Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bahrain Settling in to a New Normal


"This is way more awesome than meeting with Obama, right?!"


Needless to say, it's been a while since I've posted here, mostly because I've been busy with actual work, but also partly because Bahrain has fallen into a political lull since the latest crackdown on activists that saw the arrest of 'Ali Salman and others. One suspects that there is simply no one left to protest who hasn't already been arrested, been driven into hiding, or fled Bahrain entirely. Indeed, Bahrainis are now threatened with punishment for criticizing even the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, so one can imagine the situation with regard to local politics.

Another reason I've taken to writing today is that I've been able to speak recently with some well-connected Bahrainis who've offered some useful insights that I thought might also interest others. So, in no particular order:

The Overall Situation

Very few protesters continue to take to the streets, and much of the labyrinthine system of checkpoints has even been dismantled.  In its place, however, is an even more ubiquitous network of UK-style CCTV cameras, presumably courtesy of the Ministry of Interior's British police advisers.

No progress has been made in bridging the social and political chasm that continues to separate Sunnis and Shi'is since February 2011.  Similarly, almost no space remains for genuine political activity by members of either community. Members of parliament, who are now mostly younger, inexperienced independents with no coherent legislative agenda, appear far more interested in jostling for private benefits -- travel to international events and meetings, press opportunities, and so on -- than working to aid constituents or the country.

With a closed political arena and social relations that remain utterly frayed, the state is redoubling efforts on the economic front, aided by considerable funding from Kuwait and especially the UAE.  My Bahraini contact suggests that the Emirates has far exceeded its contribution to the GCC fund for Bahrain, and is helping the government to fund massive new housing projects spread across the country, including in Hamad Town, Muharraq, and the Northern Governorate.

Crown Prince Salman is leading and is the public face of this effort, enabled by his close relationship with Muhammad bin Zayid. One almost gets the sense that Bahrain is returning to the days of the EDB and a development-based plan to reduce political tensions, without of course the corresponding political liberalization.

'Ali Salman and al-Wifaq

On the other hand, the Crown Prince has been instructed by conservatives within the government to stay out of politics, and in particular to stay out of the case currently being prosecuted against al-Wifaq leader 'Ali Salman. Members of the society expect that a verdict could be announced as soon as June, though the state may seek to draw out the case to use as a bargaining chip with the opposition.  In all cases, Salman's lawyers expect a sentence of two years at a minimum, and likely much higher.  

The catalyst for the arrest was, obviously, al-Wifaq's decision to boycott last year's parliamentary elections, a move that alienated what few quasi-allies the society had.  For several months following the elections, the Crown Prince was so upset that he refused to have any contact at all with al-Wifaq or its representatives. Likewise, the British embassy made clear that the group had in its view dug its own grave, and could not expect to be treated like a legitimate political actor if it continuously eschewed the legitimate institutions of politics.

The new U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, William Roebuck, who was appointed just a month before the elections, has assumed a very low profile, in stark contrast (one assumes not coincidentally) to his much-maligned predecessor.  All high-level cooperation appears to be routed instead through the Pentagon, whose officials remain on close terms with their Bahraini military and civilian colleagues.  The State Department, to put it diplomatically, does not enjoy the same esteem among top Bahraini officials.

Potential Changes at the Top

According to one contact, the prime minister is ill, and visibly so.  He still makes his trademark public appearances, but he is in the office only for several hours a day, compared to the usual six or eight.  But one should not expect Khalifa bin Salman's successor to enjoy his authority, or for Bahrain to continue the new GCC trend of empowered Crown Princes.  

On the other hand, given Sh. Salman's personal and generational connections with his counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh (i.e., Muhammad bin Nayf), his political future is probably looking brighter than it was two or three years ago.  King Hamad's other influential son, Nasr, who enjoys a good reputation (among government supporters) as a tough military man, has made no foray into politics per se, and seems to have his eyes instead on the position of Defense Minister and the title of field marshal.

The GCC Camp David Summit

According to a contact, King Hamad initially was planning to attend the GCC summit at Camp David, with the visas and passports of his entourage already having been arranged. However, after the Saudi king's decision not to attend, Sh. Salman was deputized in King Hamad's place, presumably at the implicit or explicit suggestion of the Saudis. As it is now, King Hamad is scheduled instead to meet with Queen Elizabeth at the Windsor Horse Show, a fitting alternative symbolic of Britain's (and Europe's) newfound diplomatic cache in Bahrain and the Gulf generally since 2011.

The contact mentioned that in anticipation of Camp David, the government has recently released as many as several hundred political detainees, mostly women and youth.  The preemptive step was taken to bolster Bahrain's case for being on the right track politically, while avoiding accusations that the release was in response to a "demand" or pressure by the United States or Obama.

Update: I forgot to mention that my Bahrain-focused book, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State, is finally being published on June 8 in the Indiana University Press Series in Arab and Islamic Studies. I mention it because it's available now on Amazon for a 20% discount ($24).  Or I guess you could wait to buy a used copy from someone in September for two dollars or whatever.  Moreover, we've agreed with another publisher on an Arabic translation, which should be out a few months later.  So some may wish to wait for that.

Update 2: A reader writes in regarding Sh. Nasr: "my understanding is not that he has plans to become Defense minister, but that he may head in the future a newly-formed Ministry for the National Guard."

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