Total population: Bahrain: 500,000; Kuwait: 1.2 million; Oman:1.6 million; Qatar: 400,000; Saudi Arabia: 18.5 million; United Arab Emirates: 1.7 million
Jewish population: 20 (in Bahrain)

Traditional antisemitic stereotypes, prevalent in Saudi Arabia as well as the other Gulf states, have softened somewhat in recent years due to more positive images developed in the wake of the Gulf War and the Middle East peace process. Government-controlled media continue, however, to publish occasional antisemitic statements, including Holocaust denial. The threat of militant Islamism is also a regional concern. The small Jewish community in Bahrain enjoys a close relationship with the regime but maintains a low public profile.

Demographic data

General population: Bahrain 600,000 (including 230,000 non-nationals), Kuwait 2 million (including 1.2 million non-nationals), Oman 2.4 million, Qatar 700,000, Saudi Arabia 21.5 million (including 5 million non-nationals), United Arab Emirates (UAE) 2.3 million (including 1.6 million non-nationals)

Jewish population: 20 (in Bahrain)

Ethnic groups

Bahrain: Bahraini 63 per cent, Asian 13 per cent, other Arab 10 per cent, Iranian 8 per cent, other 6 per cent

Kuwait: Kuwaiti 45 per cent, other Arab 35 per cent, South Asian 9 per cent, Iranian 4 per cent, other 7 per cent

Oman: Arab, Baluchi, South Asian, African

Qatar: Arab 40 per cent, Pakistani 18 per cent, Indian 18 per cent, Iranian 10 per cent, other 14 per cent

Saudi Arabia: Arab 90 per cent, Afro-Asian 10 per cent

UAE: South Asian 50 per cent, other Arab and Iranian 23 per cent, Emiri 19 per cent, other foreign nationals 8 per cent


Bahrain: Shi'ite Muslims 75 per cent, Sunni Muslim 25 per cent

Kuwait: Sunni Muslim 45 per cent, Shi'ite Muslim 40 per cent, other (Christian, Hindu, Parsi) 15 per cent

Oman: Ibadhi Muslim 75 per cent, other (Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim and Hindu) 25 per cent

Qatar: Muslim 95 per cent

Saudi Arabia: Muslim 100 per cent

UAE: Muslim 96 per cent (Shi'a 16 per cent), other (Christian, Hindu) 4 per cent

 Languages: Arabic, English (widely spoken), Persian, Farsi, Urdu, Baluchi, dialects

Political data

Political systems: monarchies, based on Islamic law

Capitals: Manama (Bahrain), Kuwait (Kuwait), Muscat (Oman), Doha (Qatar), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Abu Dhabi (UAE)

Governments: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Fahd, who handed over power to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, at the end of 1995 owing to ill-health, but reclaimed control in March 1996. The other Gulf states, with the exception of Oman, are tribal kingdoms, governed by emirs who rule by decree and are advised by cabinets appointed largely from their respective family members. Oman is a sultanate whose ruler appoints a council of advisers chosen from tribal dignitaries.

Suffrage: None of the Gulf states extend the right to vote apart from Kuwait where 10 per cent are eligible to vote and Oman where some 50,000 are chosen to vote for specified candidates

Political parties: Political parties are banned in all the Gulf states. However, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait helped to foster the development of loosely organized opposition groups demanding political change. Pressure for liberalization has also emanated from the United States and its western allies. There is some evidence of limited democratization: in 1993 the Saudi monarch appointed a consultative council; Oman and the UAE convened consultative councils; and in 1996 Kuwait held elections for a reconstituted national assembly.

Opposition parties: Among the opposition forces emerging within Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are radical Islamist groups that reject the conservatism of the current regimes and may seek to exploit constitutional changes to promote a more militant form of Islamism. The London-based Islamic Liberation Front and the Bahrain Liberation Movement, for example, represent a threat to the Bahraini regime.

In 1998 the Gulf witnessed further pressure for political change. Riots, instigated by Shi'ite clerics calling for political reform and more equal job opportunities for members of the Shi'ite majority, continued in Bahrain throughout the year.

Economic data

GDP 1998: Bahrain US$5.4 billion, Kuwait US$25 billion, Oman US$15 billion, Saudi Arabia US$129 billion, UAE US$47 billion (World Bank)

GDP per capita 1998 (est.): Bahrain US$13,000, Kuwait US$23,000, Oman US$8,000, Qatar US$17,000, Saudi Arabia US$9,000, UAE US$17,000 (CIA World Factbook 1999)

GDP growth 1998 (est.): Bahrain -2 per cent, Kuwait -5 per cent, Oman -8.5 per cent, Qatar -3 per cent, Saudi Arabia -10 per cent, UAE -5 per cent (CIA World Factbook 1999)

Inflation 1997 (est.): Bahrain 0 per cent, Kuwait 1 per cent, Oman 0 per cent, Qatar 2.5 per cent, Saudi Arabia 0 per cent, UAE 5 per cent (CIA World Factbook 1999)

Unemployment: Bahrain 15 per cent (1996 est.), Kuwait 1.8 per cent (1996 estimate) (CIA World Factbook 1999)

Economic recovery continued after the devastating effects of the Gulf War. Despite new development plans, aimed particularly at stimulating the private sector, growth has been curbed by a fall in oil prices.

The influence of European antisemitism is deeply rooted in the Gulf states. With the exception of Bahrain, Gulf societies evolved without Jewish communities. In the late nineteenth century, Jews from Iraq, India and Iran settled in Bahrain, where they engaged in commerce and made their living from handicrafts. In 1947-8, before the establishment of the state of Israel, antisemitic riots broke out and the synagogue was destroyed. Most of the Jews in Bahrain subsequently emigrated but a small community remains.

Antisemitic images of greedy, plotting and monstrous-looking Jews were largely imported to the Gulf states by western visitors, who introduced such stereotypes as the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.


In most of the Gulf states, proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion from Islam are discouraged if not banned.

In Bahrain, anti-Islamic writings are prohibited. Some 9,000-15,000 so-called bidoon (stateless native-born or long-term residents) - including mostly Shi'ite of Persian origin but also some Christians - face various economic and other disadvantages resulting from the refusal to grant them citizenship rights.

In Kuwait some 110,000 bidoon face even more serious restrictions than in Bahrain. They are eliminated from the census rolls, have no access to government jobs and free education, are barred from the military and are not issued with travel documents (making it difficult to re-enter the country if they do travel abroad). A programme to naturalize many of the bidoon is being implemented. Some foreign workers, especially unskilled or semi-skilled South Asians, live much like indentured servants; they face poor working conditions and some abuse. 

In Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion does not exist: Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of other religions although private worship is permitted. In 1999 tens of Christians were arrested, apparently solely on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Thirteen Christian migrant workers, all but one from the Philippines, were arrested on charges of proselytizing in Riyadh in June 1999, reportedly after a Bible had been found outside a house; they were all deported in July. Non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia are barred from visiting Mecca and its holy sites. There are approximately five million foreign workers resident in Saudi Arabia, many of whom, particularly those from Africa and Asia, are subject to severe forms of discrimination. 

Muslim minorities

In Saudi Arabia, the Shi'ite Muslim minority (4 per cent of the population) are subject to officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination. In November 1998 the Mutawaa'in (religious police) killed an elderly Shi'ite prayer leader in Hofuf for repeating the call to prayer twice (a Shi'ite practice). The government is reportedly investigating the incident.

Islamist groupings

Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born businessman, was named by the United States as co-ordinator of an international terrorist ring responsible for the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar el-Salaam in 1998. His organization, al-Qaeda, has issued statements calling on Muslims worldwide to conduct a jihad (holy war) against Jews and Americans. Bin Laden reportedly maintains strong links with militant Islamist groups in Sudan and Afghanistan. The London-based Saudi opposition group, the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), established in 1993, was initially headed by the Islamist Muhammad al-Masari. The CDLR bulletin, disseminated electronically via the Internet, occasionally includes antisemitic statements. In 1996, amid rising tensions between Britain and Saudi Arabia, al-Masari won an appeal against deportation. The CDLR subsequently split into two separate groupings. One group launched a new publication, entitled al-Haqaq, which has reportedly claimed that Jews have conspired against Islam and that all Muslims are obliged to battle against Jews.


Antisemitic statements in the state-controlled media in the Gulf are often related to events in the Middle East. In 1997, such pronouncements surged in the summer following the publication by an Israeli settler of a leaflet that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a pig. On 9 August 1997, for example, the Saudi newspaper Okaz claimed: 'The Jews as a people have not yet reached a modern humanitarian, civilized level. As for Israel, it has not yet cast off the remnants of the black history of the Jews which is full of racism, inferiority complexes and persecution and hatred of peace.' On 27 August 1997, the UAE daily newspaper al-Ittihad referred to Jewish culture as 'primitive' and 'deviant', claiming it was based on the 'distorted Torah, the Talmud and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion'.

Allegations of Jewish conspiracies are also prevalent in the Gulf press. To quote some recent examples, on 24 December 1998 the Omani newspaper al-Watan alleged that there was a Jewish plot against Islam dating back to a confrontation between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jews of Arabia. The article blamed Jews for various national uprisings against the caliphates and secularist campaigns. On 13 January 1999 al-Watan published an article by Professor Mubarak Bin Seif Al-Hashemi of the Islamic Culture College at the University of the Sultan Kabos in Muscat asserting that Jews have distorted the Torah and claim to be the Chosen People in order enslave all nations.

The traditional antisemitic theme of blood libel also appears in the Gulf press. On 19 April 1999 al-Watan published an article entitled 'Matzos of blood' that stated: '[Some] prefer their matzos with fruit juice or with cocoa. Some like them baked with human blood, especially Christian blood. These are our cousins the Jews, who inherited this strange pagan idea together with a tremendous amount of foolish ideas from the Talmud and the rest of their "holy books".'

In recent months, antisemitic commentary has been sparked by the release in the US of the feature film Prince of Egypt, directed by Steven Spielberg. On 24 March 1999 the Qatari newspaper al-Sharq claimed that Jews persistently slander Arabs and Islam and that the film would incite hatred of Islam. It went on to claim that Spielberg's previous film, Schindler's List, 'caused the West to believe that Hitler really burned Jews in the crematoria and turned the lie of the Jewish tragedy into a tangible thing so as to create a guilt complex among millions in Germany and throughout the world . . .'

Antisemitism also appears in Saudi-backed publications published abroad. In January 1997, for example, the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, which is published in London, invoked The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and suggested seven Jews in the Kremlin and seven Jews in the White House were dominating world trade.

State-controlled television in Saudi Arabia frequently broadcasts antisemitic interpretations of religious texts and Islamic history. English-language programmes that aim to promote Islam among foreign workers in Saudi Arabia regularly seek to discredit both Judaism and Christianity.

Among antisemitic books distributed in the Gulf is the 1993 publication by Muhammad Qasim Muhammad of Qatar University, entitled 'The Contradiction in the Annals and Events of the Torah from Adam to Babel'. This is a lengthy attempt to discredit 'historical' aspects of the Jewish scriptures and, thereby, Jewish history and historical experience. Arabic translations of antisemitic texts such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are also available.

Since religious and political institutions are closely intertwined in the Gulf states, antisemitic statements by religious leaders take on particular significance. The Grand Mufti of Oman was quoted on 20 July 1997 in the Dubai newspaper, al-Khaleej, warning against the 'tribal plan' of the 'enemies of Islam'. Citing passages from the Qu'ran to support his views, he described the Jews as 'enemies of God and the human race'.

The French Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy (see France) visited Qatar during a Middle East tour in the summer of 1997 in order to promote his latest publication, 'The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics'. His views received sympathetic coverage in the local media. In February 1998, for example, Garaudy was interviewed by the Qatari satellite television channel, al-Jazeera, which is received throughout the Middle East.

Holocaust denial also appears in the government-controlled media in other Gulf states. On 6 March 1997, in an editorial on the issue of Nazi gold in Swiss banks, the Omani daily al-Watan asserted: 'Arab victims are more numerous that the supposed victims of the ovens, who are described as the Jews wish to describe them, and not realistically.' The editorial also claimed that the Swiss and Germans gave in to Jewish demands because Jews were better organized than the Mafia and controlled the western media.

On 15 June 1997 the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siasa featured an article entitled 'Nazi victims: a hollow lie that does not fool the world'. The article claimed that 'the tragic story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews is a hollow lie which Israel diligently finances, blows up and exploits in order to blackmail the countries of the world who are misled by the Israeli outlook.'

The continuous identification of the Gulf societies with Arab and Palestinian issues has encouraged the persistence of a belief in demonic images of Jews. Following the 1991 Gulf War, however, there are signs that Gulf societies have been developing a more positive image of Jews. During that war they were able to identify with the position of Israeli society, which, like their own, was attacked and victimized by Saddam Hussein's ventures. They appreciated Israel's restraint in avoiding retaliation against Iraq, which helped facilitate the anti-Iraq coalition's victory. The Gulf states were able to experience Israel as a factor of stability in the Middle East and supported the US-initiated Arab-Israeli peace process. Israel's earlier image as the 'Zionist enemy' was undermined. In addition, the Palestinians' support for Saddam Hussein earned them the animosity of many Gulf Arabs, who resented what they saw as disregard for the hospitality and financial and material support given by the Gulf states over the years.

Back to the top of the page

JPR 2000