Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Final Political Salvo before Ramadan: The Sectarianization of Bahrain's Labor Unions

I've now returned from Cambridge, where participants on my panel were witnesses to a good show compliments of the Bahraini government, which sent a contingent from the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (formerly the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research) to refute my paper on the politics of public-sector employment in Bahrain. Notably, this 6- or 7-strong group included no less than former Information Minister and current chairman of the aforementioned center Dr. Muhammad 'Abd al-Ghaffar. Fortunately, my paper was (strategically, I'm sure) reserved for the very last spot, so the fireworks did not disrupt the panel generally, which was mostly very informative.

In addition to my paper, the group also attacked (on my panel) the presentation of Laurence Louër as well as (on other panels) those of 'Abd al-Nabi al-'Akri, Muhammad Matar, and others discussing Bahrain. I am also told that the group then proceeded to the other main Gulf studies conference at the University of Exeter, only to repeat the procedure anew. You stay classy, Bahrain!

Of course, as tends to happen, the hecklers succeeded only in making the state's case look worse. If Al-Watan has finally conceded that its English-language website was a liability rather than a tool to convert Western audiences to its position, then one wonders why the government cannot reach a similar conclusion, namely that it has failed to gain sympathizers not because its arguments are unknown but because they are unpersuasive.

In any case, with all this traveling it's been a while since I've posted, and much has happened in the meantime. Most notable is the formation of a new, Sunni-oriented labor union to compete with the current General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), which is presumed, like everything in Bahrain, to be controlled by al-Wifaq and the opposition. Please excuse the bullet points.

  • On July 10 the BNA reported that new editor-in-chief of Al-Watan and personal friend of this blog Yusif Al Bin Khalil has been received by "the Field Marshal" Khalifa bin Ahmad. Quite strange for a defense minister to congratulate the editor of a newspaper, you say? Well, when you consider their shared interests in anti-Americanism and riling Bahrain's Sunnis with the specter of foreign interference in the country, then it is perhaps less so. Oh, and the defense minister's brother bankrolls Al-Watan. It could be that too.

  • While we're on the theme of Al-Watan and newspapers, the recent re-arrest (and three-month jail sentence) of Nabeel Rajab has occasioned an interesting spat involving Reuters. It seems that the government was/is upset with an article describing the circumstances of Rajab's arrest, which Reuters linked (correctly) to his Tweet claiming that citizens in Muharraq held a rally in support of the prime minister only because they were paid to do so. Two separate articles--first in Al-Watan, then in Al-Ayam--accuse the agency of false reporting, partiality, etc., while the Information Affairs Authority submitted its own formal complaint.

    The sticking point seems to be the explicit linking of Rajab's arrest to the prime minister (Al-Ayam is run by one of his cronies). Perhaps this is because, according to Rajab's lawyer Muhammad al-Jishi, the complaint that led to his arrest was filed by around 50 residents of Muharraq, including "Military Society" organizer 'Adel Flaifel. For one with a vivid imagination, such circumstances might suggest that--*gasp*--Khalifa bin Salman is somehow involved with Flaifel and other of his militant supporters, whether financially or otherwise. Support for the prime minister based on patronage relationships?? No way!

    Beyond Bahrain's continued persecution of journalists and media attempting to offer substantive coverage of events in the country, the other implication of the Reuters spat involves new Minister of State for Information Affairs Samira Rajab. From what I've been told, her April appointment was meant to offer a more media-friendly (and, more to the point, less prime minister-controlled) foil to the Information Affairs Authority led by Sh. Fawaz. Her ability to serve such a function in practice, however, would seem to be in question, as any movement on this front has been in the wrong direction.

  • Bahrain is now home to yet another offshoot political "movement," this one known as the "Front for Jihad and Change" (or 'Aqab for short). No one seems to know quite what the group does; indeed, one opposition forum commentator asks derisively whether it is a "movement" or a "media organization," since despite a threatening manifesto its main activity thus far seems to be limited to the publishing of photographs, including of guns and ammo. (Curiously, the photograph below is taken from a pro-government Sunni forum, and the song in the YouTube video also has a Sunni feel and dialect.) The group does have a cool logo, though, so that's something I guess.

    And obligatory martial YouTube video:

    The Front's website only has three posts dating to July 14, the first a message of congratulations from al-Sayyid Qasim al-Hashimi, "Bahraini political opponent."(Al-Hashimi is a former member of the IFLB, then of al-Wifaq, and now directs the revolution from his computer in London.) In any case, the group clearly styles itself a Shi'i movement, but it's probably too early to tell what to make of it. Some Shi'a already assume it is a government front meant to smear the opposition.

  • We arrive at the most significant news item. The National Unity Gathering has been busy lately, and its relationship with the state continues to grow in ambiguity. Al Mahmud and other TGONU leaders were prominent attendees of yesterday's press conference announcing the creation of a rival to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), called the Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation (BLUFF). In effect, BLUFF is meant to be the Sunni counterpoint to the GFBTU, which critics accuse of being controlled by al-Wifaq. Notably, one of the founding members of BLUFF is the union chairman at Alba, 'Ali Al bin 'Ali. Given Bahrain's success with political societies based around religious affiliation, the polarization of the country's trade unions along the same lines must be a welcome development. (That's sarcasm.)

    As always seems to be the case with the National Unity Gathering and the other post-uprising Sunni groups, this latest move lends itself to two competing interpretations depending on one's view of the movements themselves. On the one hand, given the historical importance of labor unions in spurring political action in Bahrain--whether in the 1950s, 1990s, or in 2011--one might suppose that the post-uprising Sunni movements are seeking to embed themselves more deeply into Bahraini political life, especially given their absence from other formal institutions such as the parliament. By this view, the launching of a competing labor union is not aimed necessarily at the opposition but perhaps at bolstering Sunnis' position vis-a-vis the state. If one would ask whether such a thing is necessary, consider, for instance, the recent arrest of outspoken Sunni Muhammad al-Zayani, former BDF colonel-turned-government critic, which has not gone unnoticed by the TGONU:

    Moreover, an article in Al-Ayam (linked on TGONU's Twitter feed) reports on a joint statement by al-Asalah and al-Manbar expressing their wonderment over the failure of the Labor Minister (Jamil Hamidan, a Shi'i appointed in King Hamad's post-uprising cabinet shake-up) to attend the press conference. The groups accuse the minister of bias in favor of the (Shi'i-controlled) GFBTU and say that he does not want a "free union."

    Others remain convinced, on the other hand, that the move is no more than a state-backed attempt to break the relatively powerful GFBTU, which one will recall organized several nationwide strikes in the early days of the uprising. Such an interpretation coincides with the more general view of TGONU and other Sunni movements as being far from politically-independent--to say nothing of a genuine Sunni political opposition. According to this view, the state is simply applying the lesson of the majlis al-nuwab, which is that so long as political factions exist along sectarian lines they will expend a majority of their energy fighting each other rather than focusing together on resolving shared grievances.

    As noted already (and as examined in a classic paper on "Bahrain's Labor Movements" by 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf), trade unions have been a perennial loci of popular--cross-sectarian--political movements in Bahrain since the discovery of oil. By structurally dividing the labor movement into Sunni and Shi'i components, one eliminates an important potential source of the type of cross-societal mobilization that represents the only real threat to the maintenance of the political status quo in Bahrain. Whether or not the government (or certain factions of it) had a hand in the creation of the new union, one suspects it will be very happy at the news.

  • If TGONU and the other new Sunni movements thus continue to elude easy political categorization, at least one can be more sure about the nature of some others. Earlier this week a group in Muharraq held a protest demanding the release of three imprisoned Sunnis--'Abd al-Rahman al-Murabati, 'Abdallah al-Na'imi, and Muhammad al-'Ubaidli (I'm not familiar with the background of the cases)--as a Ramadan makrama. A thread on the main Sunni forum explains that the individuals have been held for 4, 10, and 15 years, respectively, without being tried. (A million photos here.)

    Interestingly, one commenter asks why the thread is directed at the "Good Sunnis" of Muharraq, saying, "Why calling on Sunnis only? If you're being wronged then you should appeal to the Bahraini people as a whole? Don't you agree?"

    Acknowledgment that you're in the same boat as the Shi'a? "She's a witch! Get her!"

    Muhammad Al Bu Flasa likewise is continuing his quest to be re-imprisoned, appearing in a rally in front of Nabeel Rajab's house following the latter's arrest.

  • Finally, some random interesting stories:

    1. An American passenger traveling to Bahrain from Italy was accused in an al-'Arabiyya report of attempting to smuggle in $11m in cash destined for the opposition. Bahrain then denies the report, but it sure does get you thinking... See what they did there?
    2. A report from the Danish Institute for International Studies: "Bahrain and the Global Balance of Power."
    3. Toby Matthiesen in Foreign Policy: "Saudi Arabia's Shiite Escalation."
    4. 'Abbas Bu Safwan writes in the Bahrain Mirror on ruling family politics and King Hamad's post-1999 project to unseat Khalifa bin Salman: "The King Stymies the Prime Minister in the (Constitutional) Arena."
Update: Quite clever are these new Sunni trade unionists. Not only is BLUFF now pushing for a minimum wage for Bahrainis in the private sector (as well as additional social benefits), but also for a minimum wage for skilled and unskilled EXPATRIATES. Since the new union cannot currently compete with the GFBTU in terms of membership, it seems it is reaching out to an untapped pool of potential supporters (and perhaps even members?): expats.

They've also apparently figured out that BLUFF is probably not the best English acronym to go with.

Update 2: An insightful update on the state of the National Unity Gathering by Hasan Tariq al-Hasan.


  1. Yawn... Nothing will ever change in Bahrain.. lets give it up... Stomp your feet and scream like a little child oh mighty opposition, but it is all an exercise in futility. The status quo in our beloved Kingdom will and must prevail, it is for the greater good and never will we allow the evil propogated by Wifaq and other slaves of the Iranian domain to succeed. Besides what more do they want, we have nice malls, good food, and all year sunshine - there is no one facing starvation or living on the streets and all poverty is relative. Let the good times roll!

  2. People like Sal are an embarrasment to Bahrain! Yes, all we need in life is good malls and sunshine, who cares about corruption, theft, nepotism, abuse of national resources, injustice, torture, lack of freedom etc ... we have MALLS! Sigh ...

  3. Dear Justin,

    Please revise this:

    al-Sayyid Qasim al-Hashimi did not announce himself as the leader. He congratulate the birth of the movement and it does not anywhere in the website says that Qassim is the leader.

  4. @Anon: Fixed. Still, though, given that he is the only personality to appear in any of the group's communiques; and in the very first one at that, it seems safe to assume is not simply an outside observer, right?

  5. Yes you are right. It is safe to assume so, thats why I made some calls to figure it out but no I spoke to, in both Bahrain and London, knows much about it. I tried getting in touch with the man himself, but he is not in London.

  6. @justin While I agree with your analysis of the formation of BLUFF, Bahrain lacks a union federation that truly represents the Bahraini Workers, The GFWTU is more of a platform for Alwifaq and Waad as proven by the way the foundation conference delegates were chosen

    1. @Anon: Interesting; I hadn't seen this, though I'd heard as much from other sources. More generally, that the body would be controlled by the opposition is perhaps to be expected given patterns of employment in Bahrain. Since pro-government citizens are disproportionately represented in the public sector, the private sector should in turn be disproportionately made up of those more likely to be oriented toward the opposition.

      That is not to say that this is a healthy situation. Rather, in line with the title of the post, I think the creation of BLUFF is worrying not because the GFBTU already represented all workers equally, but because both unions--not simply the BLUFF--are now likely to assume an even more sectarian form and function.

      The situation is also complicated, I think, by the ambiguity surrounding the nature and motivation of those involved in BLUFF's creation. Is it simply an attempt to achieve more representation for workers not associated with the opposition? Or is it a more calculated effort to break the power of the unions to ensure that they cannot again play a role like that during the uprising? Until one is more certain about the nature of the post-uprising Sunni movement, it is difficult to answer these questions.


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