Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bahrain: Where Trying to Solve a Political Conflict Only Creates More Conflict (and Perhaps Saudi Bahrainia)

Bahrainis today live under the shadow of two rumors that, if true, likely portend change of great consequence. The first is the widely-reported talks ongoing between, initially, the government and al-Wifaq and, more recently with the subsequent invitation of Wa'ad and others, the government and "the opposition"--or at least "the moderate opposition." The second rumor is one I'm not sure what to make of, and indeed when I first heard it a few weeks ago I dismissed it as idle propaganda. This somewhat old story has since been revived, however, by a Tweet from Gulf commentator Sultan al-Qassemi, who said last Wednesday:
"I was told by a Saudi researcher that an announcement is expected by the end of this year of some sort of 'union' between Saudi & Bahrain."
The first story--which at this point seems to have moved beyond rumor to something closer to fact--has inspired the title of this post. The prospect of some sort of opposition-state compromise has served to mobilize every segment of the Bahraini population (save, I guess, for apolitical tribal allies of the Al Khalifa), but essentially in opposite directions. Both parties engaged in Bahrain's not-so-secret political dialogue seem to believe that their respective constituencies can be convinced or coerced to accept any eventual deal. "If you can deliver the February 14th people," one can hear the government say, "then we can quiet al-Fatih." Each seems to expect a return to the pre-February 2011 status quo, where those outside the sway of al-Wifaq are a nuisance but are not destabilizing, and ordinary Sunnis are largely content to toe the government line.

In order to succeed in this, the opposition seems to be employing the somewhat clever strategy of trying to appear more radical and uncompromising in its positions/demands than it probably actually is. (In fact, one contact in Bahrain suggested that, in similar fashion, the government's entire "al-Wifaq is a Bahraini Hizballah" narrative is designed precisely to achieve the same: i.e., to give the group more cache among radical Shi'a, making them more likely to accept any al-Wifaq-brokered deal.)

On Friday, for example, the five opposition groups said to be involved in the government dialogue (as opposed to simply al-Wifaq) held a procession from Bilad al-Qadim to Sehla under the theme "No dialogue without recognition of our legitimate demands." Among these: an end to discrimination, full implementation of the BICI recommendations, release of political prisoners, reinstatement of all sacked employees, and prosecution of those responsible for violence against citizens. (Interestingly, the societies also stated that they were not opposed to dialogue with "any political actor whatever its type or affiliation," which would seem to imply the Sunni societies. But that is a separate issue.)

It is clear that many in the street movement are not buying it, however. Without even touching on the widespread contempt of al-Wifaq expressed on opposition forums, exemplary of this suspicion is an article in the Bahrain Times outlining "The Similarities Between the Regime and al-Wifaq," among which includes their "joint illusion" that "[t]here is no such thing as a 'Coalition of the February 14 Revolution Youth.'" The government, the author argues, "accuses al-Wifaq day and night but only suppresses the activities of the [February 14] Coalition." And for its part, says the author, "Al-Wifaq responds to these accusations as if it were the organizer of the Coalition," whereas it is more akin to a government pawn.

Yet it is not only the Shi'a who feel that the rumored opposition-government talks are unrepresentative of a majority (or important minority) of those on whose behalf the two sides purport to negotiate. As the five opposition societies were restating their political demands in Bilad al-Qadim on Friday, Bahrain's Sunnis were once again at the al-Fatih Mosque. Writing in Al-Watan, Sawsan al-Sha'ir asks, "A year after Al-Fatah... Did we learn anything?":
Today, no government, party, superpower or the whole world will ignore us. No one will impose their wishes on us while we stand watching. We have left the spectators’ seats and come down to the field as a major player to become real partners in building the nation.
Even more direct is al-Zayani, who describes how Sunnis are making a few demands of their own:
The state must take into consideration the strong points mentioned in the statement issued by the Youth Awakening since the majority of revolutions are led by young people and came out of universities and mosques. Most people of Bahrain do not accept to make concessions and do not accept any form of bartering (stopping terrorism in return for submitting to Al Wefaq’s disgraceful conditions). This is not acceptable on the popular [front] today. ...

Moreover, the state had better fight corruption, for what has been said about a party or a festival held by one of the ministries and which cost millions of dinars is not acceptable, bearing in mind that the country is in crisis. It is illogical to squander such a huge amount of money in one night and then make us lead hard living conditions, claiming that there is a budget shortfall. ... [T]he message of the gathering to those who want to sell Bahrain was also so strong.

[The government] should know that the people who attended the gathering are not the spare players, but rather the main players in the Bahraini equation. Also, giving gifts to Al Wefaq in order to silence its terrorism is no longer acceptable. They must know that this has become a dangerous game and that today there are people who won’t remain silent if the state makes concessions to those who want to overthrow the regime and who call Bahrain’s rulers dictators.
Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain's Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I've written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain's present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country's rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state's percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.

It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government's approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.

A quick visit to supposedly "pro-government" Sunni forums is enough to evidence this fact. One popular thread asks, "Do you support demanding improvement in living standards?" Elsewhere one finds, for example, the following banners used as signatures for forum members:

"In every country in the world citizens demand improvement in living standards. Only in Bahrain do citizens think that doing so represents a danger to the government."

"Political Asininity: The state that devises in its tools and methods to occupy citizens in religious, sectarian, regional, and even village-level conflicts in other to distract them from demanding their rights of political participation and social justice."

Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government's manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States. Certainly, anti-American sentiment has been present since the early days of the al-Fatih movements. (See, e.g., my July 2011 article in Foreign Policy on "The Other Side of Radicalization in Bahrain.")

Yet this tendency would seem to have reached a new level on Friday, when the al-Fatih Awakening rally was joined by some new Sunni friends from Kuwait: Nabil al-'Awadi, Mushari al-'Afasi, and university professor 'Abdullah al-Nafisi. The latter in particular is an interesting inclusion given his rather notorious reputation as an al-Qa'ida sympathizer following a 2009 Al-Jazeera interview in which he called for a biological attack against the United States.

Al-Nafisi's fifteen-minute address to the al-Fatih Youth--which Al-Watan's al-Zayani describes as having been "undoubtedly strong and valuable"--is available on YouTube (and has viewed already more than 7,000 times).

As is his Al-Jazeera interview, which is indeed notorious enough to have earned a MEMRI translation:

To what extent the arrival of Sunni reinforcements from Kuwait represents a significant shift in the organizational membership/affiliation or tactics of groups like the National Unity Gathering and al-Fatih Awakening remains to be seen. But I find it difficult--despite the insistence of several commenters on my previous article--to believe that these citizens will be content to retreat to the political sidelines if given the word by the government.

Finally we come to the second rumor fresh in the political consciousness of Bahrainis: the idea that King 'Abdallah's bold initiative to move the GCC from "a phase of cooperation to a phase of union" will start--and end?--with some sort of formal political integration of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia into a greater Saudi Bahrainia (or, if you prefer, the USSR: the Union of Saudi Salafist Republics). Of course, in the minds of some Sunni forum-goers, this event occurred some time ago:

Given the uncertainly of the claims, there is perhaps little to say about this speculation. One might view it as a mere negotiating tactic as government-opposition talks resume. A recent Bahrain Mirror article takes this line in a piece titled, "King Hamad to the People of Bahrain: It's Either Me or Riyadh!" Or perhaps the "rumor" is a signal from the Saudis that concessions to Bahrain's opposition will not be tolerated, although it's not clear why this couldn't be expressed privately.

For its part, Al-Watan quotes 'Ali Salman as telling CNN in a press conference that "the region will explode in the event of a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia," which seems reasonable enough. There is also some discussion of the topic on Sunni forums, with commenters largely enthusiastic. On the other hand, another popular thread on the main pro-government forum polls members, "Do you agree with the unification of official [Bahraini] attire with Gulf attire (i.e., thawb and gitra)?"

As it turns out, less than half of Bahraini Sunni forum-goers agree that Bahrain should abandon its national dress in order to adhere to the Gulf (i.e., Saudi) "standard." Despite clever graphics and Saudi flag-waving at political rallies, then, what percent are likely to agree that the entire country be abandoned to Saudi rule? Considerably fewer, I suspect, than 48%.

Update: An op-ed in yesterday's GDN titled "Let's Be Frank!" again restates the Sunni position:
"Any behind-the-curtain negotiations to try to seal a 'marriage of convenience', cannot garner durable popular support unless it proves to be inclusive of all political parties. Otherwise, it's going to be a futile exercise and will be vehemently denounced."
Update 2: According to the Khaleej Times, Bahrain has announced the creation of an "independent ombudsman" outside the purview of the Interior Ministry who will "oversee and conduct investigations into the serious allegations made against the police and other issues affecting the public confidence in police." The Interior Ministry is also set to establish a new "Internal Affairs Department" to handle the disciplining of officers. While such measures fall short of establishing (in the government's words) "a new social contract between police and Bahraini society," still they must be seen as positive steps.

Less positive, however, is the impending departure of the head of Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, Talal al-Zain, a long-time ally of the crown prince and his project of economic reform and diversification. As the Financial Times notes,
"[T]he effort to diversify the economy into an outward-looking commercial and tourist hub appears to be in retreat, replaced by an even greater dependence on Saudi Arabia." But I'm sure Saudi Arabia will be happy to prop up an even greater share of the Bahraini economy without asking for anything in return.

Update 3: Al-Ayam summarizes an address yesterday at al-Safriyyah Palace by King Hamad to "important persons" in the Bahraini and Arab media. Included among the king's main points are the following gems: that
  • "Bahrain's main issues are Jerusalem [i.e., the Arab-Israeli conflict] and the Iranian nuclear program," and what's happened since February 14 has been a distraction from these priorities
  • All Bahrainis--Sunnis and Shi'a--came originally from Zubara
  • The "Western media" has stigmatized Bahraini Shi'a as being anti-government, which they are not
  • The February 14 uprising was a conspiracy led by followers of wilayat al-faqih
You'll have to read for the others!

Update 4: Some enterprising individuals have created a funny video spoof on the king's address yesterday, in particular his claim that "we all [i.e., Sunnis and Shi'is] came together [to Bahrain] from Zubara."


  1. I'm not sure how a Bahraini , Qatari , Kuwaiti, Emarati, and Saudi attire a would differ? Carr to elaborate? Don't they all wear a thob and ghutra?

  2. They're just minor differences for example the saudis and qataris wear thobs that have collars and cuff links while the bahraini and emirati traditional thoubs are collarless. The qataris iqal the round headpiece worn with the ghutra has two threads attached that are fluffy at the end.

  3. Well, obviously the thawb and ghutra attire is (much) more prevalent among Bahraini Sunnis than Shi'a, but given that the poll comes from a Sunni forum that's probably not relevant.

    I'm not sure about the specific local names for "Bahraini" attire (someone might help me out here), but I am thinking of something worn by old guys in Muharraq, for example. Say, something like this:

    But I think the premise of the poll is not that "Bahraini" attire differs so substantially from the more Najdi-style thawb and ghutra but whether it should be mandated--as it is elsewhere in the Gulf--that nationals wear a specific attire in public, while in an official government capacity, etc.

    In any event, my point in mentioning the poll is simply this: if Bahraini Sunnis have misgivings about losing the ability to wear what they want rather than the Gulf "standard," what's the chances that they won't mind being engulfed altogether by the Saudis under the auspices of GCC "integration"?

  4. A very clever analysis on the continuation of what you like to call "sunni awakening" , I admit that I did not see the calls from loyalist factions against corruption and for more equal disturbution of wealth as serious as I did after reading the article .Nonetheless, I still belive that sunni resistince to reform would be neutrlised if reforms were to be applied , for the shia however that would depend on how meaningful they are ,if they are anything short of the current demands of the opposition, they will be quite heavily criticised and rejected , if not I think the resistince wouldnt be very strong.On the the saudi subject ,I think it goes without saying that the only reason we aren't already one with Saudi arabia is simply because the royal family does not wish to lose its power,that condition is still true.The union may happen in several cases though , Ill mention what I belive to be the most probable:1-Is if the royal family is in a truly desperate situation which would demand complete and direct saudi influence and power(and I dont belive the regime is in that situation personally).2-If there is immense saudi pressure for that to happen (and I dont see any indication of a pressure of that magnitude really). All in all , I still belive the raising of the seriousness in the tone of union is for better negiotiating terms.As for sunnis who agree to the union , I completly agree with your point of view mentioned in the article .

    PS:thumbs up on the USSR refrence.

  5. Justin - what is your view on Qatari politics and the Amir's power sharing arrangement with his notorious cousin? I would love to get your critigue of that situation. Did I hear a coup somewhere?

    1. Sal, I think you've been watching too much Al-'Arabiyyah and ABNA.


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