Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bahrain Understands the Need for Further (Police) Reforms

All in all, it's a pretty good time to be the Bahraini royal family. In the past 18 months, it's successfully defended itself against one Irano-American coup (the uprising), one Saudi coup (GCC union), and, though somewhat less successfully, one internal coup (compliments of Khalifa bin Salman and the khawalid). Moreover, as seen from the graph above, the government has also been relatively successful in defending against undue media attention, though much of this is a result of competing storylines elsewhere in the region.

Thanks to Google, we can see that at only one time in the previous year has Bahrain (almost) stolen attention away from Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Egypt, which I couldn't even include here because it obscured the other results), namely during April's Formula 1 race. Since then, Bahrain has faded both from Google searches and more markedly from news reference volume (the lower half of the graph). Civil war in Syria and prospects of war with Iran are, I suppose, rather more interesting--and, more to the point, more likely to generate ad revenue.

The picture since the beginning of 2011 is even more revealing. Interest in Bahrain spiked, obviously, in February and March, and since then has largely been on par (in terms of Google searches) with Syria. Iran is of course far ahead. More notable, though, is the bottom half of the graph. Although overall INTEREST in Bahrain (as measured by searches) has remained more or less equal with that in Syria, its volume of NEWS COVERAGE has been considerably less save for, again, during the Formula 1. Even the release of the BICI report at the end of November 2011 generated almost no bump in coverage.

Finally, the picture is still starker when one looks at interest and coverage within the United States specifically. We see that among policy wizards in Washington, D.C., Bahrain comes dead last (excepting February and March 2011) in search frequency behind Iran, Syria, and even Yemen.

Among the results (or causes?) of this trend is that Bahrain's rulers have been under no effective external pressure to take seriously citizens' demands for actual political reform. Instead, as the title of this post suggests, substantive political changes have been off the table, replaced by a nearly single-minded concern for police reform. (Yes, I know that "Bahrain has successfully implemented XX of the BICI recommendations.") Don't get me wrong: stopping security personnel from killing, torturing, and otherwise harming protesters is great. But even better would be to begin to address some of the underlying concerns motivating people to take to the streets for the past decade or more. What about that? Bahrain's head of security reports that in the past year "more than 700" policemen have been injured in clashes with demonstrators. In other news, "over 9,000 people were bitten by rattlesnakes after smacking them around with sticks."

In fact, Bahrain has seemingly come to the very same conclusion, although its solution is different. Rather than avoiding police-demonstrator clashes in the first place by starting to reduce the number of reasons people have for demonstrating, Bahrain has simply banned demonstrations. That's one way to go. Strangely, this new initiative is not included among those listed by Bahrain's Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Ezra Nonoo in her op-ed yesterday in congressional favorite The Hill, titled "Bahrain Understands the Need for Further Reforms." (See what I did there? She also apparently has a blog.)

Aside from her obligatory mention of "my story – that of a Jewish woman who rose on her merits to the top of Bahrain’s civil society," Nonoo rattles off several factoids about post-BICI police reform, including that "21 different police officers, including a lieutenant-colonel," have been prosecuted for abuse. No mention of the nationalities of these individuals, however, or an explanation for why those responsible for directing not only the 2011 crackdown but also previous crackdowns throughout the 2000s have not been held accountable. Indeed, the only high-level official to be "reprimanded" in light of BICI findings, former NSA chief Khalifa bin 'Abdallah, was simply shuffled around in the cabinet, reappointed as an adviser to the king at the rank of minister.

Other police-related moves in the previous month alone include: a new investigation into 15 police officers; a separate investigation announced by Sh. Rashid himself into "violations of personal rights committed during security officers crack-downs on protesters"; and a high-profile visit yesterday by Crown Prince Salman (dressed in full regalia, no less) to the Interior Ministry's Officers' Club, where he urged police to excerice restraint in dealing with protesters. Reuters, which has a useful analysis, quotes him as saying, inter alia,
"Force should not be used unless all alternative methods to the security approach are exhausted, and there should be no discrimination in dealing with all citizens of all affiliation and sect."
The entire video is available for your viewing pleasure:

I presume this is Step 37 of Sh. Salman's political comeback initiative. Good luck with that. At least he is earning some fair reviews in Al-Watan, no small feat. (Update: and in The Wall Street Journal.)

On the other hand, perhaps there is a more simple explanation, namely that both the crown prince and Houda Nonoo enjoy the ability of precognition. Just a day after their coordinated PR effort, the group Physicians for Human Rights released a scathing report on the widespread use of teargas in Bahrain. The New York Times opens with the following:
Despite a pledge to stop abuses by its security forces, the ruling Sunni minority in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is engaged in systematic and disproportionate use of tear gas on its restive Shiite majority, permitting police officers to routinely fire volleys at point-blank range at crowds and into homes and vehicles in Shiite neighborhoods.
Somehow, that sounds relatively less positive than Ambassador Nonoo's op-ed.

Oh, right, and there's also that little thing called the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing on the Implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report--to be held today with participation from, among others, Assistant Secretary Posner as well as Matar Matar. I wonder if that has anything to do with it?


  1. I feel this is becoming rather repetitive and redundant. Did someone say ground-hog day? Excellent analysis Justin, but this is exactly why nothing has really changed, nothing will change, and the entire girl scout movement known as Feb 14 and Wefaq's Tehran loving antics will remain relegated to irrelevance. If you want to know what is driving the royals, it isnt their late night dissection of google search results about the Arab Island Kingdom, but in fact you will have to follow the money. Simply put - the royals are back to making good amounts of the stuff! And they have also succeeded in luring back some of their friends' money (to a lesser but still impressive extent) to invest in the country. This is a fundamental and critical driver of their behaviour regardless of the broader eco-political situation. 2012 Year to Date investment in Bahrain is back up compared to last year, and the scale of the ventures and projects (outside of government spending) is no small achievement. Feel free to consider the examples of such projects, google is equally a useful tool to find them. It also seems that financial investors and owners of capital have also taken the view that Bahrain's problems are just a different shade of problems that exist in any country, particularly given the global political and economic turbulence of the last few years. Basically, each country has their own inherent risks, and therefore if you price your projects and return expectations correctly for that risk, putting money to work in business friendly Bahrain is still feasible.

    1. You're right that I should have said something about economics as well, although in many ways that's merely a cherry on top. On the other hand, I can't say that I'm as trusting as you of all of the government's encouraging statistics. I just finished sitting through a government presentation at Cambridge that used CIO data to show that, among other things, unemployment in Bahrain dropped from 13% to 5% between 2006 and 2007. But you're right that Bahrain has so far avoided any industrial mass exodus, and tourism (and money) from Saudi keeps things lubricated.


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