Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Big Picture in Bahrain

Fixed that for you

Given my extended absence during July and August, not to mention the fact that we're only days or hours removed from a new U.S.-led war in the Middle East, it seems appropriate to step back to reflect on the larger picture shaping -- one sometimes wants to say even predetermining -- developments in Bahrain. As illustrated in the now-updated map above, these regional and international pressures are quite straightforward and their implications manifest.

Nevertheless, this infusion of geopolitics -- and, increasingly with regard to Syria it seems, great power politics, giving fresh meaning to the label "new Middle East Cold War" -- for me has recalled some festering questions and observations about the long-term strategic thinking of the government in Bahrain (granting for now that such thinking exists).  This is particularly relevant today as participants in The NeverEnding Story Part IV: Bahraini Dialogue are set to head back to the discussion (don't say negotiation!) table, no doubt to hash out quickly a solution to the ongoing stalemate.

The crux of the matter is this, what I call the state's "Shi'a problem," namely the existence in Bahrain of a non-trivial proportion of the citizenry that is systematically non-responsive to the state's appeals to economic benefaction and/or co-sectarian/co-tribal identity in securing the political loyalty (or at least apathy) of ordinary citizens.  That this is particularly a "Shi'a problem" rather than a more general "reformist" or "liberal" problem owes to the fact that most members of the Sunni community in Bahrain, even if they perceive that they are on average no better off materially than their Shi'a counterparts, and even if they would prefer in principle to see greater political liberalization in Bahrain, are sufficiently afraid of opening the Pandora's box of an empowered, Iranian-sponsored opposition that an undesirable status quo remains preferable to potentially disastrous change.

The state, then, as clearly evidenced by the past decade, faces a dilemma: what to do with this activist population that persists in its claims to a share in rule, whether on the basis of democracy, majoritarianism, nativism, or something else.  Among the enlisted strategies so far have been the following:
  1. To attempt to win over the disaffected population with economic patronage (including royal makramat), economic reform, promises of economic revitalization;
  2. To deploy the institutions of democracy -- parliament, elections, etc. -- with safeguards ensuring that no actual power is devolved; and
  3. To deploy a robust security apparatus to repress those unconvinced by items 1 and 2.
Now, the first strategy has effectively been abandoned in the aftermath of the uprising with the retrenchment of labor market reforms and the marginalization of the Economic Development Board and other institutions tied to Crown Prince Salman.  Strategy Two failed altogether over the course of a decade to secure the formal political participation of the state's staunchest opponents, who rejected the institutions as perfunctory and tantamount to co-optation; and now is in a similar position even with the moderate opposition, which today refuses to re-engage until the legislature and other bodies are granted real powers.  Repression, finally, if successful at forestalling change, still is not a long-term solution but a short-term stop-gap that can ensure only perennial crisis and instability.

What, then, are some of the state's options? 

Take Away Their Guns

First, Bahrain can attempt to ensure that its opponents, even if they might rally hundreds of thousands to the streets, still lack the hardware required for a physical takeover of the state.  The problem here, though, is that authoritarian states lack an easy way to distinguish supporters from potential or actual opponents, and so tend to restrict the duty (or privilege) of military service to limited populations of known co-ethnic/co-tribal supporters and, in the Arab Gulf context, imported expatriates.  The problem, of course, is that such exclusion feeds exactly into the feelings of ostracism and discrimination that form much of the basis of political opposition in the first place. So this is not a solution as such.

An End to Majoritarianism

Another possibility, or rather a well-documented strategy in place in Bahrain for at least a decade, is deliberate demographic re-balancing through selective naturalization, in order to demote the Shi'a population to a demographic minority.  This strategy is doubly attractive in that it kills two birds with one stone, since the state already requires foreign nationals for martial service in any case.  The aim here is not simply to be able to say that "Sunnis are a majority in Bahrain," but to enable the state to go further with actual political reforms -- say, more equal electoral districts, fair elections, and a more empowered parliament -- in order to undercut fundamentally the argument of the opposition.

That is to say, if al-Wifaq's constituency is numerically marginalized such that it is impossible even in free and fair elections for the group to capture the votes to establish a legislative majority, to elect its choice of ministers, and so on, then the state can steal away the most powerful argument of the opposition, namely that the majority viewpoint is not represented in government.  In that case, continued opposition activities are more likely to be viewed by once-critical observers not as legitimate demands for reform but as unjustified and undemocratic protest from parties unwilling to accept losing a fair electoral fight. I can say from personal conversation that this scenario is not a mere hypothetical concern of al-Wifaq.

Loyalty, Voice, or Exit?

A third strategy recalls Hirschman's observation that dissatisfied members of a community have three options: voice their criticism, remain despite their dissatisfaction out of a sense of communal (or here national) loyalty, or pick up and leave.  Now, I don't claim to have some knowledge of a Bahraini plan to induce the systematic exit of political opponents, or of the Shi'a community at large, but it is certainly conceivable given Bahrain's small population that a lack of economic opportunity and political efficacy could lead to a disproportionate emigration of those associated with (or branded members of) the opposition.  Certainly, the argument that "If the Shi'a are so unhappy here they should move back to Iran" was not uncommon to hear even prior to the uprising.  And then afterward:

On the other hand, the notorious anti-Shi'a poem penned by Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad in 1995, which seemed to lay out a blueprint for dealing with the reform demands of Bahrain's opposition, did offer as its very first prescription:
I possess the remedy to the sons of Shobber and Marhoon [the Shi'a] … 
We shall deport them to Howar, Jenan and Noon islands
One will also recall the recent royal decree, coming ostensibly at the urging of Bahraini parliamentarians, expanding the grounds for the revocation of citizenship to those who "help or serve a foreign country" or "endanger state interests."

Saudi Bahrainia

A fourth option, finally, is one that famously failed last year, namely the integration of Bahrain into a larger political entity alongside its political, spiritual, and menu adviser Saudi Arabia.  Beyond "protecting" Bahrain from Iranian interference, such a confederation or union could, with prudent application of Saudi's unique (read: unfair) electoral regulations that dampen localized bases of support, serve the same purpose as political naturalization in Bahrain, namely to render Bahrain's Shi'a majority a mere regional majority such as the Shi'a of the Eastern Province.  One could imagine, for instance, an "enhanced" parliament under a proportional representation system in which Bahrain is represented by a relatively small number of delegates elected by voters from across the two kingdoms.  (Joking aside, this is actually a reasonable extrapolation of the present system; see, e.g., Kraetzschmar.)

This final scenario is useful also in raising a larger issue, with which I will conclude here: To what extent does it even make sense to speak of the long-term political strategy of the Al Khalifa, rather than that of the Al Sa'ud?  Certainly, Bahrain's ruling family retains nominal control over the affairs of the island, but is that exercise closer to sovereignty or to mere governorship?  

I think of these questions now owing largely to what the Christian Science Monitor rightly characterizes as "[a]n odd and difficult-to-confirm story that keeps popping back onto news cycles": that Saudi Arabia is attempting to coax Russia away from its Syrian ally by offering (1) to collude on oil prices, (2) a lucrative arms deal, and, particularly interesting, (3) to "ensur[e] that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia's position as a main gas supplier to Europe," perhaps by applying pressure on Qatar. 

Such an offer is said by multiple sources to have been made at a July 31 meeting at Putin's dacha outside Moscow between the Russian president and head of Saudi intelligence Bandar bin Sultan, a meeting the Russians acknowledge but insist was limited to "philosophical" discussions -- probably about Putin's recent reading of Ibn Tufayl's Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. As one G2K list-member asked wryly, "Could it be that the Saudis think that the new Emir ... of Qatar is more amenable to working with Saudi diplomacy than his father?" (Incidentally, the WSJ reports that Prince Bandar was also recently overheard yelling into a phone, "[Qatar is] nothing but 300 people ... and a TV channel. That doesn't make a country." Booya!) 

The point is: if Saudi Arabia is prepared for the sake of ending Iranian influence in Syria to exert pressure on Qatar on a matter of extreme, even existential, importance for the latter, despite having relatively few levers of direct influence, then what should we assume of its say over domestic policy in Bahrain, a country that in Saudi eyes represents an even more dangerous entree for Iranian influence and is almost entirely bankrolled by the Saudi treasury?


  1. Welcome back Justin. Great update! Its always good to learn what is really happening in Bahrain. Keep up the great work.

  2. The change in leadership in Qatar has been understudied given the recent turmoil in Egypt and Syria. It has the potential to consolidate thinking in the Gulf in a way that could truly create a more harmonious block than in the past, especially with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Iran. I wish there was more information about the new Emir's leanings and what impact that might have on the region.

  3. Interesting. Unfortunatelly growing portion of the Shia population feel they (or their children) see no future under Alkhalifa. Painful as it is, many middle class Shia are considering the Exit strategy as a result of the continuous discremination policy. The education sector is tightly controlled and used to ensure that open oppotunities to future shia generations are limited and carefully selected. Many sectors of public service and economic activities are completely shut for the shia. Unless we see dramatic positive turn around in the current marginisation policy, Bahrain's will be dried out of its invalube human resources.
    It is very sad to see the crown prince who came out with big plans for reforms for the benefit of Bahrain is sitting idle doing nothing to stop the destruction of the country and its future before his very eyes.

  4. I agree - those with qualification, skill and any professional experience will probably pick up and go. There are many other places that will both appreciate and pay for their talents. In fact they do not have to go too far, the GCC alone offers plenty of opportunity and locations further afield exist for the more adventurous fans of the West (or East).

  5. Everybody knows that religions and religious books are man made, so why waste your time and efforts in something unreliable and fake. Thnx

  6. I disagree with Anon Aug 30 and Sept 2 completely. The main professional discrimination that Shias could face lay in the security apparatus; this is due to the sensitive nature of the sector where clear loyalty is required. In fact, there are Sunni merchant class families that are barred from being officers as well, so it’s not a sectarian discrimination. Also keep in mind that this form of discrimination is common in other states as well, for instance in India, some Muslim families may have limited career prospects in the military. In addition, Syria was infamous for implementing far more robust discrimination policies in its security sector, where Allawis would occupy roles in higher echelons. Don’t forget that Shias are heavily involved in the medical, educational, and energy sectors, so this perceived “discrimination” is self-deluding.

    In addition, while it is unfortunate that prosperous Shia families think to relocate from Bahrain, as they are citizens of the state and have helped build it. Yet, to think there are ample prospects in the Gulf is an over-statement. Many Bahrainis (irrespective of sect) face discrimination when seeking employment in other GCC states following the 2011 crisis. A colleague of mine graduated in late 2010 to be a pilot in Qatar Airways, but was met with utter scrutiny when he tried to start his career as a pilot. All because he was Bahraini and his father’s name was construed as a Shia name (note he is Sunni and the Qatar Ministry of Interior required a court filed letter stating he is Sunni and comes from this family etc…). It would be wise to see the greater impact of the failed crisis had not only for citizens in Bahrain but also for expats in the immediate region. If merchant Shia families relocate they might be susceptible to the same forms of discrimination, so it is naïve to assume that regional opportunities are ample and all are welcomed (in addition to the typical business rivalry dynamics). Many Bahrainis continue to suffer from discrimination abroad because of the political crisis, especially from states that were initially championing the Arab Upheavals. So ask yourself was it all worth it?

    1. Your point is well taken, and I don't mean to suggest that Bahrainis who choose to leave Bahrain can expect to enjoy an array of lucrative opportunities in the Gulf.

      I suppose I was thinking more of those not of the merchant or even well-educated class: those who are stuck largely in the villages, have been touched directly or indirectly by the uprising and by opposition activities, and have, short of some sort of political amnesty, little hope of securing a well-playing job, admission to UoB, or indeed living out a normal life. To such individuals, being subjected to additional "scrutiny" in hiring processes elsewhere in the Gulf is I can only imagine far preferrable to the "scrutiny" they face at home.


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