Youth Activism in the Gulf States: Breaking Taboos

The rise of social media has had a profound effect on youth throughout the world, but in the Gulf in particular this new outlet for information exchange has created a space for activism that was impossible until now. On March 21, 2014, the Atlantic Council launched a new issue brief, “Breaking Taboos: Youth Activism in the Gulf States,” by Visiting Senior Fellow Kristin Smith Diwan. Hariri Center Acting Director Danya Greenfield moderated  the discussion between Diwan and Marc Lynch, professor of political science at George Washington University. The discussion also featured video clips of interviews with two youth activists in Gulf, Yacoub al-Slaise of Bahrain’s al-Fateh Youth Coalition and Shaima Alasiri of Kuwait’s Civil Democratic Movement.

Diwan began by discussing how the 2011 uprisings affected Gulf States, emphasizing that youth movements and activism in the Gulf predated the Arab Spring, but that there is no question that the success of movements elsewhere spurred increased activism in the Gulf. The introduction of new social media platforms and the weakening of the welfare states in the region are the key factors that have led to increased mobilization, she noted. Diwan indicated that recent moves to create laws against insulting or criticizing Gulf leaders are attempts to redraw redlines that have since been crossed online.

Al-Slaise and Alasiri commented on the demands of youth movements as well as the state of activism. They indicated that economic opportunities, equality, and space for participatory politics are their primary demands. They also noted that activism is a new phenomenon for the Gulf in general—not just the youth—meaning that activists are continuing to learn how to organize, make their demands known, and achieve success.

Lynch underscored a key point: Gulf governments used to have absolute monopolies on access to information, but this control has now been obliterated by the rise of social media, resulting in a vastly expanded flow of information. Lynch emphasized that Gulf leaders’ attempts to crack down on insulting the government on Twitter or writing political poems prove that regimes are quite concerned about the newfound arenas for political expression and the population’s boldness in speaking out. Moreover, Lynch added, Gulf leaders’ crackdown on online expression indicates that they are in a position of weakness since they fear criticism from their subjects and what it could lead to.

Diwan and Lynch both highlighted the difference between states like Kuwait and Bahrain that have histories of parliaments and public dialogue as opposed to a country like Saudi Arabia that has no such traditions. The status quo in Bahrain and Kuwait allowed for a widening aperture of activism, which social media enhanced. However, Lynch noted that as the Bahraini crackdown intensified, social media interactions became more polarized and extreme. In Saudi Arabia, the government was caught off guard by the massive growth in Twitter usage, and had not taken a strong stance against online activism until recent decisions to criminalize certain types of expression on the Internet.

Related Experts: