other than stability. Specifically, having a high versus a low level of economic satisfaction boosts the likelihood of political deference by 49 percent among this group of citizens, who, per figure 1, represent more than half of all Bahrainis.

The findings from Kuwait are somewhat different but substantively consistent with those from Bahrain and Qatar. Here the relationship between economic satisfaction and political deference is statistically significant across all stability preference groups; however, the magnitude of the effect is almost three times as large among citizens who do not prioritize stability (an estimated 80 percent increase in the likelihood of political deference) compared with those who do (less than a 30 percent increase). The former effect also is associated with a higher degree of statistical confidence. So, while the rentier link does operate among Kuwaitis independently of how they prioritize stability, the data show that this relationship is attenuated among more stability-concerned citizens. Even in Kuwait, therefore, the state earns a subsidy due to popular risk aversion, and it is able to buy and preserve the political support of status quo–oriented citizens more cheaply than that of others.

One arrives, finally, at the deviant case of Oman, where an individual’s satisfaction with his or her household financial situation is never a predictor of political acquiescence. Indeed, very little—only gender and potentially age—seems to account for variation in Omanis’ propensities to defer to political authority. Whether it’s satisfaction, stability preferences, or the interaction between the two, all fail to explain why some citizens reserve their right to dissent from government decisions, while others feel they must remain supportive of policies with which they personally disagree.

One might speculate that in Oman deference to the state is inextricably tied to the person of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, ruler since 1970 and widely credited with modernizing the once underdeveloped and internationally isolated country. It might be that Omanis’ orientations toward the prevailing regime are shaped above all by views of the broader social and economic progress spearheaded by the sultan over five decades, rather than individual outcomes in the areas of economic well-being and political efficacy. Whatever the case, it is clear that Oman does not follow the pattern observed in the three other Gulf countries considered here.

The Benefits and Risks of Manipulating Identity Politics

The notion that Gulf governments ultimately benefit from the heightened politicization of sectarian and other group identities is often taken as a given. Yet, investigating the empirical connection between threat perceptions and the appetite for dissent among GCC citizens reveals a more complex story than the one usually articulated. Concerns over stability do not impact political orientations directly by reducing citizens’ willingness to take a position opposed to regimes. Rather, they do so indirectly, by severing or attenuating the normal link between the performance of Gulf governments and the support (or lack thereof) this performance engenders.

For more stability-minded citizens, the state’s provision of security is in effect a substitute for the private financial benefits otherwise expected by Gulf citizens, an intangible benefit that enables states to purchase political loyalty at a reduced cost compared to what they would spend through the direct patronage of citizens. In Qatar, for instance, political deference among security-oriented citizens at the lowest level of economic satisfaction remains higher than that among the most economically satisfied citizens who do not prioritize security. The positive boost from the state’s safeguarding of law and order, in other words, utterly outweighs the negative impact of poor economic delivery for more stability-minded citizens.

The obvious upshot is that Gulf governments have a direct economic and political incentive to augment as far as possible the share of citizens who prize stability over other societal aims, including through the embellishment or manufacturing of domestic and external threats to security, as well as the exacerbation of social tensions.

In practice, however, this incentive is tempered by states’ countervailing concern that their stoking of public fear and distrust may yield a cure worse than the disease. Indeed, such was the experience of Bahrain’s rulers in the aftermath of the Shia-led uprising of February 2011. To stymie the momentum of the protest movement, Bahrain’s rulers used the specter of Shia empowerment and Iranian intervention to rouse ordinary Sunnis from their traditional political slumber. Sunnis soon responded by organizing their own mass demonstrations in support of the ruling Al Khalifa family.

Yet, having convinced Sunnis of the existential threat posed by Iran and its Shia agents in Bahrain, the authorities found it impossible to quiet their own supporters, who began pressing for an even harsher security response to continued protests, thus quickening the spiral of violence and repression that has characterized the post-2011 period. Some Sunni activists even dared to criticize senior royals, including King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa himself, for their perceived weakness.43 By the time parliamentary elections took place in 2014, the new Sunni movements appeared poised to capitalize on their grassroots appeal, and it was only through last-minute gerrymandering of electoral districts that the regime was able to stuff the proverbial genie back into the bottle.

There exists, then, a fine line between a regime’s emphasizing its protection of citizens against mostly hypothetical dangers, and the inadvertent creation of actual breakdowns in security and order through policies that incite social hatred and uncontrollable public hysteria. Still, on balance one is forced to conclude that the ruling strategy pursued by Bahrain and other Gulf governments remains, regrettably, highly successful.44 Some indication of this can be gleaned by comparing public reactions to fiscal austerity measures taken or proposed by GCC countries since 2015. In principle, the retrenchment of state welfare benefits along with the promise of various forms of new taxation is an issue that should unite Gulf citizens from across the social spectrum, since reforms apply equally to, and are equally unwelcome to, members of all confessional, tribal, and other groupings. In reality, however, one observes stark differences in popular responses to announced economic changes that defy simple structural or institutional explanations, pointing instead to the power of some states’ sectarian narratives.

Comparing the recent political experiences of Bahrain and Kuwait illustrates this well. Though distinguished by Kuwait’s relative wealth, the two countries share much in common. They feature the region’s most robust and long-standing formal representative institutions, both have active and largely progressive civil societies, and they are not dissimilar in terms of social group composition and cleavages. Yet public reactions to fiscal austerity could not be more divergent—and in the opposite way than one would have expected.45

In Bahrain, where the curtailing of government subsidies and benefits entails real economic pain for a citizenry largely impoverished by Gulf standards, protest by citizens was limited to complaints on social media. In Kuwait, by contrast, the state’s repeated attempts at spending reductions and revenue generation were met with stiff resistance in parliament and, in April 2016, precipitated a three-day strike by oil workers, the first in twenty years. What is it that allowed workers in Kuwait to come together for political action, while in Bahrain citizens remained politically quiescent, despite being objectively more affected by state-imposed austerity?

Bahrain remains stuck in the cycle of political stagnation and repression brought on by the 2011 uprising.

In short, Bahrain remains stuck in the cycle of political stagnation and repression brought on by the 2011 uprising. Having spent the past five years fighting on either side of a conflict over the rightful division of political and economic resources, Bahrainis continue to view fiscal austerity through the same lens of communal interests, security, and regional geopolitics—with the state as ultimate beneficiary. For Shia and other citizens inclined toward opposition to the regime, activism has proven both futile and dangerous, and the risks of detention, imprisonment, or revocation of citizenship far outweigh the expected impact on government policy.

For Sunnis, the calculations are more complicated. On the one hand, as the ruling family’s core support base, the community receives a disproportionate share of state largesse and thus stands to lose the most from cuts to public-sector salaries and other benefits. Its voice is also potentially more influential in that opposition among Sunnis would raise the possibility of cross-sectarian political coordination. But in the post-2011 landscape, dissent has been made synonymous with Shia activism and is tantamount to treason, and Sunnis are loath to oppose even those policies that negatively affect their own community. Tellingly, rather than blame Bahrain’s fiscal woes on economic mismanagement or corruption, many Sunnis have found ways of faulting the usual suspects by blaming Bahraini Shia and even Iran. Were it not for the economic destruction and increased security spending necessitated by the uprising, their reasoning goes, as well as Iran’s deliberate flooding of the oil market, Bahrain would not have found itself in its current financial predicament in the first place.46

The inability of Bahrainis to overcome sectarian cleavages has meant that the state, far from offering political concessions in return for welfare reduction, in fact has taken the opportunity to further consolidate its grip on power. In January 2016, parliamentarians moved to quiz the finance minister after the government bypassed the legislature to enact a 60-percent hike in fuel prices with a mere nine hours’ notice. Shortly before the vote to allow the questioning, Bahrain’s interior minister paid a visit to legislators, expressing his astonishment that parliamentarians, being keenly aware of the country’s fiscal crisis, were nonetheless putting up more of an obstacle to needed change than regular citizens.47 Soon thereafter, the parliament altered its own rules to require a three-quarters majority in order to interrogate ministers, effectively forfeiting enhanced legislative oversight included in limited post-2011 reforms.

At the same time, Bahrain has aggressively stamped out what remains of its opposition, including through the revocation of citizenship, unprecedented disqualification of religious leaders from politic48 the dissolution of the main Shia opposition bloc al-Wifaq, and prosecution of critics of the ruling family, government institutions, and even Bahrain’s military involvement in Yemen. The state’s rationale in the case of the Yemen war was aptly paraphrased in a report carried by the official Bahrain News Agency, which echoed the security mantra that today dominates public discourse in the Gulf states:

In light of the delicate situation in the region . . . the Interior Ministry . . . warned against any attempt to exploit the situation through division or sedition, or issuance of statements against the approach Bahrain has taken [in the Yemen conflict].

The Interior Ministry said it would take appropriate steps against individuals that put the safety and security of the country at risk.

The Ministry stressed that the situation required strong national unity, general order and stability.


For most of the past half century, the states of the Arab Gulf have been defined by their unique combination of economic generosity and political parsimony—a system preserved by vast resource wealth and traditional institutions of governance that have managed to retain a preponderance of legitimacy. Yet, fifty years on from the establishment of the rentier system, one is tempted to say of the Gulf monarchies that it is their adept management of social group cleavages and identities, rather than economic distribution per se, that has powered their continued longevity. The GCC may be rich, but one does not remain rich by spending all of one’s money. Instead, both out of fiscal necessity and a desire to maximize private consumption, Gulf rulers seek to buy popular loyalty as cheaply as possible, deploying resources strategically while also cultivating intangible sources of legitimacy so as to lessen the need for financial patronage.

In elucidating the link between political loyalty and individual preferences for stability, the foregoing analysis has lent empirical substance to the notion, frequently articulated but never before systematically tested, that Gulf governments can frighten their populations into accepting the political status quo. Faced with uncertainty and insecurity, a majority of Gulf Arabs would rather defend a system that is less than ideal than push for a new and potentially better political order, the transition to which risks going very wrong. Fortunately for Gulf rulers, and unfortunately for Gulf nationals, the post-2011 Middle East and North Africa offers plenty of examples of the latter, but few if any success stories.

Appendix I: Methodology

The aim of the survey data analysis is to understand how popular preferences for stability shape political attitudes and behavior among individual Gulf citizens, and how this link varies across different Gulf societies. The analysis began by investigating the direct (bivariate) relationship between stability preferences and political deference, evaluating to what extent the data support the notion that more stability-oriented citizens are also more likely to remain supportive of Gulf governments even when they disagree with their policies.

The next step was to assess the conditioning effect of individual preferences for stability on other important processes through which citizens might come to assume a more oppositional or deferential political stance. Specifically, the analysis considered the moderating effect of stability preferences on the expected link between economic satisfaction and political satisfaction. The finding that this basic rentier relationship operates more weakly and/or not at all among those citizens who emphasize stability over other societal aims is evidence of the hypothesized political subsidy enjoyed by Gulf rulers as a result of popular concerns over security. Alternatively, if the data were to have shown that economically less satisfied nationals tend to exhibit less deference toward the state irrespective of their security orientation, then this would have been strong evidence against this hypothesis.

To study these empirical relationships, I relied on a standard ordered logistic regression model estimated separately for each of the four countries. The model tested the effects of the independent variables of interest—economic satisfaction and concern for stability—while holding constant a number of potentially confounding social and economic factors.50 These control variables included a respondent’s gender (coded 1 for females), years of age, and educational level (primary or below, high school graduate, some technical/college, university graduate). Economic satisfaction was measured by a respondent’s self-reported satisfaction with “the overall economic situation” of his or her household (rated on an ascending 0 to 10 scale). Prioritization of stability was coded categorically (first priority, second priority, not a priority). To reduce the number of parameters in the model, age and education were estimated as continuous measures, while stability was estimated as a factor variable. Due to a relatively high rate of missing data, household income was not included as a control.

Finally, to test the conditioning influence of stability preferences on the relationship between economic satisfaction and political deference, a multiplicative interaction term was added between the stability and economic satisfaction variables. All models utilized robust standard errors and, where available, sampling weights to account for survey design effects.

This paper was published through a generous research grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


1 According to the Saudi Ministry of Interior, as quoted in Al-Jazeera English. “Saudi Arabia Executes 47 on Terrorism Charges,” Al-Jazeera English, January 2, 2016,

2 “Saudi Arabia: Appalling Death Sentence Against Shi’a Cleric Must Be Quashed,” Amnesty International, October 15, 2014,

3 As quoted in BBC. “Iran: Saudis Face ‘Divine Revenge’ for Executing al-Nimr,” BBC News, January 3, 2016,

4 “Saudi Arabia Hikes Petrol Prices by 40% at the Pump,” Al-Jazeera English, December 28, 2015,

5 The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

6 Justin Gengler and Laurent A. Lambert, “Renegotiating the Ruling Bargain: Selling Fiscal Reform in the GCC,” Middle East Journal, vol. 70, no. 2 (2016): 321–329.

7 As quoted in Vox. Max Fisher, “The Cold War Between Saudi Arabia and Iran That’s Tearing Apart the Middle East, Explained,” Vox, January 4, 2016,

8 Larry Potter, ed., Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (London/New York: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014); Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013); Steven Heydemann, “Syria and the Future of Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 4 (2013): 59–73.

9 Daniel Brumberg, “Transforming the Arab World’s Protection-Racket Politics,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 3 (2013): 88–103.

10 Galal Amin, The Modernization of Poverty: A Study in the Political Economy of Growth in Nine Arab Countries, 1945-70 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 49–50. As quoted in Dirk Vandewalle, “The Rentier State in the Arab World,” in The Rentier State: Nation, State and Integration in the Arab World, Vol. 2, edited by Giacomo Luciani (London: Routledge, 1987).

11 Hossein Mahdavy, “Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran,” in Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East: From the Rise of Islam to the Present Day, edited by M.A. Cook (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 428–467.

12 Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Daniel Brumberg, “Sustaining Mechanics of Arab Autocracies,” Foreign Policy, December 19, 2011; Victor Menaldo, “The Middle East and North Africa’s Resilient Monarchs,” Journal of Politics, vol. 74, no. 3 (2012): 707–722; Sean L. Yom and F. Gregory Gause III, “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 23, no. 4 (2012): 74–88; F. Gregory Gause III, “Kings for All Seasons: How the Middle East’s Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper No. 8, September 2013.

13 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Islamic Culture and Democracy: Testing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis,” Comparative Sociology, vol. 1, no. 3 (2002): 235–263; M. Steven Fish, “Islam and Authoritarianism,” World Politics, vol. 55, no. 1 (2002): 4–37; Daniela Donno and Bruce Russett, “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Female Empowerment: What are the Linkages?” World Politics, vol. 56, no. 4 (2002): 582–607.

14 Michael Herb, Allin the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).

15 Katja Niethammer, “Persian Gulf States,” in The Middle East, edited by Ellen Lust, 717–45. 13th ed. Los Angeles: CQ Press. See also, for example, the arguments of former Qatari prime minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani reported in Habib Toumi, “Reforms Best Way to Avoid Uprisings, Qatar Premier Says,” Gulf News, November 11, 2011.

16 Alanoud Alsharekh and Robert Springborg, eds., Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States (London: Saqi Books, 2008); Miriam Cooke, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

17 Mehran Kamrava, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); David Roberts, forthcoming, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State (London: Hurst & Co.).

18 Justin Gengler, “Understanding Sectarianism in the Persian Gulf,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, edited by Lawrence G. Potter, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

19 In this sense, the electoral reforms that took effect in 2012 can be seen as aiming, ironically, to encourage rather than stifle the emergence of programmatic coalitions—at least in tribal- dominated districts. Kuwait’s earlier parliamentary engineering worked only too well.

20 The United Arab Emirates electoral college had 6,689 members for the 2006 election, which roughly corresponded to about 0.8 percent of an estimated 825,000 nationals that year. Please see “United Arab Emirates Majlis Watani Itihadi (Federal National Council): Elections in 2006,” Inter-Parliamentary Union,

21 The United Arab Emirates National Bureau of Statistics estimated that the country had approximately 948,000 citizens in mid-2010. The percentages listed here assume a total number of 1,000,000 citizens to account for post-2010 population growth. Please see the following sources for further details. “Methodology of Estimating the Population in UAE,” United Arab Emirates National Bureau of Statistics,; “United Arab Emirates Majlis Watani Itihadi (Federal National Council): Elections in 2011,” Inter-Parliamentary Union,; “United Arab Emirates Majlis Watani Itihadi (Federal National Council): Last Elections,” Inter-Parliamentary Union,

22 Justin Gengler and Bethany Shockley, “Qualification or Affiliation? Determinants of Candidate Evaluations Among Arab Voters,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, September 1–4, 2016.

23 Bahrain actively recruits Arab and non-Arab Sunnis for police and military service, and more generally as a demographic hedge against its indigenous Shia majority.

24 Anh Nga Longva, “Nationalism in Pre-Modern Guise: The Discourse on Hadhar and Bedu in Kuwait,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 38, no. 2 (2006): 171–187.

25 Michael Suk-Young Chwe, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

26 Justin Gengler, “Royal Factionalism: the Khawālid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shī‘a Problem’ in Bahrain,” Journal of Arabian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (2013): 53–79.

27 Madawi al-Rasheed, “How United is the GCC?” Al-Monitor, April 3, 2015,

28 Habib Toumi, “Saudi Mufti Calls for Mandatory Military Service,” Gulf News, April 11, 2015,


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