Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bahrain and the GCCC: The Gulf Convenient Cooperation Council

The news of the week, not least here in Doha, is of course the rare public spat between GCC member states.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Emirates have taken their Qatar ambassadors and gone home, which if it means three less vehicles on the roads here then I am all for it.

Notwithstanding the shock of Gulf ruling families' longstanding private dispute having been brought into the open, the move wasn't exactly unforeseen.  As early as February 18, for instance, the London-based Al-Arab published a report titled "Saudi Arabia running out of patience with Qatar and is planning to take punitive actions." It told not only of a possible suspension of diplomatic relations, but also other sanctions, including possible closure of Saudi airspace to Qatar and the suspension of trade agreements.

There is no shortage of analyses of the origins and meaning of the Gulf's newest (and this time entirely self-made) political crisis.  I will say only that, glowing post-Arab Spring statements of solidarity and impending Gulf Union aside, the six GCC states are -- gasp -- six different states guided by six different interpretations of national interest that often but not always coincide.  The Omanis are aloof, the Bahrainis do whatever the Saudis and their Abu Sa'afa oil tells them, the Kuwaitis don't really want to get involved beyond mediation, the Qataris don't need to take orders from the Saudis, and the Emiratis AHH MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD!~!!

If the Saudi-Bahraini-Emirati move was meant to put pressure on Qatar's new ruler by evoking fears among ordinary Qataris of being ostracized from the extended Gulf Arab tribe, then it would seem to have failed thus far.  For example, following an article published today in Al-Ayam by King Hamad's "Adviser for Scientific and Cultural Affairs" Muhammad Jabar al-Ansari, in which the latter writes that Qatar "will pay the price" (he also goes after Oman), the editor of the Qatari daily Al-Arab used his column today to call on the state to end its financial assistance to Bahrain as part of the so-called post-2011 "GCC Marshall Plan."

More generally, Qataris I've talked to seem moderately apprehensive but mostly annoyed.  Indeed, much more affected seem to be Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati nationals living and working in Qatar, many of whom I've heard have been asked more or less politely by their respective governments to resign from their positions and return home. No collaboration with the enemy and all that. 

For those really interested in Qatar's possible strategic options going forward, see this piece by Simon Henderson.

More interesting from my perspective, however, is what the new political fault lines portend for Bahrain.  It is no secret that Saudi and Emirati displeasure with Qatar stems from its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet in Bahrain (and Kuwait; see Elizabeth Dickinson on this here) the group has long been not simply tolerated, but accepted as a legitimate political party.  More than that, it is an open secret (repeated even by the U.S. Embassy in Manama) that Bahrain's Muslim Brotherhood society al-Manbar al-Islami is bankrolled in large part by the Royal Court itself.

Remember when opponents of the Gulf Union expressed trepidation at the prospect that the political and cultural orientations of Saudi Arabia would, in the event of further integration, inevitably be imposed on the rest of the GCC member states?  Well, here we have an early example.  In Bahrain, instability born of the Muslim Brotherhood is decidedly not a domestic concern; indeed, until al-Wifaq's departure from parliament, the group represented, along with al-Asalah, one-half of the government's legislative majority whose job it was to block the opposition.  Will Bahrain now thank the society for its decade of service by declaring it an illegal "terrorist" organization?  If so, how long is popular enthusiasm for the idea of closer political ties with Saudi Arabia going to last among ordinary Bahraini Sunnis?

On the other hand, perhaps a new political witch hunt is just what the doctor ordered.  Yesterday, members of the Bahraini parliament, who since 2011 have gained a new lease on legislative life now that they need not concern themselves always with al-Wifaq, took the unprecedented step of voting to quiz the Minister of Finance, an Al Khalifa no less, for alleged financial irregularities.  Despite efforts by pro-government MPs to block the procedure, it seems that it will go forward, though a date has yet to be set.  And, in fact, those MPs that voted against the grilling are themselves being grilled (also here) on Bahrain's main Sunni (and nominally pro-government) forum.

Even more ironic than this, however, is the background to the quizzing.  From the Gulf News:
The Financial Audit Bureau report published in November detailed several financial abuses, prompting the Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa to order the formation of a committee to probe the allegations of financial irregularities.

The committee, chaired by Crown Prince and First Deputy Premier Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, comprised the four deputy premiers. It sat with all ministers and addressed all the issues and loopholes mentioned in the report. The Follow-up Affairs Ministry, tasked with scrutinising the report, covered 462 cases outlined by the report and recommended referring 20 cases of non-compliance to the anti-corruption and economic and electronic security general directorate.
What this summary does not mention, however, is that the Crown Prince's unusually forceful follow-up to the National Audit Bureau report followed public outcry over the Alba corruption scandal that implicated -- wait for it -- the Prime Minister.  Thus, Khalifa bin Salman "appointed" the Crown Prince to a committee to investigate charges of corruption ... by him.

On an unrelated note, finally, I want to extend a congratulations to my colleague Toby Matthiesen for the recent publication of the Arabic version of his book, Sectarian Gulf, and also for his apparent recent acceptance into the Muslim Brotherhood. It's a shame that his Saudi-based publisher should have borne the brunt of his indiscretion, though.  Friends, don't let friends publish books on sectarian politics in Saudi Arabia:

Update: Forgot to include this.  Fred Wehrey outlines a "New U.S. Approach to Gulf Security," in which he proposes "mak[ing] Bahrain the focus of U.S. reform promotion in the Gulf."

Update 2: The Project on Middle East Democracy has sent a letter to Barack Obama "calling on him to discuss the political crisis in Bahrain during his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. The bipartisan letter, signed by 27 former government officials, regional experts, and security specialists, urged the Saudi leadership to play a more productive role in resolving the ongoing conflict by promoting genuine political reform in Bahrain."

Update 3: It seems that the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain has already started--though it seems the government is so far content to let the UAE do the fighting. Last week Bahrain TV broadcast a program in which Dubai Police Chief Dhahi Khalfan accused Bahraini Al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood's social wing that shares a name with its beleaguered counterpart in the Emirates, of, among other things, "terrorism." Following the obligatory denial from al-Manbar al-Islami, the MB-affiliated writer for Akhbar al-Khaleej Ibrahim al-Shaykh has hit back, asking, "Fragmentation of the Sunni Street ... In Who's Interest?"

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