Sunday, January 6, 2013

The View on Bahrain from Britain

A friend passed along a link to this interesting document containing the written submissions pertaining to the ongoing and, in Riyadh especially, somewhat controversial parliamentary inquiry into "The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain." (One hopes the investigation is handled with more care than suggested by the report's copy-editing.) Of course, since Britain has, according to Crown Prince Salman's glowing review at the Manama Dialogue, "stood head and shoulders above others" in supporting the country, I'm sure Bahrain has nothing to worry about.

The 200-page report includes many familiar faces both from Britain and abroad, representing British academics and officials, Bahraini officials, Bahraini and international human rights organizations, and even LuaLuaTV. Accordingly, not all are equally useful or interesting, but many are. I especially enjoyed reading the matter-of-fact testimony of former British Ambassador to Bahrain (1981-1984) Sir Roger Tomkys (pp. 6ff.). After reviewing the history of British-Gulf and British-Bahraini relations, he arrives finally at what he terms "The Systemic Problem":
Nevertheless, there is a long term systemic problem which is simply that the Royal Family, with their close adherents took over Bahrain in the eighteenth century as incomers from the tribal, nomadic society of Arabia, and have ever since ruled over the indigenous, sedentary Baharna majority. That the Al Khalifa are Sunni and their subjects Shia makes matters worse but is not the prime cause of friction, which is the natural dissatisfaction of a majority permanently excluded from supreme power, together with resentment at the privilege of the ruling class. Over time the level of discontent has fluctuated and for long periods the Al Khalifa have coopted the support of the majority. But it was natural that events in Tunisia and Egypt should trigger (not cause) a crisis in 2001.

This systemic problem is made worse by historic Iranian claims to sovereignty over Bahrain. This claim, withdrawn by the Shah in 1971, was reactivated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, with the added factor of Iranian aspirations to defend Shi‘a communities throughout the region. The Gulf Arab response was to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a common shield against Iranian (and in another context, possible Iraqi) encroachment. Even so, there was a failed assassination/coup attempt in December 1981, shortly after my arrival; the background was never clear but the Government blamed Iranian subversion.

By no means all Baharna are opposed to Al Khalifa rule and not all opposition activists are Shia. In an older generation young men from all backgrounds might be Nasserite or Baathist firebrands and later became pillars of the establishment. Now their successors are Salafist Sunni, whose wish to end Bahrain’s liberal ways threatens the economy but this is a wider issue for the Islamic world, not endemic to Bahrain. Meanwhile, a substantial educated middle class are keen to see better, more accountable Government, but are fearful of Islamic enthusiasm and its implications. ...

To put in perspective the prevailing image of Bahrain as a society divided on antagonistic religious lines, where Sunni rulers and oppressed Shia never meet, let me record my own experience in the 1980’s. It was my practice as Ambassador to attend the family mourning assemblies whenever any prominent figure died. On several occasions at mourning for a member of the Shia community, I found the then Ruler or his brother the Prime Minister, present on the same errand to pay his condolences; there was no pomp, circumstance or security. In some respects it was still like a small village community, with much of the mutual respect that implies.
 And, finally, the crux of the problem, stated once again in a refreshingly direct manner:
Solidarity within the GCC and support from Saudi Arabia are not cost free. With close family and social links, Bahrain is economically dependent on its major neighbour but they are very different societies. While liberal, inclusive, religiously tolerant Bahrain has turned these differences to its economic advantage, Saudi financial support and access to Saudi oil at a preferential rate remain essential. This comes at a price.

Saudi Arabia has its own problem with a significant Shia minority in the Eastern Province. This minority and the Baharna are historically close. Their situation is exacerbated because for the religiously hard line Wahhabi Saudis, Shiism is anathema; and because the despised Shia live and work in the oil producing region. There is no way the Saudi Government would allow the Al Khalifa, even if they so wished, to introduce full Western style democracy power in Bahrain; the risk of knock–on to the Eastern Province would be judged unacceptable and some form of Saudi takeover of Bahrain would almost certainly follow. ...

There is no realistic alternative to Al Khalifa rule that would improve the lot of the Baharna, so long as the House of Saud rule in Arabia. Radical democratic reform in Bahrain would not be tolerated by Riyadh. If direct Saudi control were asserted there would be little economic role for Bahrain without its liberal “unique selling point” and all Bahrainis would suffer. The best outcome from the recent crisis would, of course, include real reform measures to improve government accountability and to prevent abuse of police powers.

It is vital that there should be credible interlocutors on the side of the opposition if reform is to succeed. Not all the opposition is Shia and not all the Shia want the fall of the Al Khalifa. Past unrest has been Nasserist; more recently Sunni political Islamists have tried to hijack the infant democratic institutions and to end Bahrain’s liberal customs. Moderate voices need to be heard.
I highly recommend at least browsing the other testimonies, including that of Kristian Ulrichsen, in the report.  Many offer the insights of a different group and indeed different generation of individuals than those we are accustomed to hearing.

Finally, a bit of news news.  No, that's not a typo: several recent items out of Bahrain involve news, or more accurately the lack thereof.

The first is an alarming trend toward the silencing of Bahrain's professional photographers and cameramen, the seeming final step in the government's goal of achieving a total non-state journalism blackout

Second, and related, is an odd item passed along by another friend involving Al-Ayam. The paper ran the following story about an altercation at the Foreign Ministry involving one Sh. Muhammad bin Salman bin Saqr Al Khalifa and an employee, Nayf 'Abd al-Hameed Al-Kuwaiti, in which the former supposedly attacked the latter and threatened to shoot him over a dispute initiated on Twitter. Apparently, the royal was not an employee of the Foreign Ministry but forcibly stormed the building in search of Al-Kuwaiti, whom he obviously found.  In response, and as reported in the screenshot below, the Foreign Ministry "strongly deplore[d] the assault by Sh. Muhammad bin Salman bin Saqr Al Khalifa on one of the ministry's employees." 


But, silly Al-Ayam, thinking it could question the actions of a member of the ruling family, was soon forced to remove the story.  According to opposition news network LuaLuaTV, the order came from "the royal court" and involved "the intervention of the field marshal [Sh. Khalifa bin Ahmad]." (Marc Owen Jones has some additional details, as well as a more thorough translation of the Al-Ayam story, here.)

Finally, although this is now two weeks old, it is worth mentioning the LACK of any real news or usual grandiose posturing out of the recent (Dec. 24-25) GCC summit in Manama.  Already in early December the Gulf News reported that the "summit will not announce Gulf union"--shocker there--but, even apart from this, the meeting did not seem to garner any press coverage at all.  I for one demand more denouncements of Iranian interference and unrealistic plans for political, economic, and manned space program integration!

1 comment:

  1. About the foreign affairs committee report. They rejected to include many opposition views. Currently 20 out of 36 can be deemed pro-government. This is an indicator to which side this investigation is moving into. More details: http://bhmirror.no-ip.org/article.php?id=7307&cid=73

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