Bahrain protesters
A mourner holds up a sign with an image of Mahmood Abbas Alaradi during his funeral procession in the village of Sitra, south of Manama, Bahrain, Aug. 2, 2013. Alaradi and Ali Isa Albasri died when the car in which they were traveling hit a vehicle while they were being chased by police, according to opposition, which led to protests against the government. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

In the two years since the Arab Spring began, the ruling families of the Gulf monarchies have looked on in horror as several of their long-term allies have been toppled by popular uprisings that have grown increasingly unpredictable. After the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, a military coup earlier this year ousted Egypt's democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile, two leftist politicians were assassinated in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have captivated and inspired restive populations in the Arab Gulf states, especially in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, pushing them into the streets to protest for more rights. Scared for their lives, the monarchies have responded to the protests with violence and tried to exploit perceived sectarian divides between Sunnis and Shiites to diffuse the opposition and divert attention from their demands for political, economic and social reforms.

It's a calculated risk that builds upon a long-standing divide, writes Toby Matthiesen in “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, And The Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” which was published by Stanford University Press in July.

“In response to the Arab Spring protests, the Gulf ruling families, above all the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families, have played on and strengthened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia to prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front,” argues Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College of Cambridge University in England. “But while sectarianism in the Gulf owes much to regime-sponsored or approved sectarian rhetoric, and a political campaign indiscriminately targeting the Gulf Shia, other factors are at play too.”

Ultimately, Matthiesen writes, “sectarianism was not just a government invention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social, and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their personal aims.”

Gulf monarchs, he contends, want the world to view the sectarian divide in their countries as a wider battle between the majority Sunnis of the Arab world and the Shiites of Iran. Case in point: The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 civilians during the past two years and is further complicated because President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot religion of Shiite Islam, in a majority-Sunni country. The rebels trying to topple him are receiving military and political support from majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Bahrain, another Gulf state backing the rebels, the split is between the majority Shiite versus the Sunni ruling family, the Al-Khalifas.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states have long wanted to break the alliance between Iran and its two friends in the region, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. To complicate things further, Hezbollah troops are now intervening in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

It's tempting to view the conflicts as the monarchs do and frame the Arab Spring and the changes it has spawned as a reflection of this divide. But many observers feel the sectarian chasm is too often used to deflect attention from the real struggle, pitting entrenched monarchies in the Gulf against large segments of their populations that want more accountability, democratically elected parliaments and limits on the power of the monarchs, civil and political rights enshrined in law, and defendable in judicial systems that are independent from executive and religious powers.

The Gulf states are immensely rich nations, and in exchange for cushy government-created jobs and the lack of personal income taxes, their citizens have tacitly agreed not to challenge the ruling families -- until now.

With rapidly growing populations that are increasingly college-educated and well-traveled, the unwritten agreement has begun to unravel, pressured by a growing demand for more rights and a say in how national and local decisions are made. With the exception of Kuwait, which has had the most vibrant parliament in the region since 1962 as well as regular elections and the right to publicly question government ministers, the Gulf states have made minimal concessions to the political aspirations of their citizens. After 40 years, Saudi Arabia reinstated municipal elections in 2005, and Bahrain resurrected its National Assembly in 2002 after the previous one stopped functioning in 1975. Yet, only half of the members of Saudi municipal councils are elected; the other half are appointed by the government.

Saudi protesters
A protester holds up a picture of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a rally last year in the coastal town of Qatif protesting Nimr's arrest. Nimr, a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, was detained in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province after calling for more rights for the minority Muslim sect in the Sunni monarchy. REUTERS/Stringer

Similarly, only half the members of the Bahraini parliament are elected, with the other half government-appointed. In the United Arab Emirates, only half of the 40-member Federal National Council is elected, by a college of 6,689 members appointed by the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

Given such uneven representation, the struggle of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can be viewed as symbolic of the wider struggle between the bloated and often corrupt Gulf monarchies, which have arguably lost their original legitimacy, and populations that want more political, economic and social rights.

Protesters in the Gulf states face a fundamental dilemma. Should they call for the (perhaps violent) overthrow of their ruling families or try to bring change by working within the system? The threat of violence and government concessions both have served a purpose. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s forced Shiite activists into exile who pushed for more rights, yet both subsequently made concessions. In the 1990s, the exiled activists were pardoned by their respective rulers and allowed to return, and the Saudi and Bahraini governments promised greater rights and space to practice their form of Islam peacefully and safely. To some extent, the governments followed through. Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, who make up about 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, are now allowed to openly hold Ashura processions through the streets of Qatif, and have hussainiyas, or Shiite houses of religious studies and mourning. In Bahrain, Shiites have suffered a setback in religious terms since the start of the 2011 protests, with some old Shiite mosques being razed by the government, ostensibly because they lacked the necessary original building permits.

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who's in jail until 2014 for protesting against the government, told me in a 2011 interview that she wanted to see the top members of the royal family on trial. “Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying -- mostly the political societies -- that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion. If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen.”

Tawfiq Alsaif, a leader of the Shiite community in Qatif, who went into exile in 1979 but returned after King Fahd pardoned him and others in 1993, says the younger Saudis in general, both Sunni and Shiite, are more critical and less worried about not upsetting the status quo. “My observations during recent years show that the new Saudi generation, both Shia and Sunni, are less considerate of the old norms and traditions, including those used to defuse social unrest,” Alsaif said in an interview. “I see various factors behind this, local and regional, thus I can say that our nation is heading towards worrisome times.”

Alsaif said there have been no talks between the Shiite community and Saudi government for some time now, which he blames on a high level of mistrust on both sides. Indeed, since 2011, 20 Shiite protesters have been shot dead in clashes with Saudi security forces, and last year the popular Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was arrested after delivering sermons calling for Shiites to resist the Al-Saud royal family. He remains in jail and is on trial. The prosecution has called for the death penalty.

Toby Jones, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, believes that the outcome of Al-Nimr’s trial will set the tone for Saudi-Shiite relations for some time. “Saudi Arabia’s Shia community is politicized and mobilized, but hardly radical,” Jones said. “Al-Nimr is a lightning-rod figure, of course, and is certainly less accommodating than the mainstream Shirazi clerics/activists in the Eastern Province. The outcome of his trial will set the tone of Saudi-Shia relations for the medium term, but can hardly get much worse. Saudi security forces have handled the situation roughly. What is often lost in making sense of the state’s relations with its largest minority is that the country’s Shia community (most of it, anyway), has long sought inclusion and basic human rights. They are hardly a radical element or fifth column. Over the last two years, Shiites in Qatif and surrounding areas have supported more revolutionary politics, but the vocal ones are still in the minority.”

The intervention of Saudi troops in Bahrain in March 2011 to prop up the Sunni regime of the Al-Khalifas allowed the main demands of Shiite protesters to remain unanswered. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that there were 84 confirmed deaths in the uprising and that there are more than 700 Bahraini prisoners of conscience. There has been widespread use of torture against detainees in Bahrain, and the center says that about 100 arbitrarily sacked workers still haven't received their jobs back.

Why has this been allowed to happen? Why has the U.S. remained largely silent about the crackdowns in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? Many say it’s due to America’s use of the Gulf states as a bulwark against the perceived threat of Iran across the Gulf. The ongoing standoff between the U.S., the European Union and Iran over its nuclear program has only aggravated regional tensions. Some Gulf states don't believe that being within the U.S. nuclear umbrella is enough to protect them from an Iran equipped with nuclear bombs a few years from now. Gulf governments have long accused Iran of providing covert aid to their Shiite populations in the form of money and weapons to stir dissent. No proof has publicly surfaced to bolster these claims, and in the meantime, it's the local Bahraini and Saudi Shiite populations that suffer from the fallout of the ideological fight between their governments and Iran’s.

Ultimately, at least in Bahrain, it's a desperate fight for survival of the Al-Khalifa family that has pushed the comparative hard-liners within them to push for the imprisonment of protesting Bahrainis, the majority of whom are Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, the situation is different in that its Shiite population is a minority.

The majority of Saudis remain loyal to the ruling family, which is still able for now to provide jobs and services thanks to oil revenue; however, critics argue that Gulf rulers must recognize that overplaying the Shiite-scare card is detrimental to the stability and unity of their countries. According to their line of thinking, Shiite populations who're given their full rights and are fully integrated into these societies, will ultimately be an invaluable asset to these nations. Matthiesen makes this point in his chapter on Kuwait, where he notes that wealthy Shiite business families have become crucial political allies of the ruling Al-Sabah family in the Kuwaiti Parliament.

Matthiesen writes that the Arab Spring demonstrations in the Gulf have succeeded in lifting one significant taboo: Criticizing or even attacking the royal families and rulers. Young demonstrators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have carried signs calling for the downfall of the Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families. Matthiesen notes that violent repression combined with economic handouts to the rest of their populations has allowed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to weather the first two years of the Arab Spring. But with booming populations and diminishing oil and gas production, Matthiesen predicts that all the Gulf states will face enormous economic challenges in the coming decades. “Sectarianism was a short-term ‘answer’ to the Arab Spring in the Gulf,” he writes. “But the Gulf states will have to find new answers to the looming challenges of lack of economic diversification, increasing energy consumption, youth unemployment, and demands for political reform in an era and neighborhood in which autocratic regimes have lost the power to regulate what people say and demand in public.”