Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Tangled Web of Gulf Politics

"So this means you guys are going to protect us no matter what -- right?"

It's been a while since I've had a chance to post here. The manuscript for my forthcoming book on Bahrain was due May 1, and my family is set to be enlarged by one any day now. Oh, and I've spent the last few weeks moving across town. So I've gotten a bit behind.

The book, for which I'm still thinking of a catchy title, is based (on the empirical side) on my Ph.D. fieldwork in Bahrain, but deals conceptually with the case of ascriptive group conflict in the rentier state. As such, it should be of interest both to those who study Bahrain and the Gulf as well as political scientists generally.  I don't have an exact publication date, but I suspect it will be out (in the Indiana University Press Series in Arab and Islamic Studies) sometime in the fall.  I'll probably write more about it here once we're closer to that time.

As far as events in Bahrain go, it seems that the most notable news -- as has been the case for a few months -- is on the diplomatic front.  Something of a perfect storm of geopolitics now embroils the Gulf region: lingering but ostensibly easing intra-GCC tensions, lingering but ostensibly thawing Saudi-Iran tensions, seemingly progressing but could-derail-anyday-now nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S., and, with respect to Bahrain in particular, diplomatic maneuvering featuring its two Western patrons.

At the risk of being uncreative, we can just take these in order.
  • The GCC says that its internal "spat" has ended.  Yet this despite no apparent change in behavior by the offending Qatar, and even more curiously absent the return of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors to Doha. See David Roberts for the Council on Foreign Relations for some sense of what is going on.  Moreover, I've heard from several places about a secondary dispute involving Bahrain and Qatar particularly, related to accusations that the latter is attempting to poach (or already has poached) some noted Bahraini families, among them the Bahraini Al Jalahma.

  • I follow less and know less about the course of Saudi-Iran diplomacy.  But I read the newspaper enough to know that, after spending the past few months denying having done so, finally Saudi Arabia has admitted reaching out to Tehran for an official visit to Riyadh in an apparent effort to thaw relations.  At the same time, Simon Henderson reports on a "surprise rotation" of senior Saudi defense officials.

  • The status of U.S.-Iran negotiations I know and care even less about, mainly because following such things too deeply is a quick way to become disillusioned with the entire American political system. And since merely reading headlines in the New York Times is usually sufficient to do that, I try not to overdo it. So you can do your own research here.
On Bahrain we have too many items for a single bullet point:
  • The annual visit of a senior Bahraini dignitary--this year King Hamad himself--to the Royal Windsor Horse Show is turning out predictably, with rights groups and op-eds slamming the UK's support for dictatorships, etc. etc. Longtime friend of Bahrain Prince Andrew, who was set to be a keynote speaker at a Bahrain-organized "promotional event," has even been shamed into cancelling.  Of course, the UK having just in late April broke ground in Bahrain on the largest naval facility outside of the British mainland (see picture at the top), it's hard to imagine British-Bahrain relations undergoing a reversal anytime soon. Indeed, if the case is anything like British-Saudi relations, al-Wifaq is likely to be added to Britain's list of terrorist organizations à la the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • In contrast to the Brits' thoughtful horse show invitation, the U.S. sent King Hamad Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson, whom he was, one imagines, rather less pleased to receive.  Far from chairing promotional events, Patterson spent her two days in the country "underscor[ing] US encouragement of reform and reconciliation through the ongoing [sic] National Dialogue." (Someone really should tell her about the National Dialogue.)  One suspects she may also have reiterated U.S. annoyance at Bahrain's recent signing of trade deals with Russia.

  • The Washington Institute continues its coverage of Iranian destabilization of Bahrain and thus the Gulf and thus we can't trust them to follow through on any nuclear deal!$@% in "Iran and Bahrain: Crying Wolf, or Wolf at the Door?" This latest article is more clever than usual for its framing, on evidence in the rhetorical title and summary, as a piece critical of the Bahraini government.  In fact, the "criticism" is that Bahrain needs to do a better job of marshaling (what is already presumed valid) evidence in demonstration of Iranian involvement with the opposition, and should stop referring to everyone as "terrorists" so that Western observers can better make out who the real (Iranian-backed) terrorists are. Thus:
    Moving forward, the Bahraini government will need to exhibit a clearer commitment to rule of law, distinguishing between demonstrators and terrorists and dealing with each accordingly. Only then will its foreign partners be able to effectively assess new evidence of Iranian support for local militants.
    Ah, I see what you did there.
Finally, no longer Bahrain-related, but: The Monkey Cage, a new political science-y blog at the Washington Post run by former Foreign Policy Mideast Channel editor Marc Lynch, recently featured a great article by Kristin Smith Diwan on Kuwait's ongoing and unusually public royal feud.

Update: A post on Carnegie Endowment's Sada blog discusses Bahrain's Muslim Brotherhood conundrum.  Nothing new as far as I can see, but it's good that some others are highlighting this issue, which obviously involves a tenuous domestic and regional political balance that will be interesting to watch going forward.


  1. Great Article as always. How can we get in touch with you?

  2. Justin, thanks a lot for your insight. It seems like Al-Wifaq is also taking some stauncher stances, with Ali Salman's tweet that there will be no "under the table" deals.


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