Human security in the Gulf: Concept or reality?

By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Rice University’s Baker Institute.

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

In 2009, I concluded in an article on evolving Gulf security agendas that “difficult challenges lie ahead” as the unavoidable transition to eventual post-redistributive models of governance would require ruling elites to address systemic structural challenges in their distinctive political economies. The article noted also that references to human security increasingly were entering into regional debates on security but suggested that regimes’ commitment to an inclusive or empowering vision of security was unlikely to take root, and that the likely outcome would be “a stalled ‘half-way house’ that suits neither the interests of the state or individuals and groups within society.”[1] Five years on and in light of the eruption of mass protests and calls for political reform in 2011, this memorandum revisits the issue of human security in terms of challenges to political and economic sustainability posed by Gulf States’ policy responses to the Arab Spring.

During the period immediately prior to the Arab upheaval, the concept of “human security” began to be referenced with increasing frequency. Most notably, the fifth Arab Human Development Report, published in 2009, was entitled Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries and examined the symbiosis of human development with human security.[2] The report suggested that “the trend in the region has been to focus more on the security of the state than on the security of the people,” and argued instead that “human security and state security are two sides of the same coin.” Yet, the concept of “human security” as a bottom-up approach focusing on individuals and communities was never understood by regional policymakers, who sought instead to appropriate an international “buzzword” as their own. A prime example of the attempt to seize the initiative was the choice of human security as the theme for the 2008 conference of the Arab Women’s Organization, where genuine activists reported how they felt shut out of proceedings by the region’s first ladies.[3]

The partial advocacy of the concept of human security was fitted into a broader strategy to update regime security and legitimacy. Parallels may be drawn with the rhetoric of democratization and liberalization in the late-1990s and early-2000s when initial openings failed to translate into substantive reform.[4] By presenting themselves as the agents of top-down processes of reform, ruling elites sought to control the pace and direction of change and deny agency to communities and individuals who might have their own distinct interests or objectives. However, the cathartic shock of the mass expressions of political discontent that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and the rapid spread of political upheaval to Bahrain, Yemen, and parts of Saudi Arabia in 2011 put an end to regional debates on human security. Rather, in the words of Mohammed Ayoob, the Saudi-led intervention into Bahrain in March 2011 revealed the “true colours” of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which clearly prioritized regime security – synonymous with the security of the ruling families – over all else.[5]

Policy responses to the Arab Spring have complicated greatly the challenge of finding a sustainable balance between competing and contradictory visions of what, and for whom, the concept and values of security involves. States in transition are vulnerable to political violence and social conflict, and the redistributive political economies of the Gulf States are especially vulnerable to the potential breakdown of mechanisms for spreading wealth and co-opting support. Signs of economic insecurity have since multiplied along with the attendant political difficulties of taking and implementing sensitive measures that would set GCC economies onto pathways of sustainable development. Writing just months into the Arab Spring, Steffen Hertog noted that the most damaging long-term impact of the upheaval in the Gulf would be economic rather than political, as the escalation of the politics of patronage “threaten to undermine not only the fiscal sustainability of GCC regimes, but also their strategies to integrate their populations into a diversifying economy.”[6]

Research by Chatham House has underscored the systemic risk to the economic resilience of the GCC states of the inability to curb excessively wasteful patterns of resource usage. A report in December 2011 on the “hidden energy crisis” in Saudi Arabia drew attention to surging domestic energy consumption, as well as a Saudi Aramco warning that crude oil capacity could fall by up to 3 million barrels per day by 2028 on a “business as usual” scenario.[7] High energy demands triggered by rapid population growth rates (with the trebling of Qatar’s population between 2006 and 2013 the most extreme example); energy-intensive industrial development; and heavily subsidized electricity, water, and diesel have added further to the burgeoning resource stresses on Gulf governments. In 2013, a report by the International Monetary Fund laid bare the economic inefficiency of energy subsidies by estimating that such costs ranged from between 9 percent and 28 percent of government revenue.[8] Aside from constituting an extremely poor allocation of national resources, the soaring cost of subsidies also represented a heavy opportunity cost for governments in terms of lost potential funding for more urgent development needs.

Governments across the Gulf have acknowledged the urgency of subsidy reform but thus far little progress has been made. This reflects the sensitivity of political measures to recast the unproductive pillars that cushioned the transformative socio-economic (if not political) transition into the oil era and contributed to domestic stability ever since. In the face of the mounting difficulty of implementing macro-level economic reforms, GCC regimes have focused instead on consolidating their control over a narrowing base of political and societal support by sharpening the boundaries between the “ins” and “outs.” This is at its most extreme in Bahrain, where the government/ruling family appears to have decided that it can survive without the support of the archipelago’s Shiite majority as long as the regime’s core constituencies – both within and outside Bahrain – are secure.[9]

The prioritization of regime security through exclusionary measures that sharpen the politics of identity and belonging have primarily taken two forms. The first is the increasing use – in all Gulf states but most prevalent in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – of citizenship as a tool for punishing dissenters and disloyalty. As far back as 2000, Anh Nga Longva noted that citizenship in the GCC states “is not an abstract institution” but rather a complex relationship between “individual and state, complexly mediated by ideas of authority, legitimacy, and allegiance,” while Nils Butenschon suggested compellingly that “citizenship is a scarce public good distributed by the state, a source of collective identity and an instrument of political control … It is the right to have rights.” A prominent example of the wielding of citizenship occurred in November 2012 when the citizenship of 31 Bahrainis was revoked for “causing damage to state security.” Among those affected was sociologist Abdulhadi Khalaf, who wrote subsequently that ‘‘a passport is not a right of citizenship, but rather an honour bestowed by the ruling family” who “reserve the right to grant or revoke this gift at any time.”

The second exclusionary response is the exacerbation of sectarian tensions and rhetoric intended in part to hinder the mobilization of a mass-based, inclusive opposition. Employing the tactics of “divide-and-rule,” GCC officials reacted to the outbreak of protests in 2011 by attributing the unrest to external manipulation owing loyalty initially to Iran and subsequently to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to attempting to deflect attention away from the root causes of domestic socio-economic and political grievances, officials calculated also that such approaches would gain the support of security partners in key Western capitals. The rise of sectarian politics across the Gulf and the wider region has been analyzed extensively in recent scholarly work by Toby Matthiesen, Lawrence Potter, and Fred Wehrey, among others.[10] These works break new ground in the study of the politics of sectarian identity in the Gulf by integrating country case studies with wider regional developments in order to analyze the roots of – and the upsurge in – ethnic and sectarian conflict across the Middle East.

It is undoubtedly the case that the GCC states have weathered the immediate storm triggered by the Arab Spring, thereby confirming the regimes as the great survivors of the Arab world. As Gregory Gause has observed, the monarchies’ resilience is rooted in the strategies they have utilized in order to stay in power – namely, the deployment of hydrocarbon wealth to blunt popular demand for reform, and the maintenance of supporting coalitions of domestic interest groups, regional allies, and foreign patrons.[11] This notwithstanding, the last three years have seen not merely the abandonment of even “window-dressing” attachment to the values of human security, but also the espousal of measures that do far more harm than good in the search for consensual political and economic development and social cohesion in the years ahead. By stripping away at broader approaches to security that could have assisted regimes to construct more inclusive polities that can weather the eventual transition to post-redistributive economies, the measures taken have narrowed the socio-political base of regime support and undermined the strategies of economic diversification that were meant to smooth the path to sustainability. The archetype of the “post-Arab Spring” regional security landscape is the GCC Security Pact agreed in Riyadh in November 2012 and kept secret from public and political opinion alike, leading the speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly to warn that “our constitution and laws are red lines that cannot be undermined.”

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.



AHDR 2009. “Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries.” New York: United Nations Development Program, Regional Bureau for Arab States.

Ayoob, Mohammed 2011. “The GCC Shows its True Colours.” Foreign Policy, March 16.

Butenschon, Nils (2000). “State, Power and Citizenship,” in Nils Butenschon, Uri Davis and Manuel Hassassian (eds.), Citizenship and the State in the Middle East: Approaches and Applications. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Coates Ulrichsen, Kristian (2009). “The Evolution of Internal and External Security in the Arab Gulf States.” Middle East Policy, 16(2).

Coates Ulrichsen, Kristian (2011). Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era. London: Hurst & Co.

Ehteshami, Anoushiravan and Steve Wright (2007). “Political Change in the Arab Oil Monarchies: From Liberalization to Enfranchisement.” International Affairs, 83(5).

Gause, Gregory (2013). Kings For All Seasons: How the Middle East’s Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring (Doha: Brookings Doha Center).

Gengler, Justin (2014 forthcoming). Rethinking the Rentier State: Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Hertog, Steffen (2011). “The Costs of Counter-Revolution in the Gulf.” Foreign Policy, 31 May.

IMF 2013. “Energy Subsidy Reform: Lessons and Implications.” IMF 28.

Khalaf, Abdulhadi (2012). “GCC Rulers and the Politics of Citizenship,” Al-Monitor, 26 December.

Lahn, Glada and Paul Stephens (2011). “Burning Oil to Keep Cool: The Hidden Energy Crisis in Saudi Arabia.” London: Chatham House.

Longva, Anh Nga (2000). “Citizenship in the Gulf States: Conceptualisation and Practice,” in Nils Butenschon, Uri Davis and Manuel Hassassian (eds.), Citizenship and the State in the Middle East: Approaches and Applications. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Matthiesen, Toby (2013). Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Potter, Lawrence, ed. (2013). Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. London: Hurst & Co.

Wehrey, Frederic (2013). Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. New York: Columbia University Press.


[1] Coates Ulrichsen 2009

[2] AHDR 2009

[3] Coates Ulrichsen 2011

[4] Ehteshami and Wright 2007

[5] Ayoob 2011

[6] Hertog 2011

[7] Lahn and Stephens 2011

[8] IMF 2013

[9] Gengler 2014 forthcoming

[10] Matthiesen 2013, Potter 2013, Wehrey 2013

[11] Gause 2013

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