Sunday, February 12, 2012

Five Things the Past Year Has and Hasn't Taught Us about Bahrain, Part II

For those who haven't seen the first half, this post is a continuation of last week's article, the purpose of which is to distinguish between two sets of observations: (1) lessons learned in the year since the start of Bahrain's uprising; and (2) things that may have been highlighted by or become more apparent in the post-February 14 period, but that nonetheless are not strictly-speaking new phenomena. That is to say, what has the continuing crisis actually taught us about Bahrain that was not already apparent in January 2011? And, on the other hand, what are the things that seem to dominate media coverage of the current situation but in fact are not "news" at all?

The latter category--or at least five items from among the latter category--are summarized already in the first half of this article. These are the observations that:
#1: Bahrain's Shi'a are unhappy;
#2: Bahrain's opposition is fragmented;
#3: The state would resort to violence in confronting reformists;
#4: Bahrain's leadership is divided; and
#5: Bahrain's underlying political conflict is an intractable one.
Of course, more interesting than these non-lessons is what we have learned in the previous twelve months--what has changed in Bahrain and the region since February 2011--and what these lessons imply about the prospects for short- and long-term resolution of Bahrain's political conflict. So, without further ado:

What We Have Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year

#1. That Bahrain's Sunnis are unhappy, too

While most treatments of post-Feb. 14 Bahrain have tended to focus single-mindedly on the Shi'a opposition-Sunni government narrative, the trajectory of the past year owes as much to ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain as it does to the opposition's standoff with the state. Not only were pro-government Sunnis instrumental in checking the momentum of mass protests in February and March, but their ongoing counter-mobilization has continued to shape the terms of political debate in Bahrain--as well as the prospects for an exit from the crisis.

One may object that, as with Bahrain's Shi'a, Sunni grievances were known well before the start of the uprising, and as such should not be included in this "What have we learned?" section. Yet, while this certainly applies to some notable causes of Sunni complaint--land corruption and political naturalization especially--it is also true that the uprising itself has given birth to other, arguably even more fundamental sources of conflict with Bahrain's rulers. The latter I discuss at length in a recent article on "Bahrain's Sunni Awakening." For present purposes, however, these can be summarized as stemming from two main causes: first, dissatisfaction with the state's percieved leniency in dealing with the opposition; and second, the feeling that Sunnis are being repaid poorly for their continued support of the state.

Here we could simply repeat the analysis offered in the aforementioned article. But we need not, for the Sunni community's continued mobilization in the month since it was published provides fresh examples in support of the argument there. On February 10, the National Unity Gathering held another massive rally--they claim an attendance of "at least 100,000"--at the Al-Fateh Mosque to protest against ... protesters. The message was clear:

More than simply reminding the opposition that "we too have a voice," however, the Sunnis at Al-Fateh were directing a message at the state as well: "We support tough action against these trouble-making protesters (and those in the police and armed forces charged with executing it); why don't you?"

Thus we see posters lauding the "men of the Interior [Ministry]: we're all with you." (Not to mention the poster on the right featuring the catchy slogan poking fun at the "Not Sunni, Not Shi'i, Just Bahraini" campaign, rendering it: "Not Sunni, Not Shi'i, We're all against Safavidism," the latter being a common slur for Shi'ism in Bahrain.) Even more photos from the rally--some featuring Saudi flags--are here.

Of course, there is no need to rely on interpretations of photographs in explanation of these Sunni concerns. A set of recent articles in Al-Watan by Yusif Al Bin Khalil describes Bahrain's "Sunni awakening." In a first he asks, "Do we really fear February?," concluding,
We should look at this issue [i.e., the uprising] from another angle--as a sign of strength towards higher political mobilization. In fact, the gathering of hundreds of thousands of [Sunni] citizens in Al Fatah square was not a sign of weakness but rather reflected willingness to make the voices and specific attitudes of the community components and forces heard within the political system and even regionally and internationally.
And, even more explicitly, in a post titled "The next awakening will be in Bahrain" (I won't ask where he got the inspiration for that title),
[Th]e burgeoning political movement that can be described as a “political awakening” ... is so evolving among the Sunnis that it has become very difficult to control or at least to keep track of. For example, if an observer decides to follow the development of political awareness among the Sunni sect, he won’t only come to know the prevailing political values and ideas but he will also notice fast-paced developments consisting in sit-ins and spontaneous gatherings here and there. The situation also includes the rise of political organizations which are also so many and mostly active online to be controlled. ... The outcome of this political awakening or mobility of the Sunni sect is currently unpredictable but it will certainly yield concrete results in the future and will play a role in resolving the conflict among the Bahraini political system various trends. And ignoring these developments more and more will lead us to an impasse, the fact that will require a clear road map with specific deadlines to overcome the standstill. The future scenarios that the Sunni sect and political system will end with appear to be more frightening when they are thought of in an unconventional way amid many options that are not largely dealt with neither by the elite nor by the ordinary people.
Finally, even more to the point is another Al-Watan column by Hesham Al-Zayani--complete with two exclamation points, so you know he's serious.

He writes,
None of us can pretend that he loves Bahrain or is keener on its security than our leaders, but we, as citizens, we share in their fears and we share in their love for Bahrain. If there are signs of any settlement, or any dialogue, or any other issue, the most important thing that worries people is the fear that the state would step back or make concessions under the threat of Molotov cocktails and terrorism and would give more opportunities, more gifts and more gains or strike any other bartering arrangements with a group to stop terrorism or to stop the violence.

This is the biggest “danger sign” that worries people. Under this terrorism, things happened in the nineties and they got respectable gifts, and now, after a decade or more, we are witnessing the same experience and what they require--under threat--is to get a bigger share of the cake than what they got in the nineties. Shall we give them what they want, we might end up with a compromise, but it will never be a solution!! It is like a chronic headache, you take a pill to assuage the pain and when the pill’s effect is over the pain returns after a while. This is the most serious problem in the whole issue. No one is against compromises, no one is against a settlement, but the question is: when will the settlement be broken?! And when the effect of the settlement is over, will we return to the game of Molotov cocktails in the street for the sake of the “cake” again?” I do not know the size or value of the cake!

Yes, we want to live our lives without disturbances; we, the city dwellers and the villagers, want to live in peace as we always used to. A large part of the community is not to blame for what happened as they have nothing to do with it, but they have all paid, in one way or another, the bill. Yes, we want to lead normal lives. This is our demand, but for what price? Who will pay? And is the alleged settlement a temporary solution or a final one? How will the cake be divided? Will those who terrorize people get bigger shares than the others who do not intimidate and will accept anything? I am just thinking aloud and voicing some questions and concerns.
I apologize for the long quotation, but I think it is instructive, in particular the closing line: "How will the cake be divided? Will those who terrorize people get bigger shares than the others who do not intimidate and will accept anything?" Or, less diplomatically: "What, should we loyal Sunnis be content to watch government concessions handed out to the very people who oppose the state, while we once again get nothing?" Here exactly is the core of the Sunni-state conflict in Bahrain, and it is the primary source of the newfound political mobilization of ordinary Bahraini Sunnis in the post-February period.

#2. That it's not just the economy, stupid

Bill Clinton's now-famous observation embodies the standard starting point for analysis of politics in the Arab Gulf countries. If Gulf Arabs are quiet, it's because they're too rich to care about political participation. If they're politically-active, it must be because they're poor. Predictably, then, early interpretations of Bahrain's uprising honed in on the socioeconomic drivers of Shi'a frustration. The country's (Arab) Shi'a tend to be poorer. They are disproportionately excluded from public sector jobs. Thus Shi'a simply have more cause for political complaint than do Sunnis. But were this underlying economic disparity to be rectified through more equitable government policy, so the argument continued, it would go far toward eliminating Bahrain’s apparent, but ultimately epiphenomenal, Sunni-Shi'a divide.

Even King Hamad joined the rentier state bandwagon. To return to a point made in my May Foreign Affairs article, "How Radical Are Bahrain's Shi'a?"
Shortly after the onset of protests, the government announced generous social welfare packages including increased salaries and benefits, cost-of-living stipends, and plans for new subsidized housing. The GCC even kicked in a $10 billion aid package of its own, dubbed a “Gulf Marshall Plan” for Bahrain. But this overt attempt at political buy-off only enraged protesters further. As aptly summarized by Ebrahim Sharif, the imprisoned head of Wa'ad, a now-dissolved secular political society, “This is about dignity and freedom -- it’s not about filling our stomachs.”
Sharif's statement in February 2011 accords well with the principal findings of my mass political survey of Bahraini citizens administered two years earlier in 2009. Comprised of nearly 450 respondents selected from a random sample of households spread across the island, this study of ethnic conflict and political mobilization in the Arab Gulf aimed precisely to discover the relative influences of economics and religion on Bahrainis’ political actions and opinions.

It turns out that the political opinions of everyday Bahrainis—from their trust in basic state institutions like the police and judiciary, to their overall satisfaction with government performance, to their evaluation of Bahrain’s health services—-are determined almost entirely along ethnic lines, with Sunni ethnicity associated with much more pro-government opinions even after accounting for relevant individual factors like age, gender, education level, economic satisfaction, and so on.

What is more, heightened religiosity among respondents serves only to augment this between-group difference, driving opinion farther apart. Among Sunni ethnics, measures of personal religiousness correspond to even more favorable government opinion; among Bahrain’s Shi‘a, to more anti-government views. At the same time that religion pushes Shi‘is toward more adversarial political orientations, that is, it marshals Sunnis further to the regime’s defense.

As for the influence of household economy, on the other hand, its effect on opinion is inconsistent and relatively weak. Indeed, even where it does alter Bahrainis’ views, its substantive impact remains on average some three to four times less in magnitude than that of ethnic affiliation. Even the additional, augmenting effect of personal religiosity is more robust. While it is true then that, on the margin, more economically dissatisfied Bahrainis may tend to hold less favorable positions toward their government, this relationship is but a footnote in the larger narrative of Bahraini politics, which has been woven firmly around ethnic difference since the day the Al Khalifa and their Sunni tribal allies captured the island and its Shi‘i inhabitants from Safavid Persia in 1783.

Beyond the immediate context of Bahrain, moreover, the past year has seen other examples in the region of political mobilization independent of economic concerns. The United Arab Emirates saw a petition signed by several hundred academics--the leaders of which were subsequently arrested and tried--calling for the establishment of a parliament. Saudi Arabia continues to witness political mobilization among Eastern Province Shi'a. And the Kuwaiti government had to be dissolved entirely when the country's involvement in the GCC Peninsula Shield force in Bahrain ignited sectarian tensions to a degree not seen for some time.

In short, in light of events in Bahrain and their repercussions across the region, the previous year has (hopefully) dispelled the myth of the politically-disinterested Gulf "oil sheikh," happy to abandon politics in exchange for material comfort paid for by his cut of the nation's oil revenues. If there remains any Gulf states where this rentier formula retains considerable explanatory power, it is precisely in those contexts least caught up in the sectarian rhetoric overtaking the Gulf--namely, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman--where relatively more homogeneous populations preclude the sort of broad ethno-religious division witnessed in the other half of the GCC.

#3. That sectarianism is a dangerous political strategy

Which brings us to the third lesson of Bahrain's uprising one year later: that sectarian balancing as a political strategy is a dangerous game for Gulf rulers. This is so for several reasons. In the first place, it inevitably draws in the regional patrons of each of the conflicting sides, which means the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and now Shi'a-controlled Iraq. In turn, the involvement of Saudi Arabia implies the involvement of the larger GCC, as the Saudis aim to impress upon their Gulf neighbors--sometimes with a bit of arm-twisting (see the case of Kuwait in point #4)--that "we're all in this together." One might observe that the Saudis would have intervened in Bahrain even if the uprising had been led by Salafis or by Mongolians, yet absent the religious element in the forefront such an intervention still would not have precipitated the type of regional showdown that came to be called "The New Cold War."

The second reason that sectarian balancing is a precarious political strategy is that, to the extent that it is based on an invented narrative, a contradiction inevitably arises between state rhetoric and state actions. That is, government claims that a foreign-backed, militant opposition poses an existential threat are exposed as disingenuous when the state subsequently embarks on dialogue initiatives with that very opposition, or, say, orders retrials for detainees sentenced during the crackdown. Hence the current public outcry among Bahrain's Sunnis, who accuse Bahrain's leaders of applying the law selectively in dealing with protesters, and of showing too little confidence in the ability of the police, army, and judiciary to discharge their duties.

Finally, once furious sectarian rhetoric on the part of the state gets the political ball rolling, it is difficult to stop. Not only does Bahrain's anti-Shi'a narrative complicate efforts to resolve the crisis, since Sunnis in society are now likely to mobilize against any possible agreement, moreover citizens on both sides of the conflict are increasingly prepared to take matters into their own hands.

The growing preference for violent confrontation with riot police among Bahrain's youth-oriented street movement is well known. And the attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout over the next few days is likely only to augment this.

But Shi'a in the opposition are not the only ones prepared for a fight. Bahrain's Sunni community likewise is moving toward further militia-ization, whether via 'Adel Flaifel's "Military Society," the thugs attacking villagers in Dar Kulaib, or any number of Sunni groups aimed at combating "Shi'a traitors." The banner below is the production of but one of these.

The question, then, is the following: even if the government were able to come to an agreement with al-Wifaq--an agreement that must certainly involve concessions on both sides--who among Bahrain's citizens will be prepared to stop fighting and accept it?

#4. That the GCC is not as united as it would have one believe

Even as Bahrain's mass protests of March 2011 were eventually extinguished with help from a "joint" GCC intervention, and even as GCC leaders were seemingly united in their stand against Iranian "interference" in Gulf domestic affairs, the crisis in Bahrain has exposed differences in the political calculations and indeed political interests in the GCC member states that belie the notion of a Council that is likely, as called for recently by King 'Abdallah, to move from the phase of "cooperation" to a phase of "union."

Most obvious in this respect is the March-April 2011 controversy over Kuwait's participation in the Peninsula Shield Force. When they offered in lieu of ground troops to mediate talks between Bahrain’s government and opposition—a proposal designed to avoid riling the country’s own sizable Shi‘a population—Kuwait's rulers were quickly chastised by other GCC members and by their own Sunni politicians, who accused them of showing more concern for Shi‘a terrorists than for their (Sunni) brothers in Bahrain. When Kuwait next attempted to send a medical delegation to help treat Bahrain’s wounded, it was refused entry at the causeway, a further public embarrassment that precipitated the fall of the entire government some days later. Finally, shamed and bullied into participation, Kuwait dispatched a naval detachment to Bahrain. The apparent lesson: the GCC will stand together—like it or not.

Yet, how united was the GCC on the Bahrain issue? During the summer, as Saudi Arabia was busy verbally sparring with Iran over the latter's conspiracy to overthrow the Gulf regimes, Qatar's emir played host to Muqtada al-Sadr. Bahraini pro-government forums erupted with rebukes for the country's erstwhile rival:
"A slap in the face to the [Muslim] brothers in Qatar. How can they bring in some slob like this rafidi and talk with him about Bahrain??? This is strange and mysterious from Qatar??? And it begs the question what is the policy of Qatar?????
"Honestly, Qatar's policy is with Iran and Iraq."
A more serious spat was occasioned by the candid Al-Jazeera English documentary "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark," due to the severity of which Bahrain was forced to deny reports of having severed its diplomatic relations with Qatar altogether. (The episode also had the benefit of prompting the following graphic from the Bahrain Mirror.)

Finally, in a May 2011 Times of Oman story that has since been removed from the web (but still exists via Google cache; oops!), the Omani Foreign Minister famously "denied Tehran’s interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs." And this coming once again near the height of Saudi-Iran rhetoric.

In short, despite obvious similarities in economic, social, and political organization that make the six nations of the GCC natural partners in cooperation, still they are distinguished by unique societal circumstances that at times manifest themselves as divergent interests and inter-state rivalries. For all their grandiose talk of moving toward political "union," it is clear that the GCC states still cannot agree even upon what exactly is implied in the word “cooperation.”

#5. That Bahrain's conflict will not be solved in the short term

Above all, the disparate developments of the previous twelve months have made it clear that Bahrain's underlying conflict cannot and will not be solved in the short term. Unless protesters somehow manage to revive large-scale protests on the scale of March 2011, which I don't think possible; or unless the United States announces it is moving its Fifth Fleet and sparks a mass exodus of foreign capital from Bahrain, which is perhaps even less likely (and, even then, the Saudis I'm sure would be happy to pick up the slack)--short of these two things, the government enjoys such a strong bargaining position at present that the terms the opposition would be forced to accept today are so far from their stated demands that such an agreement would be utterly unacceptable to large swaths of the Bahraini opposition, to say nothing of Bahraini Sunnis who are likely to reject on principle any political compromise.

Consider again al-Zayani's column above, which makes the same point (if obviously in a partisan manner):
[An uprising] happened in the nineties and they [the opposition] got respectable gifts, and now, after a decade or more, we are witnessing the same experience and what they require--under threat--is to get a bigger share of the cake than what they got in the nineties. Shall we give them what they want, we might end up with a compromise, but it will never be a solution!! It is like a chronic headache, you take a pill to assuage the pain and when the pill’s effect is over the pain returns after a while. This is the most serious problem in the whole issue. No one is against compromises, no one is against a settlement, but the question is: when will the settlement be broken?! And when the effect of the settlement is over, will we return to the game of Molotov cocktails in the street for the sake of the “cake” again?”
What al-Zayani does not say, of course, is that any "settlement" will be doomed to failure from the outset, as the government has already made clear that most of the opposition's key demands--a wholly elected government, a new prime minister, an end to political naturalization, and the ability to serve in the police and armed forces--are entirely off the table. (Indeed, the state denies the existence of the latter two problems altogether.) The only concessions one might think remotely possible are new, fairer electoral districts and changes to the structure of the parliament vis-a-vis the Shura Council. Farther than this the government is simply unprepared to go.

Neither, finally, does it seem that the government's position can be influenced from the outside. In the past year Bahrain has already rejected Kuwaiti, Qatari, and U.S. mediation of the crisis. In fact, less than a week ago Crown Prince Salman reiterated to the new U.S. Ambassador the need for a "local solution" to the crisis. Fortunately for him, given the State Department's seeming reluctance to get involved anyway, the crown prince's position is probably just fine with the Obama Administration. Whether it bodes well for the long-term political stability of Bahrain, of course, is another matter.

Update: Seven months after telling an Egyptian newspaper that Bahrain's uprising was a result of a joint U.S.-Iranian conspiracy, Bahrain's Defense Minister Sh. Khalifah bin Ahmad is at it again. In a lengthy interview with Al-Ayam, "the Marshall" accuses 19 U.S. NGOs (along with 3 others in "a Gulf state") of "working against" Bahrain. These organizations, he says, are "managed and funded by the U.S. and this Gulf state." It must be comforting for U.S. policymakers to know how highly their allies think of them. (English Gulf News report now available.)

Update 2: TANGO DOWN: For the lulz, Anonymous marked February 14 by hacking both and the website of U.S. teargas manufacturer CSI (not that CSI), which is still down. (That may have something to do with the fact that, as the NYT tells, Anonymous has evidently threatened to reveal client lists and information if the website is revived.)


  1. So, how long do you think Bahrain will stay in this stalemate for?

  2. Hi, Justin:

    I just gave this post of shout-out over at my blog. Great post!

    I'm confused about one thing, though: why wasn't it obvious in February 2011 that sectarianism was a risky strategy? The other four seem like genuinely new information; that one does not, at least at first glance.

    I asked the same question over in my post, FYI.

  3. Hi Noel,

    My inclusion of the point about sectarianism is based on the fact that while it's long been employed as a strategy, until now it hasn't blown up in the government's face nearly to the extent that is clear now. In particular, it has directly precipitated the mobilization of previously-dormant Sunnis, which both complicates the search for a solution to the crisis but also may even prove a more direct threat to the regime.

    Make sense?

  4. Ah ... I think I get it. Point (1) and point (3) are related: it's not sectarianism per se, it's having the government mobilize the Sunnis.

    Do I have that right?

  5. Yes, the important point is the unintended consequences of the state's sectarian strategy, primary among these the mobilization of Sunnis. As I write in the section, though, I would also include among the consequences the export of this Sunni-Shi'i narrative to the wider Gulf, drawing in not only Saudi and Iran but also Iraq, Kuwait, and even Qatar (as a result of Al-Jazeera English).


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