Friday, February 22, 2013

The Khawalid, Al Khalifa Politics Lurch into the Open

A lengthy front-page article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal has garnered much attention for highlighting the increased role of the Khawalid, and of the larger inter-Al Khalifa dispute of which they are a central part, since the uprising in early 2011.  (Note: if you are unable to view it due to the WSJ paywall, try here.) The Independent has even published a story about the story, complete with the Al-Watanesque headline, "Bahrain's royal family infiltrated by hardliners hostile to Britain and US."

Yet the most interesting thing about the WSJ article is not the analysis of the Khawalid per se, which those following Bahraini politics have been writing on for some time (e.g., the Bahrain Mirror, Fred Wehrey, Jane Kinninmont, and myself.)  Rather, the surprising bit is that a "senior" member of the ruling family was willing to give an interview to a Western journalist wherein he complains that "surrounding the king are all powerful Khawalids."  While he is not named, one presumes that this individual lies within the crown prince's camp, bringing into the open the sort of fight that has been playing out behind closed doors since the very beginning of the uprising.

Indeed, among the interesting insights of the article from this perspective is its seeming confirmation via reliable sources within the ruling family of the personal confrontation widely-reported (on opposition forums, that is) to have taken place around March 12, 2011, between Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad and the Crown Prince.  As I wrote of this on March 20,
Rumors of an intra-Al Khalifa split were swirling even before Peninsula Shield forces crossed the causeway. The crown prince, it was said as early as March 12, resigned from the "family council" after an "altercation" with the head of the royal court ... Khalid bin Ahmad. Reportedly, the crown prince complained of the conduct of the royal court ..., namely its employment of armed thugs to intimidate protesters at a time when he was attempting to gain support for his national dialogue initiative.

Khalid bin Ahmad replied that the crown prince would "bring God only knows what disaster upon the family," and that it is only the older members that "know these people" (i.e., the protesters) and how to deal with them. In the end, both members left the meeting angry, Khalid bin Ahmad taking with him a group of supporters and purportedly saying that the family would "not forgive [the crown prince] for the destructive mistakes he had made since taking office."
However, while many Bahrainis have welcomed the high-profile publication for bringing to light those they view as the driving force behind the state's vicious post-February 14 response, as well as its subsequent disinterest in seriously attempting social and political reconciliation, others see it as a self-serving PR move, even a "planted story."  The latter characterization corresponds to two different lines of argument.

A first would accuse the crown prince of sour grapes; of employing Western media to fight an internal battle he has shown himself incapable of winning on his own.  Yet, even if the story were initiated by the "senior royal" rather than the journalist himself, which in any case is impossible to ascertain, the other outside analysts interviewed for the piece, including myself, certainly were not in on the conspiracy.  That is to say, even if the main message of the article--that Bahrain's ruling family has, in the measured words of The Independent, been "infiltrated by hardliners hostile to Britain and US"--still this is does not make the conclusion itself untrue. On the contrary, most would seem to agree that in the past two years (and more generally over the past decade) the Khawalid as a distinct branch of the Al Khalifa have achieved an unprecedented level of power and influence.

A second line of argument would accuse the ruling family of a more subtle slight of hand; of propagating or allowing to be propagated myths about the superhuman conservative powers of the Khawalid as a useful foil against the well-intentioned but ostensibly powerless king and crown prince.  This is the position taken, for example, by Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, who quipped in one conversation that he would "not be surprised if someone produces 'The Protocols of the Elders of Al-Khawalid'" that "included placing Khalid bin Ahmad as the king's alter ego and his brother as C-in-C [commander-in-chief]."  By portraying themselves as "moderates" held hostage to a political agenda driven by others, in other words, the king and/or the crown prince may earn a measure of sympathy and understanding from members of the opposition and--if their story is, say, printed on the front page of The Wall Street Journal--from Western diplomats eager for substantive political progress in Bahrain.

Certainly there is something to this latter argument, which is prompted among other things by the following question: If it is true that the Khawalid continue to undermine the king's son and chosen heir apparent, and indeed to commandeer the agenda of the entire ruling family, then why is it that King Hamad not only has empowered and continues to empower these individuals, but is said in fact to count Khalifa and especially Khalid bin Ahmad among his closest advisers, having known both for many decades?  Additionally, why has the king's primary and longtime adversary, Khalifa bin Salman, not used his considerable political and economic leverage to preclude the rise of this competing center of power?

These decisive questions the Wall Street Journal piece does not answer, though I do seek to address them in a forthcoming article-length piece on the unlikely rise of the Khawalid under King Hamad.  Especially in light of the present interest in the subject, I hope that the article, an early version of which I provided the WSJ author, will complete the requisite review process soon.  Until then, I will get working on the even juicier sequel to be co-authored with 'Abd al-Hadi, The Protocols of the Elders of Al-Khawalid.

Update: After being refused entry into the United Arab Emirates for, in the words of the Emirati FM, "unhelpful remarks" on Bahrain, our friend Kristian Ulrichsen writes in FP on academic freedom and Western university funding in the UAE and the Gulf.

Update 2: The U.S. Chronicle of Higher Education has weighed in on the affair with Kristian Ulrichsen in the Emirates, which was followed by yet another conference cancellation supposed to have taken place in Dubai on Wednesday. Moreover, all of this comes at a sensitive time as the Arab countries attempt to launch their own education journal called Al-Fanar. The piece also includes this great quote from the UAE Foreign Ministry:
A statement released by the government said that Ulrichsen "has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state. This decision in no way reflects the strong ties with both the AUS and LSE and their academic excellence, however, in this very specific case, it was important to avoid disruption at a difficult point in Bahrain's national dialogue process which we fully support."
Update 3: The Bahrain Mirror reports that an "investigative committee" has been formed within the ruling family to identify the anonymous "senior source" quoted in the Wall Street Journal article that is the subject of this post.  According to the report, the investigation is targeting the crown prince's court.

Update 4: A bit vague on specifics and no on-the-record quotes, but the Financial Times reports that Saudi (specifically, new Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayf) is now on board, along with the US and UK, with a reasonable political settlement in Bahrain that "boosts 'rights for all.'"


  1. Thank you Justin, for addressing the real journalistic question in your penultimate paragraph. As has been commented, the WSJ story is not news to anyone following Bahrain.

    The real stories are to be found in the WHY behind giving the Khawalids this profile publicity now, and WHAT exactly they (whoever "they" are who gave the go-ahead for the story) want to achieve by this. Who stands to gain, and what would that gain be?

  2. Most of Bahrainis aren't interested in this Khawalid stuff, because they consider that all of Alkhalifa are the same. U.S. has the power to force the Bahraini regime to be more democratic, but that's just not good for the business, you know.

  3. A lengthy front-page article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal has garnered much attention for highlighting the increased role of the Khawalid, and of the larger inter-Al Khalifa dispute of which they are a central part, since the uprising in early 2011. (Note: if you are unable to view it due to the structured settlement quote


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