Thursday, February 27, 2014

America's 25 Most Awkward Allies

A while back I was asked to contribute to an interesting project for Politico's new magazine on the U.S.'s uncomfortable relationships with authoritarian regimes. The resulting report, "America's 25 Most Awkward Allies," is now out, with Bahrain placed at number 8 behind only Pakistan (1), Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, and Uzbekistan.

The list itself contains only relatively short blurbs. Click the image above for the longer article on Bahrain, titled "The Base."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The New York Times' Hijacked Bahrain Op-Ed Efforts

Continuing in its recently-established tradition of giving credibility to misleading and/or entirely erroneous arguments about Iranian "interference" in Bahrain, on February 18 the New York Times ran an op-ed by "Bahraini entrepreneur and political commentator on Gulf issues" Sarah bin Ashoor titled "Bahrain's Hijacked Reform Efforts."  (The piece even appeared in Wednesday's print edition of the International New York Times.) While one can glean the substance of the article from the title alone, still it is noteworthy for several reasons.

First, and as noted already, it is but the latest in a string of dubious editorials on Bahrain to have appeared in the newspaper over the past six months or so.  As one gathers from the screenshot below, four of the six most recent Bahrain op-eds, dating to mid-December, promulgate the idea that Iranian (material) support for the Bahraini opposition is not only fact, but is qualitatively no different from the country's involvement in Syria and Yemen.  Only Vali Nasr, the respected scholar of Shi'i political movements, and Roger Cohen, NYT's own columnist, avoid this conflation; and only Cohen calls out (sarcastically) this Saudi-sponsored disinformation.

A glance at this list also suggests a reason for the Times' recent turn toward Bahraini government mouthpiece.  Apart from Bin Ashoor's article, the subject of each is not Bahrain per se but Iran, more particularly its ostensive efforts to destabilize the whole of southwest Asia.  The pro-Bahraini anti-Iran PR machine has thus found an unlikely ally in the pro-Israeli anti-Iran PR machine.  On the other hand, this relationship simply mirrors the newfound shared interests and evolving ties between Israel and the Gulf states generally, and so perhaps can no longer be any surprise.

The second reason why "Bahrain's Hijacked Reform Efforts" bears mention is its author. Given the timing of the article -- just 4 days after the third anniversary of the uprising -- one would expect the Times to have sought out a reputable and independent analyst to deliver an op-ed in line with its news coverage of the anniversary. This is, after all, one of the two or three weeks a year when Bahrain can expect to attract any real media coverage at all.  Instead, however, we have an obscure "commentator."

Reassuringly, I am not the only one to have been struck by this.  A blog post by one Dylan Byers at Politico describes this "suspect op-ed" and, more interestingly, its author, concluding that -- gee-whiz! -- she appears to be a random Bahraini businesswoman.  Better yet, her description as a "founding member of the London-based Gulf Affairs Forum" would seem to be more accurately stated as: a) she is the founding member of a Bahraini pro-government group; and b) she lives in London. Byers tells,
There is no evidence of the Gulf Affairs Forum's existence online. A Google search returns only the article and subsequent discussion about the article. A Nexis search returns only the original op-ed, its republication in the Times international edition, and a mention of the piece in Gulf Daily News, a Bahraini paper. In interviews with British television channels in early 2012, Ashoor was simply described as a Bahraini businesswoman.
When asked by Byers to clarify, an editor at the Times eventually explained, presumably after following up with Bin Ashoor, that,
Sarah bin Ashoor formed the Gulf Affairs Forum in 2012 to advocate for political reform in Bahrain. Though it is registered in Bahrain and members of its board are fellow Bahrainis, Ms. bin Ashoor is the leader of the organization, and she is based in London. She organized a policy forum in 2012 at which speakers included members of Parliament, business people and journalists from The Guardian, the BBC, Reuters and other organizations, and has met with officials in Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with scholars at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute.
Sure, fair enough.

The final and by far least interesting thing about the article is its content, which follows so closely King Hamad's April 2011 apologia in the Washington Times that it makes me wonder whether Bin Ashoor wrote that one as well.  The second paragraph of King Hamad's op-ed, the part right after he talks about how the demands of the opposition will be taken seriously and that the people making them definitely won't just be thrown in prison and tortured, begins, "Unfortunately, the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region."

Compare, now, Bin Ashoor's piece on Wednesday,
Over the years, Bahrain has faced an analogous cycle of events: The state pursues political and economic reforms. These efforts are then hijacked by unpopular radical Shiite Islamists supported by Iran. Eventually, the state overcomes these challenges and restores stability — sometimes at the cost of initially pursued reform efforts.
HIJACKED, you say!?  Indeed, much like the New York Times editorial page.

While we're at it, then, let me hijack Bin Ashoor's regurgitation of King Hamad to offer a Bahraini political cycle of my own, one that works equally well for the periods, say, 1971-1999 and 1999-2014.  Stop me if you've already heard it:

Bahrain promises political and economic reforms.  The reality fails to live up to the promises, or better yet -- no, seriously, tell me if this sounds familiar -- the ruler simply reneges on the initial promises. This effort at political backtrack is then hijacked by extremists who demand the promises be upheld. Since they are already politically and economically marginalized and thus have more to gain and less to lose, this latter group of truth-terrorists consists disproportionately of Shi'a.  Yet this situation is perfect from the standpoint of the state, which eventually overcomes the challenge of popular but Shi'a-dominated opposition by convincing ordinary Sunnis -- not to mention gullible newspapers -- that if it were to cave in to these terrorist demands (read: make good on things it already promised), Iran would take over Bahrain, steal the keys to the Fifth Fleet, and use American aircraft carriers to launch nuclear strikes on Israel. And all this -- and here's the key line -- sometimes always at the cost of initially pursued promised but never pursued reform efforts.

Monday, February 10, 2014

(Not) Breaking Ranks for Reform

The temporary shot of adrenaline injected into the National Dialogue by the Crown Prince's meeting with opposition leaders did not last long.  Neither, apparently, did Sh. Salman's attempted political comeback, about which I may have jumped the shark due to an untimely let up in my natural pessimism.

It seems clear now that the Khawalid have managed to commandeer what was meant to be a serious agenda, the Crown Prince nowhere to be seen with the start of bilateral talks.  Instead, the Royal Court has as usual insinuated itself into the process in order to sabotage it from within.  The Bahrain Mirror summarized the first opposition meeting with Khalid bin Ahmad as follows: "cold, negative, and [Khalid bin Ahmad] has snatched leadership of the dialogue."  Even the BBC picked up on his obstructionism.

Meanwhile, KbA's brother in the Justice Ministry followed through in late January on threats to disband the (Shi'i) Ulama Council led by Isa Qasim, charging that it was unregistered, involved in politics, and otherwise operating "outside the constitution and law."  The body now faces potential repossession of assets and other penalties unless it agrees to "regularize its status" and abstain from politics.

It is under this rather negative backdrop that al-Wifaq and the rest of the opposition societies have just submitted their "roadmap" for formally restarting National Dialogue talks. It calls for three meetings per week to speed up the process, but also a referendum on the outcome, along with equally unlikely concessions such as a parliament with "full legislative powers" and an "elected government."  Other longstanding demands, like new electoral boundaries and independent electoral commission, probably stand a better chance at agreement.

Most interesting to me, though, is the roadmap's immediate rejection by al-Asalah, which says of the opposition vision,
We do not for instance support having an elected government as there is nothing that points to it in the charter or in the constitution. The formation of the government remains an essential element within the prerogatives of HM the king and he is the one who nominates the prime minister and the ministers. ...

Our view on the government also takes in consideration the character of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Bahrain cannot break out of the Gulf ranks.

That is why all the GCC member states seriously stand by Bahrain on this matter.
Indeed it is, and it is of course not difficult to see why other Gulf governments would not wish to see a precedent set in Bahrain.  But this is a strange sort of argument for someone meant to represent an independent political party to make.

It would seem to me that breaking ranks sits precisely atop the list of things Bahrain needs -- whether with respect to the ruling family, the GCC, or the sectarian-cum-political groupings that continue to run in circles so long as they are unable to mobilize individuals on some viable political basis.

On an unrelated note, finally, the commander in charge of the U.S. Fifth Fleet's one active carrier strike group, Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, has made headlines for having reportedly "reiterated [the U.S. navy's] commitment to Bahrain."  Yet, when one reads his comments, in fact he seems to go out of his way not to mention Bahrain by name, substituting instead "this region," "this area," and so on.

The Gulf Daily News quotes him as saying, for instance, “We have a full commitment to this area. ... Our presence in the region is a continuation of six-decade long commitment to stand by our partners in the region and we’ll continue to honour that commitment." But it seems to me that in these two sentences alone Sweeney spurned at least three different chances to mention Bahrain.  What it means, if anything, one can debate, but certainly this cannot be interpreted as an expression of commitment to anything other than the Gulf region generically.