Sunday, January 29, 2012

How the Failure of Gulf Air Explains the Failure of Bahrain

Among the more interesting headlines this week is the likely impending collapse of Gulf Air, Bahrain's national carrier and not so long ago the region's dominant airline. Though it has not yet been decided what to do with the struggling company--the Gulf News reports that a "parliamentary ad-hoc committee" is set to discuss the available options, though it's difficult to believe that the final decision would be taken there--even in the best case scenario its operations are certain to be downsized considerably unless Rupert Murdock randomly turns up in Manama looking to invest a billion or so dollars.

More notable than Gulf Air's failure per se--companies come and go all the time, of course--is the way this collapse mirrors the larger disintegration of Bahrain socially, politically, and increasingly economically. And it's not simply that both are on the road toward failure; rather, the causes themselves are eerily similar. Indeed, it is not too far off to say that the failure of Gulf Air explains the failure of Bahrain.


I won't claim to have studied the internal financial records of Gulf Air, but it should not come as a surprise that this sprawling, state-owned corporation with a very large operating budget has faced accusations of widespread corruption. In fact, as recently as January 14, 2012, an anti-corruption panel proposed by the Bahrain Transparency Society specifically singled out the cases of Gulf Air and ALBA for investigation. This comes after a 2007 "crackdown" saw an executive and eight employees investigated on suspicion of misappropriating funds. To what extent continued corruption has contributed significantly to Gulf Air's $500 million-plus annual operating loss is impossible to know, but one can presume safely that it hasn't helped.

In similar fashion, did the continued appropriation (and gifting) of public lands by Bahrain's ruling family and friends cause protesters to leave their homes in February 2011? Did the uprising start because Khalifa bin Salman reportedly paid 1BD for the plot of land that would become the Bahrain Financial Harbor? Perhaps not. But it certainly added fuel to the fire, as demonstrated in the following:

More generally, the pilfering of Bahrain's lands and coffers is a problem most Bahrainis can agree upon, even if many Sunnis are afraid to join the charge against it for fear of association with the opposition. With al-Wifaq out of the picture, however, the present parliament can now take up the cause while avoiding this usual pitfall. Ironically, that is, Bahrain's current opposition-less parliament is more likely to take on an activist role than when al-Wifaq occupied 18 of 40 seats. Hence its present involvement in the Gulf Air issue. The Gulf News article referenced above tells that "[t]he lower chamber has been pushing hard to make the airline leaner and twice called for appointment of new leaders."

Government as a Confederation of Fiefdoms

The division of the state into independent bureaucratic fiefdoms is a phenomenon not limited, obviously, to Bahrain. The entire Arab Gulf bears witness to this holdover of tribal governance, wherein particular ministries (and sub-ministries, and offices) are the personal domains of individuals, awarded their posts as a coalition government distributes cabinet portfolios--that is, according to their relative influence. The upshot is a hierarchy of government descending in principle from the head of state--here, King Hamad--in a sort of ministerial family tree.

(Note: this chart was sent to me a while back and is not my work.)

This governmental structure begets two immediate consequences. The first is one discussed here often, namely the inherent danger of internecine competition. That is, what happens when the state's organizational tree does not descend from a single node but has multiple trunks? Well, then you have the case of Bahrain, where one finds at least three different trunks headed, respectively, by King Hamad, Khalifah bin Salman, and the Defense Minister and his brother. The extent and implications of these intra-Al Khalifa divisions are well known. They are aptly summarized by a recent observation of erstwhile BICI chief Cherif Bassiouni, who in an interview said that King Hamad must choose between "the unity of the [ruling] family" and "the unity of the country." (See video below.)

For now we simply note this first effect as it does not bear directly on the discussion of Gulf Air here. (Although this Financial Times story seems to suggest otherwise, namely that Gulf Air and its holding company Mumtalakat are close to the Crown Prince and ruffled conservative feathers in being among the first companies to reinstate sacked employees after the crackdown.)

The second upshot of this design of government is that ministers and other top officials enjoy a freedom of action in proportion to their relative standing within the ruling family, a situation not only conducive for competition, as noted already, but also for capricious behavior in line with personal interests rather than those of the state. To wit: the foreign minister's decision two weeks ago to bar government employees from traveling on Gulf Air indefinitely following the latter's refusal to eject a paying customer from Sh. Khalid's preferred first class seat on a return flight from Malaysia. Suffering already from a sharp drop in passenger numbers that has put it on the verge of collapse, Gulf Air must now deal with a powerful royal nursing an offended sense of dignity.

Cutting Off the Nose to Spite the Face

Which leads directly to the final way in which the failure of Bahrain's airline is a microcosm for the failure of Bahrain itself: measures taken ostensibly "to safeguard the nation from terrorists" in fact have only served to mire the country further into chaos. Here of course I refer to Bahrain's post-uprising decision to cancel Gulf Air flights--its most lucrative flights, in fact--to Iran, Iraq, and (until June) Lebanon, out of supposed concern that terrorists could somehow smuggle weapons and/or themselves into Bahrain; or that Bahrainis could travel to Iran to train with the Revolutionary Guard and MacGeyver and come back equipped to conduct asymmetrical warfare despite a total lack of non-Molotov-based weapons. As one Gulf Air "insider" told the Gulf News, "You cannot expect the company to soar if its wings are clipped by suspending highly profitable routes."

Here much could be said about the continued political and security strategy employed by the government, and about how in its near-hysterical fear of Shi'a empowerment the state has merely emboldened and disillusioned ordinary Shi'a many times over. Bahrain's priority now is protecting riot police against increasingly-violent demonstrators, rather than obviating the need for their use in the first place through meaningful political reforms. Though it continues to mull the appropriate actions in response to the BICI report's damning charges, and though the same practices condemned in the BICI's report continue to claim the lives of protesters and others, still the state's "reform" initiative continues to revolve around reorganization of the forces charged with confronting protesters. Condemned for punching protesters in the face, Bahrain's solution is to wear softer gloves, rather than to stop punching or to call off the fight.

More accurately, police will be given "a fire-resistant outfit, a helmet to protect the head, face and neck, and other tools to protect their chest, back, arms, shoulders, legs and feet. They will also be provided with shields and sticks that meet international standards. They will be given gas and sound bombs as well as guns that fire rubber bullets." This "modernization of equipment," says Sh. Rashid in an official statement, "continues to assist policemen in performing their duties." You know what might also assist policeman in performing their duties? Not having to face off with angry Shi'a villagers every night.

About the latter the BNA tells simply: "He [Sh. Rashid] also spoke about the recent rioting in residential areas, considering that as a threat to civil peace. He called upon the people to end the issue and move forward and be more united." So the Interior Ministry's solution to the political standoff inciting ordinary citizens to brave bodily harm in order to make their demands known is to say, "Hey, guys, get over your revolution and the detentions and deaths and torture of your friends and family members; get over the fact that you have no reasonable expectation to influence government policy, much less play a efficacious role in deciding it; just get over it and be more united."

Bahrain's solution to its political crisis: "Hey, opposition: get over it and be more united."

Of course, this is not even to mention the other unintended consequence of the state strategy of dealing with the ongoing conflict, namely the newfound political awakening of ordinary Sunni citizens, recently treated here at length. To this development we may now add another: Mahmud al-Yusif reports on a meeting yesterday at Bahrain's revered Al-'Aruba Club (not that Aruba) involving some 200 people and headed by one-time Minister of Education and Minister of Health 'Ali Fakhru. Its purpose was to "define a route to get back to the negotiation table using the Crown Prince’s agreed principles of discussion" from February. That so many and such a diverse set of groups have taken it upon themselves to try to find a way out of the crisis would seem to suggest a distinct lack of government initiative to do the same.

Update: We might add yet another similarity between the cases of Gulf Air and Bahrain: investor flight. An article in the Gulf Daily News reports that many Bahrainis, including many "big families," are "making contingency plans" for leaving the country--and they're taking their money with them.
One Bahraini, who did not want to be named, said he had plans to move to Dubai because he did not want to live in an environment filled with violence.

"I have even booked my tickets and have my passport with me, just in case I need to go quickly, because February 14 is coming up and we don't know what will happen," he told the GDN.

"I know people who bought houses in Saudi Arabia and Dubai and a lot of big families have transferred money."

He said citizens were being forced to leave their homes and jobs to move to other countries because the government had not taken strong actions. ...

Another Bahraini said her parents had contingency plans to move to Kuwait if the situation in the country deteriorates. ...

"My mother has all the documents ready in a folder which literally says 'Plan B' and includes selling some of our property to survive in another country.

So far, neither international investors nor foreign patrons (read: the United States) have followed suit in abandoning Bahrain. As for the latter in particular, the U.S.'s recent conspicuous lack of involvement is indeed difficult to interpret.

Update 2: Several columns in Al-Watan detail the Al-Fatih Awakening's most recent rally at the Clock Roundabout in al-Riffa', which evidently was dispersed for a lack of permit. Al-Zayani writes that this Sunni mobilization due to the state's "toleration of a type of extremism" will serve to "generation another" type of extremism, telling,
The day before yesterday, Al-Fatih National Unity Gathering organized a mass mobilization at the Clock Roundabout despite the cold weather to protest against not arming the security forces and leaving them vulnerable to all types of terrorism, killing and weapons.

The day before yesterday, the youths of the southern region also issued a statement warning that any targeting of the security forces in the southern region or in any other region and any targeting of university girls would not be tolerated and that they had already prepared a plan “as it was published” to ensure security for all areas and that they had all the necessary force and equipment to maintain it.
I.e., more Sunni militias coming to a Bahrain near you.

Update 3: And in case you missed it at FP: "Obama administration using loophole to quietly sell arms package to Bahrain." Imagine that.

Update 4: The secret government-opposition talks rumor mill is spinning up. Sawt al-Manama (via BahrainOnline) reports that 'Abd al-Jalil Khalil has invited King Hamad to "a dialogue with the opposition." At the same time, yesterday's Gulf News cites an Al-Ayam article (which quotes an anonymous source) claiming that "contacts have started between some 'political societies with strong influence on the local scene with the aim to prepare the ground for a national dialogue that will result in bringing Bahrainis together and reinforcing national unity.'" Is everyone ready for a National Dialogue #2?

Update 5: Iran's Green Movement is planning renewed mass protests for... February 14. Wait, so are Bahraini Shi'a supported by Iran or by the Iranian opposition? I'm so confused.

Also, the AP lobs the first salvo in the upcoming onslaught of Feb. 14 anniversary analyses.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

One Year Later, A Bahrain Transformed

With less than three weeks left until the expected fireworks of February 14, it is striking to observe just how little things seem to have changed one year after the start of Bahrain's uprising. There is renewed "concern" about the future of the Formula One race. The U.S. Embassy is relocating its staff to avoid being caught up in violence--to say nothing of smoke from burning ties. Al-Watan is running exposés with updated news on "US-Wefaq coordination against the regime," which evidently includes American support for a reoccupation of the Pearl Roundabout. The Bahraini economy continues its twelve-month "rebound." And this is to say nothing of the lack of progress on the social and political fronts, which of course goes without saying.

Yet things are not the same in Bahrain. In the first place, and as treated at length in my recent article for MERIP, the previous twelve months have witnessed just not one revolution but two, the second corresponding to the political mobilization of Bahrain's Sunni citizens. Begun as a mere counter-movement to check the momentum of Shi'a protests in February and March, this "Al-Fatih Awakening" (as some Sunnis now have taken to calling it) has since taken on a political life of its own. It has benefited from but at the same time helped promote the advancement of conservative elements within the ruling family at the expense of those percieved as more willing to compromise. In so doing, it has further complicated an already intractable political crisis by making nearly impossible any substantive government concessions to the opposition. (For a recent example, see the Al-Fatih Youth Union's rejection of the state's so-called "reconciliation document.") Whether this Sunni awakening will move beyond its current obstructionist role to forward a coherent political agenda of its own, it remains to be seen. Yet, now awakened, it is unlikely that ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain will soon be content to return to their more traditional role of political spectators.

The second obvious change in Bahrain since February 2011--especially obvious in recent weeks--is the fragmentation of the opposition. Certainly, given the history of intra-Shi'a schism in Bahrain, headlined by al-Haqq's 2005 split from al-Wifaq over the question of parliamentary participation, this division should come as no surprise. To be sure, even the Crown Prince's "dialogue initiative" in the days before the Saudi intervention was to involve six different opposition groups. The difference now, though, is that whereas the al-Haqq split from al-Wifaq was a disagreement over political tactics, increasingly the current split between the formal opposition and the nebulous Feb. 14 Coalition seems to signal a disagreement over resistance tactics: i.e., violence vs. non-violence. Witness, for example, yesterday's "Operation: Bahrain Fist": a day of Molotov-based "holy defense" advertised by the Feb. 14 folks (which despite its nice looking Internet flier didn't seem to come to much).

Thus the easy characterization would be that the formal opposition in al-Wifaq remains committed to non-violent means of effecting meaningful political change in Bahrain, while the Feb. 14th youth have largely abandoned peaceful protest. Complicating this straightforward picture, however, are the recent words of Sh. 'Isa Qassim, who in last Friday's sermon now famously called upon worshipers to "crush" any police officer seen "abusing a woman." The BBC quotes him as saying also, "Let us die for our honour," and asking "How do those who do this to people expect the people to remain silent and not defend their rights and honour?"

I admit that I haven't listened to the entire sermon myself, but the operative bit is here:

On the one hand, calling upon activists to defend women being abused by police officers is not exactly incitement to terrorism--though Bahrain's Sunni parliamentarians would beg to differ, and both they and the contributors for Al-Watan would like to see 'Isa Qassim indicted for war crimes. (And, at least according to the Bahrain Mirror, the Al Khalifa family council is considering actions against him.) Last I checked, however, his speech still is less egregiously inflammatory than that of Salafi imam Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi during last March's notorious Battle of East Riffa'. You decide:

Candidate #1:

Candidate #2:

It's close, but I'm still going to go with the guy brandishing the sword.

Joking aside, 'Isa Qasim's directive admittedly begins down a slippery slope. Once the principle of non-violence is replaced by that of "non-violence except in the following circumstances," it's likely not too long before additional circumstances begin to be added. For its part, al-Wifaq has attempted to clarify (if not necessarily disown) the words of its spiritual leader, with 'Ali Salman telling listeners in al-Dair that the call is limited to "the defense of honor," though warning that "if they engage in violence, everyone will be destroyed."

Meanwhile, most other activists seem content to poke fun at the controversy, repeating in jest the phrase "crush him" (اسحقوه)--with extra Arabic و s for good effect. (Hence the Bahraini police whack-a-mole cartoon at the top of this post.)

Bahrain's third major transformation since last February is the logical consequence of the first two. An increasingly forceful Shi'a-led opposition combined with a Sunni community roused from political dormancy has given rise to a nation split utterly and with very few exceptions along Sunni-Shi'i lines, which is indeed saying something considering the extent of Bahrain's longstanding societal chasm prior to the uprising. Writing in Al-Watan, Hesham Al-Zayani purports to call this split what it is: "a clear sectarian, ideological war."
As it is obvious for all Bahrainis now, Wilayat Al Faqih has planned this ideological war. I am not addressing the state today; it has got its own policies and plans. I am rather addressing the honorable Bahrainis, because any ideological war can be won only through unity and through the same tactics used by those who want to uproot others. What happened to us made us more conscious and less romantic, and if one stabs me, I will never trust him again because this will be a naïve act on my part.
Unfortunately for Al-Zayani, instead of focusing on how to defeat the opposition, these "honorable Bahrainis" seem rather to be engaged in an internal ideological war of their own. The Bahrain Mirror reports new tensions between the Al-Fatih Youth Union and the National Unity Gathering. Reportedly, NUG leaders refused to allow members of the former to address crowds at a recent rally meant to bring together supporters of the two groups, and indeed would not even receive their representatives. Oh snap! So much for Sunni unity.

Update: Another interesting bit out of 'Ali Salman's address in al-Dair is his saying that al-Wifaq has "not yet" decided whether to organize a return to the hallowed ground of the Pearl Roundabout in time for Feb. 14. Of course, given that the state has had about 11 months to figure out how to stop them, it's doubtful whether al-Wifaq or anyone else could pull such a thing off anyway. But it will be interesting to follow al-Wifaq's language as the date nears, in particular following 'Isa Qasim's rhetorical escalation amid growing sentiment that the group is out of touch with the majority of the opposition.

Update 2: In a strongly-worded, hand-written letter, Muqtada al-Sadr has warned the Bahraini government against any action in punishment of 'Isa Qasim for his "crush him" sermon. This comes amid growing speculation that another security crackdown--one likely involving the arrest of previous untouchables like 'Ali Salman and 'Isa Qasim--may be in the offing.

Meanwhile, others are busy pointing out that Al Mahmud and other "Sunni awakening" leaders have on several occasions said things no less incendiary, such as in this address in Hamad Town in March at the height of mass protests.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bahrain's Sunni Awakening

I have a new article out for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) based partly on a few recent blog posts about Sunni mobilization in Bahrain. The article--which is quite long compared to others I've written--argues that while the one-year anniversary of the uprising is likely to occasion many analyses leveraging the Shi'a opposition vs. Sunni government angle of the crisis, in fact Bahrain's Sunnis have played just as large a role in determining the previous year's political trajectory as have Shi'a citizens.

Please excuse the inelegant prose as the piece was heavily edited for style, and I am not important enough to demand my work remain unedited. The first paragraph, for example, should read:
As Bahrain’s latest bout with widespread political unrest nears its one-year anniversary, analysis of the protracted crisis continues to focus almost exclusively on a single dyad in this longstanding multiparty conflict. Depending upon one’s orientation, the ongoing political mobilization of Bahraini Shi‘a either is a continuation of a decades-long struggle for basic societal reform, or an opportunistic attempt at wholesale takeover supported in spirit if not in deed by foreign sympathizers. Yet, by either reading, the standoff between Bahrain’s Shi‘a-led opposition and its Sunni government is the heart of the matter, this small island but a microcosm of the larger competition for geopolitical dominance being fought across the region between Iran, the Arab Gulf monarchies, and their great power patrons.
Read the rest here.

Update: Big day for interviews. For some reason 'Adel Flaifel is interviewed by the GDN as a faux Gulf politics expert. Too bad they didn't capitalize on his knowledge of organizing militias. Among the good lines from the interview is this reference to a "Sunni-Shi'ite cold war" put into the mouth of the Turkish president:
"Iran is fighting to keep the Syrian regime, but it is doomed to fail as Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the Iranians: 'You are now fighting a Sunni-Shi'ite cold war, and you will lose it at the hands of Sunnis, who have a leadership and become stronger after revolutions.'"
Somehow I think that would have made a bigger media splash had Gul actually said that.

And bad Miami police chief-turned-worse Bahrain police adviser John Timoney is interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered. (Direct link to .mp3 audio here.) We should get a chance to see his police in action again today as al-Wifaq has called for another rally near its headquarters in defiance of the Ministry of Interior's rejection of its "permit."

Update 2: I just noticed that the full video of the Bahrain-themed Doha debate of late December is now available on the intertubes. So for those who haven't seen it:

Update 3: Every day it seems I could add another paragraph to the post titled "How About that Police Reform?" Just a few days after John Timoney's interview with NPR in which he promoted his "new code of conduct" for Bahrain's police forces, we have the following scene from Muharraq, where mourners attended the funeral of the man found "drowned" in al-Amwaj last week after going missing (i.e., after being arrested):

Not shown in the video are the pro-government residents of Muharraq that also showed up to confront funeral-goers, as recounted in this report on Bahrain's mounting sectarian violence.

Update 4: The Washington Post reports that U.S. Embassy Bahrain has begun shifting staff housing to "safer" (i.e., more convenient) locations, as the continued clashes along al-Budaiyi' Road makes the commute to Zinj a lengthy and I'm sure infuriating one. One wonders how long until the U.S. starts considering shifting other, more important assets from Bahrain...

And following the rousing success of Operation: Manama Tsunami back in October, the February 14 folks are supposed to launch a new operation today dubbed "Bahrain Fist." A summary here mentions the release on YouTube of several "martyrdom-type" videos as well as another showing some sort of a marble-shooting BB-gun (!) created by some entrepreneurial villagers in Barbar.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bahrain's "War of Attrition"

King Hamad graced Bahraini viewers yesterday with an address announcing various constitutional amendments. It would be wrong to use the standard adjective "much-anticipated" to describe the speech, for few were expecting much of anything by way of actual political reform. As it turns out, the king did not go even this far, failing altogether to acknowledge the actual demands of the opposition. Instead, the new measures stem (solely, as far as I can tell) from the recommendations of this summer's farcical National Dialogue that readers may have happily forgotten about until now, giving the impression that King Hamad is still living in August 2011. How long does it take to draft a royal decree in an absolute monarchy? This is Bahrain we're talking about; it's not like the amendments had to pass through seven congressional subcommittees.

In any case, most if not all of these are procedural changes regarding the lower house of parliament, usefully summarized in this Gulf News article:
  • "Bahrain’s lower chamber is to be given the right to accept or reject the government’s action programme."

  • “Only the Council has the right to state the lack of cooperation with the government as well as to initiate discussions on any public issue."

  • "The amendments add guarantees to ensure the participation of the Council of Representatives in session during the discussions of the questions addressed to ministers."

  • "[They] set a time frame for the government to justify reasons for not considering the Council’s demands."

  • "The Speaker of the lower chamber takes over from the Chairman of the upper chamber the power to refer the bills approved by the two chambers to the Prime Minister and to chair the full parliament meetings whenever the members of both chambers meet."
The trick, of course, is that these "reforms" are of little consequence to al-Wifaq, since the composition of Bahrain's electoral districts--which are hopelessly gerrymandered around Sunni-Shi'i lines--precludes the opposition ever gaining a majority in parliament, and thus from exerting its political will over the lawmaking body. Sure, it can initiate the questioning of ministers and so on, but it can always be defeated by a concerted pro-government majority. Obviously, it goes without saying that such legislative amendments matter still less to those in the youth movement who continue to wage nightly street battles with security forces.

The New York Times' coverage of the speech carries the euphemistic (or perhaps merely understated) title: "Bahrain Opposition Says King’s Measures Fall Short." In fact, one may get a sense of the opposition's opinion by the graphic at the top of this post, taken from a Bahrain Mirror story titled "The King's Speech and the War of Attrition." The conclusion of the latter article, which seems to me a good one, is that hope must now rapidly fade among those who until now have continued in the unlikely belief that Bahrain's rulers would one day wake up ready for a grand bargain with the opposition. Al-Wifaq, which so far has seemed to number among the latter camp, may finally be waking up itself. A statement (English, Arabic) issued immediately after the speech is introduced thus:
A statement issued by al-Wefaq National Society in Bahrain underlined that the King's speech of on Sunday, January 15th had nothing to do with the political crisis, and was nothing but an escape from the crisis plaguing the country for the last ten month. ... [I]t is very far from the demands of the Bahraini people who have took to the streets for months to demand democratic transformation and to reject the dictatorship.
That the speech--in the words of the New York Times--"fell short," then, does not even begin to describe the matter. The more fundamental objection is that alluded to in the title of the Bahrain Mirror piece: the fact that Bahrain's rulers refuse even to recognize the actual demands of the opposition, speaking as if they were not even aware of them. Indeed, it is as if one complaining of a dilapidated house to his negligent landlord was answered, "Well, how about we replace all of the doorknobs for you?" This is the "war of attrition" of which the article speaks, and which is truly an apt description for the state's current non-reform reform strategy.

Is the opposition demanding basic changes to the electoral system and the composition of the government? No matter, offer instead some secondary constitutional amendments to the workings of the toothless parliament. Indicted on charges of torture and excessive force by an international panel of war crimes experts whose recommendations include substantive initiatives to ease underlying social and political tensions? No problem, hire some new police advisers from the United States and Britain and ignore entirely the bit about holding police and government officials responsible--and for that matter the bit about not torturing people. In short: whatever happens, hear what you want to hear, and act accordingly.

Update: The GDN has an update on the gang-style violence gripping the south of Hamad Town and Dar Kulaib in recent weeks. The MP from the area is calling upon the government to resign for its inaction.

Also, since his high-profile beating last weekend it seems Nabeel Rajab is positioning himself as a more visible opposition leader, going after King Hamad directly in this candid speech (with English translation) on Thursday in which he attempts to give new direction to the opposition movement.

Update 2: And the Ludo Hood saga continues! New "evidence" has come to light that exposes the link between the U.S. Embassy and Iran. Clearly this evidence does not include the fact that the latter two countries have been on the verge of open warfare for several weeks.

Update 3: Not to be outdone by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Sh. Khalid directs his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to stop official use of Bahrain's national carrier Gulf Air after a paying customer is given his preferred 1A seat on a trip back from Malaysia. Awwwwww. But seriously: anyone else surprised that he only needs 1A?

Update 4: The National Unity Gathering offshoot Al-Fateh Youth Union held another rally this weekend at which it rejected the government's "reconciliation document" meant to provide a roadmap for Sunni-Shii rapprochement (as if that were even likely). Al-Zayani writes in Al-Watan,
How can we expect people to reconcile while arson and terrorism is ravaging the streets? Can’t you hear the instigation disseminated from rostrums and by terrorist parties? I don’t wish that you suffer Molotov attack to realize the amount of terror and gravity of the wounds of the people you are asking to reconcile.

The reconciliation document is an elitist one. We may not care who signs it and no one can oblige people to abide by this document as long as Bahrain is being set ablaze on a daily basis. Some people sign for certain interests or wish to be called “the reconciliation man” while terrorism continues unabated.
Al-Zayani also seems to allude to the group's fear that its weekly Friday rallies may be starting to wear on government patience. He writes,
Every Friday, Al-Fateh Awakening Gathering increases in number and gathers momentum as its message grows more powerful. We hope this gathering will keep being authorized in the future. As long as they abide by the rules, the participants will remain beyond reproach. Some may argue that the state turns a blind eye to the unlicensed assemblies in other places.

We don’t want this to happen to those who want to see the law enforced on all. Getting a license is mandatory. Failure to enforce the law gave birth to another strong assembly in another street. Had the state enforced the law, those people who do not terrorize, kill and burn Bahrain wouldn’t have taken to the streets.
On this issue of post-uprising Sunni mobilization in Bahrain I have an upcoming article for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), which should be out soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How About That Police Reform?

Now, I am not an expert in reforming police and security forces in the aftermath of damning reports accusing said services of excessive force and torture, but my inclination is that one thing you'd probably want to include in that reform agenda is, to begin with, a new policy against the use of excessive force and torture. So, either Bahrain is paying its foreign police reform advisers a lot of money for nothing (though perhaps like NFL coordinators it will take these guys some time to install the new Miami wildcat offense), or else I am simply not sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle difference between the pre-BICI excessive force and torture, and the post-BICI excessive force and torture.

As for the issue of torture while in detention, Amnesty International reports a new case alleged by an 18-year old student. And of excessive force we received a new display this weekend when al-Wifaq yet again spurned Ministry of Interior orders and held its weekly Friday rally near its headquarters, which not conveniently for motorists is directly adjacent to Sh. Salman Highway. Though riot police stopped demonstrators from actually making it that far, the Washington Post reports that a few thousand people braved the lack of permit to join the rally, which in any case ended without anyone being bludgeoned with a tear-gas canister, which is a bonus.

Less peaceful was what happened to another march on Friday night, one presumably unrelated to the al-Wifaq rally, in which the Bahraini government's favorite human rights activist Nabeel Rajab ended up face down in the street after riot police confronted in a narrow alleyway the group of demonstrators he was leading through what seems to be the Manama Suq. Though the cameraman takes off running once police start charging forward, the minute or so leading up to this episode has been recorded for posterity on the Intertubes:

The Ministry of Interior is vigorously denying Rajab's claims to have been beaten, saying police found him on the ground and "helped him" get up and eventually to go to the hospital. This is not unlike the MOI's claims a few months ago that buckshot extracted from protesters didn't match that used by riot police. For its part, the U.S. Embassy is already calling for an investigation.

Yet whether or not Rajab was attacked in this case is largely beside the point. In the first place, this would not be the first time he has been the target of overzealous policing. His BCHR has recorded a long history of attacks/harassment perpetrated against his home, family, etc. dating back to 2005. More importantly, however, the larger issue is not the plight of one Bahraini activist but the conduct of Bahrain's supposedly-"reformed" security services in the face of continuing protests, protests which seem only to be increasing in boldness as they are dealt with more harshly.

(Don't ask me what this guy is supposed to be carrying.)

In short, rather than actual political changes that might alleviate the country's underlying political conflict, the Bahraini government has attempted to make the argument that the main lesson of the BICI report--and the primary "reform" demanded by its conclusions--is the retraining and restructuring of its police and security forces. Such an attempt to address the symptoms of Bahrain's political conflict rather than its causes was already an obvious step in the wrong direction. But now, when it's become clear not only that (1) Bahrain's rulers continue to avoid substantive political reforms by focusing on secondary issues; but also that (2) even those secondary, police-related reforms supposedly initiated are also illusory, now the smoke of obfuscation has finally cleared. The Bahrain of February 2012 is fundamentally the same Bahrain of February 2011.

Among the results of this continued post-BICI stagnation, two have become increasingly apparent lately. The first of these is a disturbing trend of militia-ization, not only among Sunni supporters of the regime but also among Shi'a, the latter invoking a right to self-defense in the face of both government thugs and official security services. The issue of Sunni militias has been an issue since the sectarian confrontations of April and May, and more recently with the creation of 'Adel Flaifel's new "Military Society," which was involved in last month's 'Ashura' clash in Muharraq.

Since then, the problem has apparently augmented enough to warrant a letter on Saturday from 'Ali Salman to King Hamad complaining that "the residents of Dar Kulaib [in the far south of Hamad Town] adjacent to al-Safriyah Palace are being exposed to attacks by groups of armed civilians under the protection of the security forces, suggesting coordination and collusion between security forces and the militias." He continues that the "nightly" attacks and the "failure of the security forces in their role of deterring the militias" leaves residents no other choice but to appeal to the protection from international organizations.

Outside of Dar Kulaib, moreover, Shi'a villagers across Bahrain have begun a coordinated campaign to "defend" Shi'i mosques, in order to protect them from the fate of the 38 others destroyed during the crackdown. The Islamic Ulama' Council has even produced a nice-looking electronic flier to that effect:

Over the weekend 'Ali Salman, 'Isa Qasim, and others turned out for a group prayer/vigil at the site of one of the destroyed mosques, under the slogan "Mosques Are a Read Line!"

While obviously not a militia in the sense of Flaifel's organization, the organization of communities for the purposes of group defense is not too far removed.

Beyond this "militia-zation," the second effect of the post-BICI lack of political progress is an increasing anti-U.S. sentiment, not merely among pro-regime Sunnis, which in any case is not a new development, but also among Shi'a activists increasingly frustrated with a seeming lack of U.S. interest in resolving Bahrain's political impasse. As for the first group, we need look no further than Saturday's subtly-titled offering from friend of this blog Yusif Al Bin Khalil:

The only way Bahrain is to rid itself of a predatory and capricious U.S. Mideast policy, he writes, is to join together with other Gulf states in a new GCC-based security architecture that circumvents the U.S. entirely. And since he admits that "[w]e don't expect the confederation to be founded within a year but it takes time," he suggests in the meantime that "a kind of regional integration between Manama and Riyadh as a first step to found the Gulf Confederation may be a genius idea." Indeed, I say! A capital idea! Wait, so Manama and Riyadh are not already one and the same?

More notable than Al Bin Khalil's Arab Gulf Nationalism, though, is the recent anti-American turn of (some of) the folks at February 14. A group called the "February 14 Freedom Movement" has called for Bahrain-wide U.S. flag-burning over the last two weekends, along with an explanatory communiqué. Since this is only the group's third released "statement," I assume it must be fairly new.

In any case, the manifesto reads in part (sic):

أمريكا وآل خليفة وجهان لعملة واحدة تصرف في سوق القتل والأرهاب والإصلاح الزائف

America and the Al-Khalifa are two sides of the same coin available in the market for murder, terrorism and fake reform.

تبدل حتى الأن 44 رئيساً لأمريكا والسياسية هي نفسها لا تتغير.. الأزدواجية وصناعة انظمة قمعية ديكتاتورية من ثم دعمها حتى إيجاد البديل المناسب لها

44 US presidents changed and the political is the same. Duplication and making repressive dictatorship regimes and support them.

الرئيس الأمريكي الحالي"أوباما" لا يختلف عن الرئيس الاول"ج.واشنطن" او العشرون "جارفيلد" او الثلاثون "كوليدج"..فليكن أوباما الأسطورة الأمريكية من خلال تخليه عن انظمة الأرهاب والديكتاتورية وليقل لأل خليفة..أرحلوا..الشعب يريد تقرير مصيره بنفسه!

The current U.S. president (Obama) is not different than the first president (G. Washington) or the 20th (Garfield) or the 30th (Coolidge)! So, Obama, be the legend of America: stop supporting terrorism and dictatorship regimes and say to the Al Khalifa: 'Get out .. people want to choose their own destiny.'"
And since no flag-burning is complete without photo evidence:

And the dreaded flag-stomping! I guess the February 14 Freedom people don't mind wearing U.S. Crocs while stomping the U.S. flag.--or at least a bad reproduction of it. How many stars does that one have--15?

While the flag-burning events has earned much criticism even among supporters of the youth movement--the opposition forum thread announcing the "statement" has reached an impressive 18 pages of argument between those for and against--the feeling of U.S. culpability in Bahrain's lack of political progress is doubtless increasing. This is particularly so as the BICI initiative--back when that still seemed likely to bring some good--was widely assumed to have come in part at U.S. insistence or prodding, a position later supported by the suspension of the arms sale until after its findings were made public.

Since the report's publication, however, the only real sign that the U.S. remained at all active in Bahrain was a negative: a report that Bahrain's Foreign Minister had turned down the offer of an unnamed U.S. diplomat to try to mediate an end to the crisis. More recently (as in two days ago), Lebanon's Al-Akhbar reported on "A U.S.-Qatari plan to solve the Bahrain situation," one that supposedly includes provisions for change to a single electoral district, election of some ministers, and so on. Yet it's difficult to foresee the Al Khalifa signing off on anything remotely approaching that deal.

The State Department seems to want to give the impression at least that it is engaged in closed-door wrangling and mediating; all the while the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. Indeed, it is telling that the first strong Embassy reaction to any of the post-BICI violence--which has included the deaths of several protesters--has occurred only now after the injury of Nabeel Rajab, for which it now wants an investigation.

Here's one: how about an investigation into the lack of government follow-up on any of the substantive political (and for that matter social) recommendations of the BICI report?

Update: Funny how the Bahraini majlis al-nuwab doesn't look quite so pro-government when it's got other concerns than just keeping al-Wifaq in line. Here's a video showing one former Al-Asalah MP, Usama Mihna al-Tamimi, accusing the prime minister of being a land "thief" and the ruling family of "taking 50% of Bahrain's land while denying its original citizens adequate housing" while speaking in 'Isa Town. Sounds about right.

Update 2: Oops! The Bahrain News Agency accidentally publishes an article calling for more Shi'i mosque demolitions. Hilarity ensues before it is finally pulled from the website.

Update 3: Two security court death sentences have been overturned by one of the civilian appeals courts setup recently.

And while Bahrain remains unable to afford public housing for people who've been on waiting lists for some 25 years, $3 million in jewelry gifts to a low-ranking British royal is no problem. Just imagine what Kate Middleton would get!

Update 4: Strange development of the day: Several thousand hold protest outside the UN building in Ra'as Ruman, police don't attack them.

And a good read from 'Amr Muhsin in Al-Akhbar: "How to Waste $1000 billion: Gulf Arms."

Update 5: Bahrain's Sunnis are not happy about the overturned military court death sentences. Al-Zayani writing in Al-Watan:
What some people are doing today does not please the people of Bahrain, nor does it please the Lord of mankind. Today, we do not accept criticizing the military court, and we do not accept challenging its integrity, honor, honesty and patriotism. He who says that the judiciary has a sanctity and high position should not challenge it.

The military court was fair and honest and worked in difficult and harsh circumstances; only the honorable patriotic men can take such a stance. The honorable man, Mr. Minister of Justice, has to say the right word about the impartiality of the military court and should not accept that it be abused or challenged.

If the state wants to retreat, or get involved in suspicious deals and let the traitors slice its neck or even cut its head off, that is its own business. But we refuse to be just spectators, toadies or puppets who do not stick to their convictions and quickly change moods, alliances and attitudes.
If the state wants to retreat, or get involved in suspicious deals and let the traitors slice its neck or even cut its head off, that is its own business. But we refuse to be just spectators, toadies or puppets who do not stick to their convictions and quickly change moods, alliances and attitudes.
Update 6: Police reform indeed. Three more deaths over the weekend: one from self-immolation by a mother whose son was arrested in April; one from tear-gas inhalation from a shot fired into a home; and one in which a youth who had gone missing (i.e., was arrested) was later found among the rocks on the coast of the Amwaj Islands with apparent signs of torture.

The Ministry of Interior is chalking the first and last cases up to "psychological problems" among both victims. Yeah, psychological problems like having your son, elderly husband, and neighbors beaten in front of you. The BCHR's description of the woman who lit herself on fire on her own rooftop:
Badriya Ali is a 59 year old woman from Sanabis. In April security forces raided Badriya Ali's home to arrest her son, Ahmed Mushaima, who is 25 years old. They beat him severely in front of her, banging his head against the corner of an air conditioner repeatedly. Badriya screamed at them to stop beating her son, and an officer responded "shut up, we arrest women too." They then pulled her old sick husband from bed to arrest him, but he was too weak and fell to the ground, where they left him. Badreya fainted after watching her son being severely beaten. Before leaving, the officers wrote "long live khalifa" on the walls of her home.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why 2012 Will Be a Lot Like 2011

Putting an early end to hopes that the new year in Bahrain may be more propitious than the old one, 2012 has picked up immediately where 2011 left off: with the death of another young protester (or "vandal," according to the Ministry of Interior) after the 15 year-old was bludgeoned with a tear gas canister. Following an ("authorized") al-Wifaq rally on Friday that turned into an (unauthorized) sit-in on al-Budaiyi' Road, Saturday witnessed what the Washington Post calls the "most widespread protests for months."

'Abdallah al-Dirazi, however, remains undaunted (perhaps because he's been reinstated at the University of Bahrain since being forced out of the Bahrain Human Rights Society after joining the king's BICI follow-up commission):
"I think it is important to look at 2012 positively considering that 2011 had been a tough year not only for Bahrain but also the region," he told the GDN.

"Change is inevitable for an open democracy which I feel Bahrain is adopting by reinforcing practical measures as we head into 2012."
Among these "reinforcing practical measures" is the launching of a new website to advertise ... these "reinforcing practical measures." Indeed, one can always be sure that Bahrain has taken another step toward democracy when a new website appears to explain what that step is. This newest one is located at and is no doubt the work of the media wizards at some Western PR firm or another. The very name implies that "the government" is taking "actions"--in this case, BICI follow-up actions--while the site itself defaults not coincidentally to an English-language version. (And I am in Qatar so it's not simply because I am accessing it from a Western country.)

The launching of the website comes at a useful time for the government, since contrary to its name, the number and substance of the "actions" taken in the wake of the BICI report remain limited. In keeping with Bahrain's police "reform" (as opposed to, say, political reform) agenda, it was announced on Sunday that five officers would go on trial next month for their alleged roles in the death of a detainee. But, again, political changes beyond those involving the security services we have not seen.

Moreover, the head of the post-BICI commission appointed by the king--the very commission whose work is being touted by the website--has just resigned following what he called "'unjust' accusations targeting his honour, dignity and judgment." He had faced heavy criticism from pro-government Sunnis after he reinstated four council members dismissed during the crackdown. This episode leads nicely into a discussion of the main subject of this post: why we should expect 2012 to be a lot like 2011 in Bahrain.

The Counter-revolution Continues

The resignation of 'Ali al-Salah from the king's follow-up commission is but the most recent indication of the ever-widening social gap that continues to divide Bahraini society, and to shape perceptions of and actions in response to government policy. Any perceived leniency in dealing with "criminals" and "traitors" will meet with swift condemnation from a not insignificant faction of Sunni citizens affiliated with conservatives within the ruling tribe. To be sure, if neither the crown prince nor King Hamad himself was able to avoid such popular blow-back in response to positions seen as overly-conciliatory, what hope is there for mere mortals such as 'Ali al-Salah? By rooting out individuals who appear willing to compromise, such vigorous self-policing among Bahraini Sunnis complicates any potential political solution involving the state and opposition--whether in 2011 or in 2012.

The Original Revolution Continues--More Violently

As Bahrain approaches the one-year anniversary of the February uprising, neither the formal opposition in al-Wifaq et al., nor the youth-dominated street movement, shows signs of losing interest in pursuing fundamental political change. Indeed, February 14, 2012, will carry more symbolism even than the same date in 2011, as it marks simultaneously the one-year anniversary of mass protests as well as the ten-year anniversary of Bahrain's 2002 Constitution, promulgated unilaterally by King Hamad and, for protesters, symptomatic of the latter's aborted political reform project promised at the outset of his ascension.

Not only does the protest movement continue, then, but the informal opposition represented by various localized groupings of youth has grown increasingly violent in its tactics, having moved from peaceful demonstrations, to indirect acts of violence such as road sabotage with oil and nails, and now to direct acts of violence against security personnel using Molotov cocktails. Opposition forums are rife with instructions how to make and improve them.

And a disturbing video disseminated by the "Nuwaidrat Youth" documents their effective use in a deliberate and coordinated attack on riot police vehicles in Nuwaidrat.

Friday, December 30 also saw the first American flag-burning (at least that I've seen) since the start of protests, demonstrating mounting frustration at American policy towards Bahrain and its "support for Al Mahmud and the ruling Al Khalifa gang." While government opponents in Syria have begun burning Russian flags for that country's veto in the UN Security Council of resolutions against al-Assad, Bahrainis in Sitra now refer to the "Great Satan."

The forum thread advertising the video is full of rebukes from other members advising these youths not to "pollute their movement" with these sorts of actions; and, more generally, the formal opposition has publicly called for protesters to stop their use of Molotov cocktails and other instruments of violence. Yet the sway of 'Ali Salman has never extended to all of the opposition--and to Nuwaidrat, the hometown of Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain and his al-Wafa' Movement, perhaps least of all. The coming of 2012 is not likely to change this.

Finally, the recent violent turn of some protesters will serve inevitably to prolong the current crisis not only by "keeping the revolution alive," so to speak, but more importantly by giving the state an excuse to continue its current course of action, which may be justified more easily with every YouTube video of riot police being ambushed by black-clad thugs. "How are we to negotiate with an opposition such as this?" the government will ask. "What sort of 'democracy' would we expect to find if such people will given more political power?" For officials in the State Department and even more so the Pentagon, to say that these youth groups are not representative of the larger Bahraini opposition will not be a satisfying response.

Regional Politics

If you didn't know what the Straight of Hormuz was prior to this week, chances are you do now. As elegantly depicted by Time Magazine last week in a well-circulated article by Mark Thompson, the strategic passageway is here:

Thanks for that, Time.

In any case, if you thought that U.S. government support for the Al Khalifa was staunch before Iran threatened to block the passage of a third of the world's oil and send prices to $200/barrel, then wait 'til you see it afterward. Oh, and did I mention the U.S. flag burning in Sitra?

Certainly, the U.S. has an intrinsic interest in seeing an end to the political stalemate in Bahrain, if not for its own sake then because it removes a primary source of instability affecting the entire region. But the centrality of Fifth Fleet assets in containing (and possibly confronting) any Iranian naval operations in the Gulf leaves the United States with little leverage--and perhaps little will--to press for the sort of basic changes to the Bahraini political system that the opposition continues to demand. An unprovoked Iranian attack on Bahrain is almost unthinkable with or without the U.S. navy base; indeed, insofar as the latter will be a prime target in the event of any hostilities, it probably serves to increase rather than decrease the likelihood of being involved in a regional conflict. Today, the U.S. needs Bahrain at least as much as Bahrain needs the U.S.

The Economy

Any desire to solve the government-opposition standoff must therefore originate from Bahrain's rulers themselves, and the only cause that might conceivably spur such a desire (discounting for the sake of argument the opposition's ability to reinvigorate large-scale protests) is the threat of total economic collapse. The problem here is not so much that the state would run out of money--for oil prices remain high, and in any case the Saudis can fill any fiscal shortfall--but that nominally pro-government citizens begin to feel the economic pinch at the individual level such that they begin collectively to rethink the wisdom of the government's political strategy. (On the relationship between economic satisfaction and political orientation among Bahraini Sunnis compared to Shi'a, see this post.)

While the uprising did no good for the Bahraini economy, and although a few institutions have relocated elsewhere, there has yet to be a foreign exodus from Bahrain such that might inflict irreparable damage. Even if that were to change, though, Sunni tolerance for economic hardship will be conditioned by the regime's relative success in cultivating its sectarian doomsday scenario: "If you oppose us, and the opposition takes over, you will be longing for the days of the Al Khalifa--good economy or no."

Update: this update from The Independent on the continuing intra-Al Khalifa struggle for power represents yet another reason why 2012 will be a lot like 2011 in Bahrain.

Update 2: In today's segment of "Bahrain panel news," it seems that 'Ali Al-Salah has had a change of heart and has withdrawn his resignation from the king's BICI follow-up panel. More like his resignation was rejected.

Further, the BNA has announced the creation of a new "judicial panel" to review "some" post-crackdown Security Court verdicts, but only those "nonappealable convictions pertaining to the freedom of expression" and "not those related to incitement of violence." Which is to say: "Whichever ones we feel like reviewing."

Update 3: In the Mideast Channel, a profile and discussion of Bahrain's nebulous "February 14th coalition," by Toby Jones and Ala'a Shehabi.

Update 4: Remember those Washington Times op-eds (including one "written by" King Hamad) defending the Bahraini government and its crackdown? It turns out that you can thank Lockheed Martin and the ad wizards at Sanitas for those. See Justin Elliot's report in Salon.