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Lawson, Fred H. . "Gulf States." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 17, 2022. <>.


Lawson, Fred H. . "Gulf States." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 17, 2022).

Gulf States

Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates stand at the confluence of several major currents in contemporary Islamic affairs. Political activism among the disadvantaged Shīʿī communities of the Gulf, which was galvanized by the The Iranian revolution of 1978–1979, gained momentum after the Shīʿī parties consolidated power in Iraq following the overthrow of the Baʿthi regime in the spring of 2003. Liberal Islamists, Shīʿī and Sunni alike, increasingly voice demands to increase popular participation in policy making and curb corruption. At the same time, sustained US military intervention in and around the Gulf has generated mistrust and discontent toward the West, which can take the form of sympathy for radical Islamist movements. Regimes in all four countries charge that the Islamic Republic of Iran manipulates Islamist activism for its own purposes, despite clear indications that political movements that adopt religious platforms and rhetoric enjoy firm roots in local society.

Bahrain's heterogeneous population has been ruled since the late eighteenth century by shaykhs of the Khalīfah clan, in alliance with a collection of prominent rich merchant families, whose younger members have occupied many of the senior positions in the central administration. The Al Khalīfah follow the Sunnī branch of Islam and adhere to the Mālikī school of Islamic jurisprudence, which favors relatively strict interpretations of the Qurʿān and the traditions of the Prophet (hadīth), but which also tolerates considerable flexibility in applying the law for the benefit of the community as a whole. The commercial elite consists of both Sunnī adherents of the Shāfiʿī school, most of whom immigrated to Bahrain from the southern coast of Iran during the late nineteenth century, and rationalist, accommodationist (Usūlī) Twelver Shīʿīs who enjoy close ties to the Shīʿī centers of Iran and southern Iraq. There are also small but significant pockets of Sunnīs who follow the more literalist Hanbalī school of legal interpretation, and of Shīʿīs who accept the tenets of the more ecstatic Akhbārī school, which adopts a strict constructionist view of the Qurʿān and the received traditions of the twelve original imams. It is estimated that Shīʿīs make up almost seventy percent of the citizenry.

Widespread discontent within the Bahraini Shīʿī precipitated a wave of riots on the islands in 1923. British agents then deposed the ruler and inaugurated a series of administrative reforms. Sunnī notables responded by organizing the Bahrain National Congress to demand the restoration of the ruler and the creation of an advisory council. Shīʿīs remained largely aloof from this early reform movement, but they did petition the ruler in 1934 to promulgate a basic law and institute proportional representation on local councils. Sunnī reformers demanded a popular assembly (majlis) in late 1938. When students and oil-workers threatened to call a general strike to back the majlis movement, the regime's British protectors arrested leading reformers and deported them to India.

Violence between Sunnīs and Shīʿīs erupted again in late 1952 over the sectarian composition of the Manama municipal council. Over the next two years, workers struck repeatedly to protest the oil company's policy of employing expatriate laborers while liberal nationalists focused popular discontent against the British and away from sectarian disputes. This effort generated virtually universal support for a Higher Executive Committee composed of four Sunnīs and four Shīʿīs. It also precipitated the formation of several grassroots organizations, such as the Shīʿī Jaʿfarī League in Jidd Hafs, whose members demanded radical changes in Bahrain's political and social institutions. At the end of 1956, liberal reformers, fearful of losing control over the nationalist movement to more militant forces, acquiesced in the government's suppression of the radicals.

Smoldering discontent among the country's Shīʿīs resurfaced in the wake of the 1978–1979 revolution in Iran. Reformist associations such as the Sunnī Society for Social Reform and the Shīʿī Party of the Call to Islam steadily lost ground to more radical groups like the Sunnī Islamic Action Organization and the Shīʿī Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. In December 1981, the authorities announced that they had broken up a network of saboteurs affiliated with the Islamic Front. Sporadic arrests of militant Islamists occurred throughout the remainder of the decade, but the efficiency of the state security services, combined with the ruling family's leniency in dealing with dissidents, stifled moderate and radical activists alike. The advisory council appointed by the ruler in January 1993 included prominent representatives from both the Sunnī and the Shīʿī communities.

Sectarian conflict broke out again in December 1994. Harsh measures imposed on outspoken Shīʿī critics of the Al Khalīfah fragmented the reform movement along religious lines and sparked greater activism on the part of radical groups. The four-year popular uprising left the Shīʿī community more alienated and highly mobilized than ever. When in the fall of 2000 the new ruler,  Amir Hamad bin ʿIsa Al Khalīfah, announced plans to revive an elected advisory council, Shīʿī activists joined Sunnī liberals in applauding. Islamist candidates won forty-two of fifty seats in the May 2002 municipal elections. Half of the victorious Islamists were affiliated with the Shīʿī National Pact Society; most others represented the local branch of the Sunnī Muslim Brotherhood. In response to such electoral success, state officials reconfigured most voting districts in ways that improved the chances of proregime candidates in the October 2002 parliamentary elections. These measures, along with the government's announcement that the appointed upper house would exercise legislative powers equal to those of the elected lower house, convinced the National Pact Society to boycott the balloting. Confronted with a National Assembly monopolized by pro-regime and Sunni Islamist representatives, the society opted to contest the November 2006 elections, and came away with seventeen of forty seats in the lower house. The Muslim Brothers and other Sunni Islamists won twelve. Members of the Islamic National Pact Society who rejected the leadership's decision to participate in elections broke away to form the Movement for Liberties and Democracy (or Truth), which remained outside the assembly.

Leaders of the Movement for Liberties and Democracy were rounded up, along with prominent human rights activists, in August 2010. Protesters from the predominantly Shīʿī suburbs of Manama then clashed with riot police and set fires to block main roads. The authorities justified the detention of Shīʿī activists on the grounds that the Movement for Liberties and Democracy received funding from Iran and Iraq, and had links to the Iranian militant group Ansar-i Hizbullah. Such charges undercut the influence and prestige of the Islamic National Pact Society and heightened support for the secular National Democratic Action Society and Progressive Platform, particularly among educated young people. Nevertheless, the October 2010 elections returned a majority of Islamist representatives to the National Assembly, although fewer Muslim Brothers emerged victorious.

Improprieties in the voting process—combined with ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt—sparked widespread protests from the Movement for Liberties and Democracy and secular liberals, which culminated in a large-scale demonstration on 14 February 2011. Daily marches and rallies ensued. After repeated attacks by riot police and security forces, protesters set up camp in a major traffic circle between central Manama and the Shīʿī suburbs. Representatives of the Islamic National Pact Society resigned from parliament after police killed several demonstrators. The so-called Pearl Roundabout encampment was overrun by the armed forces on 18 March, with the assistance of military units from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These events sharply inflamed tensions between Shīʿīs and Sunnis, since the authorities blamed Shīʿī militants for rejecting dialogue with the government and engaging in seditious rebellion.

Since the early eighteenth century, Kuwait has been ruled by shaīkhs of the Sabah clan, in alliance with the commercial elite. The Al Sabāh are Sunnīs and adhere to the Mālikī school of Islamic jurisprudence. The rich merchant community consists primarily of Twelver Shīʿīs from southern Iraq and Iran, along with a smaller number of Sunnis following the Shāfiʿī school who migrated to the country from southern Iran around 1900. In addition, Shīʿī tribespeople based in southern Iraq and Saudi Arabia cross the country's northern and western borders, while poorer Twelver Shīʿīs arrived after the Second World War to work in petroleum and construction. It is estimated that Shīʿīs make up a quarter of the citizenry.

Sectarian conflict played little part in the reform movements of 1921 and 1938, although the elected council (majlis) that grew out of the latter accused the ruler's Shīʿī chief adviser of mobilizing his coreligionists against the Sunnī-dominated majlis. Expatriate teachers founded a local branch of the Muslim Brothers in 1951, which later evolved into the moderate Social Reform Society. Representatives to the National Assembly mandated by the 1962 constitution coalesced into two blocs: one comprised supporters of the Al Sabāh, including settled bedouin, prominent Shīʿīs, and moderate Sunnī Islamists, and the other, liberal nationalists. Friction between the assembly and the cabinet convinced the prime minister to tender the government's resignation in August 1976, thereby suspending the parliament.

Disadvantaged Shīʿīs staged demonstrations in the capital in early 1979; the authorities responded by deporting the country's most influential Shīʿī notable and prohibiting posters depicting the new Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Protests erupted at the end of the year after Sunnī militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. A group of Shīʿī intellectuals then accused the government of removing Shīʿī officers from command positions in the armed forces and police. These events prompted a backlash against the local Shīʿī: in October 1983, militant Sunnīs attacked workers building a Shīʿī mosque and looted the construction site.

In February 1985, overtly religious candidates suffered significant losses in National Assembly elections. Moderate Sunnī groups lost support due to the publication of a Saudi scholar's legal opinion (fatwā) that condemned coeducation and western music. Only one prominent Shīʿī representative won a seat. Growing disaffection within the Shīʿī led to a suicide attack on the ruler's motorcade in May; a month later, a bomb went off at a café attached to a senior citizens’ meeting house sponsored by the ruling family. These events set the stage for the dissolution of the National Assembly in July 1986, along with tighter government restrictions on the Shīʿī.

Militant Shīʿīs subsequently attacked government installations. In January 1987, members of the Revolutionary Organization-Forces of the Prophet Muhammad were arrested and charged with planting explosive devices at state oil facilities. Moderate Shīʿī notables took out full-page advertisements denouncing the organization's actions and reaffirming their loyalty to the regime.

Prominent Sunnīs and Shīʿīs joined in agitating for the restoration of the National Assembly at the end of 1989. Professional associations, university students, and trade unionists petitioned the ruler in February 1990 to authorize new elections, and in April 1990 the cabinet set up a National Council charged with assessing the role of future parliament. The council's deliberations were interrupted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that August. Under Iraqi occupation, neighborhood committees and soirees (dīwīnīyah) provided the locus of Kuwaiti resistance. Two Sunnī organizations, the Social Reform Society and the Salafī Heritage Revitalization Society, coordinated the distribution of food, medicine, and fuel until Iraq's armed forces were expelled in March 1991.

Elections for a reorganized National Assembly took place in October 1992. Islamist candidates—both Sunnī and Shīʿī—won eighteen seats, giving critics of the Al Sabāh a total of thirty-one delegates in the fifty-member body. Sunnī Islamists quickly coalesced into two blocs, a reformist Islamic Constitutional Movement with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and a more conservative Islamic Popular Alliance. Both blocs advocated amending the 1962 constitution to make sharīʿah the sole basis of Kuwaiti law.

Immediately before the July 1999 elections, the ruler granted full political rights to all adult female citizens. Islamist activists expressed outrage, calling the decree unconstitutional and anti-Islamic. After a heated campaign, the Islamic Constitutional Movement won six of the fifty seats, the Islamic Popular Alliance two, and the Shīʿī National Islamic Alliance two. Elections in June 2006 resulted in a virtually identical distribution of seats among Islamist groups, with somewhat greater representation for the Heritage Revitalization Society and independent Salafīs.

Major Islamist groups suffered greater losses in the elections of May 2009. Only one Islamic Constitutional Movement and two Islamic Popular Alliance candidates won seats. Shīʿī candidates did somewhat better then before, coming away with nine seats. Independent Sunni Islamists nevertheless emerged with a firm parliamentary majority. Two Shīʿī women were elected on nonsectarian platforms. In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, a collection of Islamist activists joined liberals to form the 16 September Youth alliance, which called for an end to governmental corruption and reforms in the electoral system.

Since the late nineteenth century, Qatar has been ruled by shaikhs of the Thani clan, in conjunction with a small number of rich merchants and religious notables. Almost all of the population adheres to the literalist Hanbalī school of Sunnī Islam, and more precisely to the interpretation formulated by the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. Consequently, the country's religious elite exercises great influence over judicial and educational affairs, while advising the ruler on the legality of governmental decrees according to a strict reading of the Qurʿān and the hadīth. A minority of merchants consists of recent Shīʿī immigrants from Iran, although there is also a small number of Sunnīs who came from southern Iran at the turn of the twentieth century. Shīʿīs make up only around one-sixth of the citizenry.

Actions undertaken by liberal nationalists have been largely inseparable from challenges on the part of dissident Al Thānī shaykhs. The National Unity Front of the early 1960s, for instance, included both oilworkers and younger pro-reform members of the ruling family. In December 1991, representatives of fifty prominent Qatari families, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, petitioned the ruler to authorize an elected national council. Religious issues played no role in the municipal council elections of March 1999 and April 2003. In February 2005, Qatar became only the second Arab Gulf state, after Bahrain, to set up a Shīʿī court to deal with matters of personal law.

Qatar exercises influence in the global Islamic community largely due to the residence in the country since 1961 of the Sunni scholar Yusif al-Qaradawi, whose rulings and television broadcasts on the state-sponsored al-Jazeera network set standards for Muslims all around the world. In February 2011, al-Qaradawi visited Egypt and urged Muslims and Christian Copts to work together to construct a liberal democratic order.

The United Arab Emirates is governed by the ruling families of the federation's seven states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah), in alliance with the local commercial elite, whose members hold senior positions in both the federal administration and the bureaucracies of the individual emirates. The ruling families share an adherence to Sunnī Islam and the Mālikī school of legal interpretation. In Dubai, the most influential families are Sunnī immigrants from southern Iran, although there is also a significant community of Twelver Shīʿīs; in Sharjah, Shīʿīs from South Asia predominate; Abu Dhabi's smaller commercial elite consists primarily of Sunnīs, although there is a cluster of Twelver Shīʿīs as well. For the federation as a whole, Shīʿīs are estimated to account for some twenty per cent of citizens.

Sectarian conflict played no part in the 1938 reform movement in Dubai, and opposition to the ruling families during the 1950s emanated from younger professionals sympathetic to the secular ideals of Arab nationalism, rather than from Sunnī or Shīʿī Islamists. The Iranian revolution elicited little sympathy and no political agitation from the federation's resident Shīʿī. Only in the wake of the September 2001 attacks on the United States did any sign of radical Islamist activity appear, as connections were uncovered between local financiers and militants of al-Qaʿida. Events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 led the authorities to loosen those restrictions that govern elections to the Federal National Council, but political associations remained prohibited.


  • Brown, Nathan J.. Pushing toward Party Politics? Kuwait's Islamic Constitutional Movement. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment, 2007. Comprehensive overview of key Sunni political organization.
  • Cole, Juan R. I.“Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shiʿism in Eastern Arabia, 1300–1800.”International Journal of Middle East Studies19, no. 2 (May 1987): 177–204. Thought-provoking, deep background.
  • Cottrell, Alvin J., et al., eds.The Persian Gulf States: A General Survey. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Collection of essays on virtually all aspects of the Gulf states’ history, culture, geography, and politics, with extensive bibliographies.
  • Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Conceptually and empirically sophisticated study of relations between merchants and the ruling family both before and after oil.
  • Davidson, Christopher M.The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005. Comprehensive survey of politics, economics and social affairs.
  • Gause, F. Gregory. Oil Monarchies. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994. Lucid account of the resurgence of liberal activism following the 1990–1991 Gulf war.
  • Khalaf, Abdul Hadi. Unfinished Business: Contentious Politics and State-Building in Bahrain. Lund, Sweden: University of Lund, 2000. Authoritative account of Bahrain's popular movements.
  • Lawson, Fred H.Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Overview of Bahrain's modern political and economic history, with an extensive bibliographic essay.
  • Louer, LaurenceTransnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Ground-breaking compilation of trends and movements spanning the region.
  • al-Mdaires, Falah. Shi'ism and Political Protest in Bahrain.”Digest of Middle East Studies (Spring 2002): 20-44. Sophisticated synthesis based on local sources.
  • Rizvi, Sajjad H.“Shi'ism in Bahrain: Marja'iyya and Politics.”Orient no. 4 (2009): 16-24. Detailed survey of contemporary figures, organizations, and trends.
  • Tétreault, Mary Ann. Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Accessible treatment of the ins and outs of the Arab Gulf's most vibrant electoral system.
  • Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Making of the Modern Gulf States. London: Unwin Hynan, 1989. Succinct introduction to the ruling families and political histories of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

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