Support from the public in the Gulf but official silence about Iran demonstrations
London - The violent protests in Iran caught the world off guard and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were no exception.
There was, however, conspicuous silence by senior Gulf officials about the events that could have a significant effect on the region and relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours.
The demonstrations in Iran were seemingly motivated by economic conditions but quickly turned overtly against the clerical rulers, with chants of “Death to the dictator” levelled at Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many in the Gulf said they felt vindicated by the demonstrators’ complaints that the easing of sanctions after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered with world powers had little effect on their lives as the leadership in Tehran funded expansionist designs in the region, which most GCC countries have complained about.
Gulf officials, however, were keen on not being seen or interfering with protests since open official support from GCC countries could lend credence to Tehran’s claims that the demonstrations were manipulated from the outside.
However, expressions of support from public opinion in the Gulf countries were widespread. The Arabic hashtags “Uprising of the Iranian people” and “Iran protests” trended in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, generating 500,000 tweets in the first 48 hours of the protests.
Social media users in the Gulf region forwarded videos and photos in support of the protesters. One user identifying himself as Faisal wrote: “This is a result of spending billions on terrorist militias, while your people live in poverty.” A Twitter user in Bahrain named Madmarham wrote: “Iran wanted our countries to witness unrest but now it reaps what it sowed.”
“Supporting Iran protests means believing in people’s right to demonstrate against a government that imposes additional taxes, increases the prices, manipulates religion and interferes in other countries at the expense of its people’s welfare,” wrote Kuwaiti TV presenter Ali al-Sanad on his Twitter account.
Gulf media, whose stands often reflect official positions, expressed clear support to demonstrators.
“Here is the battle in the depth of Iran… indeed an overwhelming popular uprising. Let’s do our best to support the Iranians with all their ethnicities against the Khamenei occupation,” a columnist wrote in the Saudi daily Okaz.
Some voices cautioned against possible repercussions of abrupt regime change in Tehran. In a commentary in the Saudi-owned pan- Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, former Editor-in-Chief Abdulrahman al-Rashid wrote that the fall of the Tehran regime might not be the best option for the region.
“If the uprising of the Iranian people were to bring about a change in Iranian policy and to stop its external operations and force the regime to shift to internal reform and development, that would be the ideal option,” wrote Rashid compared with what he described as the “horrifying scenario that a regime collapse would entail.”
The same publication carried an interview with Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urging the international community to support the protesters and calling on them to pursue the path of civil disobedience.
“If the government has not listened to you for 38 years, your role has come to ignore what the government says to you now,” Ebadi was quoted as saying.
Media in the UAE were also supportive of the protesters. “The Iranian people have suffered from poverty, hunger and joblessness over four decades and suffer from rampant corruption among ruling bodies, security services and army commanders,” stated an editorial in the Emirati daily Al-Bayan.
In a stark contrast, Qatari media appeared to echo the official narrative of Iran. “Tehran pledges to respond decisively to law violators,” was the headline of Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper.
Qatar has been singled out by several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as supporting Iran at the expense of its Arab neighbours. Doha’s cosy ties with Tehran have been one of the main reasons for the dispute between Qatar and a quartet of countries, which severed ties with Qatar last year.