Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Arrest of 'Ali Salman: Breaking New Ground in the Wrong Direction

Given the extent of Bahrain's post-uprising security crackdown, approaching now its third year, there remain very few things the state has yet to resort to in its pursuit of political domination and punitive retribution. After yesterday, which saw the arrest of al-Wifaq leader 'Ali Salman for his "incitement to sectarianism" and other non-terrorism terrorism charges, one can tick off another of these. In contrast to previous short-lived detentions, this time actual charges have been filed and the government seems poised to go through with prosecution.

Ostensibly, the arrest was prompted by critical remarks in Sh. 'Ali's Friday sermon. A contact in al-Wifaq says the government was particularly upset by the following bit claiming that Bahrain's ills started "with the arrival of the Al Khalifa" -- i.e., in 1783:

معاناتنا بدأت مع دخول آل خليفة ، جوهر هذه المعاناة هو تهميشنا كشعب والاستئثار بالقرار السياسي والمالي، البحرين كانت غنية طوال عمرها - حتى قبل النفط – وما هذا الفقر والأسى إلا وليد السياسات المجحفة .

As always, the political message of Sh. 'Ali's arrest has multiple intended recipients, corresponding to the state's various core constituencies. The most important of these two are Bahraini Sunnis and Western governments. As I've written elsewhere, the first can be divided further into two basic groups: Sunnis with a primary security orientation, and Sunnis with a potentially oppositional political orientation.  One can connect the timing of the arrest to present developments relating to all three constituencies, in addition to al-Wifaq itself.

More Concessions to Security-Minded Sunnis

The arrest and prosecution of top al-Wifaq officials, including not only 'Ali Salman but also 'Isa Qasim, has been the primary demand of the state's security-minded supporters since the beginning of the uprising.  Until now, the state has resisted taking this step, and these citizens have had to content themselves with the imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab and other high-profile activists generally from outside al-Wifaq. Why this policy has changed now is difficult to ascribe to a single cause.

It may simply be, for instance, that security-minded figures within the Al Khalifa continue to gain influence and strength at the expense of more moderate officials.  It is also possible that the recent spate of improvised explosive devices being used against police -- two of whom were severely injured in Maqsha'a on the very night of 'Ali Salman's sermon -- has led to more pressure to act from within and outside the government.  (According to my 2009 survey, around 1 in 8 Sunni households has at least one member employed in the police or military.)  Perhaps coincidentally, Bahrain also announced on Monday its most recent acquittal of police officers accused of torture, including in this case one Al Khalifa princess.)

Certainly, the Arabic-language press in Bahrain is making a clear connection between Sh. 'Ali's arrest and the "terrorist violence."  Consider the screenshot above of today's Page 1 in Al-Ayam, which has an article of the arrest flanked by two others: one reporting on a grenade attack in Dumistan and thwarted "car bomb" in Manama; another on Hizballah's "assassination" of Sunni politician Mohamad Chatah in Lebanon.

Whatever the case, the arrest seems to have done the trick for at least some Sunnis in Bahrain.  A thread on the main pro-government forum contains this celebratory GIF of a dancing 'Ali Salman:

Others, though, were less satisfied. "Too bad Bahrain isn't part of Saudi Arabia [i.e., as part of a Gulf Union/federation]," remarked one commenter, "since then we'd have the death penalty."

Political Distraction?

Alternatively, one could proffer another explanation entirely, which is that the arrest comes as a useful distraction from another notable political event: a looming parliamentary battle over a government plan to reduce fuel and other subsidies that threatens to expose a range of economic-cum-political grievances. (One will recall, of course, that following al-Wifaq's resignation the present parliament is composed of nominally "pro-government" (mainly Sunni) politicians who are not looking so pro-government at the moment.)

Whereas Al-Ayam leads with the story of 'Ali Salman's arrest and continuing violence, the front page of the Gulf Daily News dedicates most of its real estate to the legislative "showdown":

The arrest of the al-Wifaq leader, by contrast, barely makes the front page.

U.S. and Europe: Stop Talking to Al-Wifaq

Additionally, a contact in al-Wifaq points out one important element of Sh. 'Ali's detention, which is a foreign travel ban.  This is notable because he had been "due to embark on a major European tour in January, meeting officials, think tanks, civil society leaders, academics, and media professionals." Thus, the person suggests, "[h]ardliners in the regime are annoyed with Al-Wefaq's out reach to the outside world. Also, the move is partly meant to send signals to foreign diplomats to limit their contacts with the society" in line with the Justice Ministry's decision in September.

It goes without saying that all this takes place in the context of fragile US-Gulf relations amid discord over (relative) Western détente with Iran.  Secretary of Defense Hagel was keen to stress continued and even expanded American military cooperation with Bahrain in recent remarks at the Manama Dialogue; while the New York Times reported earlier this month possible concessions to Gulf states demanding early access to advanced military hardware -- airplanes, in this case -- normally withheld to preserve a strategic advantage for Israel.

Under such circumstances, the present political leverage enjoyed by Bahrain and especially patron Saudi Arabia may also play into their willingness to risk a potential diplomatic encounter over heightened persecution of the formal opposition in Bahrain.

Holding Al-Wifaq Responsible

Finally, it is worth considering the authorities' message to al-Wifaq and 'Ali Salman itself, beyond the obvious "stop slandering the government and inciting violence."  This is important especially in the context of a potential political bargain in the short or medium term.

The message would seem to be that al-Wifaq must take responsibility, and will be held responsible, for actions even of those activists nominally outside its control.  This question -- the matter of al-Wifaq's sway over the "Shi'a street" -- is a critical one for any possible political solution.  For if the group cannot credibly promise to end opposition protest and violence, even by (at least a majority of) those who do not subscribe to its political program, then the government has no incentive to negotiate in the first place, since in any event its interlocutors cannot deliver what it wants.

Update: Al-Wasat reports that 'Ali Salman has been released from detention, though his travel ban will remain pending trial.

Update 2: A contact who met with Sh. 'Ali on Sunday tells that he had this to say about the arrest:
  1. The authorities "want to apply [the] brakes on opposition" activities inside and outside Bahrain.
  2. Plans "were underway for travel to several places, including EU, US, GCC and Russia."
  3. "Officials overlook [the] consequences of their actions," the questioning having "brought Bahrain again under [the] international spotlight."
Update 3: The Gulf Daily News reports on the state's latest "anti-terrorism" coup, authorities purportedly having captured a boat "3.2km north of Karranah" carrying "Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators," and offering secret transport to fugitives.  Also, those individuals captured were "trained in Iran and Iraq."  No word how the Huthi rebels of northern Yemen were involved.

Update 4: No story is complete without a pseudo-academic analysis from Bahrain's most noted Czech-based pseudo-academic slash obscure journal editor (who may or may not exist) Mitchell Belfer, who brings his usual gravitas and linguistic precision to "The 'Who' and the 'Why' of the Plotted New Year’s Eve Massacre in Bahrain."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bahrain: It's Not Corruption If The Entire Ruling Family Knows About It!

Thus have Aluminum Bahrain (Alba)'s lawyers successfully argued in a London court, ending the trial of one Victor Dahdaleh. The Financial Times reports,
Billionaire Victor Dahdaleh did not dispute that he paid £38m to Sheikh Isa bin Ali al-Khalifa, Alba’s former chairman and a close adviser of the prime minister, to win $3bn of contracts for companies including Alcoa of the US. Mr Dahdaleh’s lawyers argued in court, however, that the payments were not corrupt because they were known about and approved by Alba’s government-controlled board. ...

Bruce Hall, Alba’s former chief executive, has pleaded guilty to corruption and will be sentenced shortly. During his cross-examination, he agreed with the description of tensions in Bahrain, where “the royal family is all-powerful” and where “nothing of significance happened in Bahrain without the approval of the prime minister.”

Mr Hall described Alba’s board as “dysfunctional,” agreeing with the premise that the majority Bahraini members “accepted that what Isa and the prime minister said, went”.

The trial also highlighted tensions within the ruling family. Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the reformist-minded crown prince, led attempts to reform Alba well before the unrest of the Arab uprising reopened Bahrain’s sectarian divide.

The court heard that Mr Hall was summoned to the crown prince on his appointment as chief executive in 2001 and asked to report any corruption he might witness. But Mr Hall said that he felt he could only report to the crown prince if Sheikh Isa knew.

A turning point that helped hasten the trial’s collapse was a letter from one of Bahrain’s five deputy prime ministers, Jamel Saleem al-Arayed, who also advises the prime minister on legal affairs. He wrote that all payments made by Mr Dahdaleh in connection with Alba were known about by its board.

The letter was read out during cross-examination of Sasi Mallela, an SFO lawyer.
This comes, of course, fourteen months after Alba's $85m settlement of a separate bribery suit with Alcoa filed in a U.S. court.  Yes, that's right: Alba successfully sued Alcoa for bribing its [Alba's] own executives, namely Sh. 'Isa.

Al-Wifaq is calling for an independent investigation -- in Bahrain, that is, rather than the U.S. or Britain.  For now, Bahrain seems happy to outsource the rule of law.

One hopes that some non-"opposition" groups will be willing to cross the political line here to join al-Wifaq and others in calling for a domestic investigation, since that's the only way there is a chance of one.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Collective Frustration, But No Collective Action, in Qatar

I am currently traveling in Germany and the U.S. for conferences, but thought I would post a link to this article on Qatari domestic politics recently published in the Middle East Research and Information Project. Based on insights from new survey data collected earlier this year, it discusses the political road ahead for Qatar following the unprecedented leadership transition of late June. In this sense it is notable not only for its basis in empirical data, but also for its treatment of domestic politics rather than the standard concern for Qatar's international policy and strategy.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Terrorists, Not to be Confused with "Terrorists," Arrested in Bahrain

I recognize that I've been slacking a bit in posting over the past weeks and months, mainly owing to growing writing commitments.  Primary among these is a book manuscript for a university press based on my dissertation, which feels not a little like déjà vu.  The book will make use of the data from my Bahrain survey of 2009, as well as more recent data from projects in Qatar, to probe the individual-level assumptions of the rentier state framework.  Theoretically, this can be summarized in two main questions:
  1. On what basis do citizens actually qualify for the material benefits distributed by Gulf governments?
  2. To what extent are citizens' political behaviors and orientations actually a function of (their degree of satisfaction with) these material benefits?
Now, you may not find these questions particularly interesting, but then again neither are recent political developments in Bahrain, which as elsewhere in the Gulf have been overshadowed by last week's Iranian nuclear deal.

Far from a similar political deal in Bahrain, the main news item seems to be public outcry -- and official embarrassment -- over the effects of what was by local standards a big rainstorm last week.  While there were no resulting deaths as in Saudi Arabia, still residents were sufficiently annoyed to post photo evidence of the country's poor drainage infrastructure to social media.  Among those affected were schools, some of which had to close as a result of flooding, and these joined in the fun by posting their own flood photographs to Instagram and elsewhere.  As a result, the Education Ministry has now banned schools from publishing their own news and images, which now must be submitted to the ministry beforehand. Brilliant.

The other notable story is the arrest of two former Guantanamo inmates who attempted to cross into Bahrain with cash and forged passports in order, the Interior Ministry claims, to carry out terrorist attacks. Now, since we're dealing with actual terrorists in this case rather than tire-burning "terrorists" (or terrorists who upload photos of flooding to the Internet), the ministry has not identified the suspects nor released further details, including their nationality.  Certainly, it would not be the first time that Salafis released to Saudi Arabia's custody from Guantanamo returned to the trade. The more interesting question, of course, is whether those arrested were planning to attack actual government (or U.S. government) targets, or Bahrain's Shi'a heretics.

Oh, and the neverending dialogue continues, though still without opposition participation. So there's that.

Update: The Bahrain Mirror reports that, notwithstanding early statements by the Interior Ministry, Bahrain's public prosecutor seems to have dropped references to "terrorism" in regard to the former Guantanamo prisoners arrested on the causeway last week. The individuals apparently were Salafi fighters/intermediaries bound for Syria, which would explain their money and forged passports.  The Bahrain Mirror noted that the public prosecution is headed by the brother of the former leader of al-Asalah, prompting a statement from the latter to the effect that "We are honored to send aid to the Syrian revolution."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Movement at Last? Rumors of Change in and Outside Bahrain

I've recently returned from a very enjoyable weekend in Norway, where I had a chance to meet new and old acquaintances as part of the 2013 Rafto Prize ceremony. (Click here for a frightening photo of a Molotov cocktail-wielding Bahraini Shi'a mob terrorizing the streets of Bergen.) At the same time, I have managed to acquire some interesting pieces of (secondhand) information about some potentially significant domestic and international political developments concerning Bahrain. And, no, the rumors do not originate from the angry Shi'a mob.

The first item relates to everyone's favorite subject: the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and whether or how long it's likely to remain in Bahrain.  As readers will know, until now the status of the base in Juffair has not been called into question by American defense officials, who claim instead (and one hopes disingenuously) to have no contingency plan in the event the political situation devolves even further.  Thus, the question of the Fifth Fleet outwardly at least has failed to realize its potential as a political pressure point, precisely because the U.S. government has sent no costly signals to the effect that a re-evaluation of the base is even under consideration.

The rumor, then, originating from journalists at leading Western newspapers, is that one or more publications is preparing to publish in-depth feature article(s) recasting the Fifth Fleet in a new strategic light.  Rather than an essential pillar in the fight to contain Iran's maritime belligerence, and of Gulf security generally, the role and importance of the base is described in more modest terms: as a mere "support" station (that is its name after all) rather than a lynchpin of regional security. To what extent these stories come at the direct instigation of U.S. officials was not made clear, yet it was said that the shift in tone and substance is justified in the articles as reflecting perceptible changes in the government's own language.

Of course, given the fluid strategic landscape of the Gulf, any potential change in policy or even tone regarding the Fifth Fleet may have less to do with Bahrain than a desire to moderate U.S. military posture vis-a-vis Iran.  Yet it would in any case still serve the useful purpose of reinstating the question as a functional lever of American diplomacy.

The second item is, if possible, of even more potential significance, and one could speculate not unrelated to the first.  This is the rumor of an impending political bargain, allegedly brokered by the British, between the mainstream opposition societies (i.e., al-Wifaq) and the Bahraini government.  The announcement, again allegedly, will be made sometime in December, and the terms would be something like the following: revision of the country's gerrymandered electoral districts, along with a few junior ministers from the opposition, in exchange for al-Wifaq's return to parliament and a commitment to (put pressure on activists to) end protest activity.  Whether the opposition ministers would be elected or appointed I have no information.  The prime minister's position, reportedly, is not under question.

The possibility of a government-opposition bargain puts in a new light the unprecedented persecution of top al-Wifaq officials, including Khalil al-Marzuq and 'Ali Salman.  As of Sunday, when the latter was charged with the heinous crime of "insulting the interior ministry" for his group's display of items and images from the uprising (in what was billed a "museum") at an al-Wifaq office in Bilad al-Qadeem, both individuals have been charged and subsequently released, and one presumes they are now awaiting trial or adjudication. For Salman, this is the first time he has been summoned, much less charged, since the uprising began.

As always, we have the conspiracy interpretation and the non-conspiracy interpretation.  The latter would note that the government is likely using the court cases -- not only against individuals but against al-Wifaq as an organization -- as a way to pressure the group's acceptance of what are ultimately probably hard-to-swallow political terms, especially compared to what they might have gotten from the crown prince in March 2011. This would perhaps help clarify al-Wifaq's description of Salman's summons as "political extortion."

An alternative version, which one often hears when al-Wifaq is involved in some controversy, is that the arrest of the leadership is part of a deliberate effort to make the mainstream opposition appear more "radical" and thus in tune with the "Shi'a street."  The latter, the argument goes, are assumed then to be more likely to accept the legitimacy of an eventual political deal.

Assuming for a moment that a compromise such as this is in the works, it will be interesting to see the relative importance of political ideals and political fatigue in shaping the response of various constituencies in Bahrain.  Has nearly three years of daily fighting taken its toll on youthful activists such that they are now ready for peace or at least a ceasefire?  Will Bahrain's Sunnis fall in line behind yet another compromise with the opposition brokered behind closed doors and ultimately at their political expense? Will security-minded royals in the royal court and defense ministry give up their campaign to deliver punitive justice to all those deemed traitors? One hopes that we will have the opportunity to find out.

Update: It have been told that Iran's English-language satellite station Al-'Alam is presently phasing out its daily hour-long program on events in Bahrain. Perhaps a coincidence, but also perhaps a bid to foster a calmer political environment.

Al-Wasat reports an "agreement" to resume Gulf Air flights between Bahrain and Iran, which have been suspended since 2011, beginning on December 15. More coincidence?

Update 2: Sh. Nasr demonstrates brilliant "leadership abilities" in leading Bahraini princes to an "honorable placing" in a Florida Ironman triathlon.  Watch out, Crown Prince Salman!

Update 3: Over the weekend I happened to speak with a Western source familiar with political discussions in Bahrain, who confirmed efforts toward a December deal.  Interestingly, however, he was not so sanguine about the political position of the prime minister, who the person said would be unlikely to retain his post even in the short term.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fallout with Saudi Arabia Affords U.S. Even Less Leverage in Bahrain

Akhbar al-Khaleej: The Obamaman's new clothes

It will come as no news to those who follow events in Bahrain when I say that little has changed since I last wrote here. Some sense of this may be gleaned by the fact that I was yesterday contacted by a journalist seeking permission to use a quotation proffered over a month ago(!), since nothing had changed essentially on the political front such as to make it outdated.

The remarkable thing, then, may be exactly this, the extent to which things have remained depressingly static particularly since the launch of the Neverending Dialogue, Part II. On the other hand, this is of course the entire point of the exercise from the standpoint of the government: to buy time indefinitely, picking off in the meantime all those whose frustration with the lack of progress causes them to transgress the line of what is tolerated. (Witness, e.g., Khalil al-Marzuq.)  In a recent writing that takes a long view of events since the uprising, Mansoor al-Jamri has termed this Bahrain's political "cul-de-sac," an image that seems to fit the case nicely.

Beyond the intractable nature of Bahrain's underlying political conflict per se, this stagnation reminds one also of the central role of outside forces.  Consider, for instance, the case of Britain, which continues to play an important (and critics would say unhelpful) part not only in backing and facilitating the national dialogue, but also in other post-BICI "reform" efforts such as those in the Interior Ministry.  I am told that the British, whose praise for the capable and well-intentioned Justice Minister Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali I once heard first hand, have now come to recognize the purposeful futility of the dialogue process, but have little choice but to continue with it. (If this discouraging BCHR report about the new Ministry of Interior Ombudsman position is any indication, British efforts with that ministry also have seen uneven progress.)

More generally, both the British and United States appear to lack the leverage required to force the hand of the Bahraini government, which is to say the hand of Saudi Arabia. British interests in Bahrain are rooted in the economic, and the former colonial master seems content to take a cautious and non-confrontational tack on the political front. With regard to the U.S., despite sustained calls by academics and policymakers to play the ultimate diplomatic card -- the matter of the Fifth Fleet in Juffair -- the Defense Department has admitted to not having even a contingency plan in place in the event basing at Bahrain becomes untenable. So the Bahrainis and Saudis need not even call the U.S. bluff, as there is none to be made.

Yet American leverage in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia may be waning even more than we know.  A very interesting Wall Street Journal report today offers new insight into the much-analyzed Saudi decision to reject a seat at the UN Security Council that it had worked for some two years to secure.  The article claims that the Saudi decision aimed to send a message not to the UN but the U.S., and cites two previously-unreported events that occurred at the height of Western preparations to take military action against Syria in August. It tells,
Diplomats and officials familiar with events recounted two previously undisclosed episodes during the buildup to the aborted Western strike on Syria that allegedly further unsettled the Saudi-U.S. relationship.

In the run-up to the expected U.S. strikes, Saudi leaders asked for detailed U.S. plans for posting Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil center, the Eastern Province, during any strike on Syria, an official familiar with that discussion said. The Saudis were surprised when the Americans told them U.S. ships wouldn't be able to fully protect the oil region, the official said.

Disappointed, the Saudis told the U.S. that they were open to alternatives to their long-standing defense partnership, emphasizing that they would look for good weapons at good prices, whatever the source, the official said.

In the second episode, one Western diplomat described Saudi Arabia as eager to be a military partner in what was to have been the U.S.-led military strikes on Syria. As part of that, the Saudis asked to be given the list of military targets for the proposed strikes. The Saudis indicated they never got the information, the diplomat said.

I will refrain from Photoshopping this...

There would seem, then, to be little hope of any effective outside pressure interested in or capable of moving along the political situation in Bahrain. Speculation earlier this year that new Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayf might be more amenable to political compromise with the Shi'a opposition has so far received no tangible evidence, and in the current regional climate one imagines that whatever political window existed then has now passed.  To be sure, one would rather suspect that Saudi Arabia views strong "security" measures in Bahrain (to say nothing of a new GCC security architecture generally) as more necessary than ever, particularly if the WSJ is correct in reporting that the U.S. was unwilling or unable to protect the Eastern Province from feared Syrian aggression in August.

Bahrain's double-life will continue, then -- new shipments of tear-gas and stun grenades to go along with a National Dialogue successful precisely in its failure.  In December "national security leaders" will once again arrive for the annual IISS-hosted Manama Dialogue; April 2014 will see the annual Formula 1 circus; and, if Bahrainis are lucky, by 2016 the island will have its very own $51M indoor ski slope. What more could citizens ask for?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bahrain Grips for Pax Americana-Iranica

Presidents Obama and Rouhani deliver "the same speech on Bahrain"

For one living in the Gulf region, the existence of an unspoken alliance between the United States and Iran aimed at undermining the Arab Gulf monarchies is a fact taken for granted. Indeed, how else does explain the U.S.'s systematic post-2001 program of overthrowing Iran's enemies, to say nothing of late-night phone calls between Presidents Obama and Rouhani?  In Bahrain, Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad knew as much way back in July 2011, when he told Al-Ahram that the uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Yet for all this, there is still a misconception by many, especially those who've not spent much time in the region, that this idea of a U.S.-Iranian alliance is a view held only by a marginal, conspiratorial minority.  So let me say this clearly: it is not.  While I haven't spoken with enough non-Bahraini Shi'a around the Gulf to generalize, I can say based on extensive experience that GULF SUNNIS DO NOT TRUST U.S. INTENTIONS IN THE REGION. A prominent article in the weekend New York Times offers some indication of this in the context of the Obama-Rouhani phone call, but even here it is framed in a way that downplays the seriousness of the concern.  Jamal Khashoggi is quoted as saying, for example, "There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America," which again leaves one thinking, "Wow those crazy Gulf Arabs, always with their conspiracy theories!"

Indeed, it is ironic that the New York Times chose also to publish in this weekend's Sunday Review an interactive Middle East map imagining "how 5 countries [Iraq, Syria, Saudi, Yemen, Libya] could become 14," i.e. as a result of the ethnic and sectarian pressures wrought by the Arab uprisings:

The map is ironic in that it resembles closely another (in)famous map depicting a "New Middle East." Prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006, it aimed to illustrate a potential outcome of the so-described "New Middle East" project initiated by the Bush Administration with the Iraq War.  The implication was that the United States was not simply witnessing the balkanization of the region but contributing to it and shaping it for its own ends. That such a map should reappear now, then, and with much greater geopolitical plausibility, will recall for many these fears of a decade ago, and the question of whether the U.S. has not perhaps succeeded in its principle of "constructive chaos" in the Middle East.

The reaction in Bahrain to the tentative rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, accordingly, is not one of hysteria, but rather a calm "I told you so." Taking place within the context of what is already a heated debate over U.S. policy toward the country (as symbolized by the U.S. Embassy and more particularly the U.S. ambassador), this development represents but one more piece of ammunition in an already-full magazine carried by the U.S.'s Sunni critics.  Beyond his phone call with Rouhani, Obama's explicit reference to "sectarian tensions" in Bahrain during his speech to the UN also is seen as having emboldened the opposition, which held a large (and authorized) march down al-Budaiyi' Road on Friday attended by 'Isa Qasim, 'Abdullah al-Ghurayfi, and other senior religious figures.  It was a clear day yesterday (I was at the beach!), and the picture is somewhat neat:

For government supporters, of course, Obama's remarks were interpreted somewhat less positively:

Indeed, even former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli got in on the action, "attack[ing] his own country over its attitude to the kingdom." The Gulf Daily News tells, "He sounded an alarm over deteriorating relations with Bahrain and other Gulf countries, and warned that the US 'neglects its allies at its peril.'" Ereli continued,
As one senior member of a ruling family asked me, 'Why can't the US stand by us the way Russia stands by Syria?' We should. America must state clearly what it stands for and who it stands with. The unease we have sown among our allies is damaging to our national security and economic future.

Sooner or later, a crisis will strike this part of the world. It could be conflict with Iran or the bloody hand of terror. Domestic upheaval threatens the very foundation of states. And make no mistake - American jobs and financial stability will be at stake.

Now is the time to mend fences and rebuild frayed ties with our friends in the Gulf. President Barack Obama should take a page from President Clinton's play book. He should tell our friends in the GCC that we feel their pain. He should travel to the region and reassure troubled allies that America is on their side and will work with them in a spirit of common purpose to manage the challenges of a turbulent time. The administration must reverse this troubling trend of neglect. Our future prosperity depends on it.
I wonder if Ereli's remarks are colored at all by his recent (early September 2013) exit from the State Department in favor of the private consulting firm Mercury, which "represents several foreign governments in Washington"?

Whatever the case, Ereli along with many Bahrainis may soon have more to complain about.  A report yesterday in Lebanon's (admittedly pro-Hizballah) Al-Akhbar claims that President Obama recently delivered a letter to King Hamad via Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he demands, inter alia, that Crown Prince Salman replace Khalifa bin Salman as head of government. It is not clear whether the directive came from President Rouhani, or from 'Ali Khamenei directly.

Update: Silly Obama thinks he can join a hawza without Bahraini Sunnis noticing:

Update 2: Front page story in yesterday's Al-Watan: "Krajeski Asks Al-Wifaq for a Mass Rally in Support of Obama." Cites a meeting between the U.S. ambassador and 'Ali Salman.

Update 3: Here's one for you: The Editor-in-Chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej Anwar 'Abd al-Rahman published an "expose" this weekend about a U.S. conspiracy against Bahrain and Egypt. "That sounds about right. So what?" you say. Well, this one claimed to be based on an "interview" given to Fox News by retired chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, in which the latter has all kinds of crazy things to say. Following denials by the U.S. Embassy and Defense Department, which pointed out that Shelton had not been on Fox News since 2010, Akhbar al-Khaleej and English-language sister publication Gulf Daily News have doubled down, affirming they "stand by the story."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How the Gulf Survived the Arab Spring (and Other Weekend Reading)

I don't normally do this, but given the recent release of several insightful publications on Bahrain and Gulf politics I thought it would be worth reviewing them, if not in a formal book review sort of way, here.

The first of these is an e-book by Elizabeth Dickinson, a journalist known for her good work at The National (which following the untimely demise of Al-Watan's English-language version is now one of the best English newspapers in the Gulf!).  At just fifty-one pages, "Who Shot Ahmed?" is a relatively short but compelling look at the life and death of one Bahraini activist -- a fellow journalist, in fact -- at the very outset of the uprising.  This it describes in vivid detail, offering a portrait of life in Bahrain's secluded Shi'a villages usually painted only in broad strokes in media coverage of opposition protests. In so doing, the narrative speaks to larger questions of justice, legitimacy and, ultimately, the uncertain future of those tens of thousands of individuals caught up directly or indirectly in the uprising.

A second publication is Toby Matthiesen's Sectarian Gulf, released over the summer.  It is also in many ways a narrative (travelogue even) of the Arab Spring in the Gulf, as he was present in both Bahrain and the Eastern Province during the onset of protests.  The book also has a larger theoretical aim, however (hence its publication by Stanford UP), which is a theme encountered often at this blog: namely, the purposeful activation and cultivation of sectarian political identities and conflict as a strategy of regime survival in the Gulf.  Matthiesen examines in detail the cases of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Kuwait, demonstrating how ruling families were able in the end to rely upon their own citizens to protect them from ... their other citizens.

Last but certainly not least is Greg Gause's very recent paper for Brookings, "Kings for All Seasons: How the Middle East's Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring," whose great title is but one of many virtues. The essay is framed as a theoretical and empirical retort to what Gause describes as two separate "extreme" views of the Gulf monarchies: on the one hand, the view (à la Christopher Davidson) that the regimes are on the brink of implosion due to chronic economic, social, environmental, and political problems; and, on the other, the notion (as embodied in Victor Menaldo's 2012 Journal of Politics paper) that monarchies as a system of governance engender a unique "political culture" (or something else) that explains their resistance to overthrow.

Hold on there, killer, says Gause.  In fact, he says, the explanation for the longevity (or not) of the Gulf monarchies is far less dramatic than either of these extremes:
Rather, the Arab monarchies have deployed their ample hydrocarbon wealth to blunt popular demand for reform; even the kingdoms that are comparatively resource-poor have been backstopped by their wealthier allies. And each Arab monarchy has maintained a powerful supporting coalition of domestic interest groups, regional allies, and (typically Western) foreign patrons to buttress regime stability.
That sounds about right.

Gause goes on to address in relative detail the subject of Toby's book (as well as that of the forthcoming volume to which I am a contributor, Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf; and Fred Wehrey's forthcoming book; see a trend here?), namely the use of sectarianism as a political strategy.  This leads inevitably to the case of Bahrain, with which Gause concludes the paper.  His final paragraph is notable in its pointedness:
That said, the ultimate rationale for keeping an American military base in a country is not to use it to exercise leverage on that country’s domestic politics. Rather, it is to serve larger American strategic interests. Maintaining a base in an unstable country detracts from its military purpose and runs the risk that the United States will be drawn into domestic conflicts in ways that would damage U.S. interests. Political instability in the host country requires the diversion of resources and attention to force protection. Most importantly, having a base in an unstable country puts American service people at risk. For these reasons, Washington has to make clear to the Al Khalifa government that it cannot sustain its military presence in Bahrain if current conditions continue. The United States should be taking serious steps to explore alternative basing arrangements for the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf region, not as a bluff to move the Bahrainis toward reform, but as a way to insure our own military interests in the area. The United States does not need bases in unstable countries.
Update: Also, for those interested in Qatar, Mehran Kamrava has just published Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Cornell UP).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bahrain's Legal "War on Terror"

I was listening the other day to a program on Al-Jazeera, in which a historian of Algeria's civil war argued that Egypt's present campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood represents a strategy similar to that of Algeria's military government decades ago. The idea is this: to persecute members of an opposition with such violent disregard that the movement transforms from a political current that does or might elicit popular support to an armed insurgency, popular fear of which would preclude any political sympathy and ultimately harden citizens in their support of a government with whose policies and even legitimacy they might not otherwise agree.

Now, it would be oversimplistic to say that Bahrain's own security-cum-political strategy follows precisely the same formula, not least because the violence even of the post-February 14 period cannot match that of the slaughter in Algeria. Rather, the government's strategy has always followed a more legalistic tack, perhaps because its unique societal configuration affords it that luxury. In July 2005, the Sunni Islamist-dominated parliament passed what is now the Political Societies Law, which divides political groupings neatly into two legal distinctions: those registered with the Ministry of Justice (and thus "legal"), and those unregistered ("illegal"). King Hamad decreed the bill into law that August. All this occurred, of course, prior to al-Wifaq's electoral participation, and perhaps even helped spur it.

The state's clear purpose was to delegitimize and indeed criminalize those groups that refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the unilaterally-promulgated 2002 Constitution (and so refused to register), who were thereafter given the label "terrorist organization." (Hence the need for Bahrain's infamous "anti-terrorism" statute of 2006; see, e.g., this MA thesis by Fatemah Al-Zubairi.) This proved to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy, with now-underground movements such as al-Haqq, al-'Amal, and others resorting from time to time to violence -- if obviously not "terrorism" in the accepted sense -- of their own. So, even if this criminalization did not provide relief from political opposition or violence, still it offered a legal cover for the state's intermittent crackdowns on protest activities and their leaders.

We return then to the Bahrain of September 2013, where the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is busy further tightening the noose around the political sphere. Measures announced on Sept. 4 require political societies to seek Ministry approval prior to any meetings with foreign entities, including diplomats. (See Al-Watan for a defense by Sh. Khalid.) Then, yesterday, the Ministry filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Shi'i Islamic Ulama Council led by 'Isa Qasim. Its violations were said to include:
the adoption of the call for the so-called ‘revolution,’ the violation of the laws, support and assistance to a political society that had been dissolved by a court ruling for openly supporting violence, alliance and continuous coordination with a licensed political association and unlawful interference in the elections by supporting specific candidates.
All the while, delegates at the National Dialogue -- a dialogue sponsored by none other than the Minister of Justice -- continue to fail to even begin. On Saturday the Gulf News provided an update on this farcical process:
The 27 participants, representing a coalition of opposition societies, another coalition of political societies, the parliament and the government, have held more than 25 meetings that were quiet at times and stormy at others.

Yet [dramatic pause], they still have to agree on a platform and an agenda for the talks.
The lesson, then?: play by our rules, however ridiculous and inefficacious, or risk legal banishment from politics altogether. Moreover, as with the Political Societies Law of 2005, the state can claim that such a position represents in fact the will of the public itself, as each of the Ministry's new measures is being sold as stemming from July's extraordinary joint session of parliament organized in response to the summer's upswing in violence. As in 2005, the opposition was not represented owing to its own boycott, and now appears to be suffering similar consequences.

In addition to the legal fate of 'Isa Qasim, whom the state and its supporters have been targeting since the beginning of the uprising, it will be interesting to see whether the new ban on contact with foreign entities is invoked in the context of the civil war in Syria. In a very interesting article, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that would-be Shi'a fighters from "Iraq, Syria, and other Arab countries" have been flocking "by the busload" to a training site outside Tehran in preparation of entering the conflict in Syria. Already a year ago, members (and indeed the leaders) of Bahrain's Salafi society al-Asalah boasted of their heroic exploits with members of the Free Syrian Army. Only ten days ago the group announced the martyrdom of yet another of its followers in Syria, bringing the total to six. What chance that the Bahraini government would countenance similar involvement (or accused involvement) by members of, say, al-Wifaq, particularly following its explicit ban on foreign contact? I would love to see that Gulf Daily News headline.

Finally, notable in this context of heightened political repression -- not only for Shi'i but for Sunni groups as well -- is King Hamad's conspicuous trip on Sunday to China, where he met with the country's president and top political advisor. Joining the King were, among others, Muhammad bin Mubarak, Khalifah al-Dhaharani, Hamad's son 'Abdallah, Khalid bin Ahmad, and Ahmad bin 'Attiyatallah. (There is no mention of Crown Prince Salman, despite the visit's having taken place on the sidelines of a trade expo.) Apart from King 'Abdullah II of Jordan, King Hamad was the only Arab head of state to attend the event. One wonders whether this conspicuous appearance wasn't meant in part to suggest Bahrain's cultivation of new strategic partners less concerned about its domestic political affairs.

Update: Appropriately, given the substance of today's post, an e-mail message from the al-Wifaq offshoot Bahrain Justice and Freedom Movement reports that former deputy head of al-Wifaq Khalil al-Marzuq "was detained this morning after being summoned to the Budaiya Police Station yesterday," apparently for a speech delivered September 7 that government officials have characterized as "supporting terrorist activities, violence and the downfall of the regime."

Update 2: The story of al-Marzuq's arrest (provoked apparently by his raising the flag of the February 14 coalition at a rally on September 6) is making the rounds. In response, not only al-Wifaq but all the opposition societies have suspended participation in the National Dialogue, which will of course be a big setback for the progress parties had been making.

Update 3: Many have been noting the State Department's distinct lack of outrage over the arrest of al-Marzuq, particularly in the context of the other recent legal measures discussed in this post.  Indeed, when asked about the arrest, a State spokeswoman spent more time chiding the opposition for suspending its participation in the dialogue. The Washington Post editorial board describes the situation thus: "Bahrain arrests opposition leader; U.S. shrugs." HRW gets even snarkier, writing, "U.S. Thinks Arresting Peaceful Opposition is OK – in Bahrain, at Least."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Big Picture in Bahrain

Fixed that for you

Given my extended absence during July and August, not to mention the fact that we're only days or hours removed from a new U.S.-led war in the Middle East, it seems appropriate to step back to reflect on the larger picture shaping -- one sometimes wants to say even predetermining -- developments in Bahrain. As illustrated in the now-updated map above, these regional and international pressures are quite straightforward and their implications manifest.

Nevertheless, this infusion of geopolitics -- and, increasingly with regard to Syria it seems, great power politics, giving fresh meaning to the label "new Middle East Cold War" -- for me has recalled some festering questions and observations about the long-term strategic thinking of the government in Bahrain (granting for now that such thinking exists).  This is particularly relevant today as participants in The NeverEnding Story Part IV: Bahraini Dialogue are set to head back to the discussion (don't say negotiation!) table, no doubt to hash out quickly a solution to the ongoing stalemate.

The crux of the matter is this, what I call the state's "Shi'a problem," namely the existence in Bahrain of a non-trivial proportion of the citizenry that is systematically non-responsive to the state's appeals to economic benefaction and/or co-sectarian/co-tribal identity in securing the political loyalty (or at least apathy) of ordinary citizens.  That this is particularly a "Shi'a problem" rather than a more general "reformist" or "liberal" problem owes to the fact that most members of the Sunni community in Bahrain, even if they perceive that they are on average no better off materially than their Shi'a counterparts, and even if they would prefer in principle to see greater political liberalization in Bahrain, are sufficiently afraid of opening the Pandora's box of an empowered, Iranian-sponsored opposition that an undesirable status quo remains preferable to potentially disastrous change.

The state, then, as clearly evidenced by the past decade, faces a dilemma: what to do with this activist population that persists in its claims to a share in rule, whether on the basis of democracy, majoritarianism, nativism, or something else.  Among the enlisted strategies so far have been the following:
  1. To attempt to win over the disaffected population with economic patronage (including royal makramat), economic reform, promises of economic revitalization;
  2. To deploy the institutions of democracy -- parliament, elections, etc. -- with safeguards ensuring that no actual power is devolved; and
  3. To deploy a robust security apparatus to repress those unconvinced by items 1 and 2.
Now, the first strategy has effectively been abandoned in the aftermath of the uprising with the retrenchment of labor market reforms and the marginalization of the Economic Development Board and other institutions tied to Crown Prince Salman.  Strategy Two failed altogether over the course of a decade to secure the formal political participation of the state's staunchest opponents, who rejected the institutions as perfunctory and tantamount to co-optation; and now is in a similar position even with the moderate opposition, which today refuses to re-engage until the legislature and other bodies are granted real powers.  Repression, finally, if successful at forestalling change, still is not a long-term solution but a short-term stop-gap that can ensure only perennial crisis and instability.

What, then, are some of the state's options? 

Take Away Their Guns

First, Bahrain can attempt to ensure that its opponents, even if they might rally hundreds of thousands to the streets, still lack the hardware required for a physical takeover of the state.  The problem here, though, is that authoritarian states lack an easy way to distinguish supporters from potential or actual opponents, and so tend to restrict the duty (or privilege) of military service to limited populations of known co-ethnic/co-tribal supporters and, in the Arab Gulf context, imported expatriates.  The problem, of course, is that such exclusion feeds exactly into the feelings of ostracism and discrimination that form much of the basis of political opposition in the first place. So this is not a solution as such.

An End to Majoritarianism

Another possibility, or rather a well-documented strategy in place in Bahrain for at least a decade, is deliberate demographic re-balancing through selective naturalization, in order to demote the Shi'a population to a demographic minority.  This strategy is doubly attractive in that it kills two birds with one stone, since the state already requires foreign nationals for martial service in any case.  The aim here is not simply to be able to say that "Sunnis are a majority in Bahrain," but to enable the state to go further with actual political reforms -- say, more equal electoral districts, fair elections, and a more empowered parliament -- in order to undercut fundamentally the argument of the opposition.

That is to say, if al-Wifaq's constituency is numerically marginalized such that it is impossible even in free and fair elections for the group to capture the votes to establish a legislative majority, to elect its choice of ministers, and so on, then the state can steal away the most powerful argument of the opposition, namely that the majority viewpoint is not represented in government.  In that case, continued opposition activities are more likely to be viewed by once-critical observers not as legitimate demands for reform but as unjustified and undemocratic protest from parties unwilling to accept losing a fair electoral fight. I can say from personal conversation that this scenario is not a mere hypothetical concern of al-Wifaq.

Loyalty, Voice, or Exit?

A third strategy recalls Hirschman's observation that dissatisfied members of a community have three options: voice their criticism, remain despite their dissatisfaction out of a sense of communal (or here national) loyalty, or pick up and leave.  Now, I don't claim to have some knowledge of a Bahraini plan to induce the systematic exit of political opponents, or of the Shi'a community at large, but it is certainly conceivable given Bahrain's small population that a lack of economic opportunity and political efficacy could lead to a disproportionate emigration of those associated with (or branded members of) the opposition.  Certainly, the argument that "If the Shi'a are so unhappy here they should move back to Iran" was not uncommon to hear even prior to the uprising.  And then afterward:

On the other hand, the notorious anti-Shi'a poem penned by Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad in 1995, which seemed to lay out a blueprint for dealing with the reform demands of Bahrain's opposition, did offer as its very first prescription:
I possess the remedy to the sons of Shobber and Marhoon [the Shi'a] … 
We shall deport them to Howar, Jenan and Noon islands
One will also recall the recent royal decree, coming ostensibly at the urging of Bahraini parliamentarians, expanding the grounds for the revocation of citizenship to those who "help or serve a foreign country" or "endanger state interests."

Saudi Bahrainia

A fourth option, finally, is one that famously failed last year, namely the integration of Bahrain into a larger political entity alongside its political, spiritual, and menu adviser Saudi Arabia.  Beyond "protecting" Bahrain from Iranian interference, such a confederation or union could, with prudent application of Saudi's unique (read: unfair) electoral regulations that dampen localized bases of support, serve the same purpose as political naturalization in Bahrain, namely to render Bahrain's Shi'a majority a mere regional majority such as the Shi'a of the Eastern Province.  One could imagine, for instance, an "enhanced" parliament under a proportional representation system in which Bahrain is represented by a relatively small number of delegates elected by voters from across the two kingdoms.  (Joking aside, this is actually a reasonable extrapolation of the present system; see, e.g., Kraetzschmar.)

This final scenario is useful also in raising a larger issue, with which I will conclude here: To what extent does it even make sense to speak of the long-term political strategy of the Al Khalifa, rather than that of the Al Sa'ud?  Certainly, Bahrain's ruling family retains nominal control over the affairs of the island, but is that exercise closer to sovereignty or to mere governorship?  

I think of these questions now owing largely to what the Christian Science Monitor rightly characterizes as "[a]n odd and difficult-to-confirm story that keeps popping back onto news cycles": that Saudi Arabia is attempting to coax Russia away from its Syrian ally by offering (1) to collude on oil prices, (2) a lucrative arms deal, and, particularly interesting, (3) to "ensur[e] that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia's position as a main gas supplier to Europe," perhaps by applying pressure on Qatar. 

Such an offer is said by multiple sources to have been made at a July 31 meeting at Putin's dacha outside Moscow between the Russian president and head of Saudi intelligence Bandar bin Sultan, a meeting the Russians acknowledge but insist was limited to "philosophical" discussions -- probably about Putin's recent reading of Ibn Tufayl's Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. As one G2K list-member asked wryly, "Could it be that the Saudis think that the new Emir ... of Qatar is more amenable to working with Saudi diplomacy than his father?" (Incidentally, the WSJ reports that Prince Bandar was also recently overheard yelling into a phone, "[Qatar is] nothing but 300 people ... and a TV channel. That doesn't make a country." Booya!) 

The point is: if Saudi Arabia is prepared for the sake of ending Iranian influence in Syria to exert pressure on Qatar on a matter of extreme, even existential, importance for the latter, despite having relatively few levers of direct influence, then what should we assume of its say over domestic policy in Bahrain, a country that in Saudi eyes represents an even more dangerous entree for Iranian influence and is almost entirely bankrolled by the Saudi treasury?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Advocates of New Security Crackdown in Bahrain May Finally Get Their Wish

Following months of stalled -- or more accurately never begun -- political "dialogue," and amid ever more deadly tactics deployed against police by holdout revolutionaries, it appears that Bahrain's fractured political and social systems once again are poised to reach a breaking point.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the immediate impetus would seem to be an event not unlike the one that preceded the decisive deployment of the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield force in March 2011: a perceived attack on the Royal Court in al-Rifa'.  Thirty months ago, the action came in the form of a mass march that aimed to reach the royal compound itself, a demonstration famously repelled by a Sunni mob backed by uniformed security services.  In the present case, the attack is a July 17 "car bombing" of (the parking lot of) a Sunni mosque in al-Rifa' located in the vicinity of the Royal Court.

Importantly, beyond the inherent menace of a vehicle packed with explosives targeting civilians -- and Sunni civilians at that -- the mosque bombing entails an additional layer of threat, as the culprits are claimed by officials to be a previously-unknown terrorist group called the Ashtr al-Shiraziyya Brigade, a group "closely linked to Iran."  Predictably, members of the opposition, including the radical opposition, have mocked such claims as government theater, including on the group's supposed Facebook page.  And certainly one might pose any number of perplexing questions: why the attackers managed to breach the layers of security checkpoints surrounding al-Rifa', why a Shirazi-based organization would have ties to the government against which Shirazi Shi'ism is explicitly and fundamentally opposed, or why this Shirazi faction would have any relation to the supposed mastermind of Bahrain's violent opposition activities, the decidedly non-Shirazi Sh. 'Isa Qasim and al-Wifaq.

Yet the upshot in any case would seem to be the same: the climax of a popular- and royal-led agitation for a redoubled security crackdown ongoing ever since the end of the three-month State of National Safety in mid-2011.  Since that time, King Hamad has come under varying levels of pressure for his perceived leniency and/or plain lackadaisicalness in dealing with politically- and economically-debilitating protest activity.  Now, it seems, he either no longer can or no longer cares to hold the line against the growing chorus of voices.  Al-Wasat reports today of a royal decree dated July 15, two days before the bombing in al-Rifa', that expands the powers of the National Defense Council and directs it to "agree [new] strategies and programs to promote national security."

Separately, the National Assembly will end its summer recess to hold only its second-ever extraordinary session tomorrow in order to discuss the "'dangerous' escalation in violence."  Ironically, the measure requires the approval of the Royal Court to proceed.  If the present months-long Al-Watan campaign (newly joined by Al-Ayam) for the arrest of 'Ali Salman and 'Isa Qasim is any indication, I think the sponsoring MPs will be ok.  Already 'Ali Salman is anticipating his arrest, telling supporters at a rally in Karbabad that protests should continue if and when he is detained (see his remarks below).

All this comes in the shadow of a month promising sustained protest activities, culminating in a day of "rebellion" (tamarud) on August 14 sponsored by all major opposition parties.  Not happy to wait two more weeks, however, the February 14th folks are getting started early, taking advantage of the annual anti-Israel Quds Day to launch a pre-emptive rally on August 1. It's electronic posters like these that really help the cause of ending talk of "Iran's role in Bahrain":

Finally, the anti-activist (and more explicitly anti-Shi'a) vigilantism witnessed in the early days of the uprising are also reappearing.  The militant Twitter account @mnarfezhom is back on the scene after some lull, threatening 'Ali Salman, 'Isa Qasim, and other protest leaders, and raising concerns about Sunnis who might again attempt to take "security-promotion" into their own hands.

Update: The special session of parliament has now concluded, and the recommendations are in.  Among the more interesting ones: to revoke the passports of demonstrators and arrest 'Isa Qasim (Jasim al-Sa'idi); kill 'Isa Qasim ('Adal al-Ma'awda); impose martial law (Sawsan al-Taqawi); bar "interference" by foreign diplomats ('Adal al-'Asumi); and so on.  You probably get the idea:

Perennial contrarian Usama al-Tamimi gave a spirited defense of the opposite point of view, asking whether demanding an elected government makes one a terrorist.  Predictably, this put him into conflict with many of his fellow MPs, in particular Sawsan al-Taqawi, precipitating an argument worth viewing:

King Hamad has already welcomed the recommendations and promises that they "will be taken into account." Of course, if this process is anything like the National Action Charter, one should expect exactly none of the recommendations to make it into the final decision-making.

On the other hand, 'Ali Salman has already issued a video statement saying that Bahrainis will continue steadfast in their demands whatever the state should decide to do.

Update 2: The full list of National Assembly recommendations has now been posted to the BNA website.  Some news sources, including CNN, are erroneously reporting these recommendations as new laws passed by the parliament, which they are decidedly not.  Of course, they are most likely popular cover for an impending royal decree or two that will have the same effect, but still nothing has been legislated yet.

Update 3: A few things: new decrees from King Hamad in line with several parliamentary recommendations, including revocation of citizenship for "terrorists"; a report by Bahrain Watch detailing the government's use of fake Twitter accounts and computer malware to identify and arrest activists; a letter by a U.S. senator demanding the Department of Defense develop a contingency plan for the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain; and, most juicy of all, a leaked audio recording of Crown Prince Salman in what is said to be the Ramadan majlis of one Khalid Al Sharif (described as a "secret meeting" with the opposition), in which Sh. Salman seems to question the state's present security-cum-political strategy.

Update 4: Here's one for you: several populist Sunni leaders (including from al-Manbar and the NUG) are accusing the U.S. military of "training the Shi'a [opposition] in weapons-making."

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shīʿa Problem’ in Bahrain

At long last, my article "Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shī'a Problem’ in Bahrain" has finally been published in the Journal of Arabian Studies.  Beyond chronicling the history and rise of the Khawalid faction of the Al Khalifa, it advances a number of new arguments.  The most important of these is that the standard dichotomy, in which the group is positioned as the ideological nemesis of the "moderate" and reformist King Hamad, is disproven by the historical record. For the latter demonstrates that the Khawalid, far from a group that has somehow commandeered the state from a well-intentioned king, in fact was actively empowered by the new Bahraini monarch following his surprise succession in 1999, as a powerful weapon with which to challenge the entrenched political position of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman. I won't make the entire argument here, so for those interested please do see the article.

Update: Some industrious fellow(s) at the Bahrain Mirror has begun translating the entire article into Arabic (in five parts).  It even comes with a nice banner ad:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summer Programming Note

It's been a while since I've updated here, partly because relatively little new has happened in Bahrain (though Tuesday's parliamentary vote on the contested 2013-14 budget could get interesting) and partly because I've been working to finish several projects--including for a book on Bahrain based on my dissertation--before leaving for summer vacation in a week.  This will be my first time returning to the U.S. in about two years, so posts will likely be few and far between until late August.

In the meantime, I am eagerly awaiting the release of several publications long in the making, including an article on civic engagement in Qatar and another on Bahrain in the Journal of Arabian Studies.  Then, in late summer or early fall will finally appear the edited volume on Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf that I've mentioned before.  The Bahrain piece in particular, due out in just a few days, should make for some good fun.

I'll end for now by noting a recent POMEPS Conversation with Mark Tessler, my dissertation chair at the University of Michigan and one-half of the brains behind the ongoing Arab Barometer survey project of which my 2009 Bahrain study forms a part.  The video interview, conducted by Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch, addresses "the evolution of Arab public opinion research," and I think offers a good explanation of the usefulness of individual-level survey data in examining policy as well as more theoretical questions of interest to political scientists and students of the Middle East.

Update: A timely paper by Brooking's Richard McDaniel on the United States' need for a "Plan B" for strategic military access to the Gulf if its naval presence in Bahrain ultimately becomes untenable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Primes They Are a-Changin'

Several people have written to ask what one should make of Sh. Salman's recent visit to Washington, where he met with the Secretary of Defense and, we are told by the Washington Post, President Obama, who "dropped in" on another high-level meeting, seemingly to scold him on the issue of human rights. To be honest, as an ordinary citizen lacking the expansive surveillance and wiretapping abilities apparently deployed with impunity by the U.S. government, I'm not sure that I know enough about the trip to offer any personal insight.

Yet I can relay what seem to be the real worries of some or even many in Bahrain, namely that the Crown Prince's U.S. visit was more than just a final leg of some generic diplomatic mission. (He had been to London in the days prior.) Rather, some Bahrainis suspect that Sh. Salman traveled above all in a personal capacity, to solicit some sort of grand bargain with the United States that would help address their mutual concerns.

For the latter, this would mean progress on substantive reform and political deescalation at a time when the U.S. finds itself under attack by both sides of the conflict in Bahrain: the American ambassador is under fire from Sunnis, including in the Royal Court, for alleged "collaboration" with al-Wifaq (and "the Shi'a" generally); while the U.S. Embassy is distributing unprecedented warnings of "surveillance" of American citizens by individuals associated with the radical opposition.

For Sh. Salman, such a deal might involved redoubled U.S. support for his domestic political agenda, including the short- to near-term retirement of Khalifa bin Salman.  Relatedly, and even more importantly, this might entail redoubled U.S. pressure on the Saudis--whoever it is that is currently running that country--to permit such a transition to take place. With the ailing King 'Abdallah on "personal holiday" in Morocco, and the Saudis now reportedly taking full control over the arming of the Syrian opposition, the time may be ripe for the U.S. to suggest that the Saudis remove at least one political crisis from their plate.

That some Bahrainis should worry over such a seemingly positive step forward--meaningful political change and diffusion of tension spearheaded by a new generation of leadership--speaks to the extent of sectarian-cum-political distrust prevalent today in Bahrain and indeed throughout the region.  As Nasrallah rallies supporters to the side of the Syrian government, Qaradawi and others raise the banner of jihad against the heretical and politically-subservient Shi'a. A few more statements like these, and the sourness of sectarian relations in the Levant will have perhaps caught up to those in Bahrain since 2011.

Even Bahrainis recognize the irony of sectarian conflict.

Yet, as I have noted for some time, this distrust between Sunnis and Shi'is is but the groundwork for an even more volatile source of political instability in Bahrain and potentially elsewhere, particularly in Saudi Arabia: the mounting frustration felt by ordinary Sunnis caught between fear and/or hatred of the Shi'a-led opposition, and deep displeasure with the performance of the government over a long period during which it has enjoyed Sunni mass support.  As one Bahraini recently noted, "The position of [the Al Khalifa] is shaky, and Sunnis are not happy with the lavish life of [the] family when living standards and services are deteriorating. Historically Sunnis were [the] number one enemies of the family, only [now] they went [to] their support fearing a pro-Iran Shi'i regime [in Bahrain] similar to Iraq."

In effect, Sunnis have been forced by local and regional contingencies to play what is ultimately an ill-fitting--and, even worse from their perspective, ill-repaid--political role: that of reflexive government supporter. The question, then, in Bahrain and elsewhere, is how long Sunnis' essentially negative relationship to the state--their mobilization against the opposition--can stave off the emergence of a positive political agenda: that is, positive mobilization in pursuit of specific, probably economic, policy objectives.

In October 2012, following the recent re-opening of parliament, I asked whether Bahrain's legislature would finally to go the way of Kuwait.  With al-Wifaq now out of the picture, it seemed reasonable to think that the nominally "pro-government" parliament might finally have better things to do than dutifully obstruct the opposition's legislative agenda. Something close to this seems to have happened, with members of parliament currently locked in an eleventh-hour battle with the government over the 2013-2014 budget.

MPs have been demanding a 15% public sector pay increase for some 45,000 civil servants, something the state continues to refuse.  Instead, the government proposed yesterday an increase in monthly "inflation allowances" for needy families. The threshold for support would be increased to make eligible any family earning less than 1,000BD (around $2,700) per month, which according to the Gulf Daily News would extend the program to a staggering 100,000 families! (So much for the poor Shi'i-rich Sunni explanation of Bahrain's political conflict.) Moreover, the state has agreed to increase public and private sector retirement benefits by between 3-10%, benefiting some 44,000 pensioners.

It may be of course that such concessions will ultimately satisfy Bahrain's temporarily-riled parliamentarians, bringing the system back to equilibrium and avoiding the emergence of a Sunni movement more willing to forward an independent political agenda than groups such as the National Unity Gathering, Sahwat al-Fatih, and so on. As I've reportedly previously, I'm told that June will see the announcement of a Sunni youth movement that may come closer to fitting this bill, but one will have to wait and see.

But what, one asks, of the Crown Prince's visit to Washington?  How is this related to Bahrain's newly-inspired parliament?  Well, the fundamental problem is born of the same political dynamics.  In short, it's not clear that either Sh. Salman or the U.S. enjoys the leverage to see through the former's domestic agenda, in particular the thorny issue of Khalifa bin Salman.

While many in the nominally pro-government Sunni community could likely agree that his four decades in politics has brought prosperity mainly to him and his family, still they wonder what will be the political cascade resulting from the removal of this lynchpin.  This is all the more so if the step would occur, as one popular rumor relates, in conjunction with al-Wifaq's return to parliament in time for the 2014 regular elections, a quid pro quo that would only reinforce Sunni fears that whatever political change emerges from a new "reform" process in Bahrain, they are--as always--unlikely to be the primary beneficiaries.

Thus one is beginning to encounter an increasing number of pleas such as this recent one in the Gulf Daily News, which decries the U.S.-Iranian conspiracy
aimed at the removal of the Prince Khalifa bin Salman government. In other words, the removal of the Prime Minister of Bahrain from his strategic post and governance system, not only in Bahrain but also in other sisterly GCC nations. ...

It was the first step meant to drag Bahrain into a conflicting partisan state, where it would be much easier for Iran to swallow Bahrain and Western powers to impose their preset agenda for system change.
The article concludes with "one little advice": "Whether you agree with HRH the Prime Minister or not, you need to back him strongly in his quest for establishing the Gulf Union," and presumably in his quest to remain Bahrain's prime minister.  

But the example of "sisterly GCC nations" may not be such a generous one for Prince Khalifa.  By all accounts, in the coming weeks Qatar's emir will cede power to his son, marking (by my account) the first voluntary abdication by a Gulf monarch.  The influential prime minister will also apparently step down. The succession of the young crown prince, seen next to Sh. Salman in the photo at the top of this post, is likely only the first step in a generational change in leadership soon to catch up with other Gulf states--not least Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also Bahrain.

Update: Someone's finally figured out who are the apparent leaders of the February 14 movement, namely the Interior Ministry.

Also, I thought this was odd but thought I might have just misinterpreted; but now Simon Henderson notes the same thing in a recent article, so I suppose there is something to it: the U.S. Embassy in its intermittent security briefings has very recently changed its description of opposition protests organized by al-Wifaq.  Previously, it would say simply, "An opposition group [i.e., al-Wifaq] has called for a protest in [wherever]."  Now, it reads, "A violent opposition group has ... called for a protest."  Not sure how to understand the change in semantics beyond an attempt at seeming "more balanced" with regard to al-Wifaq.