Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bahrain's Latest Call to Dialogue: Détente or Diversion?

"Ok, guys, we've got two hours to agree on everything."

Yesterday's news that Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali has been tasked by King Hamad to restart political "discussions" has been greeted with some cautious optimism. This latest step toward renewed talks comes some six weeks after Crown Prince's surprise call for such an initiative at the Manama Dialogue, a proposal that seemed encouraging on several levels.  Naturally, the (foreign) media have connected yesterday's announcement with Sh. Salman's earlier call, in which case one is perhaps justified in remaining optimistic.  Yet looking at the design and official description of these new "discussions," it is not at all clear that they are one and the same with the Crown Prince's plan.  In which case there is must less reason for hope, and Khalil al-Marzuq's stated worry that the latest announcement may be no more than a "seasonal call for dialogue" is likely right on target.

Looking at the official BNA press release, there are several worrying elements.  It reads:
Based on the royal guidance of His Majesty the King, the Minister of Justice will invite representatives from the political societies and independent members of the political community in Bahrain to resume discussions of the political dimension which was initiated during the National Dialogue. The topics on the dialogue agenda will be those pending issues which have consensus to be listed. This process is aimed to develop further consensus around the political agenda.

This is comes in conformity with His Majesty’s speeches emphasizing on his continued support for a purposeful and serious dialogue as long as it serves the Kingdom and its people.
The first notable fact is the conspicuous omission of any reference to the crown prince's statement at the Manama Dialogue.  In fact, the announcement appears to go out of its way to disassociate itself with the latter, stating explicitly that the initiative is "[b]ased on the royal guidance" of King Hamad and "comes in conformity with His Majesty's speeches."  So, again, nothing about Sh. Salman, an omission that suggests perhaps that his more moderate faction is not the force behind the initiative.

The second worrying element is the mere mention of the National Dialogue of summer 2011, which represents without question the single most farcical and disingenuous initiative of all the farcical and disingenuous initiatives witnessed since February 2011.  Couple this with a statement of support for the new "discussions" by Khalifa al-Dhaharani, the distinguished troupe leader of the National Dialogue (who just happened to have a meeting with the king yesterday), as well as the reference to "independent members of the political community," and one's imagination runs wild.

Moreover, the statement seems to skirt around the question of who precisely was "invited" to the "discussions."  Al-Wifaq we know is included, but has the offer been extended only to the opposition?--or only to the formal opposition (i.e., not to the Feb. 14 coalition)?  The open reference to "political societies" and "independent members of the political community" would seem to suggest that the discussions would not be limited to the opposition.  Yet some reports, including one by the usually-reliable Habib Toumi at Gulf News, are running with the headline, "Bahrain king extends talks invite to opposition."  Whatever the case, the vague language stands in stark contrast to that of Crown Prince Salman, who made explicit mention of the inclusion of Sunni and Shi'i groups, a condition that will surely make or break the entire enterprise.

Finally, apart from the actual text of the initiative, one can note two additional observations. The first is the patron of this new initiative, Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali, who over the previous two years has overseen the dissolution of two opposition societies--Wa'ad (temporarily), and 'Amal--and, on repeated occasions, the attempted dissolution of al-Wifaq itself.  The most recent of these efforts/threats to ban al-Wifaq took place only in September, when the group and Sh. 'Isa Qasim came under pressure by the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, which Sh. Khalid heads and which has legal jurisdiction over Bahrain's political societies.  More generally, Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali bin 'Abdallah bin Khalid is a distinguished member of the Khawalid (a subject that has been occupying much of my time lately), which is to say a member of the ruling family not predisposed to offering substantive political concessions.

Last is the larger regional and perhaps international political context of the announcement.  On the one hand, with the anniversary of the uprising is less than a month away, it is perhaps expected that the state would revert to its old trick of what al-Marzuq calls "seasonal call[s] for dialogue" aimed at diffusing pressure at opportune times.  In line with this interpretation, one Bahraini contact estimates that the effort "seems to be part of a broader plan by the authorities ahead of the crucial second anniversary of 14 Feb." 

On the other hand, one can also identify several external factors that could be conspiring to give King Hamad a kick in the pants on the issue of dialogue.  Second-term "I do what I want!" President Obama has nominated as secretaries of state and defense two individuals who likely represent a different take on the United States' proper role in the Middle East, its stance on Iran, and indeed its strategic goals throughout the rest of the world.  At the same time, Bahrain's oldest great-power patron Britain is in the middle of its own formal parliamentary review of relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. See, for example, Jane Kinninmont's testimony to the committee yesterday:

These hints at changes in philosophy may not translate into substantive changes in the U.S. or British relationship with Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, but the mere suggestion may be enough to prompt Gulf leaders to take more deliberate steps to ensure their own long-term security and stability, including by making headway on addressing longstanding political grievances.  (Say, in Saudi Arabia's case, by appointing women to the Shura Council.) That Bahrain's announcement came just a day after the end of the GCC summit in Riyadh, where the focus reportedly was on the Arab Spring and meeting "people's aspirations," is interesting in this regard.  As always, however, only time will tell.

Update: Well, it seems that Sunni groups certainly are under the impression that they've been invited. (Although this impression has proved erroneous in the past.) The National Unity Gathering has welcomed the dialogue and in fact held public meetings with constituents last night.
Update 2: Not everyone is such a fan, however. The Bahrain Mirror reports that official army spokesman and Internet funnyman Khalid Al Bu'Ainain referred to the dialogue ("al-hiwar") yesterday as "al-himar"--that is, "the jack-asses"--in a Tweet. Hilarious.

Update 3: Blast, another setback!  Al-Wifaq, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate its control of the Shi'a street and/or ability to mobilize popular support for the dialogue, calls for a rally in Manama.  The Interior Ministry denies permission for the rally.  Members of the youth movement instead take to the streets to denounce the talks, shouting "no dialogue with killers."  Interior Ministry responds with tear gas and stun grenades.  Al-Wifaq looks out of touch and lacking in influence where it matters.  Government likely wonders what good will be a dialogue (and the possibility of a political deal) if the opposition cannot put an end to protest activities even if it wanted.

Coming soon: dialogue falls apart.

Update 4: Here we go.  'Ali Salman tells the BBC that al-Wifaq wants "someone who can speak for the ruling family" at the proposed talks, namely Crown Prince Salman.

Update 5: For those in Washington on Feb. 13, Carnegie is hosting an event titled "The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy in the Gulf" featuring, inter alia, Toby Jones, Frederic Wehrey, and Matar Matar.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Social Network Analysis of Bahrain

I retreat here from the typical manner of this blog to offer a bit of Wednesday linkage. Hopefully I'll have more time for original content (though Toby Jones' analysis more than suffices in this case) once I finish with some writing commitments. Among these is an interview on the subject of sectarianism that should appear soon in Jadaliyya.

  • First, as already mentioned, Toby Jones tries to win hearts and minds in Washington with a perfectly-argued op-ed: "Obama Should Reconsider US Approach to Bahrain."

  • Next, in an attempt to fill the obvious void of political factions in Bahrain, a new group calling itself "Bahrain Liberals" has emerged with a flashy website/blog and concerted PR campaign. (I received an unsolicited e-mail announcing the group's "vision" last night.) The writings are actually quite coherent (not to say persuasive), but so far the content seems to focus a lot on how bad al-Wifaq and 'Isa Qasim are and not so much on liberalism.

  • Last but not least, a few months back I received an e-mail from a student asking if he could use my sectarian map of Bahrain to map the country's local news media outlets (i.e., village forums). The project sounded quite promising, and now we have a taste of the result:

  • A full explanation of the technique is posted on his site, but in short he applies network analysis--now all the rage in political science as elsewhere--to help understand the case of post-uprising Bahrain. Apart from the map of local media outlets, this effort also includes maps of Bahrain's various social/political networks, including the country's Twitter community/ies as well as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Interesting stuff worth checking out.
Update: A BCHR press release has announced that Maryam al-Khawajah will arrive in Bahrain later today in what appears to be a fait accompli. How the state reacts to her visit, which is the first since the uprising and will ostensibly involve visiting her father and others in prison, will be a good indicator of where the balance of power rests today in the country. The last high-profile activist to have escaped being forcibly silenced, conservatives in the ruling family and in society will be chomping at the bit to finish what they've started. It is shaping up to be an interesting two weeks.

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror is running a lengthy and interesting interview (in Arabic) with Emile Nakhleh complete with contemplative photograph. I am told that an English version will soon follow.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The View on Bahrain from Britain

A friend passed along a link to this interesting document containing the written submissions pertaining to the ongoing and, in Riyadh especially, somewhat controversial parliamentary inquiry into "The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain." (One hopes the investigation is handled with more care than suggested by the report's copy-editing.) Of course, since Britain has, according to Crown Prince Salman's glowing review at the Manama Dialogue, "stood head and shoulders above others" in supporting the country, I'm sure Bahrain has nothing to worry about.

The 200-page report includes many familiar faces both from Britain and abroad, representing British academics and officials, Bahraini officials, Bahraini and international human rights organizations, and even LuaLuaTV. Accordingly, not all are equally useful or interesting, but many are. I especially enjoyed reading the matter-of-fact testimony of former British Ambassador to Bahrain (1981-1984) Sir Roger Tomkys (pp. 6ff.). After reviewing the history of British-Gulf and British-Bahraini relations, he arrives finally at what he terms "The Systemic Problem":
Nevertheless, there is a long term systemic problem which is simply that the Royal Family, with their close adherents took over Bahrain in the eighteenth century as incomers from the tribal, nomadic society of Arabia, and have ever since ruled over the indigenous, sedentary Baharna majority. That the Al Khalifa are Sunni and their subjects Shia makes matters worse but is not the prime cause of friction, which is the natural dissatisfaction of a majority permanently excluded from supreme power, together with resentment at the privilege of the ruling class. Over time the level of discontent has fluctuated and for long periods the Al Khalifa have coopted the support of the majority. But it was natural that events in Tunisia and Egypt should trigger (not cause) a crisis in 2001.

This systemic problem is made worse by historic Iranian claims to sovereignty over Bahrain. This claim, withdrawn by the Shah in 1971, was reactivated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, with the added factor of Iranian aspirations to defend Shi‘a communities throughout the region. The Gulf Arab response was to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a common shield against Iranian (and in another context, possible Iraqi) encroachment. Even so, there was a failed assassination/coup attempt in December 1981, shortly after my arrival; the background was never clear but the Government blamed Iranian subversion.

By no means all Baharna are opposed to Al Khalifa rule and not all opposition activists are Shia. In an older generation young men from all backgrounds might be Nasserite or Baathist firebrands and later became pillars of the establishment. Now their successors are Salafist Sunni, whose wish to end Bahrain’s liberal ways threatens the economy but this is a wider issue for the Islamic world, not endemic to Bahrain. Meanwhile, a substantial educated middle class are keen to see better, more accountable Government, but are fearful of Islamic enthusiasm and its implications. ...

To put in perspective the prevailing image of Bahrain as a society divided on antagonistic religious lines, where Sunni rulers and oppressed Shia never meet, let me record my own experience in the 1980’s. It was my practice as Ambassador to attend the family mourning assemblies whenever any prominent figure died. On several occasions at mourning for a member of the Shia community, I found the then Ruler or his brother the Prime Minister, present on the same errand to pay his condolences; there was no pomp, circumstance or security. In some respects it was still like a small village community, with much of the mutual respect that implies.
 And, finally, the crux of the problem, stated once again in a refreshingly direct manner:
Solidarity within the GCC and support from Saudi Arabia are not cost free. With close family and social links, Bahrain is economically dependent on its major neighbour but they are very different societies. While liberal, inclusive, religiously tolerant Bahrain has turned these differences to its economic advantage, Saudi financial support and access to Saudi oil at a preferential rate remain essential. This comes at a price.

Saudi Arabia has its own problem with a significant Shia minority in the Eastern Province. This minority and the Baharna are historically close. Their situation is exacerbated because for the religiously hard line Wahhabi Saudis, Shiism is anathema; and because the despised Shia live and work in the oil producing region. There is no way the Saudi Government would allow the Al Khalifa, even if they so wished, to introduce full Western style democracy power in Bahrain; the risk of knock–on to the Eastern Province would be judged unacceptable and some form of Saudi takeover of Bahrain would almost certainly follow. ...

There is no realistic alternative to Al Khalifa rule that would improve the lot of the Baharna, so long as the House of Saud rule in Arabia. Radical democratic reform in Bahrain would not be tolerated by Riyadh. If direct Saudi control were asserted there would be little economic role for Bahrain without its liberal “unique selling point” and all Bahrainis would suffer. The best outcome from the recent crisis would, of course, include real reform measures to improve government accountability and to prevent abuse of police powers.

It is vital that there should be credible interlocutors on the side of the opposition if reform is to succeed. Not all the opposition is Shia and not all the Shia want the fall of the Al Khalifa. Past unrest has been Nasserist; more recently Sunni political Islamists have tried to hijack the infant democratic institutions and to end Bahrain’s liberal customs. Moderate voices need to be heard.
I highly recommend at least browsing the other testimonies, including that of Kristian Ulrichsen, in the report.  Many offer the insights of a different group and indeed different generation of individuals than those we are accustomed to hearing.

Finally, a bit of news news.  No, that's not a typo: several recent items out of Bahrain involve news, or more accurately the lack thereof.

The first is an alarming trend toward the silencing of Bahrain's professional photographers and cameramen, the seeming final step in the government's goal of achieving a total non-state journalism blackout

Second, and related, is an odd item passed along by another friend involving Al-Ayam. The paper ran the following story about an altercation at the Foreign Ministry involving one Sh. Muhammad bin Salman bin Saqr Al Khalifa and an employee, Nayf 'Abd al-Hameed Al-Kuwaiti, in which the former supposedly attacked the latter and threatened to shoot him over a dispute initiated on Twitter. Apparently, the royal was not an employee of the Foreign Ministry but forcibly stormed the building in search of Al-Kuwaiti, whom he obviously found.  In response, and as reported in the screenshot below, the Foreign Ministry "strongly deplore[d] the assault by Sh. Muhammad bin Salman bin Saqr Al Khalifa on one of the ministry's employees." 

But, silly Al-Ayam, thinking it could question the actions of a member of the ruling family, was soon forced to remove the story.  According to opposition news network LuaLuaTV, the order came from "the royal court" and involved "the intervention of the field marshal [Sh. Khalifa bin Ahmad]." (Marc Owen Jones has some additional details, as well as a more thorough translation of the Al-Ayam story, here.)

Finally, although this is now two weeks old, it is worth mentioning the LACK of any real news or usual grandiose posturing out of the recent (Dec. 24-25) GCC summit in Manama.  Already in early December the Gulf News reported that the "summit will not announce Gulf union"--shocker there--but, even apart from this, the meeting did not seem to garner any press coverage at all.  I for one demand more denouncements of Iranian interference and unrealistic plans for political, economic, and manned space program integration!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cole on "Rise of the Sunnis" in 2013

The crumbling Iran/Shi'a crescent (in blue) if Damascus falls (Source: Cole)

Some interesting new year's prognostication from Juan Cole, who sees for the Middle East in 2013 "the Rise of the Sunnis and the Decline of Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah."

Bahrain, on the other hand, is "proceeding confidently on the road to the brightest future in 2013," according to this collaborative article between the Bahrain News Agency and The Onion:
Despite shortage of fiscal resources and unfavorable repercussions of unrest sown by a handful of bust outlaws, the Kingdom of Bahrain has been ranked amongst advanced nations of the world. The wheel of productivity goes on unfettered, as Bahraini citizens and expatriate residents carry on business as usual.

The Kingdom's impeccable human rights record and bright image remain intact and undistorted by any futile false allegations propagated by hostile megaphones at international functions. The rate of economic growth reached 3.1% in the third quarter of last year (2012) and is likely to reach 4% this year with an increase of 0.7% thanks to non-oil-related economic activities of added value which recorded a realistic growth rate of 5.9%.
Indeed, Bahrain's economic growth forecast was likely boosted 0.7% on New Year's eve alone, as the Saudi newspaper Al-Youm reports that more than 80,000 vehicles--or nearly 250,000 people at 3 individuals per vehicle--piled onto the causeway into Bahrain for some decidedly "non-oil-related economic activities."