Loyalist Roots, Reformist Attitude: The Al-Fateh Youth Coalition in Bahrain

By Jessie Moritz
Submitted to Session P4869 (Loyalists in the Gulf: Reliable Partners or Independent Actors, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula; Bahrain; Gulf;
Democratization; Development; Gulf Studies; Identity/Representation; Minorities; Nationalism; Political Economy;
Societal support is critical to the perpetuation of the ‘rentier bargain’ – referring to the exchange of wealth derived from oil and gas exportation for political quiescence – in the Arab states of the Gulf. The emergence of pro-government ‘counter-protests’ in response to local incarnations of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 ostensibly supports this narrative, demonstrating the rentier state’s ability to mobilize loyalists when its political authority is threatened.

Yet how reliable are these groups in terms of political support for the state? Are they likely to remain pro-government actors, or have they demonstrated a tendency to shift between loyalty and opposition over time – and if the latter, why has the ‘rentier bargain’ failed to cement their political support? Despite its importance, there has been very little investigation of the complexity of political loyalty within rentier state theory (RST), the dominant literature on state-society relations in the petroleum-rich Gulf states.

This paper presents a detailed crucial case study of a group of youth participants in pro-government counter-protests in early 2011, who later formed a political society with clear reformist ambitions. Specifically, the paper examines the political activities of the Bahraini youth group, the al-Fateh Youth Coalition (FYC), which splintered from a broader pro-government Sunni group in 2012, to reveal the complex nature of ‘loyalist’ political activism in Bahrain. The FYC, the paper argues, simultaneously reinforces, and challenges state authority. That is: the FYC has strongly rejected Bahrain’s Shiite opposition societies, which they view as loyal to Iran, and in doing so benefit the state, which can portray popular unrest as a societal conflict between Sunni and Shiite groups. At the same time, the FYC make wide-ranging demands for political reforms that would significantly alter the state-society relationship, suggesting they are also willing to challenge state authority.

Drawing from in-depth interviews with members of the FYC and other Bahraini loyalist and opposition political societies conducted from 2013-2016, the paper questions assumptions of state autonomy prevalent in RST. By tracing the shift from loyalty to reform among members of the FYC, the paper highlights the importance of sub-national inequalities in rent distributions, sectarianism, and ideology in shaping political attitudes. Even the state’s most dedicated allies, the paper argues, maintain independent interests and place political constraints on the state, revealing the complex interaction between rents, loyalty, and autonomy that typifies the modern rent-rich states of the Gulf.