While Tunisians and Egyptians are enjoying their newfound freedoms, forming political parties and holding passionate debates on their countries' futures, across the six Arab states along the Persian Gulf , a counterrevolutionary pushback against the Arab Spring is steadily gaining steam. Autocratic rulers are clamping down hard at home, closing down political space in an attempt to isolate their citizens from the transformative pressures at work elsewhere in the Middle East. It's safe to say that - at least for now - the Gulf region is becoming more repressive, not less, with potentially dangerous long-term consequences not only for these oil-rich monarchies but also for their Western allies. Saudi Arabia's announcement on April 29 of sweeping new media restrictions is just the latest effort to narrow the parameters of legitimate political debate. Saudi King Abdullah's decree, which amended the 2000 Press and Publications Law, prohibited the media from reporting anything that contradicts sharia law or serves "foreign interests and undermines national security." With Saudi forces engaged in a highly sensitive crackdown in neighbouring Bahrain, the creation of these new laws sends a powerful signal that critical reporting or dissenting viewpoints will not be tolerated. It's not only Saudi Arabia that's taking these steps. Beleaguered Gulf monarchies in Bahrain and Oman have violently suppressed demonstrations, while the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait also stepped up repressive measures. But it's not just a backlash against events in Tunisia and Egypt - the roots of the authoritarian inward turn were visible well before the outbreak of the Arab Spring. In the final months of 2010, simmering discontent in Kuwait and Bahrain was met by unusually blunt displays of force. In Bahrain, security forces detained more than 20 prominent opposition and human rights activists ahead of the October parliamentary elections. The political temperature in the Gulf was therefore rising even before the start of widespread demonstrations in the Middle East. And the case of Bahrain, the first Gulf country to experience widespread protest, shows just how deep-seated some popular grievances are. The rapid swelling of the initial pro-democracy protests into a cross-sectarian movement for substantive political reform panicked the ruling al-Khalifa regime. The foreign intervention has been accompanied by an escalation of repression as security forces ruthlessly eliminate all forms of dissent to the Khalifa's continuing rule. Doctors who treat injured protesters have been rounded up and lawyers representing them have been arrested. Opposition and human rights activists have been detained and allegedly tortured. The apparent vulnerability of the Bahraini ruling family frightened other Gulf rulers, leading them to crack down on their own dissidents. Action was most concerted in the UAE, where prominent pro-democracy activists such as Nasser bin Ghaith, professor of economics at the Abu Dhabi branch of the prestigious Sorbonne University, and Ahmed Mansoor, who founded the UAE Hewar online forum for political discussion, were both arrested. Gaith and Mansoor were among 133 Emirati intellectuals who signed a petition in March calling for the direct election of all members of UAE's Federal National Council, and the passage of constitutional amendments to vest it with legislative and regulatory powers. Gulf rulers have complemented their repressive tactics with a series of economic blandishments, such as announcing additional public sector jobs, pay increases, and benefits. Together, these steps have provided the royal families with a temporary breathing space. Few analysts expect anything like an Egypt or a Tunisia scenario to develop. But by ignoring the crucial social dimensions of the Arab spring and refusing to modify political structures that seem ever more anachronistic by the day, the Gulf states are trying to swim against the tide in the Middle East. Pushback in the Gulf also raises awkward questions for the monarchs' Western partners. Bahrain's status as a Major Non-NATO Ally and the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet has caused the United States to remain silent about the ongoing crackdown there, a fact that sits uneasily with the United States' rhetorical support for pro-democracy movements and the right to protest elsewhere. But it's not just policymakers that have been placed in a delicate situation by the crackdown in the Gulf : Universities such as the NYU and the Sorbonne, and other Western institutions such as the Guggenheim, have invested heavily in branch projects located in the UAE in recent years. Thus far, they have largely chosen to maintain a studious silence about the worsening human rights situation, leaving them open to charges of naivety or even complicity. Don't expect this tension to resolve itself anytime soon. As long as the Gulf states remain authoritarian bulwarks in a radically changing regional environment, Western govts and institutions will continue to find themselves caught between their values and their interests. And unless the ruling families acknowledge take measures to resolve their citizens' simmering social, economic and political grievances, the next explosion in the Gulf could be greater still. Foreign Policy