Monday, April 30, 2012

GCC Union, Civilian Retrials, and the Resurrection of Ludo Hood: The U.S. and Saudi Put the Squeeze on Bahrain

Several different local and regional story lines are converging now in Bahrain. Yet, despite their disparate nature, they seem to me to be quite related and revelatory.

The most dramatic of these is today's ruling by the Bahrain Cessation Court to quash the military court sentences of the 21 opposition leaders (including hunger-striker 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah), granting them a full civilian retrial. The BNA statement tells that the Court of Appeals will "reconsider[] the proceedings from the beginning and listen[] to the witnesses and the prosecution and defense arguments of the defendants as if it was a trial for the first time, and adjudicate[] the case upon its estimation. " In addition, the sentence of one individual was reduced from 2 years to 6 months. (Pro-government reaction here.)

More subtle is the storyline in the run up to the much-awaited GCC summit in Riyadh, now only two weeks away, at which leaders are expected to consider the question of moving the GCC from a "phase of cooperation" to a "phase of union," as now-famously said by King 'Abdallah in December. Reuters' tells that some preview of this was offered by Prince Sa'ud al-Faysal over the weekend at a GCC youth conference in Riyadh. His speech (delivered by his deputy) is quoted thus:
"Cooperation and coordination between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in its current format may not be enough to confront the existing and coming challenges, which require developing Gulf action into an acceptable federal format.

"The Gulf union, when it is realized, God willing, will yield great benefits for its peoples, such as in foreign policy with the presence of a supreme Gulf committee coordinating foreign policy decisions that reorders group priorities and realizes group interests."

In practice, of course, this grandiose "Gulf Union" corresponds at present to a more modest (rumored) proposal, namely some sort of "federation" involving Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Reuters quotes an unnamed "Western diplomatic" as saying that "an announcement of progress on a federation between the two to launch the union could be made at the summit." Saudi-Bahrain union, in other words, is meant to be the first tangible step in a larger, lengthier process of politico-military integration.

Yet, even if we accept the premise that (at least some factions of) the Al Khalifa are fine with the notion of being formally subordinated to Saudi Arabia--which I think is questionable already--I would be very interested to hear which other GCC ruling families are likely to feel the same. Until the other Gulf states run out of money to protect themselves from Saudi encroachment, one would expect them to defend their autonomy jealously. If the purpose of closer GCC integration is ostensibly to avoid foreign interference (from Iran), then it would be odd indeed if the solution to the problem were to invite foreign interference (from Saudi Arabia).

Saudi Arabia, of course, disagrees. Prince Sa'ud calls the question of sovereignty "a non-issue." Right. Tell that to the Qataris, who two weeks ago were the target of a high and tight fastball from the Saudis in the form of a false report of a "coup attempt" originating at Al-'Arabiyyah. The Saudi station later claimed to have been "hacked" by pro-Assad Internet vigilantes. So much for GCC unity. In any case, as sovereignty concerns have so far managed to kill both a GCC customs union and a GCC monetary union, what chance that they'll go directly to GCC political union?

The third (I would say related) trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society. First, we have the revival of last year's Ludo Hood saga, the former Political Affairs Officer having been sent home after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens. After a year during which the story had been all but forgotten, the front page of the April 19 issue of Al-Watan featured a lead story (English here) revealing details of an "investigation" into Hood's role in the "events of 2011." Its title: "Hood collaborates with Hizballah to train [government] opponents to topple the regime." Seems reasonable.

More generally, the U.S.'s subversive role in Bahrain has been the near-unwavering focus of pro-government writers and state television over the previous month or two, who took a short break only to laud the success of the Formula 1. Browsing the editorial section of Al-Watan, for example, one finds the following from the previous two weeks alone:

And just in case you don't read Al-Watan, Bahrain TV has begun airing a new documentary on "the American role" in the February uprising. The video has not yet been uploaded to YouTube, but the article that inspired it (a Feb. 20 piece by Al-Watan writer Sawsan al-Sha'ir) is available.

These three trends would seem to point in the same direction, which is that both the United States and Saudi Arabia are pressuring Bahrain to begin to find a solution to the now fourteen-month stand-off. The Saudi position seems to be: "Either fix your political problem, or we'll fix it for you." The chilling effect that a Saudi-Bahrain union/confederation would have on other GCC states makes one suspect that the Saudi rhetoric is a bluff. Still, given Bahrain's current political and especially economic reliance upon its neighbor--a fact only highlighted by the failure of the Bahrain Grand Prix and with it Bahrain's alternative financial model--the Al Khalifa are not in a position to call their patrons' bluff.

(On the other hand, I suppose one could argue the reverse: that Saudi pressure on Bahrain is more likely to work in the opposite direction. That is, one might argue that the Saudis would be more likely to be alarmed by any political progress between the government and opposition, which might encourage its own Shi'a. By this view, the Saudi preference is for the continuation of the status quo, and to the extent that the idea of union with Bahrain is a threat, it would be a threat precisely against the prospect of political progress. Given the decisive Saudi role in February and March, I recognize the plausibility of this alternative, though I feel that the opposite is more likely true. I have heard that the Saudis are unhappy with their flags being waved at pro-government political rallies, for example, and have moved to stop it. This would suggest that they are unhappy with the current situation and do not wish to be associated with it.)

While it's hard to infer what is the U.S. diplomatic tactic here, one would suspect the State Department's argument must be something like the following (at least this is what I would say):
"So long as political compromise continues to be obstructed by members of the ruling family ideologically opposed to a settlement [in particular the defense minister and his brother in the royal court], three things will continue to happen.

First, as these individuals and their supporters continue to resort to sectarian and anti-Western rhetoric in order to mobilize society against a political settlement, they threaten to bring (to the extent that it does not exist already) open civil conflict to Bahrain--and perhaps even ACTUAL terrorism (as opposed to 'anything-we-don't-like' terrorism), likely against Western targets. In such a case, the U.S. government would be under great pressure to review its military and security relationship with Bahrain, already a source of great concern among observers in the United States and indeed in the U.S. Senate.

Second, the economic damage sustained in the past 14 months is on the verge of doing irreparable harm to Bahrain's economic and political security. Sure, high oil prices have 'cushioned Bahrain's woes,' as the IMF recently said, but that doesn't change the fact that you must rely on Saudi Arabia for almost all of your government revenue. And they want to annex you. So you'll avoid giving up power to the opposition but surrender it to the Saudis?

Third and finally, the longer this crisis continues, the harder--no, the more impossible--it will be to return to the (from your perspective) extremely favorable political arrangements that existed before February 2011. I'm not talking just about the opposition; I'm talking about Bahraini Sunnis. Already you have the National Unity Gathering calling for a change of the government. Now there is an outspoken Sunni opposition in a parliament--which was supposed to be quiet with the absence of al-Wifaq--with one MP calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister and calling for widespread corruption investigations [see video below; his business was attacked by gunmen a few days later]. What? You think you can put an end to all of this once you agree a deal with the opposition? Just the opposite: then you'll only be getting more blow-back from the same uncompromising Sunni groups that YOU HAVE BEEN ENCOURAGING. You need to get this problem solved now before you're left with either a fractured, bankrupt, and dysfunctional country not worth ruling, or a country ruled by someone in Riyadh."

My hope is that this was the message delivered in the Ambassador's April 10 meeting with "The Marshal" Sh. Khalifa bin Ahmad, and that today's announcement of the civilian retrials of the 21 opposition leaders is the first sign that some in the ruling family are beginning to be made to listen.

Update: Doha's own David Roberts writes on "Gulf Disunion" for Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel.

Update 2: Feeling cocky after its decision to retry opposition leaders in civilian court, Bahrain decides to add another--Nabeel Rajab--to the lot.


  1. This is a great summary but isn't your last part on what the state department is saying a little too optimistic? Its sounds a bit too smart.

  2. Partly wishful thinking, certainly.

    The wishful part, though, I suspect, is not that the U.S. has delivered this general message--or at least a more diplomatic version of it--but that the individual(s) to whom it was delivered will have any ability to act on it. In other words, the real question mark is not whether members of the State Department or moderates in the ruling family understand what the situation is and where it is headed if not addressed, but whether they can do anything about it.

    The U.S. (unlike Saudi Arabia) has little influence on internal Al Khalifa dynamics, as seen in its failed attempt last summer to revive the political standing of the CP. If one is very optimistic, he would see in the Saudi threat of annexation a desire to solve the Bahrain problem such that they may even be prepared to help prod recalcitrant members of the Al Khalifa toward finding a solution. But at this point we're just speculating.

    Much more will be clear once the retrial of the 21 activists begins/ends. The prime minister has so far been very good at sabotaging efforts at finding a political solution--CP negotiations in March 2011; the National Dialogue; the BICI investigation--so we'll see whether he and others (i.e., the khawalid) continue to play the role of spoiler.

  3. Might it not also be, as I believe you remarked elsewhere previously, that the Khalife are recycling an old strategy: (1) Do something egregious, (2) get everyone whipped into a frenzy, (3) backtrack to a moderate extent so as to supposedly demonstrate that you DO boast a keen sense of justice and transparency after all, (4) things go back to status quo ante?

    In the case of, say, Al-Khawaja that would mean:
    o Beat him unconscious in his own home in front of his family, arrest him, "try" him in a kangaroo court and sentence him to life imprisonment;
    o Survey the escalating situation with his hunger strike, people's tempestuous protests, international organizations' pressure;
    o Climb down -- not through an acquittal or meaningful reform but merely a retrial and without actually releasing him;
    o Find him "guilty" at the retrial but issue a nominal sentence;
    o Al-Khawaja is out by the end of the year, probably deported to Denmark;
    o Case closed; the passions -- on both sides -- dissipate soon enough.
    Behold, the "justice" "system" in Bahrain works, everything is "back to normal," "nothing to see here, folks."

    The same stratagem is being employed with the thousands of people arbitrarily fired for pro-democracy activism or putative activism. They are being reinstated but not all that expeditiously just in case they get any bright ideas about trying to pull the same kind of !@#$ again.

    Some low-ranking mercenaries are being "tried" for excessive use of force.

    Some of the demolished mosques are being rebuilt, a few even with the state's money. (How munificent!)

    Bottom line: Everything is fine because many of the excesses of the state have been or are being rectified and there should be no cause for complaint. Oh, and as for the pesky issues that gave rise to the protests in the first place -- the small part that did NOT owe to "foreign interference" -- there are never-ending "reforms" afoot to address that.

    I reckon that is at least as likely an explanation for the latter-day developments in Bahrain as your analysis. They did it before with considerable success... - only this time I'm not sure if the genie can be stuffed back in the bottle.

  4. What about Iran's hand over the Bahraini Shea ?
    What we face in Bahrain
    Is a war with Iran

    1. Iran's hand can reach all the way from there to here? Must be all that nuclear energy they keep messing with...

  5. @Michael: A good point, and you're right that I've made the same one in the past--I think re: the closure of Al-Wasat, the (rumored) dissolution of al-Wifaq, the arrest of Mahmud al-Yusif, etc.--and I certainly wouldn't rule it out here. I didn't mean in my concluding paragraph to sound OPTIMISTIC (as opposed to hopeful) about the chances that U.S. and/or Saudi pressure (if the GCC experiment is indeed aimed at least partly at prodding Bahrain along) will translate into a change in political modus operandi in Bahrain.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.