Saturday, May 12, 2012

How Not to Help the Crown Prince

News comes today that the parting gift from Crown Prince Salman's trip to Washington last week was the resumption of some U.S. arms sales to Bahrain. It doesn't take a genius, of course, to see the purpose behind this sure-to-be-controversial move, namely the (attempted) reversal of Sh. Salman's utter political marginalization since his failed attempt to negotiate an end to the March 2011 crisis. Josh Rogin summarizes well this strategy in today's Foreign Policy with his headline: "Obama administration seeks to bolster Bahraini crown prince with arms sales."

Many--including the same senators that were instrumental in blocking previous attempts to sell arms to Bahrain that came to a head last October--have already rejected the deal on moral grounds. Rogin quotes Senator Wyden as saying, for example,
"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better. ... The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."
Yet one need not even appeal to a normative argument to explain why the arms sale is a bad move, for it is already flawed on strategic grounds. In case you missed it, the Obama Administration already tried this move last summer. A perceptive New York Times article from June 9, 2011, for example, told how the U.S. was "Cultivating a Prince to Coax an Ally to Change." Sh. Salman even met then with President Obama himself, unlike (officially, any way) last week.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this year's initiative has many parallels with last summer: not merely a politically-defeated crown prince, but rising anti-American sentiment, and an ongoing security crackdown against opposition activities. Compare, for instance, the analysis from last year's NYT story:
"But several analysts warn that even if Prince Salman is sincere, he is only one member of a family that includes hard-liners like his uncle, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the long-serving prime minister. With his mild manner and fluent English, Prince Salman may be merely the monarchy’s friendly face, skeptical analysts say."
And then Rogin's piece today:
"The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however."
So why, exactly, is the State Department expecting a different result this year? One might say that the U.S. simply didn't want the crown prince to return home with nothing; that the arms deal represents not so much part of a concerted Bahrain strategy, but simply an attempt to give Sh. Salman something that he might use to help direct the country on a more moderate path. Yet the fact that the arms sale is but one part of what seems to be a multi-pronged effort--which includes also the visit and appearance on Bahrain TV of Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, for example, who was quick to criticize protesters and to laud Sh. Salman's efforts at dialogue--would seem to suggest a more deliberate strategy.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to see how the latter could succeed. Let us count the ways.

Who Benefits from an Arms Sale?

Given that the State Department has evidently grasped the facts that (1) Sh. Salman and his (at least outwardly) moderate orientation represents perhaps the best hope for a negotiated settlement in Bahrain; but that (2) he has been sidelined within the ruling family, it is strange indeed that the mechanism chosen to revive his political fortunes--military arms sales--serves directly to benefit one of his main political competitors and arguably the most obstructionist of all the Al Khalifa: Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad. (Yes, Sh. Salman is nominally Deputy Supreme Commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces; but he is also, nominally, the second most powerful person in the country.)

To be sure, it was less than a year ago that "The Marshal" revealed to Al-Ahram that it was the U.S. itself, acting in concert with Iran, that orchestrated the entire February uprising. He has since expanded on these claims, telling Al-Ayam that 22 different NGOs "managed and funded by the U.S. and [an unnamed] Gulf state" were actively "working against" Bahrain. More generally, pro-government media, especially the sensationalist Al-Watan newspaper controlled by the defense minister's brother, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad, has been fomenting anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment ("Ayatollah Obama," anyone?) for the better part of a year. And now the U.S. is rewarding these same individuals with additional resources (and holding out the promise of more), and all to the supposed benefit of the crown prince and Bahrain's "moderate" faction? Interesting.

Playing into the Security Narrative

This issue is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the arms deal only reinforces the political calculus that has helped get Bahrain into its current mess, namely the state's progressive securitization of the problem posed by its Shi'a-led opposition. If the goal of the U.S.'s "empowerment" of Sh. Salman is to get Bahrain's government and opposition back to the negotiating table, then agreeing new arms sales is almost exactly the opposite of the way to achieve it. So long as those in charge of Bahrain continue to conceive of the crisis in security--rather than political--terms, then they will seek to resolve it accordingly: not through dialogue, not through political negotiations, but through force. Boosting Bahrain's security and military capabilities is an effective way to ensure that the latter remains an attractive and viable option--and one that would seemingly enjoy the tacit approval of the ruling family's most important Western backer.

It is not difficult to understand: the very TARGET of this entire re-conceptualization of Bahrain's political-cum-security problem is PRECISELY the reform program initiated by King Hamad and increasingly deputized to Crown Prince Salman. The logic of this decade-long initiative is that economic opportunity born of diversification and modernization, combined with incremental political liberalization, can offer a way out of the chronic popular discontent that has plagued the country for decades.

The competing theory, the one articulated EXACTLY by Sh. Salman's detractors within the Al Khalifa, is that Bahraini Shi'a will never be satisfied with anything short of a wholesale takeover of the state, and that political and economic reforms are not only superfluous but, insofar as they only serve to encourage the opposition to pursue a more radical agenda, a cure that is worse than the disease. The only alternative, by this view, is a security-based strategy that both: (1) takes pre-emptive measures to limit the influence or potential influence of Shi'a; and (2) cultivates anti-Shi'a (and anti-Western) orientations among ordinary Sunnis such that these citizens will be happy to fight the government's battles for it if and when the need arises.

Any guess as to which of these two rival strategies resumed U.S. arms sales to Bahrain--to say nothing of U.S. Congressmen "rap[ping] Bahrain rioters" on state television--is likely to reinforce? And to whose benefit? As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch notes in Rogin's piece for Foreign Policy,
"But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America."
The Need for Extra-Al Khalifa--not Intra-Al Khalifa--Pressure

Third, having already failed once to "revive" the crown prince, one would think that the United States Government would get the hint that it has apparently little influence on intra-Al Khalifa politics. The struggle for power within Bahrain's ruling family has had some fifteen months now to run its course, and it's difficult to see any scenario in which Sh. Salman and King Hamad come out victorious.

What is required instead, then, is a bit (or more likely a lot) of extra-Al Khalifa pressure, namely from Bahrain's landlord to the southwest, Saudi Arabia. Not only do the Saudis enjoy obvious leverage over the ruling family generally given their bankrolling of the entire country, but they are particularly well-connected to exactly the recalcitrant individuals in need of political arm-twisting, especially the prime minister. Whether there is any hope of convincing the Saudis that such pressure is in their interest is a separate question, and one made more complicated by the post-Arab Spring U.S.-Saudi fallout. Still, there would seem to be some movement already from the Saudis in this direction, if one would interpret their vague plans for Bahrain-Saudi "union" as a signal to the Al Khalifa to get their house straightened up.

In any case, a U.S. attempt to secure Saudi cooperation on Bahrain cannot be more of a failure than the current strategy of "reviving" Sh. Salman every 12 months or so. At this pace, he should be ready to challenge his ruling family adversaries some time in 2035.

Ignoring Bahrain's New Political Realities

Despite its best attempts, Bahrain cannot return to the pre-February 2011 political status quo. It is not only the Shi'a-led opposition but also ordinary Bahraini Sunnis for whom political expectations have fundamentally and likely irreversibly changed. The most important upshot of this fact is that the days of piecemeal government-opposition political settlements are over. Accordingly, the ability and desire of the government to partake in political negotiations is not governed simply by the relative power of Al Khalifa "moderates" and "hard-liners" but the political calculations of a ruling family facing an entirely different set of political challenges from those to which it has grown accustomed since King Hamad's ascension in 1999.

If the point of the arms sale is again to help jump-start dialogue efforts in Bahrain, the Obama Administration would do well to observe the outcome of the most recent attempt at this. As I noted in my previous post,
In March 2012, rumors surfaced of a new government-opposition dialogue sponsored by the Royal Court Minister Sh. Khalid bin Ahmad. The thinking, apparently, was that by involving the most hard-line Al Khalifa from the beginning, the state might avoid the initiative’s being undermined later. In the end, however, the problem was not Sh. Khalid, but the reaction of Sunni groups, some of which rejected the talks because they symbolized compromise with the opposition, others because they were not to be included. The National Unity Gathering initially declared a boycott of the dialogue until the opposition ended protest activities, although it was not clear that it had been invited in the first place. At the same time, the Al-Fatih Awakening rallied against the initiative not because they opposed it on principle, but because they weren't invited. Their slogan: “No dialogue without Al-Fatih.” Under pressure from Sunnis unhappy that the state would seek a political bargain without their input, Al Mahmud reversed his original decision to boycott.

Not coincidentally, one assumes, talk of this new "political dialogue initiative" stopped almost immediately. The state is willing to do a lot of things to appease Sunnis, but allowing them a seat at the negotiating table alongside members of the opposition is definitely not one of them. Indeed, this scenario above all others is the one that the ruling family will work to avoid. The chance that Sunni and Shi'i political leaders could agree some set of political demands is far too dangerous to risk by agreeing to multiparty talks. Rather than reject the Sunni demand for inclusion directly, then, the state appears instead to have ended its pursuit of a new dialogue initiative altogether.
While it is true, then, that among the barriers to a solution to Bahrain's political stalemate is the post-February 14 decline of Crown Prince Salman (or, more accurately, the post-uprising ascendancy of security-minded members of the Al Khalifa), this shift in power is connected inextricably to the no less dramatic transformation of Bahrain's domestic political dynamics. It is this altered reality on the ground that will ultimately determine the likelihood and efficacy of any new attempts at resolving Bahrain's political conflict, to which the number of parties seems to be increasing by the day.

Hopefully, the inevitable failure of the U.S.'s latest attempt to "bolster" the crown prince will lead to a change in strategy on Bahrain, one that may take into account such factors as those treated here.

Update: Gulf union fever is in full swing. Having failed in previous initiatives to establish a GCC monetary union and even a mere customs union, the Gulf Arab states would have us believe now that they are going direct to political-military union, starting with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Announcing some grandiose vision at a summit in Riyadh is one thing, backing it up with concrete institutional steps toward integration is another. Someone wake me when the latter has occurred.

Update 2: Via an anonymous commenter: the BBC's Adam Curtis examines the past 90 years of British involvement in Bahrain, i.e. the period after the arrival of Charles Belgrave. A suitable title: "IF YOU TAKE MY ADVICE - I'D REPRESS THEM."

Update 3: Surprise, surprise! The fabled Bahrain-Saudi union supposed to emerge from yesterday's GCC summit in fact is "a commission to continue studying" GCC integration, the findings of which will be discussed at December's summit. At which time they'll probably announce a follow-up commission, a sooper dooper follow-up commission, etc.

The New York Times also notes that participants in the conference "distributed a draft plan for the union to its members’ foreign ministers to review so they could resolve any issues." Oh no a draft plan!

Update 4: On the bright side regarding the U.S. arms sale to Bahrain, there are some shnazzy new anti-U.S. web fliers created by the February 14th people to correspond with their "Week of Exposing the American Conspiracy." Among them are this beaut featuring an AK-toting Statue of Liberty calling in air support. Perhaps this might open up the possibility for some much-needed Sunni-Shi'i political coordination, since the one thing upon which everyone seems to agree is that there is an American conspiracy in Bahrain.


  1. Great piece as usual. I always enjoy reading you analysis. BTW, you were recently mentioned in a Reuters report:

  2. This is a must see. The footage is excellent. The only parts which you should forward a bit are the queen video and the weird music one:

  3. في اعتقادي فإن صفقة الأسلحة وما أثير حول الاتحاد مع السعودية هو من أجل إسكات الطبالة وجعل شخصية سلمان وأمريكا أكثر تقبلا لديهم.. من أجل فتح حوار مع المعارضة وهذا ما كشف عنه مقال في الوسط يوم أمس.. رفض خليفة للصفقة إن صح فإنه يدل على رفضه لفكرة الحوار وهذا ما عودنا عليه.. وأيضا هذا يصب في تخويف المعارضة وتركيعها باعتبار أن القوة العالمية (أمريكا) والإقليمية (السعودية) مع النظام.. جزرة كبيرة(؟) وعصا كبيرة..


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