Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Conversation with Emile Nakhleh on Al Khalifa Family Dynamics

Two posts ago I linked to an article by Emile Nakhleh titled "Bahrain Repression Belies Government Stand on Dialogue." Nakhleh--a fellow former Fulbright to Bahrain; author of a recently-reissued book on the country; and frequent writer on Middle East politics--argues in short (and as he has previously) that that it is Khalifa bin Salman who is responsible not only for derailing attempts to exit the current crisis, but more generally for undermining the cause of democracy (or at least liberalization) in Bahrain since independence. Accordingly, he suggests American diplomats strengthen the prime minister's competitors within the ruling family so as to marginalize his deleterious influence on any future dialogue initiative.

Having communicated with him previously, I wrote Nakhleh in response to the article, asking in particular whether he might not have omitted an important player in the game of Al Khalifa politics, namely the Royal Court and Defense Ministers (i.e., the khawalid). What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth that included many insightful details based on Nakhleh's first-hand familiarity with many of the personalities involved owing not least to his time--15 years--with the CIA. The conversation for me proved so interesting, in fact, that I thought I would post it here (with his permission of course). Indeed, if there continues to be a lack of dialogue among the political forces in Bahrain, at least we may have a dialogue about the political forces in Bahrain.

Before this, however, some news-related housekeeping is in order. This Friday will see the crescendo of a week's worth of mass rallies organized by the five main (legal) opposition societies, including Wa'ad, al-Wifaq, and some others that don't matter so much. The slogan, "We won't leave the streets [literally, the squares]," is announced in a pretty flier that looks like it might be for an Apple product:

The rally is in fact a march beginning at 5:00pm from the Shakhura Roundabout to the Saar Roundabout, i.e. a good way down al-Budaiyi' Road. As Faysal al-Shaykh noted in the Al-Watan column I posted yesterday, "we will wait and see" as to the state's response to the rally given recent warnings directed at 'Isa Qasim about using Friday sermons to "incite" violence and political action. (Someone, apparently, has responded. Al-Wifaq reported on Tuesday that a hawza in Muharraq was attacked by "civilian militias." Recall that Muharraq was also the sight of clashes in December between 'Ashura' procession-goers and members of 'Adel Flaifel's "Military Society.")

Just in case Bahrain needs some additional encouragement to act, pro-government groups will hold their own counter-rally on Saturday in Muharraq and in al-Hinayniyya (i.e., al-Rifa'). Rather than at opposition terrorists, however, this is directed at "the influence of the U.S., British, etc.," according to organizers. (Sadly there is no flier, which raises serious questions about the latter's commitment.) More interesting still is that this "طوق القادسية," as it's being dubbed, was prompted explicitly (again, according to the announcement) by the exhortations of "writers in daily newspapers"--chief among them, presumably, Al-Watan. So yet another good reason for our Al-Watan Wednesday.

Combined with recent opposition protests outside the naval base in Juffair, then, the U.S. continues to get it from both sides--from Shi'a upset about continued American support for the government; and from Sunnis upset about continued American influence on government decisions. And here I thought preserving the political status quo in Bahrain was supposed to serve U.S. national interests.

With this as a perhaps off-topic introduction, I reproduce below my conversation with Emile Nakhleh. I hope readers find it interesting and/or useful.

Update: Going for the all-time intramural GCC co-ed record, Bahrain has foiled yet another terrorist plot. How can we be sure? Well the Interior Ministry blows stuff up in a video (see the last 2:00). Obviously. Interestingly, it seems that it is a rule of explosives detonation that the phrase "Fire in the hole!" be said only in English.

A Conservation with Emile Nakhleh on Al Khalifa Dynamics

I wanted to write to say that I enjoyed your latest piece on the renewed hopes of dialogue in Bahrain for the Lobelog. I wonder, though, given your emphasis on Khalifa bin Salman, where you see the khawalid (Khalifa and Khalid bin Ahmad) in all of this? Even if the king and CP have been marginalized in the post-February period, surely the Royal Court and especially the Field Marshal have grown in stature. Do you not see them as an independent force within the ruling family?

I think this question is especially important now as the Saudi case serves to raise the issue of succession after the PM is finally gone. Obviously he backs (and you suggest the U.S. back) Muhammad bin Mubarak as his eventual successor; but the khawalid have their own rival candidate in Khalid bin 'Abdallah. If another from among the khawalid were to gain the premiership, they would then control that position along with the military and Royal Court--no small fact.
I knew Abdallah, Khalid's father, back in the early 70s and had frequent discussions with him. I believe he was the Minister of Justice at the time. He, like the PM, opposed the opposition’s demands for reform and in fact objected to the whole move toward a constitution and a National Assembly. He was very fond of Bahrain's heritage and culture and thought any reform that would limit the power of the family would not be good for Bahrain. When he would talk about Dilmun and the early inhabitants of the island, he conveniently forgot that al-Khalifa conquered the island only 200 plus years back!

I don't believe the PM would designate his deputy Shaykh Muhammad as his successor without making sure he has the Khawalids and other Khalifas on his side. I'm not even sure he would necessarily support Shaykh Muhammad. The old guard within the family never really trusted him—they viewed back then as ambitious and reformist. Besides, Some of them privately even mentioned his non-Khalifa mother.

I agree with the view that the Saudis would play a role in the succession to Khalifa. The interesting analytic question is what impact the Saudi intervention in the internal affairs of the family will have on the on-going friction among the different centers of power within the royals. I am sure Shaykh Muhammad, as he did in the past, will try to stay above the fray. That's how he survived on the inside track!

If the King loses the succession fight, Khalid bin Ahmed and Khalifa bin Ahmed (Royal Court and the Field Marshal) will likely dominate the scene with Saudi blessings and support. If this happens, I'm not sure they will be satisfied with keeping Hamad as a figurehead king or Salman as CP. I certainly expect the growing tensions within the ruling family to become more public and the in fighting more ugly. Perhaps for the sake of family survival, cooler heads would prevail.

In the meantime, violence continues and the ruling family does not have the luxury of time despite their sophisticated and rapid response PR. For example, the PM office responded to my previous op-ed in the FT in less than 24 hours with an op-ed that was published in the same newspaper the following day! Most people who follow Bahrain in Washington have come to believe that if serious dialogue were to occur, the King and his son should be involved and that the PM would not be a credible participant. The deputy PM could be a bridge between the old guard, the reformist faction, and the opposition.
I much enjoyed hearing your first-hand knowledge of some of the personalities involved.

As for Khalid's father 'Abdallah, from what I've heard his son seems to be of a like mind: opposed to reforms (and especially concessions to the Shi'a) on *ideological* rather than pragmatic political grounds. This seems to be a theme among the khawalid, a fact I have explored in a longish article I finished a month or so ago titled "The Securitization of 'the Shi'a Problem' in Bahrain."

As for your larger point regarding Khalifa's successor, who then do you see as a viable alternative to Muhammad? Not his son, presumably, who by all accounts sounds unliked and barely competent. And Khalifa must know that by choosing a weak candidate he is essentially ceding his position to the khawalid. Or do you believe that the latter is a more appealing alternative from the PM's point of view--i.e., better to leave the country in the hands of the Royal Court and military (with the implicit backing of Saudi) than an indecisive nephew and his upstart son (with the implicit backing of the U.S.)?

The main argument of my aforementioned article is that, as intellectually unappealing as it might be, the present conflict in Bahrain is at bottom a case of intra-familial competition, and little can be resolved on the ground until this works itself out--or until someone helps work it out. (Although I think I am less sanguine than you about the U.S.'s direct influence here. This business of "improving the position of the Crown Prince" through visits to DC and some spare helicopter parts is laughable. Better to pressure the Saudis to intervene I would say.) More and more, I think this interpretation is correct.
Tensions within the family are not new; they go back to the early days right after independence. To illustrate, when British diplomats in Bahrain reported to the Home Office on my book back in 1976, the point they found most "amusing" was my discussion of the internal tensions within the ruling family. The main point of the book they thought, according to declassified British diplomatic correspondence, was my "analysis of the first national elections to the constituent Assembly in 1972." (See Ali Rabi'a's book al-Tajriba al-Maw'uda: al-Haya al-Dimoqratiyya fi al-Bahrain, 2010, pp.338+).

I don’t think Muhammad's son will be seriously considered for the PM position. I think the tension will be between Khalifa and his nephew Hamad. If Khalifa loses, which is a distinct possibility, I won't be surprised to see Hamad appoint his son the CP as the PM. Precedents of such an appointment are all around them in the neighboring emirates, including in Saudi Arabia. If such an appointment occurs, the Royal Court and the Military would be held in check. The King could also appoint Muhammad (presumably as an interim) to provide continuity and even gravitas. I imagine this path would ultimately lead to Salman taking over the PM slot, while of course remaining the CP. The familial old-age respect, which Hamad has accorded his uncle, would not necessarily extend to the Khawalids or other Khalifas, especially if they don't support the King. If some sort of union occurs between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the short-term, which I doubt, it would be a sign that Khalifa has maintained the upper hand within the family. If the King and some of his supporters push back on the unification scheme and succeed, he will end up on top.

Now that Nayef is gone, Khalifa has lost a major supporter within the Saudi powerful hierarchy. I don't think Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz (new CP) or Ali ibn Abd al-Aziz (new MoI) have the same ideological affinity toward Khalifa or are as invested in having Bahrain become another "province" of Saudi Arabia. Since they are not as viscerally opposed to reform domestically, and hence tend to be closer to King Abdallah's position, they might not be as opposed to some sort of reform in Bahrain. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.

I also don't think it's all that "laughable" to raise Salman's profile through visits to Washington. Much to my disappointment, the administration seems to play a very cautious game vis a vis Bahrain--presumably because of Saudi Arabia. Since the "Arab Spring" started, Washington was always focused on who is the most appropriate interlocutor in whatever country. Unfortunately, Bahrain is no exception. I've been arguing with my friends inside and outside the government that we must take a more forceful position toward Khalifa and his policies, for fear of terrorism against our presence in that country. What concerns me is that more and activists within the Bahraini opposition, including some of Khalifa’s strong Sunni supporters, are beginning to blame the US for perceived collusion with al-Khalifa. If Washington decides to push for genuine reform and meaningful dialogue in Bahrain, it can do it on its own without the urgent need for Saudi support. Riyadh would still be needed, however, to provide a cover.
Interesting your suggestion that Bahrain might preform a reverse Kuwait maneuver--combine the CP and PM for reasons of political expediency rather than split the roles. I suppose the CP does already have some experience in running a (shadow) cabinet, i.e. the EDB. Do you see the Khalifa - Hamad struggle as likely to come to a head before the former's eventual passing? or is the present situation sustainable if obviously destabilizing?

I suppose the GCC meeting in December will be useful is demonstrating the extent to which Saudi-Bahrain union remains on the list of priorities following the death of Nayf. On the other hand, it may complicate one's interpretation of the intra-Al Khalifa struggle insofar as the initiative's failure (assuming as I do that it will fail) may leave open two possibilities: that it failed because the King succeeded in obstructing Khalifa; or because the Saudis lost interest. Perhaps either alternative would strike a blow to the PM, but the internal situation could remain ambiguous.
As long as the situation is sustainable, the family will try to keep the internal struggle under wraps; they loathe airing their dirty laundry in public. However, if street confrontations escalate and repressive reaction becomes more noticeable internationally and more damaging to business and the economy, the King will come under more pressure, especially from respected members of the Sunni community, especially business people, and mainstream Shia families, to contain the situation and initiate meaningful dialogue to resolve the impasse. If the King responds positively to such pressure and begins to explore avenues for dialogue, Salman would re-emerge as a principal player. Khalifa's stature would then suffer. Unfortunately for Khalifa, the Bahraini situation is not a purely internal matter; international actors—including the US, Saudi Arabia, etc.—would have a stake in the outcome and therefore might push harder for dialogue. Most people don't expect the PM to be a key participant in the envisioned dialogue.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Announcing: Al-Watan Wednesdays

A recent Al-Watan article quotes al-Asalah MP 'Abd al-Halim Murad: "[U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Thomas] Krajeski is either a Wifaqi or the ambassador for Tehran!"

Now that I've finished with several recent writing commitments and have a bit more time to spend updating here, I thought it would be nice to begin the summer vacation by introducing a new segment I like to call "Al-Watan Wednesday." This will be, as you might imagine, a weekly article from the Arabic-language Bahraini daily Al-Watan, which in addition to being a veritable mouthpiece of the Royal Court is more generally serious business whether in print or Internet form. In the words of a bad local rap group from near my hometown that weirdos in high school used to listen to, Al-Watan "is dominated, but never imitated; though others perpetrate it, but still we regulate it." Yea, that's right.

In fact, the timing of this new segment is fortuitous. For it has been recently reported that soon to be announced as new editor-in-chief of the newspaper is none other than long-time friend of the blog and current Al-Watan anti-American extraordinaire Yusif Al Bin Khalil. For the uninitiated, Al Bin Khalil is perhaps best known for his month-long series last summer "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," whose cogency was matched only by its subtlety. Eventually, the U.S. Embassy grew tired of the bit and pressured Bahrain's media authority to put an end to the articles, but not before Ayatollah Obama's nefarious plan to Shi'atize Bahrain was made bare for all to see.

So congrats, then, to Yusif Al Bin Khalil. The U.S. should be pleased to know what the Royal Court of its "staunchest Gulf ally" thinks of it. (Hint: see the article at the top of the post.)

Of course, one might therefore ask why I should choose to give any attention--much less an entire day of the week--to Al-Watan and its decidedly one-sided pseudo-journalism. Actually the reasons are many:
  1. Al-Watan exemplifies the phrase "It'd be funny if it weren't so sad." And often in its coverage the funny is so strong as to overshadow the sad, which is no small thing. As one of the main principles of this site is not to take itself too seriously, Al-Watan is a kindred spirit insofar as one suspects that, deep down, its writers cannot take themselves too seriously either. (On the other hand, the site's post-uprising English-language version of the website is premised clearly on the idea that if only Western audiences had linguistic access to its insights, surely they would become converts to the Royal Court's position.)

  2. Better than any other publication, Al-Watan reflects the views of a particular faction in Bahraini politics whose stature and importance continues to augment in the post-uprising period. This is, broadly speaking, that of the Royal Court and by association Defense Minister Field Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmad, brother of Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad (known together as the khawalid).

  3. Further, to the extent that the khawalid are also seen as backing at least in part Sunni political groups--including both established societies as well as the new, post-February movements--Al-Watan also offers insights into the political demands and arguments of Bahraini Sunnis. The regular columnist Hisham al-Zayani is a clear partisan of Sahwat al-Fatih, for example, while Faysal al-Shaykh often writes from the perspective of the National Unity Gathering.

  4. Finally, since the paper's soon-to-be editor-in-chief Al Bin Khalil recently became a follower of this site, it's perhaps only fair that we reciprocate:

Now some sixteen months removed from February 2011, it should be clear the prospects for genuine political change in Bahrain are and will be determined not by the traditional Shi'a and secular opposition but by the posture adopted by ordinary Sunni citizens. If fear of association with or manipulation by the Shi'a-led opposition continues to dissuade average Sunnis from being forceful in their political demands, then the state has little cause for worry. Only if Sunnis overcome their phobia of being made tools of Iran will Bahrain achieve the type of cross-societal popular pressure necessary to force the ruling family's hand.

With this in mind I conclude with the today's Al-Watan article, a reply by Faysal al-Shaykh to King Hamad's forceful cabinet speech of two days ago in which, inter alia, he reaffirmed the state's commitment to political reform as represented in the 2001 National Action Charter; rejected foreign mediation of the present political conflict; repeated the warning to al-Wifaq and 'Isa Qasim over the latter's alleged promotion of violence via sermons; and so on. In "The messages of Hamad bin Isa and our message to His Majesty,"* Faysal al-Shaykh responds to each of the king's main points by noting the contradiction between these stated goals and the government's actions heretofore in practice. He writes,
On Monday, June 25, 2012, His Majesty the king addressed many clear and direct messages when he presided over the cabinet meeting yesterday with His Highness the Prime Minister sitting on his right. His Majesty’s messages are supposed to shed light on the aspects of the coming phase and be taken as a framework of action by state institutions. What we listened to was not a common speech as it bears between its lines key issues that echo the wishes and demands of loyal citizens at this critical juncture in Bahrain’s history. ...

The first message was addressed to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments urging it to prevent the misuse of religious rostrums and take more rigorous measures to preserve its sublime mission. This leads us to wonder about the measures that need to be taken in the future against those who exploit religious platforms to incite people’s hatred of the state and disgust against members of other sects. We stress the need for such measures because we have already witnessed a certain inadequacy and laxity in dealing with those who used religious rostrums to fight the state and polarize society. We saw no measures taken against those who incited murder and issued calls to crush security men. Today, concerned state institutions bear a heavier responsibility to adequately respond to the calls of loyal citizens and civil society institutions especially after His Majesty the king, himself, commands them to enforce the law. Till next Friday, which has turned into a day of incitement, we will wait and see. ...

Finally, it mustn’t elude us to highlight His Majesty’s emphasis on citizens’ welfare, which is the ultimate goal of reform and development. His Majesty stressed the need for the government to do its utmost in this regard. He also urged the legislative power to play a more effective role by constantly cooperating with the executive power. As we stress the need to place citizens’ welfare on top of all priorities, we would also like to convey low-income and ordinary people’s messages directly to His Majesty the king concerning many unresolved issues and worries such as the housing problem and the rising cost of living.

People need more facilities and services which can be achieved when officials fulfill their duties appropriately, come in close contact with people and keep abreast their worries. Unfortunately, despite the clear and constant directives of His Majesty and His Highness the Prime Minister to officials to open their doors to citizens, some of them still obstruct people’s access to their doors. Such officials are the real setback to development and the achievement of citizens’ interests. Therefore, we still need to appoint the right persons in the right places.

In response to His Majesty’s optimistic and promising address which asserts the leadership’s constancy in defending Bahrain, we stress the unaffected and undiminished loyalty of faithful citizens to their land and leadership. We assert that this relationship is based on mutual trust, candidness, constructive criticism and true love away from hypocrisy and hollow flattery.
*Note in following links to Al-Watan that its English-language website is currently undergoing some sort of horrible reconstruction and may or may not require Netscape Communicator 5.0 to render properly.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Are Bahrain's Sunnis Still Awake?

In case you couldn't tell from the huge graphic, I have a new article in Carnegie's Sada blog that revisits the subject of Bahrain's "Sunni awakening," which I wrote about in January. In short, the piece tells why we may soon finally learn the nature of the country's post-February Sunni movements--specifically, the National Unity Gathering and the al-Fatih Awakening--as a result of a (rumored) new push for government-opposition dialogue. Yet, whether or not one believes that fresh talks are imminent (a prospect made perhaps more faint following 'Ali Salman's being shot on Friday and the king's cabinet speech yesterday), the larger point remains: only if Bahrain's new Sunni groups remain insistent upon a seat at the political negotiating table--as they were in March--can we conclude that they represent something new and independent of the state. And it is only this insistence, moreover, that can bring to bear the pressure required to push Bahrain toward genuine political change.

The full article is here. The Arabic version is here.

Update: Sunni internet forums are abuzz with news of the re-arrest of Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, the Salafi former army officer made famous for his address at the late Pearl Roundabout at which he urged sectarian political cooperation. Yesterday's detention stemmed reportedly from a "family dispute" relating to his political activities. Apparently his wife's family is not a huge supporter of the Sunni awakening.

Update 2: Also, unrelated funny graphics:

February uprising alternative ending

Khalifa bin Salman: "I wish you to rid me of all the Baharna!"
Genie: "Man, I told you! I'm a genie not a government thug [baltaji]!

Update 3: Emile Nakhleh: "Bahrain Repression Belies Government Stand on Dialogue."

Update 4: I've just come across the website of the National Unity Gathering, which judging by pro-government forum comments must be fairly new. For those interested, it includes sections detailing the groups "Principles," "Aims," "Political Platform," and so on.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The End of "Bahraini Hizballah"?

As you've no doubt noticed if you're visiting this site, I haven't updated in a while. This is because, as some of you already know, I've been offered and have accepted a position with the Government of Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority, and this blog will soon be replaced by a new one related to my work there. (Update: As I've now gotten several e-mails about this, I'll be clear that this was/is a joke. I thought it was obvious enough given the beginning of the next paragraph.)

Actually, I've been spending all of my free time attempting to finish a long report on Bahrain before traveling to a conference tomorrow. It doesn't look like I'll be able to do so, however, so I likely won't have a chance to write something of any length until the last week in June. Not that the Intertubes will run out of Bahrain analyses in my absence, but I just thought I would offer a note about my extended silence.

In any case, developments in Bahrain are relatively limited and obviously continue to be overshadowed by violence in Syria, which by all accounts seems to be only one or two more days away from successful implementation of Annan's peace plan. Not.

The main action in Bahrain is on the political societies front, with the Islamic Action Society being dissolved in what is a clear warning to al-Wifaq. The language used by the Ministry of Justice to justify the move--that Amal follows "a marja'iyyah that advocates violence"--is taken almost verbatim from the Prime Minister's recent threat directed at 'Isa Qasim, to the effect that the latter's support of "violence" via Friday sermons, etc. will not be tolerated. Does that mean we will see Round 2 of the government's attempt to ban al-Wifaq (the first being in April 2011), presumably to appease those advocating a more hard-line stance against protesters? Perhaps.

Others I've spoken to have alluded to a new sooper secret "dialogue"--isn't there always one?--in which the government is attempting to coerce al-Wifaq participation. But it's difficult to see why the government would have any inclination to restart talks given the current lack of outside pressure, al-Wifaq's current position of weakness, and the problem posed by Sunni demands for participation in any potential dialogue.

More likely, then, is that Bahrain is simply harassing al-Wifaq because it earns itself points among a certain (Sunni) societal constituency, and because no one--i.e., no one in the American or British or Sri Lankan Embassy--seems to be complaining about it. So why not, say, go ahead and bust out 'Ali Salman's security cameras at his house for no reason? They're probably in violation of some law or another, right? Sure.

Political dialogue, social reconciliation, and police reform: a winning combination for Bahrain.

Update: A day after the vandalization of his house, 'Ali Salman goes off in a speech to opposition rally-goers in Saar. If the state had been attempting to force some concession on the part of al-Wifaq with its threats of legal action and physical harassment, I don't think it worked.

If you're looking for good tidbits, he calls out al-Mushir by name at around 17:00 and proceeds to taunt him, saying of mass protests in February and March, "We didn't use 50% of our power. ... We could have marched in our akfan (white funeral shrouds), but we didn't wish to spill our blood and yours. ... You know that with two words of a fatwa we could have brought the masses to the streets ready to die. ... Whatever you use to [try to] crush us will not work. ... Even if you use the [GCC] Peninsula Shield [force] or even more forces, you could never make us surrender." Ok then. Time will tell whether that's a good way to go.

Update 2: Behold! Phase 2 of the (U.S.-backed?) Crown Prince Salman political revival project: The Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Dialogue.

Update 3: King Hamad responds to 'Ali Salman, even busting out the ol' military uniform.

Update 4: A highly-recommended paper by the well-informed Jane Kinninmont: "Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse."

Update 5: Al-Mushir gets the last laugh as 'Ali Salman is shot in the shoulder and back with tear gas canisters and/or stun grenades during Friday's march.

Update 6: News comes via the Bahrain Mirror that long-time friend of the blog and author of the last summer's insightful "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain" series Yusif Al Bin Khalil has been tapped as the next editor-in-chief of Al-Watan! Congrats! All of that U.S. scare-mongering paid off. The U.S. must be happy to know that the Bahraini Royal Court thinks so highly of its staunch American ally.

Update 7: New penetrating investigation reveals systematic links between al-Wifaq and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard: