Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Trans-Atlantic Divide in Bahrain

One might recall that in his surprise December 2012 call for renewed political talks at the Manama Dialogue, Crown Prince Salman singled out Great Britain for its support for Bahrain, telling the long-time colonial master, "You stood head and shoulders above the rest." The United States, by contrast, was not mentioned at all, an exclusion described in the media as a "snub" and taken to signal Bahrain's displeasure with the U.S.'s relative willingness to pressure its ally toward meaningful reform.

A few weeks later, when the dialogue process restarted (though not, ostensibly, as a result of Sh. Salman's urging), I wrote that this "snub" in fact should serve the dialogue process well, as it meant that there would be no confusion as to its sponsorship. The quickest way to derail any political talks in Bahrain, that is to say, is to leave open the interpretation that the United States is surreptitiously behind them. And what better way to demonstrate that such is not the case than by a public suggestion of a diplomatic spat?

More recently, however, one gets the sense that something of a diplomatic divide is indeed brewing. Yet this would seem to entail not simply a rift between the United States and Bahrain, but perhaps more importantly a growing disconnect in policy between Bahrain's two historical patrons themselves, i.e. the U.S. and Britain.  Notwithstanding the (now prior?) involvement of former Miami police chief-turned-police adviser John Timoney, still it is the British who are working closely with the Interior Ministry to help try to reform the institution.  (Incidentally, the Gulf News reports that three individuals were detained just yesterday for alleged abuses.)  Similarly, it is the British Embassy that has been coordinating closely with the sponsor of the ongoing dialogue process, Justice Minister Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali, and indeed seem to have been instrumental in setting up the process.

Not all has been smooth sailing of course -- the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into British relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is a particular sore spot -- yet the situation stands in stark contrast to Bahrain's present relations with the United States. Whereas the British Ambassador Iain Lindsay is said to golf regularly with King Hamad, the U.S. Embassy is lucky to have its calls returned at all. Last Monday, Ambassador Thomas Krajeski was, according to the BBC, "summoned" to a meeting with Foreign Minister Sh. Khalid following the publication of the State Department's annual human rights report on Bahrain.  It described "significant" continuing violations including torture in custody, as well as
"serious human rights problems," including "citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists."
A yearly source of diplomatic tension (including in 2008-9 when I was in the country), the State Department's report was compounded by Bahrain's near simultaneous decision to "postpone"--that is to say cancel--a long-promised visit by a UN torture investigator.

Bahrain's opposition-less parliament has had a field day, of course, railing against the report and in particular against Ambassador Krajeski, already under parliamentary (and popular) scrutiny for his alleged secret liaisons with members of al-Wifaq on the premises of the ongoing dialogue -- not to mention his time in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Thus the following Gulf Daily News editorial from mid-April:
Indeed, if you [i.e., an American] live in Bahrain and have enjoyed your stay and would like to continue living here, can you honestly tell me what business is it of the US government to spoonfeed the so-called opposition which is nothing but a terrorist movement financed by Iran - our mutual enemy - and adopted by your government?

This very opposition is committing atrocities on a daily basis. They are killing innocent citizens and innocent foreign workers. They are killing the very symbol of security by burning policemen alive. Indeed, when was the last time you saw a person scalped? Well, you probably saw it in a Western movie, however we had a police man scalped here in Bahrain, with a brick, would you like to see his picture?

The British Ambassador had the decency to admit that this mob is nothing but a group of terrorists. British minister Alistair Burt admitted that Iran is interfering and is the direct cause of what is going on in Bahrain. Yet, he also categorically denied that Britain had anything to do with it.

On the other hand, the American Ambassador has neither condemned the violence nor denied the fact that he is indeed in constant touch with these so-called terrorists.
For the record, then, that's: American ambassador: terrorist sympathizer working for Iran; British ambassador: not a terrorist sympathizer and not an Iranian agent. Or, simply consult the following checklist:

Of course, the worrying bit is not this discrepancy in public opinion per se but the divergence in policy that underlies it.  The United States continues to pin its hopes for political resolution on the crown prince, seemingly shunning all other members of the Al Khalifa. Compare, for instance, the recent White House visits of the Qatari emir and Abu Dhabi's Muhammad bin Zayid, who met with President Obama.  By contrast, Bahrain's April 29 visit was made by the unimportant foreign minister, who was greeted only by a chiding John Kerry.

Unfortunately for U.S. policy in Bahrain, however, despite some recent success (I hear) in asserting his newfound authority within the government, Sh. Salman still is best known for his embarrassing failure in March 2011. Only when he is able to make substantive progress that ordinary citizens can see and feel -- say, by reinstating the now-suspended LMRA tax on foreign labor and reviving the employment training program that it funded -- will his political stock begin to rise.  And one can be sure that his competitors within the ruling family, along with like-minded members of society, will be working diligently to ensure that this comeback attempt does not proceed smoothly.

The British, on the other hand, are clearly reaching out to a wider range of partners within the ruling family. Beyond Britain's aforementioned cooperation with the Ministers of Interior and Justice, it has cultivated a seemingly close relationship with Bahrain's military establishment, an institution closely linked to the powerful, hard-line Khawalid faction of the ruling family.  This coordination includes bilateral trainings, exercises, high-level visits, and a new Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in October 2012. (Incidentally, Sandhurst, where King Hamad underwent training while crown prince, recently renamed a hall in his honor -- i.e., in return for £3 million.)

Notably, this increased collaboration on military matters also means that, rather than Sh. Salman, the British have grown closer to another of King Hamad's sons, Sh. Nasr. Shaikh Nasr, known before the uprising mainly as the head of Bahrain's Olympic Committee, has risen from relative obscurity in the period since February 2011.  At the height of the security crackdown in June 2011, he was appointed Commander of the BDF Royal Guard and promoted from captain to colonel.  Around the same time, opposition activists accused him of involvement in torturing detained athletes, a reputation (ill-gotten or not) that has served to boost his image and popularity among security-minded Bahrainis.  Like his father, Shaikh Nasr attended Sandhurst, graduating in 2006. While Sh. Nasr is not an immediate threat to displace the crown prince as heir apparent, such a thing is perhaps not unimaginable, and his marriage to the daughter of the ruler of Dubai is one additional asset in this regard.

It is unlikely, however, that Britain's newfound military interest in Bahrain represents a mere hedging of bets in the event that the crown prince does not prevail in his intra-familial contest for political direction. Indeed, a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think-tank, "suggests Britain could be slowly re-establishing a permanent, strategic military presence in the Middle East in what amounts to a rethink of the 1960’s decision to withdraw UK forces from areas 'East of Suez.'"  It continues,
[T]he UK is at a significant decision point where defence orientation towards the Gulf States is both plausible and logical. ...

The Royal Navy is ... taking a more active interest in Bahrain, which is already home to the United Kingdom Maritime Component Command (UKMCC).

“We seem to be witnessing the slow transformation in the UK military posture towards a tentative return (at this early stage) to the pre-1971 strategy of rooting Britain's presence in the southern Gulf through agreements with its traditional allies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with outlying anchors in Bahrain and Oman, and with close political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that could be upgraded to the military level if necessary.”
Whatever the case, one hopes that Britain and the United States can achieve a more constructive policy coordination in Bahrain going forward. With all the internal fractures already helping to preclude resolution of Bahrain's political stalemate, the country certainly is not in need of another.

Update: Several people have written to point out the British Embassy in Bahrain's odd choice of "contributors" for a blog post on Thursday celebrating World Press Freedom Day, namely Editor-in-Chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej Anwar 'Abd al-Rahman (who in December utilized his freedom of the press to railroad a planned symposium on Bahrain organized by Brookings in Doha); and "Citizens for Bahrain," an anonymous pro-government "citizen coalition" whose main thesis is that "freedom of the press has limits."  As a friend joked, "the British Embassy may have inadvertently confused World Press Freedom Day with International Love For Censorship Day. It's easily done!"

Update 2: From a report in The Independent from late March: "[In an interview with the Gulf Daily News, Lindsay] also remarked that 'British companies should be able to pick up at least £1bn worth of business here over the next five to 10 years,' a prospect which may or may not colour his attitude to civil rights in the kingdom."

Update 3Al-Wasat reports (via Sameera Rajab; English here) that the Bahraini cabinet has approved a parliamentary proposal to end the U.S. Ambassador's "interference" in the country, in particular his meetings with al-Wifaq. Unless I'm mistaken, the proposal in question dates to October 2012 and was sponsored by six Islamist MPs. It's not clear what if anything this means in practice, since Rajab also stated that Bahrain "will commit to international agreements in dealing with the US ambassador," i.e. will not dismiss him.

Update 4: King Hamad and Shaikh Nasr (along with brother Khalid) back in Britain as head of Bahrain's delegation to the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

Update 5: Happy Fourth of July!

Update 6: Lots of diplomatic maneuvering these days.  According to the BNA, the Commander of U.S. CENTCOM is in Manama, having met with Sh. Salman, Khalifa bin Salman, and Khalifa bin Ahmad. The latter meeting, the BNA story makes clear, included Ambassador Krajeski.  On the other hand, Sh. Nasser and King Hamad are in London ostensibly for the Windsor Horse Show.  The former paid a visit to the newly-christened King Hamad wing at Sandhurst, while his father gave a very interesting address (see video below, around 8:15) to his British counterparts in which he asks flatly why the British ever left the Gulf in the first place, relating his father's reaction to their 1971 decision to withdraw: "Why?  Did someone ask you to go?":


  1. The hand-wringing over the US Ambassador is rather misdirected.

    The fact of the matter is that if a coup or regime change is in the cards, the tree to be barking under is that of the CIA Station Chief.

    And the company's record in the matter is middling at best. Downright disastrous at worst.

  2. Read about the latest UK support for Al Khalifa autocracy:


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