Friday, February 22, 2013

The Khawalid, Al Khalifa Politics Lurch into the Open

A lengthy front-page article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal has garnered much attention for highlighting the increased role of the Khawalid, and of the larger inter-Al Khalifa dispute of which they are a central part, since the uprising in early 2011.  (Note: if you are unable to view it due to the WSJ paywall, try here.) The Independent has even published a story about the story, complete with the Al-Watanesque headline, "Bahrain's royal family infiltrated by hardliners hostile to Britain and US."

Yet the most interesting thing about the WSJ article is not the analysis of the Khawalid per se, which those following Bahraini politics have been writing on for some time (e.g., the Bahrain Mirror, Fred Wehrey, Jane Kinninmont, and myself.)  Rather, the surprising bit is that a "senior" member of the ruling family was willing to give an interview to a Western journalist wherein he complains that "surrounding the king are all powerful Khawalids."  While he is not named, one presumes that this individual lies within the crown prince's camp, bringing into the open the sort of fight that has been playing out behind closed doors since the very beginning of the uprising.

Indeed, among the interesting insights of the article from this perspective is its seeming confirmation via reliable sources within the ruling family of the personal confrontation widely-reported (on opposition forums, that is) to have taken place around March 12, 2011, between Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad and the Crown Prince.  As I wrote of this on March 20,
Rumors of an intra-Al Khalifa split were swirling even before Peninsula Shield forces crossed the causeway. The crown prince, it was said as early as March 12, resigned from the "family council" after an "altercation" with the head of the royal court ... Khalid bin Ahmad. Reportedly, the crown prince complained of the conduct of the royal court ..., namely its employment of armed thugs to intimidate protesters at a time when he was attempting to gain support for his national dialogue initiative.

Khalid bin Ahmad replied that the crown prince would "bring God only knows what disaster upon the family," and that it is only the older members that "know these people" (i.e., the protesters) and how to deal with them. In the end, both members left the meeting angry, Khalid bin Ahmad taking with him a group of supporters and purportedly saying that the family would "not forgive [the crown prince] for the destructive mistakes he had made since taking office."
However, while many Bahrainis have welcomed the high-profile publication for bringing to light those they view as the driving force behind the state's vicious post-February 14 response, as well as its subsequent disinterest in seriously attempting social and political reconciliation, others see it as a self-serving PR move, even a "planted story."  The latter characterization corresponds to two different lines of argument.

A first would accuse the crown prince of sour grapes; of employing Western media to fight an internal battle he has shown himself incapable of winning on his own.  Yet, even if the story were initiated by the "senior royal" rather than the journalist himself, which in any case is impossible to ascertain, the other outside analysts interviewed for the piece, including myself, certainly were not in on the conspiracy.  That is to say, even if the main message of the article--that Bahrain's ruling family has, in the measured words of The Independent, been "infiltrated by hardliners hostile to Britain and US"--still this is does not make the conclusion itself untrue. On the contrary, most would seem to agree that in the past two years (and more generally over the past decade) the Khawalid as a distinct branch of the Al Khalifa have achieved an unprecedented level of power and influence.

A second line of argument would accuse the ruling family of a more subtle slight of hand; of propagating or allowing to be propagated myths about the superhuman conservative powers of the Khawalid as a useful foil against the well-intentioned but ostensibly powerless king and crown prince.  This is the position taken, for example, by Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, who quipped in one conversation that he would "not be surprised if someone produces 'The Protocols of the Elders of Al-Khawalid'" that "included placing Khalid bin Ahmad as the king's alter ego and his brother as C-in-C [commander-in-chief]."  By portraying themselves as "moderates" held hostage to a political agenda driven by others, in other words, the king and/or the crown prince may earn a measure of sympathy and understanding from members of the opposition and--if their story is, say, printed on the front page of The Wall Street Journal--from Western diplomats eager for substantive political progress in Bahrain.

Certainly there is something to this latter argument, which is prompted among other things by the following question: If it is true that the Khawalid continue to undermine the king's son and chosen heir apparent, and indeed to commandeer the agenda of the entire ruling family, then why is it that King Hamad not only has empowered and continues to empower these individuals, but is said in fact to count Khalifa and especially Khalid bin Ahmad among his closest advisers, having known both for many decades?  Additionally, why has the king's primary and longtime adversary, Khalifa bin Salman, not used his considerable political and economic leverage to preclude the rise of this competing center of power?

These decisive questions the Wall Street Journal piece does not answer, though I do seek to address them in a forthcoming article-length piece on the unlikely rise of the Khawalid under King Hamad.  Especially in light of the present interest in the subject, I hope that the article, an early version of which I provided the WSJ author, will complete the requisite review process soon.  Until then, I will get working on the even juicier sequel to be co-authored with 'Abd al-Hadi, The Protocols of the Elders of Al-Khawalid.

Update: After being refused entry into the United Arab Emirates for, in the words of the Emirati FM, "unhelpful remarks" on Bahrain, our friend Kristian Ulrichsen writes in FP on academic freedom and Western university funding in the UAE and the Gulf.

Update 2: The U.S. Chronicle of Higher Education has weighed in on the affair with Kristian Ulrichsen in the Emirates, which was followed by yet another conference cancellation supposed to have taken place in Dubai on Wednesday. Moreover, all of this comes at a sensitive time as the Arab countries attempt to launch their own education journal called Al-Fanar. The piece also includes this great quote from the UAE Foreign Ministry:
A statement released by the government said that Ulrichsen "has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state. This decision in no way reflects the strong ties with both the AUS and LSE and their academic excellence, however, in this very specific case, it was important to avoid disruption at a difficult point in Bahrain's national dialogue process which we fully support."
Update 3: The Bahrain Mirror reports that an "investigative committee" has been formed within the ruling family to identify the anonymous "senior source" quoted in the Wall Street Journal article that is the subject of this post.  According to the report, the investigation is targeting the crown prince's court.

Update 4: A bit vague on specifics and no on-the-record quotes, but the Financial Times reports that Saudi (specifically, new Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayf) is now on board, along with the US and UK, with a reasonable political settlement in Bahrain that "boosts 'rights for all.'"

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bahrain Dialogue: Send in the Spoilers

The big news out of Bahrain's dialogue this week is that, well, it's still going on.  Even before its launch on February 10 I would have rated its likelihood of success as follows: a 50-75% chance that al-Wifaq participates at all; a 25% chance that it and/or the Sunni "nationalist" societies don't walk out half-way through; and a 0% chance that the parties will agree a political deal that ends Bahrain's two-year standoff.

Now, the last part still stands: I think the most likely outcome, assuming the dialogue does hold up, is that the process will serve mainly as a confidence-building exercise from which another, probably slower and lengthier process of substantive negotiations could take form.  Yet, the mere fact that the process has not been upended by the violence of the past week, which saw the deaths of both a protester and a policeman and offered ample opportunity for any of the participants (al-Wifaq, Sunni groups, or the Justice Minister) to walk away in frustration and anger--once again, that this process continues at all would seem to suggest that the parties are approaching it with more seriousness than one might have suspected. 

On the other hand, the type of spoiler events witnessed last week are likely only to increase as more Bahrainis come to this same realization, namely that there is actually a possibility that the three political factions represented in the talks--the formal Shi'a-led opposition, the Sunni sort-of-opposition, and moderate Al Khalifa--may arrive at an agreement that not all of their respective constituents can accept, whether owing to the substance of inevitable concessions or simply on principle. Already there are demonstrations planned along Budaiyi' Road after today's funeral procession for a killed demonstrator, as well as an opposition march on the Manama Suq sometime between February 19 and February 23.

More ominously, the Interior Ministry claimed last week to have discovered and defused a "2kg bomb" on the causeway, while four policemen were said to have been "hit by birdshot pellets" in the Western village of Karzakan.  Soon afterward, Bahrain announced it had uncovered and arrested members of an Iranian-linked "terrorist cell."  Clearly, the suggestion is that the sophistication and lethality of attacks on police are increasing.  On the other hand, details about the causeway "bomb" are scant, while birdshot is the most common ammunition used by riot officers themselves, and so may just as easily have emanated from friendly fire than some homemade shrapnel bomb.  More generally, the government's constant and flippant use of the labels "terrorist" and "terrorism" makes it difficult to know when one is actually faced with such rather than mere hyperbole.  Indeed, the state's accusations are now easy targets of ridicule, as evidenced by the graphic at the top of this post, which depicts "a weapons trainer in Karzakan." Or, below, "One of Karzakan's modern weapons."

"Surrender, or I'll shoot!"

Of course, the role of spoiler in Bahrain need not be played only by rejectionist Shi'a youth.  For the two-year anniversary of pro-government demonstrations at the al-Fatih Mosque, the National Unity Gathering and other Sunnis are planning various rallies this Thursday, February 21st.  Already, however, many are spurning the activities, in particular those organized by TGONU, out of protest against, inter alia, its ongoing participation in the national dialogue.  (In case you're wondering, the invitation for the TGONU rally describes the impetus behind the event as "the threat facing us" from "al-Wifaq + America + Russia," the group clearly having uncovered the secret foreign policy alliance between Russia and the United States.)  Many hard-line Sunnis also are probably not impressed by a report today in Al-Wasat that both the National Unity Gathering and al-Wifaq sent delegations to South Africa last month to participate in British-organized "reconciliation workshops" modeled after the post-Apartheid experience.

Whatever the case, Sunni message boards are lighting up with anti-TGONU and anti-Al Mahmud threads:

Not all who fault Al Mahmud and the National Unity Gathering do so on account of their cooperation or interaction with the opposition, however.  Others complain simply that the group and its leader have failed to accomplish anything for ordinary Sunnis in the past two years, that it has been (or always was) co-opted by the state like all other Sunni-oriented groups before it.

In this context it is interesting to note a recent (Feb. 9) publication of one of Bahrain's newer political societies, the National Society for [the Popular] Will and Change (الإرادة, for short).  Sweet name, right?  Led mainly by secular Sunnis who came to prominence since the uprising, the group's new "vision" document, titled "National Vision for a Civil State," outlines, well, its vision for a civil state based on the principles of democracy, secularism, the pursuit of happiness, free Obamacare, etc.  They even have a theme song:

While its popularity certainly is not on par with Bahrain's established Sunni Islamist societies, or even the religious-based movements that sprang out of the uprising, still its emergence--and the fact that individuals are now discussing the group and its vision in the context of a proposed boycott of the National Unity Gathering, and as a distinct counterpoint to Al Mahmud's group--reinforces the idea that many of Bahrain's Sunnis, despite no shortage of political groupings, still feel as though they lack adequate political representation. And in that they're probably correct.

Update: I guess I should have waited a day to post on Bahrain's possible spoiler groups. A tweet yesterday by Al-Watan editor-in-chief Yusif Al Bin Khalil pointed me to this menacing flowchart of the "terrorist network"--purportedly called the "Imam's Army"--uncovered lately by the Interior Ministry.  If you wish to see the impressive advancement in Al-Watan's scientific terrorist network diagramming capabilities over the past two years, please compare this new chart to that of September 2010.

Update 2: Opposition activists post photos of foreign-language (Tamil, I think) fliers in Manama and Gudaibiya promising 10 BD to anyone who attends this Thursday's pro-government rally at the al-Fatih Mosque.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Visualizing Bahrain

Inspired no doubt by my pathbreaking and/or monumental 2009 survey of the country, researchers increasingly are producing informative quantitative analyses of various aspects of Bahraini politics and society. Recently I highlighted a Columbia grad student's social network analysis of Bahraini opposition and media networks.  Now several additional projects have come online, and still others are in the works.

One is a more interactive, Google-enabled version of my study of electoral gerrymandering by the people at Bahrain Watch. (Yes, I understand the political views of the group, but that doesn't mean its analysis in this case--based on public election data--is somehow biased or to be avoided or ignored.)  The results are represented in the two maps above, which reveal the discrepancies in electoral representation across Bahrain's 40 districts, and how these serve to systematically under-represent constituents in opposition-dominated (in practice, more Shi'a-populated) districts.

A second study that just came to my attention is a website by one 'Ali al-Mussawi called Bahrain Visualized, which presents an interactive chart depicting the deaths of Bahraini citizens since the beginning of the uprising. (Again, before someone writes in to ask, "Where are the police deaths!??!!111one," I appreciate that the data are not being employed for non-partisan purposes, but that doesn't mean that they aren't still useful or original.)  This is particularly relevant with the news today that anniversary clashes between protesters and police have resulted in the death of one 16 year-old boy.

So, again, it's good to see this increased application of more empirical-based methods to the Bahrain and larger Gulf context.

Update: An anonymous commenter points out another recent empirical analysis of Bahrain, this one by Carnegie and focusing on the question of political naturalization:

Update 2: More attempts to play spoiler: attacks on police and a (diffused) bomb on the Saudi causeway.

Update 3: Riddle: if a country uncovers dozens of fake Iranian-backed terrorist cells, how do you know when it actually uncovers an Iranian-backed terrorist cell?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bahrain's New Dialogue: Sending in the B Team

It might have taken 18 months, but dialogue fever is finally back in Bahrain.  The new talks, set to begin on Sunday, represent the first such effort since the infamous "National Dialogue" of summer 2011.  A more recent attempt in early 2012 sponsored by Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad failed after a boycott by Sunni societies and a general lack of foresight, seemingly, on the part of the government.

Sunday's talks would seem to represent a conceptual and organizational middle ground between the two efforts.  The 2011 National Dialogue was based on the principle of "fighting dialogue with more dialogue," and to this end the government invited all Bahrainis (and expatriates) capable of verbal communication.  The final list was something like 300 participants, including group representatives and individuals.  The formal opposition had perhaps 5 seats.  Not only this, but the process was chaired by Speaker of Parliament and long-time Khalifa bin Salman crony Khalifa al-Dhaharani, rendering the entire event something like a glorified National Assembly session--but one that was somehow even less efficacious.

The effort led by the royal court early last year attempted the opposite--and for Bahrain more traditional--approach, inviting only opposition societies to a process that was not public and about which there was much speculation.  Indeed, Sunni societies such as the National Unity Gathering, under the impression that they had been invited, announced a boycott of the talks, whereas Sahwat al-Fatih opposed them precisely because they had not been invited.  Finally, the NUG figured out the same thing, and the two joined together to call for Sunni inclusion.  Seemingly caught off-guard, the state pulled the plug on the talks, and rumors and vague newspaper articles telling of coming dialogue stopped.

Thus we arrive at the talks to begin Sunday, February 10, a convenient four days before the anniversary of the uprising.  Imagine that!  The official statement from the BNA is here, but the upshot is an odd 8-8-8 ratio of representatives from parliament (including from the Shura Council), opposition societies, and what are being called "nationalist" political societies. The latter "National Coalition" includes the National Unity Gathering, al-Asalah, al-Manbar, and the aptly-named and presumably just-created "National Dialogue Society."  Interestingly, Sahwat al-Fatih is not among the participants.  (The full list of participating organizations is here.  Unlike with the 2011 National Dialogue, they can be listed on only one page of a newspaper.)

Beyond this it gets quite confusing on various fronts.  First, the Gulf News reported the day before yesterday that "each of the alliances will be represented by six people" rather than the eight it is now reporting.  And one of the "nationalist" groups has already dropped out.  So it is clear that the design of the meetings is still very much in question and that adjustments are ongoing.

Second, and more important, it's still not clear what will be the government's role or indeed the exact format of the meetings.  The government's original position--that it would "organise and moderate the talks, but would not be an interlocutor"--has been roundly criticized by both al-Wifaq and the supposedly-pro-government "nationalist" societies.  Asked by the BBC to clarify, the government gave this response: "Representatives of the government's ministries will be present at the dialogue to oversee and make suggestions if needed, but will not be there to take part in the dialogue itself." So, it's exactly as they said: the government will take part but won't participate.  Why is that so hard for you people to understand?

Finally, according to the dialogue's patron Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali, "there would be no time limit for the dialogue and that the agenda would be set by the participants when they meet on Sunday. The outcome would be recommendations endorsed by the participants that would be conveyed to the parliament for approval." So, not simply is the entire process subordinated to the opposition-less parliament, but indeed a third of the delegates to the talks already ARE members of parliament.  So the full parliament will ratify recommendations negotiated by a subset of the parliament along with opposition and "nationalist" non-parliamentarians?  An odd setup.

For their part, al-Wifaq do not wish to wait to find out how all of this is going to shake out.  The Gulf News reports that the group is pushing for a postponement until a clearer and more efficacious format and follow-up process is decided, preferably bilateral talks between the opposition and the government.  The problem, of course, is that this would mess up the state's right-before-February-14 timing and even, depending on one's degree of cynicism, defeat the entire purpose of the initiative.  Whatever the case, in the end we are left with the following two familiar sentiments from the opposition and pro-government sides, as told by the Gulf News:
Opposition figures, addressing a press conference, said that they wanted more details before the start of the talks. “We will ask for more details about the format of the talks,” they said on Monday. “We want also to know more about the aspects and outcome of the talks, including the fairness of the representation is, the agenda, the time frame, the moderation, the role of the government, the outcome and the guarantees by the authorities,” they said.

The National Alliance, an umbrella for nine political formations after one group pulled out, on Tuesday said that it was ready for the talks, but said that it would push for an end to street violence “to ensure a positive context for the dialogue.” “We do not want to be part of the dialogue merely for the sake of having talks,” Ahmad Juma, the head of the alliance, said. “We want to have a clear and positive for the dialogue platform for the talks by insisting on an end to all forms of violence. We reject the use of violence to exert pressure and we refuse any foreign interference in the talks. We will simply walk out in case there is foreign interference,” he said.
In other words, al-Wifaq is skeptical about the seriousness of the talks and may choose not to participate, and Sunni societies are skeptical of al-Wifaq and may walk out.  That sounds about right. (For the more optimistic view of Mansur al-Jamri, see here.)

Sunni cartoonists now will need to learn how to draw Russians.

As if to antagonize its fellow dialoguers further, al-Wifaq is opening up a whole new front on the question of "foreign interference" with its announcement yesterday that it has accepted an invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to visit Moscow to "exchange views on how to exit the political crisis in Bahrain."  (Al-Wasat has transcribed a lengthy interview, which also includes questions about the dialogue, here.)  The "delegation," whose members as far as I can see have not been named, begins today and will last until the scheduled beginning of the dialogue on February 10.  This is being billed as an attempt to apply pressure on the Bahraini government.  In the meantime, I doubt any Sunnis will make the connection between this visit and Russian support for Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad.

As for the second concern of Ahmad Juma, violence, the situation is perhaps equally bleak.  The February 14 Coalition and others have organized an extensive schedule of protest activities spanning February 1-16 that is likely to feature violent altercations between demonstrators and police. There is even increasing worry, I am told, of more organized spoiler attacks on police or even civilian populations meant to derail the dialogue process and the formal opposition's "abandonment" of the revolution. This would assume that the perpetrators had confidence in the seriousness of the talks, however, which would seem doubtful.

That said, and for what it's worth, I've been told that the Justice Minister--not to say the Justice Ministry generally--intends for the talks to be serious, and that he is seen as having stuck his neck out in leading the effort. This is reflected, it is said, in the participation of additional, yet-unnamed ministers, who presumably will represent other factions of the ruling family who do not necessarily support the process or are worried about it veering out of control. Further, it is said, the lack of crown prince involvement is not because the initiative is unrelated to his surprise call for dialogue at the Manama Dialogue, but because moderates do not wish to see a repeat of the crash-and-burn of March 2011.  Thus, as the person explained it, Bahrain is sending in "the B team" at a time when use of "the A team"--Sh. Salman--would seem risky and premature.  Unfortunately, one can envision how this strategy, insofar as it can be viewed as evidencing a lack of seriousness, may obviate the need for the A team altogether.

Update: Apart from the kickoff today of the new and improved national dialogue, there are several interesting stories this morning.  One is an upgrade in Bahrain's economic outlook from "poor" to "stable" by S&P. Two others involve the Khawalid.  First, Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad has said in an interview with Al-Arabiyya that the Iranian threat compels GCC countries to seek to acquire nuclear weapons.  A second story in the Bahrain Mirror claims that the real reason behind the January 20 resignation of BAPCO CEO Gordon Smith is his refusal to comply with a Royal Court order to hire 120 soldiers from the Ministry of Defense to replace Shi'a employees.

Update 2: After an internal meeting yesterday, al-Wifaq has now officially agreed to take part in the talks, although it is clear that they don't know exactly what they're getting into.  In an interview with The Independent before his trip to Moscow, 'Ali Salman is quoted as saying,
We sent a letter to the Bahraini Justice Minister [who will moderate the talks] but they will just be between the opposition groups and government loyalists, not members of the royal family themselves. The talks themselves are also vague – will they lead to an agreement on reform, or just advice to the government?
Indeed, it would seem that the best case scenario here is that the initiative will serve as a confidence-building measure that might then lead to a separate, probably quieter process that does stand some chance at resolving substantive political disagreements. But we certainly are not at that stage yet.

Update 3: Emile Nakhleh on "Obama and Bahrain: How to Save Al-Khalifa Rule." Hint: give Khalifa bin Salman the boot.

And this highly-recommended piece from an unlikely source: Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, who writes of the "False trade-off on Bahrain."

Update 4: Perhaps the first big business casualty of "political instability" in Bahrain is, curiously, the main domestic competitor of the flagging (and political flashpoint) Gulf Air. As one analyst quoted in the USA Today candidly notes, "The Bahraini government is looking to re-energize Gulf Air at the expense of facilitating growth for Bahrain Air."

Also: hopefully the first and last of would-be "spoiler" attacks (or scare tactics) coinciding with the second anniversary of the uprising and/or the recently-begun "dialogue."