Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finding the Common Thread: Revolutions in Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and Libya

                When analyzing these nations and their individual revolutions it is important to keep in mind that all revolutions are different, that people have suffered from different predicaments and have lived a different history and in some instances the people want different changes in their respective governments.  It is crucial to keep in mind that although all these people revolting have many different things in common they also have a great deal of differences which make their particular struggle unique.

                My goal is to point out where these four revolutions in particular share a common thread, and not where they are different.  Although this essay will mention some of the differences it will focus on the common thread.  Before one can understand the individual issues they must understand how these revolutions are possible.  I feel that all revolutions, political, social, and the like are not spurred on by one thing, but rather several things and it just may be that one issue may push a people over the edge.  Revolutions of any kind are like the old saying “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”  In this theory, it is easy for the unenlightened to look at the situation and say that one thing; usually the final straw (most recent issue) is what caused this revolution.  What really causes the break of the back (revolution) is this gradual building of straws (years of ignored or mishandled issues,) the final straw doesn’t break the back of the camel by itself, it’s all the straws combined.

                With this theory of revolution stated, I believe that there are many factors in these revolutions that may be isolated to each of these individual nations, shared among a few of them, or shared among them all.  The key issues that all these nations share in common are high unemployment, massive youth populations, and exclusive governments; these are the three factors that these four rebellions have in common.  While keeping those three things in mind let’s look at each nation and their individual situation:

                 Bahrain is an archipelago in the Persian Gulf located less than 50 miles off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia.  This nation is one of the smaller nations in the area and is only about three to four times the size of the District of Columbia.  The nation of Bahrain has a population of approximately 1,300,000 with a non-national population included in that total of 250,000.  The non-national population makes up about 20% of the population and is mostly from central and southeastern Asia.  This statistic may seem like an irrelevant statistic but it is a variable that deals with the issue of unemployment.  Currently unemployment of Bahrain is at 16% (1) as reported by the BBC among other news and civil agencies.  This number may not seem really high considering the U.S’s unemployment is at 8.9% but 16% unemployment is one of the highest in the Gulf region and is almost double that in the Shia community who make up approximately 70% of the population.  The ruling family of Bahrain is Sunni and Sunni Muslims make up about 25% of the population and their level of unemployment is very low.  The majority of the foreign nationals in Bahrain are in Bahrain on work visas and their unemployment rate is near zero.

                So to clarify; In Bahrain 70% of the population is Shia, excluded from power and is suffering from around 32% unemployment.  These numbers are enough to drive any people to revolution and I feel that this is one of the factors if not the major factor in Bahrain’s revolution.  The unemployment issue is also an issue of religious discrimination and when religion becomes a factor for excluding someone, it creates a whole new level of rage.
One of key reasons that unemployment is so high in Bahrain is because of the global recession that started in 2007 / 2008.  Bahrain is not as rich in natural resources as some of its neighbors so it has compensated by becoming a center for banking in the region.  The global recession caused oil and natural gas prices to fall, meaning oil and natural gas powerhouses in the region had less money to put in the bank, meaning Bahrain was affected by this lack of capital coming in.  The Bahraini economy is not diverse enough to withstand the fickle twist and turns of the oil and natural gas markets.    

                Another reason for the growing unrest in Bahrain is the massive youth population.  Around 77% of the population is between the years of 15 and 64 and the median age is around 31 years old (2).  I believe that one of the major things needed for a revolution to occur is for it to have a large youth movement and in Bahrain as well as the rest of the Arab world there is a substantial youth population.  The youth unemployment in the nation of Bahrain is at 19.6% (3) by BBC figures.  Youth across the world despite of color, ethnicity, or religion are naturally rebellious; when these same youth suffer from high unemployment it just adds fuel to the fire.

                The last common ground Bahrain shares with Oman’s, Libya’s, and Yemen’s revolution are the exclusiveness of the government.  What I mean by the exclusiveness of the government is that the majority of Bahrainis are exempt from participating in their government.  The government of Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy.  The country is ran by the royal family who again are Sunni which is the minority population and the parliament that is in place in the country has very little power, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa holds the real power, appoints his cabinet and a great deal of the members of parliament.  The notion of the people having a voice through free and fair elections in Bahrain is merely a myth imposed on the people by the king.

                The protesters in Bahrain are united under one banner, the banner of reform.  To what degree of reform there are different views.  Some wish to see the royal family stay in place but want some of the actual power to go parliament, others want the royal family out completely and a new constitution to be written as well as a new government elected.  To see this take place one shouldn’t discredit the protesters; even here in America some wanted to make G.W. Washington a king.  Democracy can be a messy thing at times. 


                Yemen is the next nation in revolt this essay will examine.  Yemen is located on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.  The nation of Yemen is roughly twice the size of the state of Wyoming.  Yemen has a population of 24,133,492 (4) and is split between Sunni and Shia Islam as well as mush smaller populations of Jews, Christians, and Hindu.  The majority of the population is Arab but considering its proximity to Africa and the situation in Somalia there is a substantial Afro-Arab population.  

Yemen’s geographic location is very pivotal to the world.  Yemen overlooks the Bab el Mandeb, a small shipping causeway that connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea.  The Bab el Mandeb is as vital to international shipping as the Suez Canal is.  If one of these waterways was to become too unstable the other would suffer the same fate by default, their fates are interwoven.     

When figuring out the divide between Sunni and Shia is hard to pin point the exact numbers but most estimates put the Sunni population at making up 63%, the Shia population making up 36% of the total population, with 1% being classified as other (5,6.)  This ethnic diversity is one of the many causes of turmoil in Yemen.    

Yemen in some ways could be the most complicated of all these four revolutions to understand.  Bahrain, Libya, and Oman have layers to their problems and the straw theory still holds true in all; but Yemen’s layers have layers.  The land of Yemen has seen fighting in one form or another for the last century.  The whole of Yemen came under Ottoman control in 1538.  The southern part of Yemen came under the control of the British in 1839 and gained independence in 1967.  North Yemen was under Ottoman control till 1918.  In 1970 (7,) North and South Yemen were two different nations; in that same year North and South Yemen entered into a civil war over “cold war ideals” and continued to fight for the next 20 years.  In 1990 the two nations were united as Yemen but the sectarian violence still continues till today.  

                The Yemeni revolution may have been one of the hardest to see coming because Yemen was already a volatile situation.  It is true that Egypt or Tunisia where not bastions of peace before their revolutions but Yemen has been substantially more volatile than Egypt or Tunisia in their recent past.     

So are the common three threads prevalent issues in the Yemeni revolution?  To that question I would again say yes.  Yemen is a country that seems to have distorted figures.  Unemployment of the nation is estimated as low as 18% (8) and as high as 40%; either way the unemployment issue in Bahrain is extremely high.  UNICEF estimates that nearly 40% of the youth will suffer from unemployment at some point in the next ten years.  Yemen is also the poorest of the Gulf States so unemployment / economics definitely play a role in this revolution.

Although Yemen is extremely poor as compared to its neighbors it has a very sizable youth population.  97.4% (4) of the population is under the age of 64 years old, 70% (10) of the population is under 25 and 50% of the population is younger than 15.  Yemeni society may be one of the oldest in the world but its people are some of the youngest.  A poor youth is a key element in any revolution and Yemen has plenty unemployed or under paid youth.

                The final common thread we are looking for in Yemen is an exclusive government.  The Yemini government is to say the least complicated and it is easy to see the corruption.  The current president of Yemen is President Ali Abdallah Salih and he has been president of Yemen since the nation was created in 1990, and before that he was president of North Yemen from 1978 till it’s unification with the south.  

If someone has been president for over 30 years, he is in most instances a dictator or authoritarian, not a president.  The government itself is a shamble of tribal alliances that is ineffective at ruling the country as a whole and this also helps spreads the distrust towards the central government.  The protesters for the most part are united around the call for President Ali Abdallah Salih to step down; once he steps down its anyone’s game but the protesters are at the least united in that goal.  All these factors among many other individual localized issues have helped feed the revolution in Yemen and will continue to feed hostilities into the future until they are resolved. 


                Oman is the last of the Gulf States that this essay will be reviewing.  Oman is located east of Yemen and is at the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and is slightly smaller than the state of Kansas.  Oman has a population of 3,027,959 (11) with a foreign national population of 577,293.  The Shia / Sunni split are nowhere near as prevalent as in Bahrain or Yemen; in fact the majority of Omanis, 75% (12) are of the Islamic sect called Ibadhi.  The Ibadhi are one of the oldest sects in Islam and identify with neither Sunni nor Shia.  Religious tension unlike Bahrain and Yemen are not a major factor in Oman.

                A 2004 estimate puts unemployment at 15% in Oman but some people may believe that current unemployment may be near 25%.  Whether unemployment is 15 or 25% it is still a factor causing growing unrest in Oman.  Dwindling natural resource reserves have caused Oman to diversify like many Gulf States.  It is true that they have diversified but many of the unemployed would say not soon enough.

                The youth population is a major factor in Oman.  Like its western neighbor Yemen Oman has a very substantial youth population.  The median age for an Omani citizen is 24 years old; 96.9% (12) of the population is under the age of 65 years old, 31.2% of the population is under 15 years old and 65.7% of the population is from 15 – 64 years old.  This bulge of a youth population help feeds the instability in Oman.  

                The government of Oman is very exclusive to a very few.  The government of Oman is a monarchy and its Sultan is Qaboos bin Sain bin Taimoor.  He has been Sultan since July 23rd, 1970 and Prime Minister since July 23rd, 1972.  There is a parliament in place but it is very weak and controls very little.  Like in Bahrain the Sultan’s word is law, and this is a major contributor to the unrest in Oman.  

                Oman’s sultanate is in a different situation than the sultan of Bahrain; in Bahrain there is a large movement to have the royal family removed whereas in Oman there is a small movement to have the sultan removed.  The majority of the Omani protesters want the Sultan to relinquish some of his powers to parliament, giving the people a voice; but it seems to me from my observations that most of the protesters in Oman want their Sultan to stay in power.  

                Oman’s revolution is the least volatile of the three and probably the easiest to fix.  If the Sultan of Oman is willing to make some concessions than he will in all likelihood stay in power and the state can avoid an all-out revolution like in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain.  This lack of mass revolt is one of the reasons that this revolution’s overview is so small, the fate of Oman will be affected by what the Sultan does and unlike Gadhafi he can still come in line with the wants and needs of his people.     


                The last revolution this essay will look at is the revolution in Libya.  Libya is located in northern Africa and lies in between Algeria and Tunisia on its west with Egypt on its eastern border.  Libya is on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and is roughly the size of Alaska (13). 

Libya is very crucial to the world economy and in particular Europe.  Libya exports roughly 85% (14) of its oil to Europe making it very dependent on the west and the west on Libya.  The global recession hit the Libyan economy hard, this recession meant a drop in crude prices, and drops in crude prices hurt the economy of Libya considering that petroleum makes up around 25% of GDP.  The recession caused unemployment in Libya to spike; although statistics from Libya are sometimes skewed it is believed that before the revolution unemployment was around 30% (13).  Again, economics is one of the driving forces behind a revolution and a 30% unemployment rate will upset many regardless of who it is.
                Libya has a population of 6,597,960 with a non-national population of approximately 166,510.  Like in most Arab states there is a large youth population; the median age of Libya is 24.5 which makes the nation’s populous extremely young.  Like in all the previous viewed states unemployment runs higher in the youth populations than in older demographics.

                Libya’s government is run by Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gadhafi; he has been in power since 1 September 1969. Although the colonel has no official title he is the de facto head of state.  The type of government officially is a Jamahiriya or a state of the masses; this is only in theory, most people would agree that Libya is an authoritarian state.  This loose confederation of tribes that makes up the government gives the illusion that everyone has a voice but in all actuality the people have virtually no control of their government, Col. Gadhafi has ultimate control. 

Libya’s oppressive control over its people really isn’t much different that Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain other than the fact that Gadhafi is such an interesting leader.  Gadhafi has said in interviews since the revolution has started that he cannot be removed from power because he holds no power, the people do.  His sometimes delusional actions make him one of the most interesting Arab leaders and also one of the most violent.  When unrest hit Libya Gadhafi didn’t hesitate on using any means necessary to break the will of the protesters.  The revolution in Libya soon turned violent and as of today looks like a possible civil war. 


In closing I feel that each of these revolutions has different driving forces behind them, but all of them have these three things in common.  I think economics and oppression are the main driving forces behind revolt and large youth populations make revolution ever more likely.
Works Cited

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