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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and (Shaikha Mai's Use of My) Statistics

For those familiar with my formal research on Bahrain, you will know that in 2009 I conducted a mass political survey of the country as part of my dissertation. Among the products of that survey is an estimate of Bahrain's demographic composition (i.e., Sunni-Shi'i "balance") that is far more accurate than those available previously, which are based on decades of extrapolation or simply pure conjecture.

Well, it has come to my attention that this result of the study has been put to use in an "academic" article by none other than Bahrain's Minister of Culture (and the subject of a recent run-in with Bahrain's Sunni parliamentarians) Shaikha Mai bint Muhammad. The paper in question is titled "Notions of Identity in the Bahrain Unrest of 2011" (.pdf here), and it appears in a journal with which I am unfamiliar, Turkish Policy Quarterly. According to the journal's website, the article has been downloaded more than 400 times since being published on March 3, 2012.

The statistical results of my survey make it into the third paragraph of the paper, framing indeed the entire discussion. The point of this introductory section is, apparently, to dispel the "simplistic media myth[s]" surrounding the issue of Bahrain's sectarian demographics. Through these "popular media presentations," Sh. Mai observes, Bahrain is portrayed as "a divided society in which a minority Sunni power base rules over a Shiite majority," whereas she notes that "this has never been statistically proven."

Enter the findings of "an American researcher" (i.e., me):
"Interestingly, however, a recent population sampling of 500 Bahraini households by an American researcher found that the Sunni-Shiite split was 57.6 percent-42.4 percent."
Thus, the larger context of the discussion as well as the presentation of the actual figures clearly suggest that my survey found, contrary to popular belief, that Sunnis in fact are a majority of the population in Bahrain, at 57.6%, with Shi'a comprising a 42.4% minority.

The only problem, then, is that this is exactly the reverse of my published findings, which is obvious enough from the graph below. The original blog post where this graph originally appeared notes explicitly (as does the full discussion in my dissertation),
"As for the findings regarding Bahrain's Sunni-Shi'i balance, then, we see this below. Bahraini Shi'is comprised 58% of my survey sample, Sunnis 42%."

Since Sha. Mai clearly did not (or chose not to) pay attention to the analysis of Bahrain's religious demographics found in my dissertation, it is likely too that she missed the following discussion, which incidentally involves her role in disseminating misinformation about Bahrain through the publication of "scholarly" books and articles.

An except from pp. 57-58, on Bahrain's suppression of scholarly works (e.g., Khuri) that conflict with the government's official "history":
The second most significant volume on the modern political history of Bahrain is undoubtedly the journals of Charles Belgrave, the British officer who served in the position of personal “advisor” to the Bahraini ruler for some thirty-one years between 1926 and 1957 and who eventually came to be known simply as “المستشار‎”—“the advisor” (Khuri 1980, 110). In the wake of British intervention just three years prior to replace recalcitrant ruler ‘Isa bin ‘Ali with his son Hamad, Belgrave’s appointment was meant to provide Bahrain with some measure of political continuity. At the same time, he was charged with finishing the task of modernizing the whole of the country’s outdated bureaucracy, an initiative that effectively spelled the end of the prevailing feudal estate system and one therefore strongly endorsed by ordinary Shi‘a but resisted by the ruling and wealthy elite. Belgrave’s diary, then, consists of detailed daily reports of meetings and conversations with the ruler and various state officials, observations on Bahraini society, and other quotidian affairs.

Like Khuri’s, this important work too is banned inside Bahrain. Or, more precisely, while selected excerpts from the diary were published in 1960 and again in 1972, the original papers are said to reside in the royal library and in any case have not been made available. Unauthorized copies of the diary somehow made their way onto the Internet in June 2009, however, and were thereafter translated, made to be published, and imported for distribution by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), itself outlawed. The printed copies were subsequently confiscated by the Ministry of Information, which informed the publisher of the government’s decision to ban the book, barring any further imports. But the damage was already done. The leaked version has persisted in the form of a massive, 2,302-page electronic document that has become required reading for the country’s political opponents, having been viewed over 7,000 times in but three years. Indeed, upon hearing of my study of Bahraini politics, my contacts repeatedly directed me to the text as a sort of prerequisite to any understanding of the local political situation.

Yet for all the controversy surrounding the Belgrave diary, and despite its constituting perhaps an embarrassing intrusion into the private lives and court politics of the ruling family, there is nothing in it that could be considered a direct attack on the Al Khalifa or that substantiates any heretofore unknown wrongdoing that must be covered up at all costs. No, the papers of Belgrave, like Tribe and State in Bahrain, are banned not for their contents per se but for what they represent: information, and more importantly the contradiction of the “official,” sanitized version of Bahraini history that the regime has worked hard to construct. Curiously, the same Minister of Information [Sha. Mai] who enacted the Belgrave ban has herself published at least two separate editions of translated excerpts from the journals, a coincidence that has led the BCHR to speculate about the completeness and accuracy of the latter volumes, and ask whether this might not help explain the ban on its own, presumably less abridged Arabic translation.
So, Your Excellency, please stop manipulating the results of my research for your own purposes. Thanks. And, to the editors at Turkish Policy Quarterly, you might want to issue a correction (or retraction) for this dubious piece of "scholarship."

Update: Thanks to The Guardian.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Formula 1 and the Breakdown of the Bahraini Business Model

For those wondering what a post-oil Gulf might look like, you're looking at it in Bahrain. Bahrain was both the first Gulf country to mine--and run out of--the black stuff. Production today (and for more than a decade now) has topped out at less than 50,000 barrels per day, or about one-half of one percent of the daily output of its giant neighbor to the west... and south.

And yet (until very recently, anyway), Bahrain's economy has managed not to implode. This is due, in the first place, to Saudi Arabia's continued subsidization of the Bahraini state budget. Not only do the Saudis continue to provide Bahrain one-half the output of the "shared" Abu Safaa oil field--equaling around 150,000 barrels/day--but they also supply a majority of the oil gas used in its aluminum refinery operations at ALBA. The Arabians of Saudi can thus be thanked directly or indirectly for the continued functioning of Bahrain's two largest "domestic" industries, and the mass employment that comes along with it.

So, apart from a disproportionately large political influence in Bahrain (which these days is admittedly useful), what does Saudi Arabia get in return? Enter the other half of Bahrain's business model, which is indeed where its comparative advantage truly may be found: namely, in being the place where Gulf residents--especially Gulf Arabs--can come to "have a good time," as they say. Indeed, Ask Men magazine once famously (among Bahrainis) ranked Manama at #8 on its list of the Top Ten "Sin Cities," introducing the country thus:
Welcome to the party oasis of the Middle East. Connected by a causeway to nearby Saudi Arabia, Manama is a popular spot for Saudis to kick back from their country’s restrictive laws. Here they can get hammered, go clubbing, mingle with the opposite sex, and if they’re really daring, they can pick up prostitutes -- a practice that’s illegal but widely available. While Manama is still largely a Muslim city, a third of its residents are foreigners, so it has led to a much more liberal culture that gave women the vote in 2001, and let them drive cars. For many Saudi males this proximity to an open culture is irresistible and many jam the causeway and fill flights to the city every weekend.

Do you want to see what happens when Saudis cut loose and leave the rules behind? You may need to get in line.
As one might expect, such a description earned the Ask Men website a prompt ban by Bahrain's Intertube authorities. But the picture is in any case an accurate one--and certainly not a new one. In conversation a few weeks ago, Bahrain guru 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf mentioned that in the 1940s, a decision to ban places of prostitution in one notorious neighborhood of Manama (today's Exhibition Avenue) was quickly reversed when drunken men began knocking on the doors of random residents. It was the Bahrainis of al-Hurra and Ra'as Ruman themselves, he said, that demanded the return of the brothels, so as to at least concentrate the activity--seen as inevitable in any case--to a finite area.

Bahrain's role as the Macao of the Gulf thus allows its conservative neighbors--especially Saudi Arabia--to confine elsewhere its citizens' appetite for excess. Indeed, I once sat at Trader Rick's (at the Ritz Hotel) for several hours with a 65 year-old Saudi employee of Prince Nayf. When asked how often he comes to Bahrain, he said that the Interior Ministry itself organizes weekend trips for senior officials via flights on Saudi Arabian Airlines. Observing the Ritz patrons, one would certainly believe it.

Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are not the only beneficiaries of Bahrain's "relaxed" social atmosphere, however. It is no mystery why the three finance capitals of the Middle East--once Beirut, and now Bahrain and Dubai--are all located in cities where wealthy bankers and their families may spend their time doing the sorts of things that wealthy bankers and their families like to do. Having friends in the industry who have also visited me in Doha, the availability there of alcohol and (relatively-vibrant) nightlife is not a secondary consideration. The impact on Bahrain's banking sector of continued political unrest is not then simply a product of general uncertainly surrounding the future of the country, but it is influenced also by the ability of banks and other multinationals to attract and retain the sorts of employees necessary for their continued function.

Finally, compared to deployments elsewhere in the region, where American military bases are located far from city centers and movements are highly restricted (like, say, in Qatar), one imagines that U.S. servicemen stationed in Bahrain think themselves on an island paradise. Or, that is, DID think themselves. As military writer Geoff Ziezulewicz recently describes in an enlightening article at Foreign Policy, "Tear Gas at the Dairy Queen," no longer are U.S. navymen free to roam the streets of Juffair (and Bahrain generally) in search of girls and Papa John's pizza. Rather, soldiers and their families face increasing restrictions, and increasing unease over the sustained violence and, more recently, the emergence of anti-American sentiments over the U.S.'s role (or, depending on who you talk to, non-role) in the country.

If the connection with the Formula 1 is not clear at this point, it should be: the Formula 1--the attraction of foreign tourists perhaps intrigued by the Gulf or by the Middle East but still seeking the comforts of home in a Western, liberal environment--this is the Bahraini business model. Thus is the race's biggest sponsor--Crown Prince Salman--the one nominally (though it seems decreasingly) in charge of Bahrain's modernizing economic development policy. Whether or not the actual race is affected by protests or marred by violence, the Bahrain Grand Prix represents a severe setback for Bahrain. As Jane Kinninmont has pointed out in a different context, "tourism is unlikely to perform well--and if anything, the 'country branding' impact looks likely to be negative."

(A not-so-full house at Sakhir)

Yet, more generally, one might even go so far as to say that the country's very viability as a politically-autonomous nation (to the extent that it is one presently) is now at stake. With Saudi Arabia already contributing the lion's share of Bahrain's operating budget, if the latter is no longer to be useful as a playground for fun-seeking Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, to say nothing of Westerners, then why continue down the path of economic and (at least institutional) political liberalization? In short, if the impetus for reaching a political solution to Bahrain's now decade-old crisis is driven in large part by economic incentives, then the loss of Bahrain's reputation as a open and business-friendly destination may do as much political harm as economic.

So far, Bahrain's desire to maintain at least an outward façade of stability has resulted in the BICI investigation; at least some (albeit very limited) movement in the direction of police reform; the civilian retrial of some of those prosecuted in military court, and so on. If this seems like perhaps very little, imagine what one might expect when a preponderance of the Bahraini ruling family (as well as their backers in Saudi Arabia) have given up trying altogether. The conspicuous failure of this year's Formula One may well help tip Bahrain's already-precarious political balance further in favor of the latter camp.

Update: For those questioning this article's characterization of (much of) Bahrain's tourism industry, have a look at some of the Google search terms that have led visitors to this page. My favorite: "where i can find prostitute ladies during f1 in bahrain":

Update 2: Not directly related but noteworthy anyway is the long-awaited release of Bahrain's counterpoint to the widely-viewed Al-Jazeera English documentary "Shouting in the Dark." Commissioned by the Bahraini government, the 30-minute film has recently been screened in Washington in meetings attended by ranking Bahraini officials. The Bahrain Embassy press release tells,
Last month, more than 50 D.C.-area diplomats and foreign policy experts joined Bahrain's Ambassador to the United States Houda Nonoo for a documentary screening and a discussion on recent developments and reforms in Bahrain. The reception at the embassy introduced the documentary "Turning Points: One Month that Changed a Nation," which presents a detailed account of last year's events in Bahrain from the perspective of government officials and opposition members. Produced by Camilla Storey and directed by Vincent DeSalvo, the film distinguishes the protests in Bahrain from those of other Arab Spring countries, and delves into the media's role and the road to reconciliation.

"This film presents a measured narrative of the true nature of events in Bahrain. Through speaking with government officials, Bahraini activists, independent bloggers and others, this film helps shed some light on what occurred in my country," Ambassador Nonoo said.
Behold, the true story of what happened in Bahrain!:

Turning Points - One Month That Changed A Nation from Cloud Media on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not the Formula One PR Bahrain was Hoping For

If you search Google News for "Bahrain Formula One," you find that the ratio of negative (political) to positive (race-related) news articles is about 4,082 to 232, or about 17.5 : 1. With coverage like this, Bahrain's leaders may be rethinking their cost-benefit analysis.

Analyzing Bahrain's complicated F1 political calculus in Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel is the always-excellent Jane Kinninmont. "Bahrain's Formula (One) For Failure" begins:
The Formula One (F1) has always been a loss-leader for Bahrain. The country pays a fee to host it -- estimated to be at least $40 million each year -- and doesn't recoup this in direct ticket sales. Rather, the race is supposed to stimulate business worth hundreds of millions of dollars through its knock-on effect on other business. A 2008 study commissioned by the state sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, suggested that the race added $600 million -- or about 2.7 percentage points -- to Bahrain's gross domestic product (GDP) that year. This is mostly through the boost that the race gives to tourism, including flights on Bahrain's state-owned Gulf Air, and through the development of Bahrain's international "country brand," as millions of viewers around the world watch the race on television.

But this year, tourism is unlikely to perform well -- and if anything, the "country branding" impact looks likely to be negative. Internationally, the publicity around the race has drawn attention to the country's continuing protests and violence, to a new Amnesty International report on the continuing allegations of torture and human rights abuses, and even to a controversial video that shows police taking part in the looting of a Shiite-owned supermarket. Without the race, these developments might not make the news in the West.

This means the picture isn't as simple as the usual portrayal of a government insisting on holding the race while the opposition protests against it. Yes, Bahraini officials have sought to make political capital out of the race, hoping it will send a message that the country is back to normal, and branding it as an indication of national unity with a slogan, "unF1ed," which has inevitably proven to be divisive. And yes, protesters from the February 14th Youth Coalition have been burning photos of F1's president and CEO Bernie Ecclestone in the streets.

Read the rest here.

And elsewhere:
For once, Bashar al-Assad will be thanking the Bahrainis for taking some attention away from the situation in Syria, rather than vice versa.

Update: There is also a piece at Foreign Policy exploring a no less interesting (and, to Bahrain's leaders, worrying) topic, which is how continued unrest in Bahrain is negatively affecting U.S. navy personnel stationed in Juffair. The title: "Tear Gas at the Dairy Queen."

Update 2: For those wishing to keep up with the week's festivities (although the details for April 20-22 are ominously "coming soon"):

Update 3: The pro-government counterpoint: Formula 1 vs. Godzilla:

Update 4: Despite BNA's claims of a "positive media glare" surrounding Formula 1, the political-to-race-related ratio on Google News is up to about 6,500 compared to 300, or 22 : 1.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Publications Section

Excuse the administrative note, but I've added a new section to the site that includes links to my (previous and forthcoming) external publications that are not part of the blog here. Since this more academically-oriented page may not be of interest to everyone, I have made it as unobtrusive as possible with a concise link below the "About Me" section. Accordingly, it is easy to miss, so I wanted to point it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bahrain Formula 1 Foto Round-Up

Certainly visitors here require no further discussion of the controversy surrounding the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix on April 22. Given the length and breadth of the continuing discussion, I imagine most of what can be said has been said. (It was perhaps best said in this op-ed.) And, if some element still has been left out at this point, there's a good chance it's covered in Amnesty International's new 58-page report (summary here) on Bahrain's (non-)implementation of post-BICI "reforms," whose authors note,
"With the world's eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no-one should be under any illusions that the country's human rights crisis is over."
In lieu of rehashing the same points, then, I offer instead the following round-up of all of the Formula 1 images I have accumulated (including some from last year)--from pro-government and opposition forums, Twitter, etc.--along with grades. Because you gotta have grades.

Ok, here we have an oldie but a goodie. A concise message; incorporation of Saudi, American, and British flag elements; and King Hamad driving a Kalashnikov--all in all, that's pretty good.


Another throwback. Here, though, we'll have to deduct points for Bernie's driving a Mercedes rather than some sort of Kalashnikov-F1 transformer. Also the blood is a little Mortal Kombatish.


Woah! Way too much blood here--is that a protester or someone preforming tatbir?--and the message is too long and literal. It's like that PowerPoint presentation consisting of full paragraphs copied onto slides. You know what I'm talking about. Also the Photoshooping could use a bit of work.


Ok, not a cartoon per se but deserving of inclusion here. Bonus points for the more subtle use of blood, the use of the Kalashnikov as the "F" in F1, and the use of the Bahraini flag in the F1 symbol. Also the degree of difficulty is high as it was all done in spray paint on a cement wall (in Barbar, I take it)--and, in all likelihood, while under the influence of tear gas. Too bad some government people probably snuck in that night to paint back over it.


Now this is a masterpiece. Degree of difficulty is also high here as it cuts to the heart of the matter without the use of a slogan or blood. The bad Photoshopping is (I hope) purposely ironic, and the grayscale palette gives it a nostalgic feel, harking back to the days when Khalifa bin Salman was personally running over protesters in his Ford Model A.


Also fine, but after the previous cartoon it's hard to rate it too highly.


Alright, this is another one that's not a cartoon per se, but an announcement for an anti-Formula 1 protest scheduled for tomorrow ("details forthcoming," it says). Still, the use of the opposition figure photos to form the body of the F1 car, and the February 14 coalition logo as the wheel--that's pretty good work. On the other hand, the alteration of the name "Formula One" to "Formula Blood" doesn't work so well in English. Let's see if al-Wifaq can respond to this direct challenge to its electronic protest flier authoritay.


Still another by Carlos Latuff. It covers all the bases, for sure, but again is rather literal.


Here the cartoonist for The Independent is having a go at it. The car is too schizophrenic for me: is it an F1-tank or an F1-Titanic? But then King Hamad also seems to be wearing a Darth Vader mask. What's up with that? Confused all the way around.


We close with the sole pro-government Formula 1 image I've come across. It gets an extra point for the use of untraditional materials, and a lot of points for the 'Isa Qasim "crush him!" reference. It's pretty grainy, though, and the horrible Photoshopping appears not to be ironic bad but plain old "I don't know what I'm doing" bad. Overall, I would have expected better from the pro-governments.


Update: I debated whether to include this photo, which is only tangentially related to the Formula 1 and so doesn't exactly fit the theme. However, the sheer degree of difficulty involved in climbing atop the Bahraini Embassy in London--requiring indeed a Houzman-like ability to scale walls--deserves recognition here. (We'll set aside the claim of the Bahraini Foreign Ministry that these "terrorists" actually climbed from an adjacent building.)


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Ruling Family Divisions Come to Society: Bahrain's New Civilian Police

There must be something about the start of summer in the Gulf, the knowledge that it's only the beginning of a five-month period of being more or less uncomfortable, that gets people particularly riled up. A few days after a homemade bomb exploded in al-'Akar in a deliberate targeting of police officers, now Sunni groups seem to be striking back in what threatens to become a repeat of last summer's open sectarian conflict that culminated in the Battle of UOB.

Certainly, part of the reason for heightened tensions is the continued controversy surrounding the case of al-Khawajah, and especially demonstrators' desire to play spoiler for the still-upcoming--but increasingly-uncertain--Formula 1 race. Yet, underlying these immediate causes, I think, is a deeper one, which is a growing recognition among ordinary people that--rumors of renewed "dialogue" notwithstanding--Bahrain's social, economic, and political crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon, and for reasons that are utterly beyond the reach of everyday citizens.

Or, "for a reason," I should say: namely, a crisis of political leadership--a hopelessly fractured ruling family--that is fomenting in turn a fractured population of various political constituencies. For the Bahraini who supports "the state," the question is whom exactly does one support: the king and crown prince? "The marshal" and his brother in the royal court? The prime minister? 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud? Muhammad Khalid? The Al-Fatih Awakening? And likewise for Bahrainis of "the opposition": is one convinced by the path of dialogue pursued by 'Ali Salman and al-Wifaq? Does one choose to follow Sh. 'Isa Qasim? Does one identify with the nebulous "February 14 Coalition?" Or does one retreat to more local identities tied to individual villages?

The upshot is not simply political indecision born of internal Al Khalifa squabbling (though, as the case of 'Abd al-Hadi most recently revealed, there is of course that too.) No, the real consequence is what happens when these rivalries are transferred to society at large, when, say, the "pro-government" supporters of Khalifa bin Salman pursue a strategy that undermines the initiatives of King Hamad. While the latter can attempt to marginalize the influence of these citizens, he is loath to go after them directly as they operate on some level at the pleasure of the prime minister. In the end, the contradictory positions of the various Al Khalifa factions are institutionalized in respective societal constituencies pushing and pulling in opposite directions, further augmenting the political clusterf-ck that is Bahrain.

Thus, for example, at the same time that the Bahraini government officially pursues "police reform," some citizens are showing their support for an even more aggressive approach with protesters by taking policing into their own hands, apparently with immunity. (Although I will note that we haven't heard much from 'Adal Flaifel since followers of his Military Society clashed with 'Ashura' procession-goers in January, so maybe Sh. Rashid has finally shut him up. [Oops, wrong: see Update below.])

Last night, a car driven by a Shi'i was overrun and literally flipped over by renegade citizens near the ALBA roundabout, apparently because it had a picture of Khalifa bin Salman hanging upside down in the window. The driver, still trapped inside, lay bleeding while local residents gathered to take photos and mock him. These were later joined by police, who eventually dispersed the crowd. (A fuller narration--in Arabic--is here, as well as many reactions by Sunnis abhorring the episode.) The scene is captured in a five-minute video on YouTube:

Photos of the melee were subsequently uploaded to a pro-government web forum along with a statement by "The Youth of East and West Rifa' and 'Isa Town," seemingly taking credit for the act. The statement takes the form of an ultimatum that threatens,
"1. If there is not a cessation of vandalism within the next 24 hours, and if the necessary steps [to end it] are not taken [i.e., by police], then the Rifa' Youth will get involved, using guns, against all traitors to the nation."

"2. There will be an end to the [presence of] traitors in the streets of Rifa'. ... [They] will be killed ... if the chaos does not end.

"3. Any traitor who undertakes any vandalism ... will be tortured ... until death.

"4. After the expiration of the specified time [i.e., 24 hours], if the necessary steps are not taken on the part of the regime's armed forces to stop the chaos and demonstrations, then the armed Rifa' youth will arm themselves fully and go into the streets to kill the traitors."

Later in the thread, "Sunni youth" coalitions based in other areas--al-Zallaq and Muharraq, for example--added their approval and asked for specific directions.

If all this sounds like an empty boast, a recent statement by the Ministry of Interior would seem to indicate otherwise. On Friday, the ministry essentially acknowledged the ownership of unlicensed weapons among civilians when it "affirm[ed] that those with unlicensed weapons or ammunitions should immediately approach the Licenses Office at the General Directorate of Crime Detection and Forensic Science." Obviously this implies illegal ownership among Sunni citizens, since in the first place no "license" would be granted legally to a Shi'i citizen, and any Shi'a thought to possess these would simply be hunted down and arrested as terrorists.

This popular Sunni involvement in policing is not limited to al-Rifa', however. Another video posted to YouTube shows a mob of citizens outside the (sole) entrance to the exclusively-Shi'i village of Nuwaidrat, (former) home of Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain.

Meanwhile, conservative writers (Al-Zayzani in Al-Watan) as well as with Sunnis in parliament continue to call for more "support" for the security forces. The latter held a "closed-door meeting" with Sh. Rashid yesterday in which they "demanded the Interior Ministry use tougher measures to deal with saboteurs after Monday’s attack in Eker."

Finally, also tends to happen whenever tempers flare, there is renewed rumor of U.S. involvement in the conflagration of the past week. As reported on the pro-government Dilmun Times, some MPs in parliament are
call[ing] for the US Navy to be questioned following rumours that its personnel were in the area before the attack.

“A few days ago we heard about US Navy personnel’s involvement in some incidents in Bahrain and the bomb used to attack the policemen in Eker is clear evidence that reflects that,” claimed MP Abdulla Bin Howail during the parliament session yesterday.

Conveniently, "The Marshal" Khalifa bin Ahmad just met with the U.S. Ambassador yesterday, so perhaps he had a chance to ask Krajeski--in addition to his thoughts on the Irano-American-Al-Wifaq-Hizballah alliance--about his knowledge of U.S. marine involvement in the bombing in al-'Akar. I would have loved to have been at that meeting.

Update: Scratch that bit about 'Adal Flaifel. I missed this story in the GDN in which he plays the part of "military affairs analyst" regarding the explosion in al-'Akar. He offers, inter alia, the following (unbiased, of course) appraisal:
"Based on my 29 years of experience as an intelligence officer, this is certainly guerilla warfare and those men behind it are trained in Lebanon and Iran."
Update 2: The U.S. is taking notice.

Update 3: As Simon Henderson notes in his excellent article, "Bahrain on the Brink Jeopardizes U.S. Interests in the Gulf," yet another act of retaliation in response to the Nuwaidrat bombing was an attack against the (Shi'a-owned) Jawad 24-hour Supermarket. A security camera captured the incident, including what appears to be police participation (or passive collusion):

Update 4: Amnesty International has offered a preview of its anticipated April 17 report on Bahrain's (non-)implementation of reforms following the BICI. Helpfully, they have made the actual report unnecessary by aptly summarizing the situation in the first paragraph:
Despite the authorities’ claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family rule continues, and in practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011.
Update 5: Missed this over the weekend: careful Bahrain observer Kristian Coates Ulrichsen writes for the Mideast Channel, "The hollow shell of security reform in Bahrain."

Update 6: Al-Wifaq and others in the formal opposition kick off a week of protests in the run-up to the Formula One. Until now, anyway, there has been no announcement of an Occupy Sakhir movement.

Monday, April 9, 2012

'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah: "Let's Bring Down the Ruling Gang"

The AFP reports that the lawyer for 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah fears that the activist and founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights may have died as a result of his extended hunger strike, as the state has denied access to or communication with him since yesterday.

Over the weekend, there was hope that a last minute deal would send him (back) to Denmark (where he spent years in exile) for medical treatment, but, as seemingly everything in Bahrain, that was blocked as a result of disagreement within the Al Khalifa. The BBC reported yesterday,
The government is badly split on what to do, sources in Bahrain have told the BBC's Bill Law. They say the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, is keen to see a resolution.

However, Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa insists he should not be released, the sources told our correspondent.
The story continues,
An official [at the Supreme Judiciary Council ostensibly in charge of the matter] told the Bahraini state news agency: "The hand-over of accused and convicted persons to foreign countries takes place under specific conditions...

"This does not apply in Abdulhadi al-Khawaja's case."

The official did not elaborate.
Indeed, an apt summary of the state of law in Bahrain.

Yet, though "the official did not elaborate," one may surmise that part of Khalifa bin Salman's reluctance to see the release of 'Abd al-Hadi is the personal history between the two. Indeed, 'Abd al-Hadi owes much of his notoriety for a now-famous public lecture in 2004 at the 'Uruba Club in which he openly criticized the prime minister, singling him out as particularly responsible for Bahrain's social and economic problems.

Perhaps it's true what the Bahraini Sunni militiamen say: "Khalifa bin Salman will crown your head."

The point of this post is not to speculate about the current status of 'Abd al-Hadi or about the reasons why the deal with Denmark fell through. As part of my fieldwork in Bahrain during 2008 and 2009, I had two opportunities to meet al-Khawajah, once for a direct interview in his capacity as a political activist (before some readers go crazy, I also interviewed Jassim al-Sa'idi, so let's hold the accusations of pro-Shi'a bias); and once indirectly during his fiery speech on the tenth night of 'Ashura' on January 6, 2009, for which he was subsequently arrested.

Portions of the personal interview appear in my thesis on Bahrain (in Chapter 3), but what I would like to retell here is the story of that night in January, and in particular the content of 'Abd al-Hadi's speech, which seems eerily appropriate for the present occasion. Titled "Let's Bring Down the Ruling Gang," the address connected the political struggle of Bahraini Shi'a to the religious occasion of 'Ashura', drawing a stark distinction between those citizens content to accept political domination by a corrupt power, and those who choose to stand up it to even at the threat of retribution.

The following analysis of the speech, which also can be found in Chapter 3 (pp. 96-102) of my dissertation, is based largely on an Arabic text that I came across at some point. There is also a much shorter attempt at an English translation, which is (seemingly deliberately) moderated in parts. In any event, the entire thing is available on YouTube.

For the ease of reading, I have simply created a 7-page .pdf document of the relevant portions of the chapter, which is attached below:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Clash of Civilizations in Muharraq

Some Sunnis, at least, seem not to be listening to Faysal al-Shaykh.

On Monday, residents of Muharraq led by Muhammad Khalid and some local MPs ran Minister of Culture Shaikha Mae out of a "Spring of Culture" event organized by the state, which they said promoted sexual depravity and other un-Islamic values. Angry protesters held signs criticizing her for her "vice and corruption," saying, "Your culture is not the culture of the people of Muharraq." (A million other photos are here.)

The gathering also gave Muhammad Khalid a chance to go after the king once again:

When Sha. Mae eventually went to exit, she was serenaded by people chanting "the people want the fall of the minister":

Then, on Tuesday, Sha. Mae appeared in parliament accusing Muharraq MPs of "trying to undermine Bahrain's tourism industry" through their opposition to the annual event. As the GDN reports,
Culture Minister Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa hit back after Islamist MPs accused artists taking part in the country's biggest cultural festival of being sexually provocative.

The MPs yesterday showed images of some Spring of Culture performances during their weekly session, claiming they promoted homosexuality.

However, Shaikha Mai responded by accusing MPs of taking the country backwards.

"It is people like you who are taking us backwards and those pictures are of an event six years ago, which we dealt with and that chapter has been closed," she said during the session.

Parliament was then suspended after one MP hurled insults at the minister, while others demanded her resignation.

On her way out she said she expected nothing less from Bahrain's MPs, since they were simply not "man enough".
"Not man enough!" Booya!

This insult, the Gulf News reports, "prompted the lawmakers to claim that they would not convene until Shaikha Mai is removed from the government."

As I've said a few times now, it's amazing how the parliament is not so reliably pro-government once Sunni societies are not entirely engrossed with stopping al-Wifaq from accomplishing anything. Ironically, the state could really use a few more al-Wifaq MPs; its "opposition-less" parliament isn't working out so well.

Update: On the other side of the spectrum, there is increased worry about the failing health of 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, now on day 50-something of a hunger strike. On Monday, a court denied a request to release him and the other 13 imprisoned opposition leaders pending their upcoming appeal.

Update 2: Two highly-recommendable new articles on Bahrain appeared last night.

The first is by Laurence Louër (a collaborator on the Gulf sectarianism project with which I am currently occupied) for Carnegie's Sada blog: "Houses Divided: the Splintering of Bahrain’s Political Camps."

A second is by Reuters reporter Andrew Hammond: "Sunnis seek own voice in Bahrain's turmoil."

Update 3: If 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah dies in prison, part of the reason will be the same cause that afflicts Bahrain more generally: intra-Al Khalifa disputes. The BBC reports that,
The government is badly split on what to do, sources in Bahrain have told the BBC's Bill Law. They say the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, is keen to see a resolution.

However, Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa insists he should not be released, the sources told our correspondent.

I'm sure the latter fact has nothing to do with al-Khawajah's public attack against the prime minister that landed him in prison in 2004.