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.