Gulf Arab countries are stepping up the war on anti-war activists in the region. Kuwait and Bahrain have jailed activists for speaking up against the Saudi-led war on Yemen. This crackdown continues in the steps of a historic trend across the region to rein in opposition voices.
Hundreds of people have been reportedly killed in fighting in Yemen since Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign against the country on March 26. Backed by its Gulf Arab allies, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Saudi Arabia started an airstrike operation, dubbed Decisive Storm, against Houthi fighters who took control of Yemen in January.
On March 26, two people were arrested for “exploiting situation in Yemen to disrupt the peace and endanger security and civil order,” according to a tweet by the country's Ministry of Interior:
2 persons arrested for exploiting situation in Yemen to disrupt the peace and endanger security and civil order #Bahrain
— Ministry of Interior (@moi_bahrain) March 26, 2015
According to UAE English daily Khaleej Times:
In a statement, the ministry highlighted that a delicate situation was prevailing in the region and special measures had been taken by Bahrain and other GCC countries to solve an internal Arab matter as well as to support the legitimacy, security and stability in Yemen.
The Interior Ministry warned against any attempt to exploit the current situation and cause disunity among the ranks of citizens and residents by spreading malicious information through digital media or issuing statements against the approach of Bahrain.
The Interior Ministry said it will take legal action against anything that could risk the safety and security of the society and stressed that the situation required strong national unity to promote security, general order and stability.
This was followed by the arrest of prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, on April 2.
According to Index on Censorship, Rajab, who is already awaiting trial on other charges related to his use of Twitter, was arrested on two new additional charges:
On 2 April 2015, security forces surrounded Mr. Rajab’s home and arrested him in relation to two new charges involving a series of recent tweets and an opinion piece published in the Huﬃngton Post. The ﬁrst charge is for “insulting a statutory body” in connection to his documentation of mistreatment and torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison. The second charge of “spreading rumors during wartime” relates to his reporting on civilian deaths in Yemen, in contravention of a government prohibition of any public mention that is critical of the conﬂict. If he is convicted on all current charges, Mr. Rajab could face more than 10 years in prison.
Rajab is still in prison, awaiting trial.
Kuwait too has intensified its crackdown, arresting two activists on April 2, who were held for five days and questioned over their tweets on Yemen. Former MP and lawyer Khaled Al-Shatti and academic and writer Salah Al-Fadhli were both arrested over comments they wrote on Twitter, criticising the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, which Kuwait is involved in, and objecting to Kuwait's involvement in the operation. The tweets were seen by the authorities as offensive to the Amir (ruler) of Kuwait and critical of neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Rana Al Sadoun tweets:
غدا يعرض المحامي خالد الشطي و الدكتور صلاح الفضلي على النيابة العامة مجددا بسبب تغريدات اعتبرت تحبيط للجيش ،التدخل بصلاحيات الامير،السعودية
— Rana Jasem Al-Sadoun (@Ranoooya) April 4, 2015
Tomorrow lawyer Khalid Al-Shatti and Dr Salah Al-Fadhli will be brought to the prosecutor's office for demoralizing the army and interfering with the Amir's authorities
The two were freed on a 10,000 US dollar bail each.
On the Washington Post's blog Monkey Cage Madeleine Wells, a PhD candidate in political science at the George Washington University, explains the underlying causes which has led Kuwait to nip such dissent in the bud:
What has changed since that would lead Kuwait to join with its Arab allies in a potentially controversial and sectarian cause that could rock the boat with its Shiite allies at home? The answer is that Kuwait, along with many of its neighbors, has become more authoritarian in the aftermath of the region-wide and domestic uprisings that started in late 2010. The ruling elites of the Sabah family are reeling from the cross-class Islamist-tribal-youth coalition that has only intensified its demands for political reform since the Arab Spring, in addition to intra-family factionalism and allegations of coup plotting. To deal with this situation, Kuwait has revived some unique ways of stemming the ongoing opposition movement. In 2014, over 30 people were deported and stripped of their citizenship for supposedly undermining the country’s security. Most recently, at least 18 people were reportedly arrested at an March 23 anti-government protest, including regional human rights defender Nawaf al-Hendal, who had addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council only three days earlier. Hendal has since been released but his case has been referred to Kuwait’s Criminal Court.
More importantly, in the past few months it has become clear that there is not only a red line for Kuwaitis criticizing the emir, but a taboo on criticizing Kuwait’s regional allies as well. Several other Kuwaitis who have criticized the Saudi regime or involved themselves in public domestic opposition campaigns have been targeted as well.
She further explains:
This regional criminalization of dissent is something that has been facilitated by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Security Pact, which Kuwait was the last state to sign. The pact has given legal means for the persecuting of opposition forces all over the Gulf, ostensibly on security terms.
Such a crackdown is having support on the ground. On Twitter, Kristin Diwan, a political science professor and Arabophile, tweets a link to an article in a Kuwaiti daily praising the crackdown:
Kuwaiti op-Ed writer links Yemen Decisive Storm op w/”decisive” crackdown on domestic political opposition http://t.co/5yxPTvS1PE
— Kristin Diwan (@kdiwaniya) April 1, 2015
Back in Bahrain, Rajab is accused of “distributing false news.” Bahraini blogger Ali Abdulemam, who was forced to flee his country and was stripped of his nationality, wonders if other people spreading false news will also be punished. He tweets:
— Ali Abdulemam (@abdulemam) April 5, 2015
Will the Foreign Minister be held accountable for distributing false news and harming a country Bahrain holds diplomatic ties with?
The tweet refers to a tweet made by Bahrain's Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa on April 5, claiming that Kuwaiti customs and security have uncovered a shipment of Iranian explosives, on their way to Bahrain.
نحيي يقظة رجال الأمن و الجمارك في الكويت لاكتشافهم شحنة المواد المتفجرة القادمة اليهم من ايران في طريقها الى البحرين . الارهاب يستمر
— خالد بن احمد (@khalidalkhalifa) April 4, 2015
We applaud the caution of customs and security personnel in Kuwait for uncovering a shipment of explosives on its way from Iran to Bahrain. Terrorism continues.
When the Bahraini Ministry of Interior denied the news, Al Khalifa did not delete the false news. He just tweeted the denial.
وكالة أنباء البحرين: مدير عام أمن المنافذ: ما تردد عن ضبط مواد متفجرة كانت متجهة للبحرين“ غير صحيح”
— خالد بن احمد (@khalidalkhalifa) April 5, 2015
Bahrain News Agency: Ports director general announces: What has been circulated about the capture of a shipment carrying explosives on its way to Bahrain is not true.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia witnessed anti-war protests too in Awamiya, in its Eastern province. Toby Matthiesen tweets:
News that 1 #Saudi security officer and 1 Asian expatriate killed in Awamia today, dozens of locals arrested and injured, houses burnt down
— Toby Matthiesen (@TobyMatthiesen) April 5, 2015
A Long History of Repression
This isn't the first time a war abroad has had repercussions in the Gulf. This trend is actually older than some of the countries that are in the Decisive Storm coalition.
In 1956, when the United Kingdom, France and Israel participated in the Suez Crisis, Bahrain witnessed a labour strike in protest against the attacks. A week after the strike, protests and clashes reached British companies and Bahrain seized the opportunity to deal with its domestic problems. The popular High National Council that represented the opposition at the time was dissolved and its leaders arrested and sentenced to exile. A month later, martial law was declared and all publications were banned . Many would consider that an overreaction, considering that Britain had its own wave of protests where the Labour Party led an anti-war campaign that at one point developed close to a fist fight in the House of Commons . Needless to say, the UK did not close down or dissolve the Labour Party.
A 1959 document, named “Internal security schemes in Qatar and Bahrain. Code BA file 11914“, details the measures the British and local forces were given to counter any potential protests in response to potential military operations. It included eavesdropping to wireless communications, a move that is still very much in place, as a Kuwaiti newspaper reports:
— Al-Wasat News (@alwasatnews) February 23, 2015
Alshahed Kuwaiti newspaper: New equipment and a special attack force to track suspicious Twitter users
In the 1980s, during the first Gulf war between Iraq and Iran, Kuwait deported a number of those assumed to be Iraqi-opposition or anti-war activists, including undocumented Kuwaitis as well as Iraqis, even though Kuwait was on the side of Saddam Hussein at the time. Some estimate the number of those deported at over 60,000.
While the recent wave of crackdown on anti-war voices is alarming within the current situation, there appears to be a concerted effort to amplify the sound of war drums. From the single song “Oh Welcome War” to the “Decisive storm poet,” a new identity is being formed around the culture of war in the region.
Journalist Abbas Al Lawati tweets about a song by a Saudi singer entitled “Welcome, War”:
— Abbas Al Lawati (@allawati) March 30, 2015
And Adawa Alwatan tweets about a poetry contest to celebrate the war on Yemen:
“القانوس”: قناة الأصايل تستعد لإطلاق مسابقة شاعر “عاصفة الحزم” – صحيفة أضواء الوطن الإلكترونية http://t.co/0GxEnOclqX
— صحيفة أضواء الوطن (@adwaalwatan) April 2, 2015
Alasaiel channel is getting ready to launch the Decisive Storm poet competition
What is more alarming is bringing religion into the equation, pitting the war as one between Sunni Muslims against Houthi “apostates”. A group of Bahraini organizations published a full page paid advertisement in a pro-government newspaper declaring Houthis apostate and excommunicating them. The list of NGOs include Karama Human Rights Group and a drug rehabilitation institute.
 Neff, Donald. Warriors at Suez, pp. 388–389