Yemen war prompts crackdown on dissent in Gulf

Yemen war prompts crackdown on dissent in Gulf
The Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has been accompanied by arrests of opposition activists in the GCC states.
5 min read
14 April, 2015
Kuwait has cracked down dissent over its role in Yemen [Denver Post / Getty]

Khaled Ashatti was at his office in Kuwait City when the call came. State Security was on the line. They told him he was a wanted man.

The authorities wanted to ask Khaled about comments he had made on Twitter the day after Islamic State suicide bombers in Yemen killed 142 people, in twin attacks against mosques linked to the Houthi movement.

"The number of Houthis who have signed up for martyrdom operations against Takfiri targets is now over 14,000," he had written.

Five days later, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched airstrikes in Yemen in an attempt to crush the Houthi uprising.

Khaled tweeted again: "The time has come for wisdom." That was a step too far.

Khaled's political views are well known in Kuwait. A 45-year-old lawyer and former member of parliament, he has spent the years since the 9/11 attacks speaking out against terrorism and extremist ideologies. His public statements have frequently brought him into conflict with the authorities.

In recent months, they has also made him a target of sectarian abuse by individuals on Twitter. One recently labelled him and Salah Al Fadhly, another Shia opposition activist recently arrested on similar charges, as "among the most famous Iranian dogs in Kuwait."

This is despite a long history of relatively cordial relations between Kuwait's Shia minority, who make up about a quarter of the population, and the Sunni majority.

On 31 March, a lawyer who regularly targets Shia activists complained about Khaled in a letter to the Kuwaiti authorities. Dwaim Al-Muwaizri, whose letter to the prosecutor was seen by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, told a local news website that he had lodged the complaint "against that abnormal [man]... we will never be content that there are people among us who support the Houthis." It is not clear whether his letter was a trigger for Khaled's subsequent arrest.

After two hours of questioning by State Security officers, Khaled was handcuffed, blindfolded and transferred to the Public Prosecutor. Another round of interrogation followed, then the prosecutor told Khaled the charges against him: hurting the morale of the Kuwaiti armed forces (who are currently taking part in Saudi-led operations against Houthis in Yemen), encroaching on the powers of the Emir, and offending Saudi Arabia. Under Kuwaiti law, the charges carry the death sentence.

"I was surprised. I never directly criticised Operation Decisive Storm. I never even mentioned Saudi Arabia," he told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. "But they told me, 'we don't want you to make any political analysis.' Even though I'm a former politician."

Khaled was taken to a tiny cell with a hole-in-the-ground toilet, a washbasin and a CCTV camera so the guards could watch him day and night. He was to spend five days in solitary confinement.

"The lights were on 24 hours a day, to stop me sleeping. Every time I started to drop off, they came and shook me so I would wake up," he said.

He refused to eat the food he was given - not because he was on hunger strike, but because he didn't trust the authorities not to poison him. After five days, he was released after paying a $10,000 bail. He is now waiting for his trial to begin. He could face the death penalty.

Renewed Crackdown

The arrest of opposition activists in Kuwait is nothing new. Since Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to crush Arab Spring-style protests at Pearl Roundabout in 2011, Gulf governments have closed down opposition parties, tightened already draconian media laws and sentenced bloggers to prison and even lashes.

While most of this was in response to criticism of corruption at home, several arrests of prominent opposition figures in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia since the start of the Yemen conflict reflect how sensitive GCC governments are towards criticism of their regional policies. The latest crackdown has a worrying sectarian hew: most of the recent detainees are Shia activists.

In Bahrain, Fadhel Abbas, an opposition activist, was arrested after his party published a statement on Twitter condemning the country's involvement in the war in Yemen. The government accused him of "exploiting situation in Yemen to disrupt the peace and endanger security and civil order."

Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who was arrested on April 2 after writing a report about conditions in Bahraini jails, has also been accused of "spreading tendentious rumors" about Bahraini participation in Saudi-led operations in Yemen. Both Abbas and Rajab are Shia.

The silencing of political dissent in the Gulf is getting worse and worse

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, anti-war protests in the Eastern Province, where many of the Kingdom's Shia minority lives, were quickly crushed. Security services fired in the air to disperse demonstrators who had gathered in the village of Awamiya.

A local activist who spoke to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on condition of anonymity said that any criticism of the war was a red line.

"Nobody can say they're against the war. They're labelled traitors, loyal to Iran and so on," she said. "The Shia are in a difficult situation in Saudi Arabia. Any wars outside affect us domestically. You read the papers and it's like it's a war against the Shia. Liberals and Salafis, everyone has united around the intervention - and the reason is that it's sectarian."

Officially, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen on the request of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in order to prop up the internationally recognised government, stop Houthi rebels advancing across the country, and roll back Iranian influence in the region. But in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, it has been accompanied by a further crackdown on freedom of speech.

Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge who has written a book on sectarianism in the Gulf, said that while many in the Gulf support the war in Yemen, few are willing to speak out against it as they would be immediately arrested.

"We can see an outpouring of nationalism around the war," he told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. "Meanwhile, the silencing of political dissent in the Gulf is getting worse and worse."

This is Part One of a two-part series on the implications of the Yemen conflict on other states in the Gulf.