Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bahrain: The "Exception" of the Arab Spring

I've been alluding recently to an article I wrote on Bahrain for the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Well, after some delay, it's finally been published along with several sister pieces on (most of) the other Gulf states.  (It seems that given the current political hysteria in the Emirates, they were unable to find a writer on that country. I'm not sure what the problem was with respect to Oman.)

The aim of the publication is to examine how Gulf publics have interpreted and reacted to the political upheaval (mostly) surrounding them since late 2010.  Fellow Dohite David Roberts has written on Qatar, blogger Ahmed al-Omran on Saudi Arabia, and Mona Kareem on Kuwait.

My contribution focuses on Bahrain as ostensive "exception" to the Arab Spring, and the domestic and regional implications of (and interests behind) this narrative. 

In short, it argues (pre-editing),
This conclusion, that “Bahrain is different” and must not be confused with the larger regional upheaval witnessed since December 2010, has emerged as the veritable mantra of those whose political interests and/or ideological orientations position them on the opposite side of the country’s ongoing struggle for reform. And its use and usefulness is not restricted to the domestic context. While influential satellite news networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya report on “revolutions” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, they speak merely — and far less frequently, if at all — of “events in Bahrain” or of Bahrain’s “crisis”, a generic problem that might denote a political scandal, a natural disaster, or an acute shortage of hamour. Thus, as most other Gulf publics struggle with how to interpret and react to the Arab Spring revolts as (largely) outside observers, Bahrainis continue to be divided, and to be influenced by divisions abroad, over whether theirs rightly counts among them. ...

[B]eyond its narrow local purpose, this explanation also promotes a range of broader regional aims. In the first place, sustained accusations of Iranian sponsorship of Shi'a in Bahrain and throughout the region not only delegitimizes these groups domestically, but they also heighten feelings of insecurity among other predominantly Sunni Gulf populations, dampening their appetite for change and marshalling popular (if perhaps not elite) support for a Saudi-led project of greater politico-military integration among the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

At the same time, and even more important for Gulf monarchs, the notion of Bahraini exceptionalism helps obfuscate the larger trend of popular political mobilization evident across the region — in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, in Oman, and in the United Arab Emirates — since the beginning of the Arab Spring. That Bahrain is merely a unique and isolated case, rather than part of a larger bottom-up push toward political reform in the most autocratic part of the Arab world, is a message that Gulf leaders are eager to sell to citizens and Western patrons alike.
Update: Remember last weekend's University of Bahrain-sponsored "Bahrain International Symposium" held to demonstrate the country's commitment to reform? Yeah, about that ...

And from the same author (Geneive Abdo): "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a-Sunni Divide," featuring a mini-chapter on Bahrain informed by more than a dozen personal interviews.

Update 2: Since my article for ECFR discusses the contradiction between (mostly Sunni) claims of outside "interference" in Bahrain and their own material and ideological support for rebels in Syria, I suppose this is appropriate to post here.  A Syrian rebel group called the "Al-Zubair ibn al-'Ulum Battalion"--sorry, I don't know enough about the conflict there to say much about it--has issued a video statement thanking the spiritual and financial support of Bahrain's Salafis (whom one will remember visited Syria over Ramadan), in particular the parliamentary bloc al-Asalah, Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi, and a pro-Syrian group based in Hamad Town (possibly, given the demographics of Hamad Town, naturalized Syrians?).


  1. Thank you Justin for your insightful pieces on Bahrain. I have touted you in numerous fora as the most authoritative and impartial commentator (English)on the situation in Bahrain.

    Looking at the recent pledge to Al Qaeda by the Syrian rebels and the current turmoils is Egypt,Libya and Tunisia, I cannot but thank God Bahrain is different.

    The government has a lot of work to do most definitely especially on Human Rights and the Prime minister has long overstayed his welcome,but one cannot but think what would have been if the Royal Family had fallen in Feb-May 2011. Your guess is as good as mine.

    My advise to all Bahrainis (I was until recently an Expat worker there) is to give peace a chance and tone down the rhetoric and overzealous youth. The solution will come with this.

    Iraq,Iran,Syria gives one a clear indication of what can happen to the silent majority in these 'people revolutions'.

    Keep up the good work !

  2. Interesting video. The guy speaking has a dialect very similar to the Bahraini (Sunni). He even shifted "q" (8 as used online) with "gh" ('3 as used online) multiple times.


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