This is a summary of discussions that took place at a workshop held at Chatham House in May 2012.
Part of Chatham House's Future Trends in the GCC project, the event brought together a group of political activists from different movements, government and NGO representatives, economists, business people and academics. The two-day workshop addressed Islamism and identity politics in the Gulf, the impact of regional dynamics and the politics of sectarianism as well as citizenship and the economy, and political development.
This summary focuses on the first day of the workshop, which examined how dynamics in the broader region, including the rise of Islamist parties in North Africa and the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf, would affect the GCC countries.
Key points that emerged from the first day of the workshop included:
- Changing dynamics in the wider Middle East region are bound to have an impact on the GCC states. The perceived success or failure of the Egyptian transition will affect views of both democracy and political Islam in the GCC.
- Sectarian tensions are being fuelled by inter-state competition. They also reflect socio-economic cleavages, being more pronounced in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than in the other GCC countries where socio-economic differences are less manifest.
- There is significant variety, diversity and experimentation now taking place within Islamist movements. It is an oversimplification to see Shia Islamist movements as pro-Iranian, or to understand all salafi Sunni movements as tools of Saudi foreign policy.
- Once sectarian tensions were activated, they could take years to resolve. Denying the existence of sectarianism would not help. Civil society and independent media needed to be given some space to find other narratives, for instance to emphasise the similarities between Shia and Sunni Muslims.