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. 

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.

Gulf monarchies share a number of common features. They invest heavily in the security sector while remaining nonmilitary states, and the army is not highly integrated into the economy or infrastructure. They have ensured the reliability of their security forces through a mix of incentives: patronage, prestige, and access to rulers. Kinship is also a crucial instrument of security control; across the Gulf, scions of the ruling families fill top security positions, from the interior and defense ministries to the command of elite units. The best-trained and best-paid units of the army often hail from the tribes and regions of the rulers. In most Gulf states, Shi‘a are barred from the security forces. By basing composition on family, tribal, and sectarian considerations, the monarchies hope that security forces will be less likely to mount coups, fracture internally, and be less likely to join popular uprisings. 

Most Gulf monarchies have resorted to government largesse as the primary means to preempt unrest. Naturally, this has extended to the security sector, where each new job and each pay increase is believed to pad the security cushion. As part of a massive $130 billion spending plan, Saudi Arabia announced in March bonuses and promotions for military personnel, additional funding for the religious police, and the creation of 60,000 internal security jobs. These last two measures bolster the power of the Interior Ministry, headed by the newly minted Crown Prince Nayef, thought to be averse to significant political reforms. Though facing no domestic challenges, Qatar also announced in September salary and pension increases of 120 percent for officers and 50 percent for regular troops.

The UAE has also tightened its control. Even as it held elections for its consultative assembly in September, the government reacted to calls for political reform by jailing activists. However, the UAE distinguishes itself by the greater professionalism of its security forces, in part due to the requirements resulting from a diverse population and a growing economy, but also due to an ambitious build-up of its military. It also famously relies on foreign contractors for a range of defense functions, and its build-up of a mercenary, non-Muslim, regime-loyal force (at the hands of Blackwater founder Erik Prince) seems to suggest a weapon to be deployed against domestic unrest stemming from foreign workers or internal discontent.

Bahrain stands out largely because of the magnitude of the popular protests as well as its systematic recourse to violence. In the face of widespread protests, the regime deployed all branches of the security apparatus and authorized them by royal decree to “take all necessary measures to protect the safety of the country and its citizens.” The result was a sweeping crackdown during which many abuses were committed against civilians, including alleged killings, torture, and acts of vandalism. Military tribunals have been used to sentence civilians in opaque circumstances. Importantly, the security forces remained cohesive and achieved short-term goals to repel and contain protesters.

Like other Gulf states, the composition of Bahrain’s security forces is unrepresentative of the population. The Shi‘a majority, which suffers from higher rates of unemployment, is denied access to jobs in the security realm while Sunni foreigners, deemed more reliable, are recruited as policemen and soldiers—many are later given citizenship. Saudi and Emirati troops intervened under the cover of the GCC’s charter and there have been reports of increased recruitment of mercenaries since the uprising started. Many of the abuses have been blamed on non-Bahraini security personnel, though this may simply have been the case because they are more numerous and more of them were deployed. The government is unlikely to alter the composition of these policies as it considers that the involvement of Shia citizens in security forces could result in armed rebellion and lead the country to civil war. 

The future of security reform in Bahrain will be reflected in the November 23 findings of the independent commission tasked with investigating the crackdown and the conduct of the security services. Established by the monarch, the commission is composed of five respected non-Bahraini legal experts headed by Egyptian-American legal scholar Charif Bassiouni. It is not yet clear whether the report will detail abuses, recommend the prosecution of those who conducted the repression, and suggest profound changes, like the reform of the National Security Agency and the Interior Ministry. Such recommendations would truly speak to the government’s willingness and ability to move beyond purely cosmetic security change. If, however, the commission restricts itself to blaming rogue or unruly security elements for abuses and merely suggests that the solution lies in better training, it will ignore the deliberate use of force to crush and intimidate the opposition. On the other hand, should the commission identify senior Khalifa members as ordering and directing the repression, it could create internal dissent within the monarchy that would slow or block even the most timid effort at political reform. 

Oman has also experienced widespread protests but its monarchy has responded with more sweeping reforms largely because, unlike other Gulf monarchs, Sultan Qaboos has concentrated his authority and is less constrained by family politics. Protests gained momentum in March in the industrial city of Sohar until the police (and later, the army) intervened to violently remove protesters.  In response to the bloody crackdown, and in an unprecedented move, Sultan Qaboos dismissed key senior security officials: the interior minister, Saud bin Ibrahim al-Busaidi and the intelligence chief, General Ali bin Majid. Furthermore, Oman has witnessed a move for greater independence of the judiciary from the police. Progress towards comprehensive security sector will depend on whether the parliament is granted greater oversight over the military and the police. 
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 culture.

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.