Monday, November 4, 2019

New Projects on Bahrain and Beyond

It's an understatement to say that it's been a long time since I've updated Religion and Politics in Bahrain. This is mostly due to the necessities of academia, where blog posting is not viewed as a good use of one's time. Actually, it's worse than that: blog posting is viewed as a quite bad use of one's time. And perhaps it is. I also sometimes comfort myself with the observation that the lack of activity here at least reflects the lack of real change in Bahraini politics over the past few years, but that is probably just a mental excuse. Indeed, some interesting developments continue.

However the case, since it's very unlikely that I'll find the time to revive this blog anytime soon, I wanted to alert those visitors who still trickle in to a new personal academic website I've created to track my ongoing research and publications. Not so many are related to Bahrain any longer, at least directly, but some are.

One recent project that is focused on Bahrain is a chapter in a 2019 RAND volume examining communal resilience to sectarianism. The chapter examines the effect of sectarian-based geographical segregation on government service provision and economic welfare in Bahrain. It relies on original survey data collected in the country in early 2017. The data demonstrate that Bahrainis' likelihood of benefiting from public goods is strongly influenced by the sectarian demographic character of their neighborhood. Shi'a living in Shi'a-dominated districts are far less likely than Shi'a elsewhere to be employed by the government, and also have lower average household income compared to Shi'a in mixed or Sunni-majority districts. The reverse is true for Sunnis: living in a homogeneous (co-sectarian) neighborhood vastly increases the chance of having a public sector job and being well-off economically. The results give strong support to the idea that the Bahraini state uses the sectarian character of a neighborhood as an important basis for distributional decisions.

Such geographical-cum-sectarian disparities in goods provision are perhaps well-known to citizens and scholars of Bahrain. But the paper is unique in being able to use public opinion data to demonstrate this fact empirically.

Also, the data offer an updated estimate of Bahrain's sectarian balance compared to the 2009 data from my doctoral thesis. In fact, the ratio remains statistically unchanged from 2009, with Shi'a respondents accounting for 56.6% of the 2017 random sample. This gives a 95% confidence interval of between 52.1% and 61.2% for the country's Shi'a population in early 2017, compared to 52.9%-62.3% in 2009. These two very similar estimates should give added confidence in their accuracy.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Bahrain Five Years after the February 14 Uprising

The Washington Post's political science blog Monkey Cage is running a retrospective series for the five-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings, with an article published on or near each country's respective anniversary of the onset of protests.

I contributed the Bahrain article, which carries the somewhat overwrought title (not mine), "How Bahrain’s crushed uprising spawned the Middle East’s sectarianism."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sectarian Backfire?

The Middle East Institute has just published a short essay by me titled, "Sectarian Backfire? Assessing Gulf Political Strategy Five Years after the Arab Uprisings."  The aim, as the title suggests, is to examine the extent to which the deliberate post-2011 sectarianization of Gulf politics by (mainly) Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has been successful from their perspective.  In particular, the piece attempts to counter the prevailing sense that the strategy has "backfired" for these governments, what with the rise of Da'ish, deepening of the Syrian civil war and the spread of war to Yemen, and so on.

But as I argue in the article, the strategy, insofar as it was implemented in service of the primary goal of regime security, has arguably succeeded beyond rulers' original expectations.  Mobilization of co-sectarians doubtless contributed to the immediate goal of fending off domestic oppositions.  And, since the rise of the Islamic State, it has also secured GCC governments huge arms deals and essentially a free diplomatic hand to act regionally and domestically in return for their support of the Western anti-IS coalition.  Meanwhile, the more onerous physical costs of the sectarian policy have been successfully externalized by Gulf governments.

Any change in this sectarian policy, I conclude, is far more likely to owe to the Gulf's changing economic circumstances than to a change in political calculation.

You can read the article here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Saudi Arabia Drags Bahrain Back into the International Spotlight

It's been a while, but I've managed to eke out a few minutes to post here just as confirmation that I've not died, joined the CIA and been sworn to silence, etc.

In fact, I was impelled to post mainly by the reemergence after a long hiatus of another source of Bahrain commentary, namely the "advocacy group" Citizens for Bahrain.  This group of pro-government Bahrainis and/or Western PR firm employees, whose e-mail listserv and other publication machinery was in full tilt in the run-up to last fall's parliamentary elections and then in the aftermath, in recent times has been relatively inactive.  The group sent over 100 e-mails during 2014, for example, compared to only around 20 in 2015, and most of these were concentrated at the beginning of the year.

Now, however, I've received three messages in the space of about a week--one attacking the British opposition leader for his criticism of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia ("the Bahraini dictatorship murdering its democracy movement, armed by us"—ouch) in his keynote address to the Labour Party; a second attacking Iran for its criticism of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the tragic hajj stampede; and a third attacking Marc Owen Jones and coauthors for their criticism of Bahrain in a new book edited by Jones and other Bahrain Watch members. Am I detecting a theme here?

Clearly, Bahrain once again is finds itself in the uncomfortable position of international scrutiny, and is doing what it can to fend off critics.  Yet, this case bears an interesting distinction from previous ones: renewed diplomatic pressure is coming not as a result of any development in Bahrain itself, or as a routine consequence of Bahrain's hosting of high-profile annual events such as the Formula 1 race or Manama Dialogue.  No, here we can clearly see that the spotlight on Bahrain is a side-effect of the much more massive spotlight being shined on Saudi Arabia owing to its disastrous foray into Yemen, the continued growth of ISIS, the further escalation of the war in Syria following Russia's entrance into the conflict, and general questions about the kingdom's management and leadership after two deadly incidents at the hajj.

In the past month alone, Saudi Arabia was blasted by the potential future Prime Minister of its strongest political ally, Great Britain; faced accusations by Iranian, Indonesian, and other officials about its handling of the stampede in Mina, including misrepresentation of the death toll; narrowly (and controversially) averted a UN resolution submitted by the Netherlands calling for an international investigation into the war in Yemen; and, according to this story in yesterday's Al-Monitor, apparently now faces opposition by members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to an arms deal that would send additional precision-guided munitions (and other high-tech weaponry promised as compensation for the Iranian nuclear deal) to the kingdom. The article reads,
“What we are concerned about is that there is not a military solution in Yemen,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the panel, told Al-Monitor. “What we want to do is get the parties serious about implementing a political solution. We thought we had a clear track to that, and it's off track right now. So we want to get it back on track.”

Cardin described the delay as a fairly routine matter of lawmakers and staff pressing the administration for answers and reassurances. He and others made it clear, however, that senators on the panel, particularly Democrats, have a wide array of concerns they want to see addressed.

“This proposal is receiving a considerable level of congressional scrutiny,” one Senate Democratic aide acknowledged.

A coalition of human rights and arms control groups has been working behind the scenes for weeks to try to get lawmakers to speak up against the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, which has been blamed for the deaths of more than 2,300 civilians over the past six months. Their message emerged in public Oct. 6 during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen that saw several Democrats question the wisdom of re-arming the Saudis.

“I fear that our failure to strongly advocate diplomacy in Yemen over the past two years, coupled with our failure to urge restraint in the face of the crisis last spring, may put the viability of this critical [US-Saudi] partnership at risk,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “The Leahy Law prohibits US security assistance — and many forms of defense cooperation — with forces that have engaged in gross violations of human rights. If reports are accurate, the Saudi indiscriminate targeting in the air campaign and an overly broad naval blockade could well constitute such violations.”
And, if this were not cause enough for concern, last week saw the widespread publication and reporting of two letters penned by an anonymous Saudi royal and circulated among senior members of the family that revealed significant factionalism within the Al Sa'ud over the leadership of King Salman and his son.  An article in yesterday's Foreign Policy blog sums up the near-apocalyptic mood nicely: "It’s Time for the United States to Start Worrying About a Saudi Collapse."

It is under this backdrop, then, that the traditional diplomatic relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, in which the latter comes to the former's defense, has been turned on its head.  In a show of support for the war in Yemen, in early September King Hamad announced that his own sons Nasser and Khalid would join the fight.  (Some pro-Iranian news outlets have since claimed that Khalid was injured or even killed in a Houthi missile attack in Ma'rib.)

Bahrain also reacted vociferously to suggestions by Iran and other countries to internationalize the hajj pilgrimage (and therefore divest Saudi Arabia of significant religious cache and tourist revenue) by handing stewardship of the Islamic holy cities to a neutral authority.  Indeed, one gets the impression that Bahrain's October 1 expulsion of the Iranian ambassador, ostensibly after the discovery of an opposition arms depot linked to Iran, was a response primarily to its role in keeping diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia.  For instance, this Bahrain News Agency story detailing a Shura Council's debate of "Iranian interference [and] threats" devotes three of six paragraphs to
the Iranian statements [that] bear threats to the GCC countries, [for instance] the statements of Iranian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Ali Al-Khamenei on September 30 during a graduation ceremony of cadets in which he targeted Saudi Arabia following the stampede in Mena during pilgrimage.

The committee voiced its categorical rejection of those defamatory statements which do not show any respect to the major role played by Saudi Arabia in serving the pilgrims and facilitating their rituals. It also added that the Iranian statements represented an explicit threat to sow sedition by disseminating fallacies.

The committee stressed that Saudi Arabia's security is part of Bahrain's security which is a red line, adding that those attempts will never succeed to shake regional stability and Iran's attempts to impose hegemony on the whole region will be doomed to failure thanks to the great awareness and determination of the GCC people and their belief in the Arab identity of the region and the wisdom its leaders.
It is notable also that another Saudi proxy, Yemen, cut diplomatic relations with Iran almost simultaneously, once again for Iran's alleged involvement in arming and training the opposition there. Several days later, the nephew of the late Sa'ud al-Faisal, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, told an audience on Capitol Hill that Saudis fighting in Yemen have confirmed the presence of Iranian and Hizballah fighters, and more generally warned against "increasing Iranian incursion into other states’ affairs." While his comments were not meant to represent the official position of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to imagine that they will not be taken as such.

Thus, it would seem that, faced with renewed threats from all sides, Saudi Arabia is doubling down on what it knows: the sectarian strategy in which accusations and resulting fears of Iranian empowerment are meant, first, to justify otherwise unpalatable actions; but, more importantly, to convince allies that there is no other option but continued support of Saudi Arabia in the face of far scarier alternatives. Five years after the onset of the Arab uprisings, one wonders how much longer such a strategy can hold out.

Update: I forgot to mention this article in Foreign Affairs published this week by myself and Michael Ewers on the topic of the Gulf states' non-acceptance of large numbers of Syrian refugees.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Rethinking the Rentier State: My Bahrain Book Finally Published

A friend wrote to say that he received his pre-order copy of my new book on Bahrain (and to a lesser extent the Arab Gulf generally), and it reminded me that I haven't really dedicated a full blog post to it. Obviously, I'm not going to go on and on about how great it is; mainly I want to inform readers that the 20% pre-order discount on Amazon is still available until the official publication date of June 8, even though (apparently) it is already shipping.  Or you could always wait six months or so until people are selling used copies for 99 cents or whatever.

The book is titled Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier StateNot such a catchy title, right?  Despite that, it is being published in the Indiana University Press Series in Middle East Studies, and we've already reached an agreement with another publisher for an Arabic translation. But I don't have a clear sense yet how long the latter will take.

The book draws upon my doctoral fieldwork in Bahrain, including the results of my mass political survey administered in 2009.  But the revision schedule was such as to allow historical analysis up through the 2014 parliamentary elections.  So it's actually quite current.

Analytically, the book attempts to understand the conditions under which the presumed "rentier bargain" -- rent-funded economic benefits for citizens in return for political loyalty or apathy for the state -- fails to operate, or operates among some citizens and not others. In doing so, it examines the political motivations of ordinary Gulf (mostly Bahraini) citizens as well as specific strategies of rule adopted by Gulf states.

Hopefully people will find it interesting.

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."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bahrain's Sectarianism Bites Back―And Not Just Politically

Bahraini Salafis boastfully engaging with Syrian rebels in August 2012. 
What could possibly go wrong?

The inevitable political blow-back of the sectarian agenda employed by Bahrain and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states since 2011 has remained a common theme of this blog. Forestalling change by instilling in citizens not simply a violent opposition to political reform as a specific policy choice, but a visceral hatred of the actual reformists themselves, is a decidedly short-term strategy, and it seems that we're now nearing an inflection point.

The local political and communal implications of Bahrain's sectarianization of politics have always been clear enough: the deepening of distrust between Sunna and Shi'a, the rise of violent opposition movements, and the marginalization of moderate factions both within the government and society.

But with the meteoric rise of Da'ish in Syria and Iraq, and the free operation of similarly-oriented groups based in the Yemen, these implications are no longer limited to the political and societal.  Rather, Bahrain's deliberate incubation of Sunni radicalism is transforming now into a foremost security problem for the Al Khalifa. As described in an article published on Thursday titled "Bahrain's Daesh Dilemma" (and before that in a piece by Ala'a al-Shehabi in Foreign Policy), it turns out that Bahraini nationals count among several senior members of the so-called Islamic State, including the main theological apologist for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his claim to the Caliphate.

Not only this, the article tells, but many of these individuals are or appear to be former members of and/or defectors from the Bahraini security forces, which one will recall are composed primarily of non-national Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere due to concerns over what might happen if you allow Shi'a to have weapons.  Well, it turns out that Bahrain must also now concern itself with the opposite case, i.e. what happens when you give weapons to radicalized Salafis recruited from countries infiltrated by terrorist organizations.  For it is not just heretic Shi'a, but also the ruling family itself, that are the targets of the latter.

In this context it is instructive to consider another piece published on Thursday, a commentary by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faysal in which he endeavors to give Da'ish "a new name," namely "Fahesh" (obscenity), to better reflect the reality of the organization. The article is a remarkable feat of cognitive dissonance, with Prince Turki managing to describe chronologically the rise of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida, Da'ish, and other Wahhabi-oriented terrorist groups without once mentioning their origins in the Wahhabi ideology exported for decades -- still being exported -- by the Saudi state, an ideology that features very few doctrinal differences from than being employed in, say, today's IS-controlled Mosul.

Indeed, in Prince Turki's Bizarro World telling, it is Iran, not Saudi Arabia, that is culpable for the scourge of Salafi jihadism(!). And perhaps Saudi Arabia will then take credit for creating Hizballah and the Mahdi Army.
Of course, it is no secret that the very existence of Saudi Arabia owes to a pragmatic marriage of politics and religion, and that accordingly it cannot afford to alienate the conservators of the monarchy's legitimacy and stability.  It, like Bahrain, continues to bet on its ability to externalize the costs of the Sunni radicalization for which it itself is primarily responsible.  One just hopes for its sake that IS militants don't learn how to climb fences.