Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Securitization of "the Shi'a Problem" in Bahrain

I've been spending a lot of time lately working on several writing projects. One, which I've mentioned before, is for a forthcoming book on Sectarianism in the Gulf organized by Georgetown University in Qatar. My chapter, meant as a theoretical introduction framing the country-specific analyses that follow, is not a study of Bahrain (which Kristin Smith Diwan is writing) but of the general political phenomenon of sectarianism, and how one might conceive it in the Gulf context specifically. Its working title is "Institutional Incentives, Selective Nation-Building, and Regional Geopolitics: Understanding Sectarianism in the Gulf."

While I won't get into the specifics of the piece, one of the things I argue there is that among the causes of the politicization of sectarian identity in the Gulf context is a progressive shift in thinking among Gulf rulers, especially in the post-2003 (i.e., post-Iraq War) period, about the nature of the problem posed by their religious-cum-political minorities--whether Shi'a in the Arab Gulf or Sunnis in Iran and Iraq. Increasingly, Gulf rulers conceive of the problem posed by religiously-based oppositions not in political terms, one resolvable in a corresponding local political framework, but in security terms, one requiring not only preventative measures to help forestall the latent threat posed by Shi'a (or Sunni) populations, but also regional cooperation with like-minded neighbors. The result is what I call the "securitization of the Shi'a problem" in the Gulf.

Building on this idea, I've just finished a second article examining this trend in the context of Bahrain specifically, which I thought I'd talk a bit about here. This analysis is framed around the issue of intra-Al Khalifa divisions, and how the post-February rise of the khawalid (Defense and Royal Court Ministers Khalifa and Khalid bin Ahmad) in particular is indicative of a change of political orthodoxy in Bahrain, one that rejects the basic premise of the reform agenda initiated by King Hamad and forwarded by Crown Prince Salman, namely that expanded economic opportunity through 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 counterpoint to the view represented by King Hamad, then, 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 alternative, security-based strategy is therefore two-fold: (1) take pre-emptive measures to limit the influence or potential influence of Shi'a (via their exclusion from the police, military, and power ministries, for example, and by attempting to limit their influence through selective naturalization); and (2) cultivate anti-Shi'a 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.

These "pre-emptive measures" are not new to the post-February period of course. When one looks at military spending data (via SIPRI) from the period following the initiation of King Hamad's reforms in 2001, for example, one finds that Bahrain has far outpaced its Arab and Middle East neighbors in increasing military spending, as seen in the graphics below. (Note that the special case of Iraq is not included for obvious reasons.) From the decade 2001 to 2011, only Qatar has witnessed a larger average increase in annual military spending (although data from Qatar is available only from 2002 to 2008), and the next closest following Bahrain are Jordan, at an average yearly increase of 6.1%, and Saudi Arabia, at 5.6%.

If one would look at the absolute increase in annual military spending since 2001, moreover, the picture is even more dramatic. Here Bahrain far exceeds any other country (ignoring again the special case of Iraq), having increased its annual spending by some 117.5% between 2001 (at an estimated $406 million) to 2011 ($883 million). Its nearest competitors fail to exceed even a 70% increase over the same period.

Of course, such data represent but one aspect of overall spending on and preoccupation with national security. Not knowable from this, obviously, is spending on the police or other internal security services. Still, Bahrain's disproportionately high increases in military spending from 2001 to 2011 would seem to suggest that the country was hedging its bets against the possibility that King Hamad's reform initiative would fail to achieve the political peace that it promised, an interpretation supported by other preventive initiatives launched around the same time. Bahrain's ongoing program of Sunni naturalization is thought to have started in the beginning of the 2000s, for example, while the country's electoral districts were redrawn in 2002 to preclude a Shi'a majority in the newly-reestablished parliament.

The course of the February 14 uprising doubtless reinforced the wisdom of these safeguards among members of the Al Khalifa who never bought into King Hamad's political and economic reform project. Though Shi'a could organize mass protests, they had no guns with which to effect an actual physical takeover, and were utterly outmaneuvered tactically. More importantly, Sunnis could be counted on to organize mass protests in opposition to the opposition; and, if perhaps spontaneous in an immediate sense (though some would deny even this), in a larger sense the seeds of this counter-mobilization had been planted long ago by systematic reinforcement of the threat of Iranian-backed Shi'a irredentism promulgated in state media and more informally via the state's cultivation (and bankrolling) of Sunni groups.

At the same time, however, the post-uprising period has also revealed several unintended consequences of the state's strategy, both of which have to do with the fact that the state, having once awakened Sunnis, now faces a very difficult task controlling and appeasing them. Mobilized to counter the threat of "Shi'a terrorists," Sunnis now wonder why the state is unwilling to see the job through: why not arrest all those who continue to defy the state and take part in illegal protest activities, as well as those who incite others to do so? In particular, Sunnis ask, why have the most senior leaders of "Bahraini Hizballah" (i.e., al-Wifaq)--Shs. 'Isa Qasim and 'Ali Salman--somehow escaped punishment for what is now going on 15 months?

Al-Wifaq terrorists chasing the poor police armed only with guns and teargas.

Faisal al-Shaykh in today's Al-Watan, for example, writes of the recent high-profile arrest of Nabeel Rajab, for which many Sunnis have been calling since the uprising began,
While immunity is granted to some persons by the law, it can, by no means, be absolute or unlimited. For instance, MPs possess an immunity that doesn't exempt them from standing trial for in any case imaginable. This is because it is internationally-recognized that all people are equal before the law and that no one is above the law. In Bahrain, there have been continuous outcries that the law must be equally and indiscriminately enforced against all people regardless of their families, titles or posts. These demands are sought by all those who want to see justice and equality prevail and believe that the ideal and healthy situation for any state is when the law is above all and no ''intermediary'' or ''immunity'' is granted to those who break the law. ...

The recent arrest of the “sectarian and racist human rights activist” is not an exceptional measure against violators of the law. On the contrary, we are tempted to ask concerned bodies in the state why they have left the man behave as he pleased and instigating hatred against the state and regime. Have his instigation against the state grown more dangerous than before? If laxity in taking the necessary measures against top instigators sprang from the hope that they would regain their senses and stop their practices against the state, this doesn’t justify the suspension or discriminatory enforcement of the law. We have often heard officials in charge of enforcing the law vehemently utter the set phrase: “Nobody is above the law.”

However, we regretfully tell them that for over a year we have seen many a case proving that the law isn’t as strictly enforced as it is expected to be which proves that there are really people above the law. If you think we are mistaken (although what we are saying has nearly become a conviction among loyal citizens), prove it by enforcing the law against all instigators. We want someone to demystify the confusing enigma resulting from the situation where a citizen [i.e., Sh. 'Isa Qasim, see here for background] urges people to “crush” policemen and then runs away with it. I wish I could really believe that nobody is above the law.
In addition to the state's being constantly pressured to escalate its security response to protesters--pressure that has only increased as demonstrators have resorted to ever more violent tactics as hope of achieving their political aims fades utterly--the government also faces an altogether new phenomenon: Sunnis articulating demands not only for a harsher security response, which are problematic but not an existential threat, but for substantive political demands unrelated to the opposition.

One outspoken Sunni MP, for example, Usama al-Tamimi, has been campaigning for a wide-ranging investigation into corruption by members of the ruling family. A week or so ago he even openly called for the resignation of the prime minister in a session of parliament. (Predictably, his business was attacked some days later; note also the not-so-veiled reference to "MPs" in the opening lines of al-Shaykh's article above.) Similarly, a recent article by Sawsan al-Sha'ir purporting to expose "financial and administrative corruption" at the reclaimed island resort village in the southeast of the country, known as Durrat al-Bahrain, has made a splash among participants in (nominally pro-government) Sunni Internet forums. The issue of corruption, then, like many others, is not one limited to the concern of Bahraini Shi'a merely.

So, the state has two groups of discontented Sunnis: one unhappy with its handling of the crisis; another simply unhappy. Even if it could broker some political agreement with the opposition, then, it still faces a different set of problems involving Bahraini Sunnis stemming from its very own efforts to mobilize the community.

The government learned this lesson the hard way during its most recent attempt to restart talks with the opposition. 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.

The state (or rather whoever is controlling it) seems thus to have decided that if the ruling family is unable to appease both sets of Sunnis--both those who disagree with what is perceived to be its lax security response, and those who harbor substantive political misgivings independent of this concern--that it will have to take steps to propitiate at least the former group, which then conveniently can be mobilized against the latter, more reform-minded Sunnis, who may be branded "traitors" or fools duped by the opposition. (Note the state-sponsored Sunni reaction against al-Tamimi, for example, or better yet the state's handling of Muhammad Al Bu Flasa and Ebrahim Sharif in the early days of the uprising.)

It is under this backdrop, I would argue, that one should understand the government's recent escalation against the opposition, which includes the arrest of Nabeel Rajab, the increased use of bird-shot against demonstrators, and of course the prime minister's recent direct threat to Sh. 'Isa Qasim and other "clerics [who] incite violence, sectarianism, harm[] the economy, and insult[] the judiciary and constitutional institutions." The statement, carried on BNA, said that "[t]he cabinet instructed ministries to take legal measures if these violations continue, affirming its total rejection of any bargaining over the nation's security and unity." To be sure, the arrest of 'Isa Qasim would buy the government at least a year of gratitude from pro-government Sunnis (see this celebratory forum thread, for example)!

In short, those in control of Bahrain seem to have come to the conclusion that not only the state's previous policies, but indeed its entire political strategy since the initiation of King Hamad's ostensible reform project in 2001, is no longer working. Whether this is because the faction led by King Hamad has been overruled, or because it has finally come over to the view of more security-minded members of the Al Khalifa, the upshot is the same: Bahrain will seek to address the current crisis within a security--rather than a political--framework, for it is only through such an effort, by this thinking, that stability (or something like it) can be achieved. And so long as the country is under no external pressure to alter this new course, there would seem to be little reason to abandon it.

Update: A friend points out this article in al-Wasat that tells of King Hamad's well-publicized visit yesterday with "top generals" in the defense forces. (There's also an English article here from the BNA.) Similarly, a Bahrain Mirror story claims that Sh. Rashid has informed "a number of ambassadors" of an imminent security crackdown. The sense on the street seems to be very much in anticipation of the latter.

Update 2: Joost Hiltermann in the New York Review of Books: "Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?" Though I'm not sure what the question mark is for.

Also, somehow Bahrainis are managing to stay in good humor despite the promise of a new crackdown. Here, a short cartoon mocking the recent ministerial appointment of Sameera Rajab, expert in the field of Iranian interference:

Update 3: Two intrepid George Washington University students have published a new Master's thesis on the reconciliation of Bahrain's "Triangle of Conflict" (full text here via Google Docs). Based on several weeks of fieldwork, the paper is interesting especially for its insights from many interviews with anonymous diplomats, Sunnis in parliament, al-Fatih, TGONU, and members of the formal and street opposition.


  1. Faisal Al-Shaykh says, "... all people are equal before the law and that no one is above the law. In Bahrain, there have been continuous outcries that the law must be equally and indiscriminately enforced against all people regardless of their families, titles or posts."

    Is he therefore advocating that the Public Prosecutor investigate the Prime Minister over the site of the reclaimed land for the Bahrain Financial Harbour towers? Which the Prime Minister bought for just a single Bahraini Dinar ($2.65) ?

  2. Sad ending. This means that for the next coming months they'll be more deaths and we'll be back to March and April 2011.

    1. I think it will be worse than April 2011, because this time they will try and justify it as the will of the people (the "loyal" people, that is) There doesnt seem to be a positive outcome for Bahrain, does there? How do these Khawalids have such total control over the country? The elite partying/ F1 going types will suffer too, dont they realise this?