The contest for “youth” in the GCC

March 21, 2014

By Kristin Smith Diwan, American University School of International Service

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014

There is no question that youth have played an outsize role in initiating the political uprisings and sustaining the protests that have characterized the tumultuous politics since the Arab Awakening of 2011. While no Gulf monarchies were toppled, the escalation in mostly youth-led oppositional activity has changed the security calculus of Gulf governments. Their response has included actions – both concessional and punitive – specifically targeting “youth” as a constituency.

This memo examines the emergence of “youth” as a political category, reviewing their problematic place in the literature and outlining the implications of the rise of youth activism in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the government response to it. I argue that the generational divide – shaped by a new media environment and in some Gulf states the deterioration of the welfare state – is challenging not only the state, but key mediators of state power: tribes and Islamist movements. Its impact, then, is systemic and lasting, and will require significant adaptations by Gulf states beyond suppression of a “Gulf Arab Spring.”

Where to find “youth” in the literature?

“Youth” is problematic as an analytic category, given its broad scope and intersection with many issues. Thus the question of youth and its impact on politics has been addressed within many different literatures.

There is a sizeable literature at the intersection of economics and security examining the “youth bulge” and its ramifications for development and stability. The influential Arab Human Development Report identified deficits in education, social empowerment, and political freedom that are resulting in inadequate opportunities for future generations. [1] After September 11, 2001 the linkage was made between this more development-oriented literature and an earlier literature positing the link between youth bulges and political violence.[2]  Scholars and policymakers turned their attention to the problem of the radicalization of disaffected youth due to unemployment and relative deprivation.[3]

This analysis sits uneasily with another body of literature building on the work of scholars of media and communication examining the transformative impact of the new media environment. This literature often takes a special interest in the youth segment as the early adopters and most avid users of new media. The global connection facilitated by new media is thus seen as a key factor in cultural shift and the emergence of a new, more networked form of activism.[4] From a security perspective, this literature suggests that new media reduce costs for organization and information sharing, inviting a debate on their potential to force accountability and even political change.[5] It also emphasizes the inability of governments to fully control this new information environment.[6]

A third body of literature most associated with the sociologist Asef Bayat takes the most analytically sophisticated approach to defining “youth” as a legitimate category of social inquiry. His emphasis on “non-movement” movements offers an alternative and less direct mechanism for gradually effecting political change through shifting cultural norms.[7] An extension of this argument looks at the emergence of a post-Islamist trend, and the challenge this presents to Islamic movements.[8]

All three literatures expect new difficulties in integrating youth within existing sociopolitical institutions, whether due to economic limitations, opportunities offered by the new media environment, or cultural change.

Gulf youth activism in the Arab Awakening

A trend toward new forms of youth activism was apparent in the GCC states prior to the wave of uprisings in the Arab world in 2011. It can be seen in the social networks formed through Bahraini and Omani internet forums, in the 2006 “Orange movement” which successfully pressed for electoral reform in Kuwait, and in Saudi volunteerism in the wake of the 2009 Jeddah floods. These early manifestations point to growing frustrations over the declining effectiveness of the welfare state and the inadequacy of the political elite to address these concerns. They also clearly point to the use of new media – especially internet chat rooms and blogs – to facilitate information sharing and enable new coalitions beyond existing political groups.

The first two years of the Arab Awakening accelerated this trend toward youth activism, as Gulf youth took inspiration from the early successes of Egyptian and Tunisian youth-led revolts. Within each state, there is an expansion in the existing repertoires of contention, as Gulf youth adapted slogans and methods of Egyptian revolutionaries to their own context. In the two poorest Gulf states, Oman and Bahrain, demonstrators created protest encampments reminiscent of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. The most politically active populations, Bahrain and Kuwait, witnessed the largest protest marches in their history, facilitated by calls on Facebook and Twitter. Even the more politically conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where protests were explicitly forbidden as un-Islamic by the religious authorities, witnessed the adoption of limited protests calling for an improvement of facilities at a university campus in Abha, and much larger and politically pointed protests by Shiite youth in the Eastern Province.[9]

The expansion in means of contention were matched by an escalation in both rhetoric and demands, as youth-led movements crossed established redlines and challenged existing taboos. In 2011 the hashtag #Tal3mrak emerged as a rare venue for publicly criticizing the Saudi king.[10] Oman also saw the “de-sacralization” of the sultan, as graffiti calling for his fall appeared on walls in Sohar, and criticism usually reserved for his corrupt circle of ministers, began to extend to the sultan himself. In Kuwait and Bahrain the public challenge to the authority of the ruler was more direct. In Kuwait youth took up the chant “We will not let you” first delivered in a speech by the firebrand tribal populist Musallem al-Barrak, denouncing the ruler’s expected unilateral change in the voting system.[11] In Bahrain, public calls for the fall of the monarchy are now pervasive in Shiite villages.

The rise in rhetoric is indicative of an escalation of political demands. In Kuwait in November 2011, youth mobilization successfully forced the ouster of a scandal-weakened prime minister over the initial hesitations of the parliament and the objections of the emir. The lead-up to the premier’s resignation was notable for the use of street tactics by the youth-led opposition; marches and sit-ins in front of the parliament culminated in the actual storming of the parliament. However in Bahrain, three years of protests, now contained in Shiite villages and punctuated by sporadic violence, have failed to compel political concessions from a sharply divided monarchy.

Government responses to youth activism

The expansion in contentious politics, crossing of redlines, and escalation of demands embodied a new more defiant political culture by 2012. Ruling-family led governments did not remain passive in the face of these developments, enacting new restrictions on political expression and public assembly.

In Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman prosecutions mounted for violations of lese majeste, as rulers sought to reinstate the eroding taboo against insulting Gulf leaders.[12] Demonstrations were met with force and arrests – and in the case of Bahrain and the Shiite communities of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, deaths. Protests were banned in the capital city of Bahrain. New anti-terrorism regulations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia criminalized acts that disturb the public order, defame officials, or threaten national unity. In Saudi Arabia ad hoc policies were created to directly counter youth assembly, even if non-political.

At the same time, Gulf governments began creating their own youth initiatives, to demonstrate their receptiveness to youth concerns, and to co-opt the energy of youth activism. In Bahrain, Nasser bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, the younger son of the king, spearheaded a number of youth-oriented initiatives from his perch heading the supreme council for youth and sports. Kuwait reorganized its cabinet, creating an independent ministry for youth affairs. The Emiri Diwan launched its own initiative, “Kuwait Listens,” with youth delegates drawn from civil society organizations. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also created youth initiatives to promote the democratic practice of the UAE’s Federal National Council and to support Saudi Arabia’s push for a Gulf Union.

Impact and future trajectories

Across the Gulf youth activists brought a more comprehensive critique of the ruling system, and rejection of existing political leaders and societies as incapable of delivering fundamental political reform. Gulf leaders countered youth-led initiatives with restrictions on speech and assembly and with attempts at co-optation. Gulf governments were aided by the weakness of national political coalitions able to carry youth demands and by the collapse in the fortunes of the transitioning states of the Arab Awakening, which has severely eroded the local appetite for change.

Still, an assessment of the security impact of increasing youth activism should not be restricted to a narrow focus on immediate political outcomes. The impact of shifting youth culture is more pervasive, and challenges not only states but important mediators of state power: tribes and Islamist movements.

In Kuwait, activist youth have refused to participate in the tribal primaries that augment tribal power in the parliament. Tribal sheikhs sent by the Omani Ministry of Interior to mediate with youth enacting a “Tahrir-like” protest camp at a roundabout in Sohar were ridiculed and turned away.

Muslim Brotherhood youth have rebelled against the hierarchy and secrecy of their own organization, publishing their critiques in open blogs and pushing for a greater role in internal decision making. In Kuwait, they successfully demanded more autonomy for the Islamic Constitutional Movement, the Brotherhood’s political arm, and pulled it more firmly into the opposition camp.[13] Defectors from the Muslim Brotherhood – still dominated by an older generation – are key animators of youth activism in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf states. In Bahrain and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, new and more radical political movements have formed as Shiite youth have broken from the dominant Shiite Islamist leadership, rejecting its strategy of engagement with the government.

These changes suggest that the generational challenge is more systemic, and likely can’t be addressed by security measures alone. The sad turn in regional politics – toward exclusion in Egypt and increasingly sectarian strife in Syria as well as Iraq – may be dampening the Gulf public’s appetite for change, but it carries its own dangers for Gulf states as evidenced by the Saudi king’s royal order against Saudis fighting abroad.  As Gulf governments limit the space for independent activism, the appeal of “resistance” or “jihad” or sectarian vigilantism may once again capture a segment of disaffected youth.

Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.



[1] The Arab Human Development Report: Creating opportunities for future generations, UNDP, 2002.  See also Onn Winckler, “The Demographic Dilemma of the Arab World: The Employment Aspect,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 37, 2002, pp.617–636.

[2] Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley:  Univ. of California Press, 1991); Paul Collier, “Doing Well Out of War: An economic perspective,” in Berday and Malone, eds, Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000); Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations: Youth bulges and political violence,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 50 (2006):  607-629.

[3] See Brynjar Lia, Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism: Patterns and Predictions (London: Routledge, 2005).

[4] See for example W. Lance Bennett & Alexandra Segerberg, “The Logic of Connective Action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics,” Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 15, No. 5, June 2012, pp. 739-768.

[5] Marc Lynch, “After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June 2011): 301-310.

[6] Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Deen Freelon, Marc Lynch, John Sides and Michael Dewar,” Watching from Afar: Media Consumption Patterns Around the Arab Spring,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 57, No. 7 (2013): 899-919.

[7] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[8] Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, eds, Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Stephane Lacroix, “Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia’s New “Islamo-Liberal” Reformists,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Summer 2004): 345-365.

[9] The protests in the Eastern Province were the largest since the historic uprising in 1979. See Toby Matthiesen, “A ‘Saudi Spring?’:  The Shia Protest Movement in the Eastern Province 2011-2012,” The Middle East Journal, vol. 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2012): 628-659.

[10] #Tal3mrak – an honorific showing respect for royalty or important individuals

[11] Protestors in the Dignity of a Nation march, the largest in Kuwait’s history, chanted “we will not let you” in echo of al-Barrak’s direct challenge of the emir’s expected unilateral change in the electoral law: “We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy…”

[12] Indeed, Kuwait even prosecuted people for insulting other countries’ Gulf leaders.

[13] Kristin Smith Diwan, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring: Kuwait,” paper presented at The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring, IISS-Dartmouth, September 9-10, 2013.

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