Breaking taboos: Youth activism in the Gulf States

In a new Atlantic Council issue brief, Breaking Taboos: Youth Activism in the Gulf States, Visiting Senior Fellow Kristin Diwan contends that youth activists are bringing new forms of civic engagement and political contestation to the Arab states in the Gulf region.  Evaluating  youth movements in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, Diwan contends that although youth activists have recently suffered setbacks under government restrictions, the political implications of a growing youth population will intensify, especially as an aging Gulf leadership faces its own generational transition.

In the paper, Diwan highlights the following key developments:

  • Although youth mobilization existed in the Gulf prior to the 2011 wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, the early success of the Arab awakening and a new media environment emboldened Gulf youth to demand political change from their own governments.
  • Youth are struggling against the suffocating lack of space for social engagement and raising doubts about the ability of ruling regimes to manage economic problems and challenges to the welfare state system. Their influence cannot be measured solely by looking at political outcomes, but rather should also consider gains in laying the ground work for future transformation and challenging conservative political culture and social norms.
  • The level of political contestation and the strength of youth activism varies throughout the Gulf countries: Bahrain witnessed unprecedented calls for political change, beginning in 2011 and continuing today, in which the February 14 Coalition have played a leading role;  in Kuwait, the political environment allowed space for youth to organize, but recently protests have diminished as government prosecution of opposition activists has increased; and in Saudi Arabia, youth mobilize almost exclusively through social media since public activism is stifled by severe laws and restrictions.   
  • While the landscape of new laws and restrictions deter many activists from taking to the streets, the political implications of generational change may work in favor of youth movements. With 54 percent of the Gulf population under the age of twenty-five, an aging Gulf leadership may have little choice but to heed calls for change.