Sunday, April 21, 2013

Questioning Sectarianism in Bahrain and Beyond

For those interested, Jadaliyya has posted an interview conducted with me a while back on the topic of sectarianism in the Gulf region and prompted by my contribution to a forthcoming volume on the subject organized by the CIRS at Georgetown University - Qatar. (CIRS has a summary report, which I've previously posted, here.  Incidentally, I notice that CIRS has also posted a summary report for another interesting book project titled "The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East.")

The interview deals not only with my book chapter but also some more personal topics -- how I got started in the Gulf, my secret links to the U.S. government and/or Iran, etc. etc. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Who Needs the Bahrain Grand Prix?

I have a post on the Mideast Channel today on the annual Formula One controversy titled "Who Needs the Bahrain Grand Prix?" The article, whose thesis apparently is "controversial," examines an overlooked aspect of the debate surrounding the race, namely the internal division among members of the ruling family over the wisdom and utility of hosting such an event.

In this regard it develops the paradoxical fact that the Grand Prix's longtime chief patron--and indeed perhaps its sole remaining sponsor among senior Al Khalifa--is the crown prince. His conservative competitors within the family, by contrast, in particular members of the Khawalid, would be happy to dispense with the occasion, which in their view invites only unnecessary scrutiny and a potential political pressure point.

Although it is probably unlikely to help, I would like to preemptively address the interpretation, already voiced by an early reader, that my article implies that critics of the Grand Prix ought to hold their tongues on account of the crown prince or some utilitarian political "greater good."  In fact, the piece offers no policy prescription at all but simply argues that if the race is ultimately abandoned--that is, not just this year or next, but abandoned entirely--that this will likely signal not the success of outside political pressure, but a change in internal ruling family dynamics.  And, as I conclude, the practical political implications of this turn inward and toward allies such as Saudi Arabia--of Bahrain's going off the Western political grid, so to speak, which is the preferred option of the Khawalid and other conservatives--will be most unwelcome both to the opposition movement and the international community.

Finally, a few things did not make it into the post (which initially was written as a blog post here) that are worth noting:
  • First is this interesting electronic flyer from the February 14th folks announcing their "Operation: Ultimatum 3."  I'm not sure what happened with the other ultimatai, or whether they were heeded.

  • A second is this equally disturbing cartoon from the Sunday Times, which unfortunately we were unable to use as the header for the post.

  • Next is an article in Al-Watan by Faysal al-Shaykh titled "The Killing of an American Soldier in a Terrorist Bombing in Jufair." Meant presumably to be provocative and perhaps a bit threatening, it poses the hypothetical situation of a terrorist bombing at the U.S. naval base as a critique of America's ostensive support for al-Wifaq and the "terrorist" opposition. (Never mind that Sunday night's bombing like all others was carried out by the February 14th coalition.)  The tone is something like: "How would you like it if someone bombed your base?  Would you still support them then?"

    This editorial comes, notably, on the heals of another Al-Watan offering by Sawsan al-Sha'ir that threatened the emergence of an "al-Qa'ida in Bahrain" if the U.S. were to "attempt to enable radical Shi'a groups."
Update: Presumably just to stick it critics, Bahrain and Formula 1 are reported to be discussing a five-year extension of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bahrain: The "Exception" of the Arab Spring

I've been alluding recently to an article I wrote on Bahrain for the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Well, after some delay, it's finally been published along with several sister pieces on (most of) the other Gulf states.  (It seems that given the current political hysteria in the Emirates, they were unable to find a writer on that country. I'm not sure what the problem was with respect to Oman.)

The aim of the publication is to examine how Gulf publics have interpreted and reacted to the political upheaval (mostly) surrounding them since late 2010.  Fellow Dohite David Roberts has written on Qatar, blogger Ahmed al-Omran on Saudi Arabia, and Mona Kareem on Kuwait.

My contribution focuses on Bahrain as ostensive "exception" to the Arab Spring, and the domestic and regional implications of (and interests behind) this narrative. 

In short, it argues (pre-editing),
This conclusion, that “Bahrain is different” and must not be confused with the larger regional upheaval witnessed since December 2010, has emerged as the veritable mantra of those whose political interests and/or ideological orientations position them on the opposite side of the country’s ongoing struggle for reform. And its use and usefulness is not restricted to the domestic context. While influential satellite news networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya report on “revolutions” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, they speak merely — and far less frequently, if at all — of “events in Bahrain” or of Bahrain’s “crisis”, a generic problem that might denote a political scandal, a natural disaster, or an acute shortage of hamour. Thus, as most other Gulf publics struggle with how to interpret and react to the Arab Spring revolts as (largely) outside observers, Bahrainis continue to be divided, and to be influenced by divisions abroad, over whether theirs rightly counts among them. ...

[B]eyond its narrow local purpose, this explanation also promotes a range of broader regional aims. In the first place, sustained accusations of Iranian sponsorship of Shi'a in Bahrain and throughout the region not only delegitimizes these groups domestically, but they also heighten feelings of insecurity among other predominantly Sunni Gulf populations, dampening their appetite for change and marshalling popular (if perhaps not elite) support for a Saudi-led project of greater politico-military integration among the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

At the same time, and even more important for Gulf monarchs, the notion of Bahraini exceptionalism helps obfuscate the larger trend of popular political mobilization evident across the region — in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, in Oman, and in the United Arab Emirates — since the beginning of the Arab Spring. That Bahrain is merely a unique and isolated case, rather than part of a larger bottom-up push toward political reform in the most autocratic part of the Arab world, is a message that Gulf leaders are eager to sell to citizens and Western patrons alike.
Update: Remember last weekend's University of Bahrain-sponsored "Bahrain International Symposium" held to demonstrate the country's commitment to reform? Yeah, about that ...

And from the same author (Geneive Abdo): "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a-Sunni Divide," featuring a mini-chapter on Bahrain informed by more than a dozen personal interviews.

Update 2: Since my article for ECFR discusses the contradiction between (mostly Sunni) claims of outside "interference" in Bahrain and their own material and ideological support for rebels in Syria, I suppose this is appropriate to post here.  A Syrian rebel group called the "Al-Zubair ibn al-'Ulum Battalion"--sorry, I don't know enough about the conflict there to say much about it--has issued a video statement thanking the spiritual and financial support of Bahrain's Salafis (whom one will remember visited Syria over Ramadan), in particular the parliamentary bloc al-Asalah, Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi, and a pro-Syrian group based in Hamad Town (possibly, given the demographics of Hamad Town, naturalized Syrians?).

Monday, April 1, 2013

A (Discouraging) Window into Bahrain's National Dialogue

I'm quite busy preparing a paper for this year's GRM, so I've currently little time to write here. (Though I do have an article on Bahrain for the European Council on Foreign Relations that should be published this week.) Thankfully, G2K contributors continue to fill the gap. The following update from Mansoor al-Jamri helps elucidate what for me at least has remained a bit murky: the actual modalities, procedures, and agenda--or lack thereof--of the ongoing "dialogue" between the opposition and pro-government groups. (Don't you dare suggest that the government "mediators"/"observers" are participating in the talks!)

He concisely summarizes,
On 10 February 2013, a "dialogue" process started in Bahrain, and the participants have been meeting once or twice every week, but without real progress on any meaningful issue. The following is an attempt to describe the current situation.
  1. The government insists on saying that the current process is titled "Complementing (or completing) the political dimension of the National Consensus Dialogue". This is to say that this exercise is linked to the "National Consensus Dialogue" that was organized after the state of emergency in July 2011.
  2. The government rejects the descriptions used by the opposition, specifically that this is not a "dialogue" and it is nothing to do with "negotiations".
  3. The government rejects any talk that this is a dialogue between the government and the opposition, and insists that this is a dialogue between the "constituents of the society", i.e. between the Shia and the Sunnis. The government says it is a "Coordinator" in the process, and any point must be agreed on by "all parties" to be considered valid.
  4. The government says that the outcome of the exercise will be summarized and handed over to the King (to be introduced later through the current parliamentary process). The opposition rejects this idea, and insists that the outcome must be submitted to a referendum.
  5. The sessions are held in Al-Areen Resort, south of Bahrain, near the Formula 1 race circuit. Each participant is allowed to speak for 5 minutes in rotation.
  6. The participants are 27 people, 19 of whom are linked to the government and 8 are from the opposition, as follows:
    • 3 ministers (1 from the ruling Al-Khalifa family [i.e., the Justice Minister], who is also the administrator of the sessions, 1 Sunni, 1 Shia)
    • 8 parliamentarians (4 from the appointed Shura Council and 4 from the House of Representatives).
    • 8 from the Sunni loyalist political groups.
    • 8 from the opposition groups (2 from Al-Wefaq, 2 from Waad, etc.).
    • The opposition delegation is made up of Shias and Sunnis, and includes 2 women.
  7. Up until today (29 March 2013), a total of nine sessions were held. All the sessions have been deliberating on the MECHANISM, and nothing yet has been agreed on. Specifics are as follows:
    • The opposition wants a representative from the King to attend the sessions. This is totally rejected up until now. [See, e.g., here.]
    • The opposition wants the results of the talks to be presented to the public for a referendum. This is also rejected.
    • The opposition wants to participate in appointing 4 independent candidates to replace 4 from the parliamentarians. This is also rejected. [On this, see this recent Gulf News article.]
    • The opposition wants to agree on the formation of an implementation committee to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the results. This is not yet agreed on.
    • The opposition wants to have a timetable for this process. This is rejected.
    • The government wants to delay talking about the MECHANISM and to go to the issues on the agenda. The opposition says an agreement must first be reached on the MECHANISM.
Finally, one must note the ongoing legal controversy surrounding al-Wifaq for its recent lawsuit filed against Minister of State for Crazy Affairs Sameera Rajab, whom it accuses of "defaming" the society in comments published in March in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and later carried in the BNA.  In (a very mature) response, the Ministry of Municipalities filed similar suit against one of al-Wifaq's representatives in the dialogue, Majeed Milad, for comments he made in an interview regarding the state's demolition of Shi'a mosques. According to al-Wifaq, some in the government are attempting to force (or provoke) its exit from the dialogue.

Update: An update from Mansoor:
By now, the 27 people taking part in Bahrain's "National Consensus Dialogue" have completed about two months of heated discussions without breaking through the deadlock. However, something new could be emerging out of the latest session held on 7 April 2013, when the participants talked about several issues and realized that the lack of progress to date relates to the fact that there is no confidence between the government and opposition and that, for any success to be achieved, confidence-building measures must be implemented.

Ahead of the session 7 April, the government issued a statement, through the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), saying that "the Cabinet confirmed that as per the government's responsibility and participation in the National Consensus Dialogue, the Government is keen on moving forward with the agendas core topics in an aim to achieve consensus in terms of political development."

By this statement the government wanted to block the opposition's insistence on continuing to debate several key issues pertaining to the "mechanism" for dialogue, specifically the opposition's demand that a King's representative ought to attend the session, and that the outcome of the dialogue must be presented for a referendum to gain popular legitimacy.

With regard to the demand for a referendum, the IAA said in its statement, "The cabinet further confirmed that the real guarantee for development and reform is to work within the state institutions, and to respect the legislative and constitutional laws that form the road map for any person seeking progress and development in the Kingdom." This means the cabinet rejects the idea of the referendum.

However, members of the opposition participating in the dialogue process issued a counter-statement reaffirming their “adherence to serious national dialogue leading to an outcome that takes Bahrain out of the bottleneck,”. More specifically, the statement said that “the opposition rejects any dictates to be imposed through official press statement, from outside the dialogue table,” and that the opposition insists on agreeing on the “mechanism” first before moving to the agenda of issues.

The opposition has a concern based on previous experience that unless a mechanism is established, then things will be wrapped up, summarized in points, tweaked to suit those in power, and enforced. ...

During the session of 7 April 2013, it became evident that there is currently no confidence between the government and opposition, and to achieve real progress, confidence-building measure must be implemented to pave the way for meaningful deliberations.
Update 2: The Gulf Daily News reports that pro-government groups, including members of parliament, are accusing the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain of collaboration with al-Wifaq in the national dialogue:
"This diplomat [the U.S. ambassador] has crossed all red lines as he runs the National Dialogue, distributes letters and recommendations in English to participants, according to evidence we have.

"We don't want a statement being issued by parliament condemning his interference, a strong decision has to be taken by MPs and sent to the government to stop this man from further damaging the nation."

Mr Al Dossary's comments follow allegations on Sunday by MP and dialogue participant Latifa Al Gaoud that a key opposition document submitted to the talks had been drafted in English before being translated into Arabic.

Ms Al Gaoud, who is a member of the National Independent Bloc, said some of the words had not even been translated into Arabic and suggested the document had been drawn up with help from the US Embassy.

Mr Krajeski caused anger last month when he was spotted at the National Dialogue venue on the same day that a session of the talks was taking place.

He was seen leaving just moments before talks were due to start, but a US Embassy spokesman claimed he was there for a private meeting and did not meet dialogue participants.

Among those also seen at the meeting attended by the ambassador was editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Al Wasat Dr Mansoor Al Jamri.