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."