The behavior of security forces during the Arab Awakening has shaped the evolution of each uprising; unsurprisingly then, the long-term transitions also depend on their political systems’ capacity to rein in and reform the security sectors—the military, internal security apparatuses, and paramilitary forces—that have grown too big, too powerful, too brutal, or too autonomous. And while opportunities for security reform exist in transitioning countries, regimes that have withstood the political tremors are learning other lessons from the uprisings. 

Excepting Bahrain and Oman, Gulf monarchies have experienced relatively mild popular pressure because of a less acute and more manageable set of economic and political challenges—in large part due to oil wealth, but also because of their political cultures. These regimes care little that their counterparts in the Middle East (similarly invested in internal “coup-proofing”) have otherwise succumbed to the wave of popular uprisings—suggesting that emphasis on security, once believed a guarantor of survival, was actually a contributing factor of their demise. Rather, Gulf monarchies have responded by increasing reliance on the security systems by strengthening patronage networks that link the ruling family to the officer corps and retired security personnel. 

Some have suggested Kuwait as a model. Indeed, in a region where security is traditionally the purview of the ruler’s diwan, Kuwait’s active parliament has repeatedly scrutinized and challenged the government’s security policies, going as far as to question defense procurement. In a recent indication of the parliament’s involvement, the interior minister, Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled Al Sabah, was forced to resign in February after parliamentary outrage over the death of a prisoner held in police custody on non-political charges. However, the parliament’s power remains limited. The interior minister’s replacement Sheikh Ahmad al-Hamoud Al Sabah is also a member of the royal family and the resignation was not followed by an announcement of more profound security reforms.

Kuwait and Oman highlight that, ultimately, security reform is not just a matter of organizational, doctrinal, or training improvements; it extrapolates just as much from the environment in which it operates. The temptation to blame abuses on unruly recruits and address problems uniquely through training or personnel changes eschews the real challenge. Indeed, an exclusive focus on professionalization of parts of the security sector (or, as often, the pretense of it) also does little to improve its overall behavior or loosen political control.

Emile Hokayem is Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Manama.