Saturday, April 2, 2011

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War

Even as they have succeeded militarily in crushing the pro-democracy protesters (one heard nary a peep yesterday, Friday, for example), yet Bahrain's rulers are clearly losing the war of words--what government opponents have been calling the "جهاد الاعلامي," or "media jihad." A quick Google News search shows that the week's most widely-read articles summarizing recent events, at least from English-speaking newsgoers, are the following:

Bahrain's Calculated Campaign of Intimidation
- Christian Science Monitor
Bahrain Wages Unrelenting Crackdown on Shi'ites - Associated Press
The Quiet Crackdown - The Atlantic
Crackdown: Bahrain Goes After the Blogfather - TIME
Bahrain is Still a Miserable, Vicious Dictatorship, By the Way - Slate

And of course not to be excluded is the excellent three-part series by Lee Smith at The Weekly Standard:

Part 1 - The Bahrain Uprising, Saudi Troops, and Husayn the Martyr
Part 2 - Bahrain Falls Mainly on the Shia
Part 3 - Touring Bahrain

That they are being drubbed in the media war is not lost on Bahrain's rulers, who have been attempting to counter activists' organized campaign of international outreach with their own side of the story. The New York Times, for example, ran this government apologia in the early days of the most recent (assuming it isn't just all one big) crackdown.

Then, just a few days ago on March 31, Sh. 'Abd al-Aziz Al Khalifa (who is introduced as "
international media adviser, Information Affairs Authority [sic] and former Bahraini ambassador to Great Britain"--that is to say, the best public face the Al Khalifa could find) went on PBS Newshour. Yet even the summary of the interview--"Bahraini Official Defends Crackdown on Protesters"--emphasizes the reactionary nature of the Bahraini government's response. Indeed, a postscript to the article notes, "After the interview concluded, the Associated Press confirmed that Bahraini blogger Mahmoud al-Youssef -- who was arrested early Wednesday -- had been released late Thursday night." Funny coincidence, that.
(The full video of the interview is embedded below.)


Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.


Yet one might ask why it matters, in the end, whether the Bahraini government comes out of all this looking like a monster or like a puppy dog--so long, that is, as it comes out of the crisis at all. The question, though, is what sort of Bahrain rulers have succeeded in defending. And we need not even talk about the deep social division that is doubtless to remain long after the current crisis has faded.

It is telling that while anti-government protesters are busy spreading via Twitter and Facebook the sorts of links I've summarized above, the most common article circulated by regime supporters is this story in the New York Times, "Bahrain Losing Its Edge as Financial Hub." The Arab News expresses the matter even more clearly: "'Business Friendly Bahrain' Fighting to Save Image." The fear, then, is not that the political tension will become/remain unbearable, but that Bahrain's rulers will have such an economic mess on their hands that even today's supporters will become disillusioned.

Bahrain emerged as the Gulf financial hub when banks and multinationals fled the political uncertainty and eventual open ethno-religious civil war that plagued 1970-80s Lebanon. Bahrain may not have reached the point of civil war, but foreign business leaders have seen this movie before and may not wish to stay long enough to see how it ends. Especially with plenty of other, seemingly more stable choices but a 30-minute plane-ride away. The Saudis, of course, can always pick up the extra tab--they already fund some 60% of Bahrain's annual budget--yet Bahrain's economic and social landscapes, both premised to a large degree on the presence of Westerners and other Gulf Arabs looking for a good time (if you know what I mean), will be dramatically changed.

Bahrain cannot afford to bleed out in this media war any longer. Expect some steps toward "dialogue" sooner rather than later.

Update: Things are now becoming desperate it seems. The government has "suspended" the final remaining non-governmental newspaper in Bahrain, Al-Wasat and has blocked its website from inside Bahrain. This article summarizes what happened: "A programme on Bahrain TV last night detailed a report listing the 'unprofessional and unethical practices' committed by Al Wasat, which were characterised by 'lies, defamation and plagiarism.'" So essentially an expose on government TV "uncovered" the unethical reporting practices of its main rival. Go figure.

Another Update: This is now covered in a new post here.


Go to Part 2 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثاني) —>

11 comments:

  1. Maybe it is just the wishful thinker in me, but I think it would be really nice if businesses looked into Egypt or Tunisia instead of Dubai to really send the right message.

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  2. As a Bahraini who wants reform, I say that these violent 'protesters' have ruined it for the rest of us. I was so excited to get the golden opportunity of a national dialogue, and even an amendment to the constitution! But these 'protesters' attacked my cousins at University of Bahrain with swords and knives! Then they blocked the largest highway! Then the took over the largest government hospital! These are terrorists and I have feared for my life for more than one month. I'm more than happy to find the GCC forces in Bahrain to help stabilize the nation, and protect Bahrain from these terrorists! How can u sympathize with them??

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  3. There are plenty of places to have this argument. Here is not one of them. Let's keep the polemics to a minimum, people.

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  4. What is happening in Bahrain is that the military is killing peaceful protesters and attacking them and not letting them to protest.
    Please save Bahraini people from this regime.

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  5. Hi, Justin,

    Excellent blog!

    Would you mind passing along the source for the percentage of the Bahraini government budget funded by Saudi Arabia? I'm aware of the GCC fund, but the number doesn't jibe with the reports from the Ministry of Finance. It's big news.

    Much obliged!

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  6. Hello,

    This comes from an interview I did with a Sunni parliamentarian in 2009, who was then a member of the finance committee. What I meant of course is that 60% comes from Bahrain's cut of the Abu Saafa oil field that it "shares" jointly with the Saudis. I.e., the Saudis give them 1/2 of the output (150k barrels/day or so), which is essentially a rent.

    This recent piece in the Weekly Standard quotes Khalil al-Marzuq as saying the proportion of the budget from this income reaches even 75%:

    http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/bahrain-falls-mainly-shia_555538.html.

    Justin

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  7. Well, to be fair the field was split under 50-50 a 1958 treaty. (I only know that because I read the 2010 prospectus on Bahrain's bond issue. The information is on page 13. The field was developed in 1963.)

    I don't mean to nitpick, because it doesn't affect your general point, but I'm not sure that I'd put a 1958 treaty obligation in scare quotes. After all, when you look at a map, it's pretty clear why the British and the Americans who did the actual negotiating hashed out the agreement the way that they did.

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  8. Thanks for the information. It sounds like you've read up on the issue much more than I.

    My understanding was that the field stopped being productive sometime in the 1980s but rather than leave the Bahrainis out to dry the Saudis agreed to subsidize the shortfall. So that by today, the Bahraini share is much closer to a rent than to actual output from the field. Is this incorrect?

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  9. I wish I knew. Around 1996, the Saudis started to sign over all the oil from the field to the Bahraini. But ... there's always a but ... around 2003 the two countries made significant new investments which upped production. The bond prospectus says that the field now produces almost 300,000 bpd.

    Thing is, in a document full of precise numbers, that one is suspiciously fuzzy.

    If I had to bet, I'd bet that Bahrain is currently getting around 50% of the output, but it's surprisingly hard to say for sure.

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  10. Yes, I read the same about the field somehow becoming productive again around 2003. Sounds fishy to me. At the very least, I doubt the "new investment" was a joint effort.

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  11. Found it! (Sorry about the delay - I had to sleep.) The Abu Saafa field's production jumped in 2004, and has in fact doubled since then. Bahrain currently gets only half the output. (Source: Statoil, but I should have known this, what with all the figures for all these Saudi fields sitting on my hard drive. The full production for the field is counted towards Saudi Arabia, not Bahrain.)

    Bahrain did not put up the money, but that's irrelevant, since the treaty entitles them to half the production.

    Still, does it matter? The Saudis probably won't want to give Bahrain more oil in the future, since they have strong reasons to want to maintain their spare capacity. But as the recent GCC grant shows, Riyadh will certainly give the Bahraini government whatever cash they think it needs to stay in power.

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