Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bahrain Settling in to a New Normal


"This is way more awesome than meeting with Obama, right?!"


Needless to say, it's been a while since I've posted here, mostly because I've been busy with actual work, but also partly because Bahrain has fallen into a political lull since the latest crackdown on activists that saw the arrest of 'Ali Salman and others. One suspects that there is simply no one left to protest who hasn't already been arrested, been driven into hiding, or fled Bahrain entirely. Indeed, Bahrainis are now threatened with punishment for criticizing even the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, so one can imagine the situation with regard to local politics.

Another reason I've taken to writing today is that I've been able to speak recently with some well-connected Bahrainis who've offered some useful insights that I thought might also interest others. So, in no particular order:

The Overall Situation

Very few protesters continue to take to the streets, and much of the labyrinthine system of checkpoints has even been dismantled.  In its place, however, is an even more ubiquitous network of UK-style CCTV cameras, presumably courtesy of the Ministry of Interior's British police advisers.

No progress has been made in bridging the social and political chasm that continues to separate Sunnis and Shi'is since February 2011.  Similarly, almost no space remains for genuine political activity by members of either community. Members of parliament, who are now mostly younger, inexperienced independents with no coherent legislative agenda, appear far more interested in jostling for private benefits -- travel to international events and meetings, press opportunities, and so on -- than working to aid constituents or the country.

With a closed political arena and social relations that remain utterly frayed, the state is redoubling efforts on the economic front, aided by considerable funding from Kuwait and especially the UAE.  My Bahraini contact suggests that the Emirates has far exceeded its contribution to the GCC fund for Bahrain, and is helping the government to fund massive new housing projects spread across the country, including in Hamad Town, Muharraq, and the Northern Governorate.

Crown Prince Salman is leading and is the public face of this effort, enabled by his close relationship with Muhammad bin Zayid. One almost gets the sense that Bahrain is returning to the days of the EDB and a development-based plan to reduce political tensions, without of course the corresponding political liberalization.

'Ali Salman and al-Wifaq

On the other hand, the Crown Prince has been instructed by conservatives within the government to stay out of politics, and in particular to stay out of the case currently being prosecuted against al-Wifaq leader 'Ali Salman. Members of the society expect that a verdict could be announced as soon as June, though the state may seek to draw out the case to use as a bargaining chip with the opposition.  In all cases, Salman's lawyers expect a sentence of two years at a minimum, and likely much higher.  

The catalyst for the arrest was, obviously, al-Wifaq's decision to boycott last year's parliamentary elections, a move that alienated what few quasi-allies the society had.  For several months following the elections, the Crown Prince was so upset that he refused to have any contact at all with al-Wifaq or its representatives. Likewise, the British embassy made clear that the group had in its view dug its own grave, and could not expect to be treated like a legitimate political actor if it continuously eschewed the legitimate institutions of politics.

The new U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, William Roebuck, who was appointed just a month before the elections, has assumed a very low profile, in stark contrast (one assumes not coincidentally) to his much-maligned predecessor.  All high-level cooperation appears to be routed instead through the Pentagon, whose officials remain on close terms with their Bahraini military and civilian colleagues.  The State Department, to put it diplomatically, does not enjoy the same esteem among top Bahraini officials.

Potential Changes at the Top

According to one contact, the prime minister is ill, and visibly so.  He still makes his trademark public appearances, but he is in the office only for several hours a day, compared to the usual six or eight.  But one should not expect Khalifa bin Salman's successor to enjoy his authority, or for Bahrain to continue the new GCC trend of empowered Crown Princes.  

On the other hand, given Sh. Salman's personal and generational connections with his counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh (i.e., Muhammad bin Nayf), his political future is probably looking brighter than it was two or three years ago.  King Hamad's other influential son, Nasr, who enjoys a good reputation (among government supporters) as a tough military man, has made no foray into politics per se, and seems to have his eyes instead on the position of Defense Minister and the title of field marshal.

The GCC Camp David Summit

According to a contact, King Hamad initially was planning to attend the GCC summit at Camp David, with the visas and passports of his entourage already having been arranged. However, after the Saudi king's decision not to attend, Sh. Salman was deputized in King Hamad's place, presumably at the implicit or explicit suggestion of the Saudis. As it is now, King Hamad is scheduled instead to meet with Queen Elizabeth at the Windsor Horse Show, a fitting alternative symbolic of Britain's (and Europe's) newfound diplomatic cache in Bahrain and the Gulf generally since 2011.

The contact mentioned that in anticipation of Camp David, the government has recently released as many as several hundred political detainees, mostly women and youth.  The preemptive step was taken to bolster Bahrain's case for being on the right track politically, while avoiding accusations that the release was in response to a "demand" or pressure by the United States or Obama.

Update: I forgot to mention that my Bahrain-focused book, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State, is finally being published on June 8 in the Indiana University Press Series in Arab and Islamic Studies. I mention it because it's available now on Amazon for a 20% discount ($24).  Or I guess you could wait to buy a used copy from someone in September for two dollars or whatever.  Moreover, we've agreed with another publisher on an Arabic translation, which should be out a few months later.  So some may wish to wait for that.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bahrain's Sectarianism Bites Back―And Not Just Politically

Bahraini Salafis boastfully engaging with Syrian rebels in August 2012. 
What could possibly go wrong?

The inevitable political blow-back of the sectarian agenda employed by Bahrain and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states since 2011 has remained a common theme of this blog. Forestalling change by instilling in citizens not simply a violent opposition to political reform as a specific policy choice, but a visceral hatred of the actual reformists themselves, is a decidedly short-term strategy, and it seems that we're now nearing an inflection point.

The local political and communal implications of Bahrain's sectarianization of politics have always been clear enough: the deepening of distrust between Sunna and Shi'a, the rise of violent opposition movements, and the marginalization of moderate factions both within the government and society.

But with the meteoric rise of Da'ish in Syria and Iraq, and the free operation of similarly-oriented groups based in the Yemen, these implications are no longer limited to the political and societal.  Rather, Bahrain's deliberate incubation of Sunni radicalism is transforming now into a foremost security problem for the Al Khalifa. As described in an article published on Thursday titled "Bahrain's Daesh Dilemma" (and before that in a piece by Ala'a al-Shehabi in Foreign Policy), it turns out that Bahraini nationals count among several senior members of the so-called Islamic State, including the main theological apologist for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his claim to the Caliphate.

Not only this, the article tells, but many of these individuals are or appear to be former members of and/or defectors from the Bahraini security forces, which one will recall are composed primarily of non-national Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere due to concerns over what might happen if you allow Shi'a to have weapons.  Well, it turns out that Bahrain must also now concern itself with the opposite case, i.e. what happens when you give weapons to radicalized Salafis recruited from countries infiltrated by terrorist organizations.  For it is not just heretic Shi'a, but also the ruling family itself, that are the targets of the latter.

In this context it is instructive to consider another piece published on Thursday, a commentary by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faysal in which he endeavors to give Da'ish "a new name," namely "Fahesh" (obscenity), to better reflect the reality of the organization. The article is a remarkable feat of cognitive dissonance, with Prince Turki managing to describe chronologically the rise of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida, Da'ish, and other Wahhabi-oriented terrorist groups without once mentioning their origins in the Wahhabi ideology exported for decades -- still being exported -- by the Saudi state, an ideology that features very few doctrinal differences from than being employed in, say, today's IS-controlled Mosul.

Indeed, in Prince Turki's Bizarro World telling, it is Iran, not Saudi Arabia, that is culpable for the scourge of Salafi jihadism(!). And perhaps Saudi Arabia will then take credit for creating Hizballah and the Mahdi Army.
  
Of course, it is no secret that the very existence of Saudi Arabia owes to a pragmatic marriage of politics and religion, and that accordingly it cannot afford to alienate the conservators of the monarchy's legitimacy and stability.  It, like Bahrain, continues to bet on its ability to externalize the costs of the Sunni radicalization for which it itself is primarily responsible.  One just hopes for its sake that IS militants don't learn how to climb fences.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

On the Mystery of 'Ali Salman's Arrest

Bahrain's arrest on Sunday of al-Wifaq leader Sh. 'Ali Salman, ostensibly in response to recent "escalatory" statements, has, at least according to the New York Times, left many observers "puzzled." Indeed, the newspaper quotes no less than Khalil al-Marzuq as saying that "despite the government’s history, he was surprised by the arrest. 'Why should they create more trouble with this move?'," he asked.

Among this "trouble" is not only the reaction by al-Wifaq supporters, but, more importantly from the Bahriani government's standpoint, that of the international community.  The UN high commissioner for human rights, who is hilariously somehow a member of the Jordanian royal family, delivered a pointed rebuke following the announcement of Salman's arrest, while the United States is as usual "deeply concerned." Yet the State Department statement fell far short of calling for his release, saying only, "We strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to follow due process in this and all cases." So, basically the U.S. government is calling on Bahrain to conduct the fairest and most transparent sham trial possible.

However, one could perhaps more easily make the opposite argument: that, precisely in light of the state's observed political tactics since the uprising, this move is little surprising if not altogether inevitable. Officially, Bahrain's attorney general accuses Sh. 'Ali of delivering "statements [that] had significantly escalated from incitement and hate speech ... to threats of military force against the state, including the imminent option to deploy methods currently used by armed groups operating elsewhere in the region." Apparently, then, Sh. 'Ali let slip al-Wifaq's secret plans for a Huthi-style blitzkrieg invasion and takeover of Manama and al-Riffa, the tribal seat and present de facto capital of Bahrain.

Of course, one doubts whether 'Ali Salman's statements and sermons over the past week or month differ qualitatively from those he's been giving since February 2011, if not before.  As always, the occurrence and timing of the arrest stem from deliberate political calculations.  In this case, multiple factors would seem to be in play.

"You Need Us More Than We Need You"

As Khalil al-Marzuq is eventually made to mention in the New York Times story, Bahrain clearly feels emboldened to defy or annoy its Western allies at a time when it is playing a strategically significant political and military role (as a base of operations) in various conflicts throughout the region, including versus the Taliban in Afghanistan, Da'ish in Syria/Iraq, and to a lesser extent the Iranian regime.

Just earlier this month Britain formally announced the signing of a deal to build a £15m permanent naval base at Mina Salman, while the U.S. is presently undergoing a significant expansion of its own Naval Support Activity Bahrain.  At the regional level, Bahrain also will play host to a new joint GCC naval force announced at the Doha summit in December, and potentially a new GCC naval war college as well.

Its regional and international partners thus in need of both its political will to join conflicts against Arab and Muslim enemies (mainly) of the West, as well as physical access to its strategically positioned territory, Bahrain can afford to thumb its nose at the United States and Europe for the sake (professedly) of its own "national security."

Al-Wifaq in Political Limbo

Even before its electoral boycott, 'Ali Salman and al-Wifaq were under intense pressure, including formal legal investigation, by the Justice Ministry and other entities for their continued abstention from formal politics.  If the group continues to eschew the parliament and elections and instead operate outside the normal channels of politics, the state argued, then how can it expect to remain a recognized or indeed tolerated political society?

Now, with the election in November of yet another al-Wifaq-less parliament poised to remain for another four years, the government clearly recognizes the potential danger in having in effect two parallel political processes: one centered nominally around a formal, elected legislative body, and another involving dialogue and/or negotiations with an extra-parliamentary protest movement. Not only would such a dual-track further undermine whatever legitimacy the parliament enjoys, but it could also potentially rekindle the political hopes of those Sunni movements that abstained from or were defeated in the elections.

Not incidentally, one presumes, just two days before his arrest 'Ali Salman was reelected as al-Wifaq Secretary General, promising for the state another four years of headache.  By occupying al-Wifaq with the persecution of its leader, the state can ensure that al-Wifaq will voluntarily reject any notion of continuing the Crown Prince's National Dialogue process, and so also keep sidelined those Sunni groups (not to mention the Crown Prince himself) that have also been involved in the talks.

Throwing Disgruntled Sunnis a Bone

However, more central to the state's decision-making here than all of the preceding, in my estimation, is its desire to dissipate or head off widespread Sunni resentment following the humiliation that was the November election.  It was humiliating for Bahrain's Sunnis not only for the result -- the almost complete failure of Sunni groups to capture seats, in main part due to electoral engineering -- but also for the larger atmosphere surrounding the election.  Sunnis, as characterized to me recently by one Bahraini, were compelled to vote by the ruling family like dogs made to sit.  Many went to the polls in spite of themselves and having not even registered, passports in hand, in fear of the consequences threatened for those who condescended to stay home.

The portrait drawn by many ordinary Sunnis is of a ruling family holed up in al-Riffa in their palaces and private airport, barely coming (with the exception of ever-busy Sh. Khalifa) to Manama or Muharraq, and watching as outsiders while the country continues to dissolve economically, socially, and politically.  Yet, even those who hold this view remain nominal supporters of the state, loath to assist a Shi'a-dominated opposition by outward expressions of dissatisfaction. Thus, Bahraini Sunnis are left to stew in their frustration, caught between what is widely perceived as an uncaring government and an even more hateful opposition.

Thus, as has happened so many times since 2011, when the state perceives discontent among its Sunni support base, it appeals to those more security-minded (as opposed to strictly reform-minded) among them by arresting or threatening to jail some or another opposition leader -- whether Nabeel Rajab, Khalil al-Marzuq, 'Ali Salman, or Sh. 'Isa Qasim himself.  The sure-to-be drawn out legal process; the inevitable accusations of "foreign interference" in Bahrain's internal affairs; the wider crackdown on activists protesting 'Ali Salman's detention and eventual trial -- all offer no shortage of drama and distraction from substantive political issues.  And, if all goes well, Bahrainis will forget all about the new parliament and government are or are not accomplishing.

Update: We now know the specific "escalatory" remarks of 'Ali Salman that the general prosecutor refers to in his statement, and that are the nominal basis for his arrest. As seen in the below video (beginning around 1:38), Sh. 'Ali states that "the Bahraini opposition has been encouraged to become like the Syrian opposition and transform the country into a military battleground, but it has remained steadfast in its peaceful [protest]." This, as one can imagine, was not perceived by authorities in the same light as probably intended by Sh. 'Ali.  One can hear the former asking suspiciously, "So, from whom exactly are you receiving encouragement and advice?!"


Update 2: A BNA statement about the extension of Sh. 'Ali Salman's detention confirms that the charges he faces surround his contact with foreign groups (implied in the speech posted above), saying that during his interrogation
"[Sh. 'Ali] confirmed that he had contacted a number of overseas regimes and political organisations to discuss the internal affairs of the Kingdom. These detailed discussions outlined Bahrain’s political situation and were aimed at achieving active interference in the internal affairs of the country and highlighted the willingness of a number of bodies approached to do so. The defendant did not inform any official authority in the Kingdom of these communications."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Electoral Rules (and Threats) Cure Bahrain's Sectarian Parliament


We knew that Bahrain was a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, but with the results of the just-concluded 2014 parliamentary elections, the country really is taking it up a notch. In line with the liberal vision articulated by America's Founding Fathers, Bahrain has succeeded in neutralizing -- indeed, all but doing away with -- that thing deemed most dangerous of all to the democratic ideal: what James Madison called "majority factions," otherwise known as political parties.

I've broken my work-induced abstinence from blogging to write something for the Washington Post's political science blog "The Monkey Cage" on this issue of Bahrain's near party-less 2014-2018 parliament, especially as it relates to the Sunni community.  I argue that the pitiful performance of both established and new Sunni political groupings, including members of the Al-Fatih Coalition, cannot be understood as "popular frustration with the prevailing order" alone, not least because TGONU and other groups were designed precisely as an antidote to the established Sunni Islamist coalitions.  Rather, there are specific electoral rules and incentives that directly contributed to Bahrain's new-look parliament.  I discuss in particular the issues of (1) general polling stations; (2) the newly-redrawn electoral districts; and (3) artificially high turnout as a result of threats against non-voters.

The article is here.

Not addressed in the article, finally, is another topic of much discussion presently, including in a piece yesterday by Simon Henderson, namely the question of the future of Khalifa bin Salman, whom King Hamad duly reappointed as prime minister on Sunday following his constitutionally-mandated resignation following the election.  Of course, past reports of Khalifa bin Salman's ill-health and imminent political and/or corporeal death have been greatly exaggerated, and this case may be no different.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bahrain's New Electoral Districts:
No Help for the Opposition; Bad for Troublesome Sunnis



It's been a while since I've had a chance to write here properly, and if I had more time and resources it would be nice to sustain Stephen Colbert-style coverage of the impending shit-storm that is likely to be Bahrain's November parliamentary elections.  The main headline from today (or yesterday) is the opposition bloc's decision to boycott, yet such a decision was but a formality following, among other things, yet another unilateral redrawing of Bahrain's electoral constituencies announced in late September, ostensibly to make them more "equal in size."   

I will spare readers all the details of the change, a visual depiction of which can be found at Al-Wasat, but the upshot is that the Central Governorate has been dissolved and its constituencies distributed among the remaining four regions: Al-Muharraq, Capital, Northern, and Southern.  The claimed purpose, again, was to "equalize" the constituencies in line with opposition demands, and in accordance with the crown prince's latest dialogue framework announced Sept. 18, one element of which is "[a] commitment to re-defining electoral districts to ensure greater representation and measures to further enhance electoral oversight."

So, then, what is the opposition so upset about?

As with many things, the problem here is the imprecise use of language, or perhaps more accurately the (deliberate) use of imprecise language.  While it is true that the new changes do address differences in size among districts -- the Justice Minister has claimed that now "90% of the districts are approximately equal in size," whatever that means -- it is obvious that this was never the question of primary concern to the opposition.  Rather, the question revolves around the communal representativeness of the districts, which, even in their new iteration, are drawn along sectarian geographical boundaries and thus are almost certain to produce a parliament that is not reflective of Bahrain's national-level demographic and thus political landscape.

This result is evident from the map below, which superimposes Bahrain's 2010 electoral district winners on a sectarian demographic map of the country.



Indeed, the now-dissolved Central Governorate, based around the confessionally-mixed 'Isa Town, was arguably the most diverse of all Bahrain's regions.  Now, its neighborhoods have been divided carefully between the Sunni-dominated Southern Governorate (whose seats increased from 6 to 10), Shi'a-dominated Northern Govenorate (9 to 12), and more mixed Capital Govenorate (8 to 10).  Muharraq retains its original 8 districts; more on this below.  Finally, boundaries in remaining districts have been shifted considerably; more on this later as well.

After studying the changes, al-Wifaq has concluded that its electoral prospects are entirely unchanged: in the latest vote it contested, 2010, it ran candidates in only 18 of 40 districts in recognition that it could not hope to win in the other Sunni-dominated 22.  Last month, 'Ali Salman confirmed that the group's calculations remain the same, saying it is inevitable that 22 seats will be filled by pro-government candidates.

Al-Wifaq does not seem to be the only -- or even primary -- political target of the changes, however. While the group's chances have been neither improved nor harmed, the same cannot be said of troublesome Sunni MPs.  For instance, the outspoken anti-government Osama al-Tamimi, whose business famously was shot up in 2012 after he called for a corruption investigation into the prime minister on the floor of parliament, represented 'Isa Town in the former Central Governorate, and it is unclear how the changes will affect his prospects.  And Wa'ad also traditionally has enjoyed strong support in this mixed Sunni-Shi'i area, Muneera Fakhro nearly winning Wa'ad's only-ever seat here in 2006. (Incidentally, it will be interesting to see how the state reacts to Wa'ad's September reaffirmation of Ebrahim Sharif as Secretary General. The Justice Ministry had threatened the group with dissolution in the case of his re-election.)

The story is similar for Sunni Islamist candidates, which is sure to please not only the U.S. but also the Muslim Brotherhood-hating Saudis.  Although the Islamist stronghold of Muharraq was spared redistricting, it was, on the other hand, the only governorate not to gain seats.  At the same time, Islamist candidates in the South now face greatly-expanded local electorates, as the region takes on additional neighborhoods to correct its especially low elector-to-MP ratio. No longer will candidates be able to depend on localized bases of support in and around Riffa.  Three-term Salafi firebrand Jassim al-Sa'idi, for instance, now faces an uphill battle against fellow MP Khamis al-Rumaihi, the two being forced through the new changes to contest the same seat in the 8th Southern district.

Indeed, the implications for Sunnis are such that even the pro-government (and I would guess Crown Prince-linked) advocacy group Citizens for Bahrain is forced to concede that "it is unclear whether the societies belonging to the Al-Fateh Coalition will succeed in forming a political bloc. The change in constituency boundaries seems to have complicated this process." (For more, see this quite informative district-by-district analysis of the electoral changes.)

On the other hand, pro-government independents, including tribesmen and minority MPs useful in demonstrating Bahrain's commitment to diversity, will continue to do well.  Notwithstanding the government's claim that its motivation for redistricting was to make electoral districts more "equal in size," famed 'first-female-MP-in-the-Gulf' Lateefa Gaood's manufactured 10th district in the barren Southern Governorate desert remains intact, along with all 750 or so of its registered voters. I guess hers is one of the remaining 10% of unequal districts the Justice Minister was talking about.

This conclusion -- that Bahrain's new electoral districts seem aimed at Sunnis as much as at Shi'a -- speaks to a larger truth increasingly evident both in Bahrain as well as around the Gulf and indeed the Middle East generally: growing international (i.e., U.S.) concern over the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and support for it among Gulf populations.  This offers Gulf leaders newfound diplomatic leverage over an American policy often at odds with their own strategic calculations since 2011, and it also relegates further to the back burner intermittent American concern over human rights abuses, lack of reform, and so on. (The implicit threat of gravitation toward Russia and other Asian powers also seems to be a preferred Bahraini tactic these days.)

For now, the U.S. needs redoubled access to strategic military facilities in the region, intelligence gathering and sharing, and commitment by Gulf states to help fight ISIS at home and at least pay lip service to Western-led intervention against it in Iraq and Syria.  On the other hand, one suspects that U.S. policymakers are influenced by an increasingly dampened appetite for political reform that, in the eyes of uninformed State Department officials in Washington, may well pave the way for the empowerment of Islamists more or less sympathetic to ISIS. (See the recent U.S. about-face in Egypt, where Kerry seems to visit now on a weekly basis with nary a mention of the domestic political situation.)

In the case of Bahrain, I am told by a reliable source that the U.S. has now firmly gone over to the British camp of supporting modest, ultimately meaningless political change at the margins. "This is politics," one Bahraini political figure was reportedly told by an American official, with reference to the U.S. need for Bahraini support on ISIS.  Despite apparently intending originally to remain in Bahrain to see through the Crown Prince's newest dialogue initiative and pre-electoral negotiations, it seems that Ambassador Krajeski now will return to Washington before the November vote.  (Now largely a moot point anyway with the opposition boycott.)

Thus, rather than implement the spirit of the five-point reform plan announced by Crown Prince Salman on Sept. 18, which included (admittedly vague) provisions not only on electoral redistricting but also changes in the areas of legislative authority, cabinet formation, the judiciary, and the security sector, instead it seems that Bahrain is faced with yet another fait accompli à la the National Action Charter more than a decade ago: delineation of a comprehensive liberalization strategy cautiously welcomed by the opposition along with the vast majority of society, followed by unilateral execution of selective aspects of the proposed reforms, renewing widespread disillusion and confirming citizens' original suspicions.

Update: Shortly after I posted here, the (I presume) Crown Prince-linked advocacy group Citizens for Bahrain, whose district-by-district analysis of electoral changes I reference above, posted a long response to my article apparently pointing out all its flaws and exhorting me, who is not even allowed to enter Bahrain much less a local stakeholder, to "give the reforms a chance."  While I don't typically engage in these sorts of back-and-forths, I will in this case in the hope that it will help avoid similar confusion and/or deliberate misreading.

The main charge is that I base my analysis on a biased measuring stick, namely the extent to which the reforms will aid al-Wifaq's electoral chances.  In fact, my point was that the opposition's underlying aim in pushing for electoral reforms was to achieve electoral districts that would allow it to compete on a fair footing through elections, i.e. to win seats in parliament in proportion to its relative support among the population.  Yet, before and after the changes, a party with a nominal constituency of at least 50% of voters (to use a  conservative lower bound) chooses voluntarily to forego competition in 22 (55% of) districts for knowledge, not that it will face a difficult electoral competition, but that it has utterly no chance of winning on account of demographic composition.  The upshot is that opposition societies, in agreeing to participate, must accept beforehand that they will always be a minority in parliament irrespective of their actual support in society. 

Citizens for Bahrain extols the reforms as visionary and more "radical" than anyone could have anticipated, and rue the fact that Bahraini elections inevitably turn around sectarian identity.  Yet such is a direct, predictable consequence of the single-member districts employed in the electoral system.  It is well-known that this system -- such as seen in the United States and Britain -- systematically reduces the number of viable political parties, since, unless they have very localized bases of support (the Scottish Nationalist Party in Britain, e.g.) smaller parties simply have no chance of winning.  Consider again the electoral history of Wa'ad, which earned between 5% and 10% of the total vote in 2006 and 2010 yet did not win a single seat.

If the Crown Prince wants to institute truly "radical" electoral reform, then scrap the single-member districts in favor of any number of other electoral systems and rules -- proportional representation, party lists, etc. -- many of which are designed precisely for use in contested environments.  We can agree on one thing, that Bahrain would be far better served if parliament included the spectrum of views represented in society, the most liberal of which today are weeded out by the electoral system itself. Unilaterally redrawing districts in a way designed to favor certain constituencies (independents), harm others (Sunni Islamists), and leave the electoral chances of others largely unchanged (the opposition) is not radical or progressive reform. (And, as it took al-Wifaq only a day to calculate its electoral hopes under the new system, do not pretend that the state did not do the same in redrawing the lines.)

A second point Citizens for Bahrain make is that I chalk up the new changes to some U.S. conspiracy to disenfranchise Sunni Islamists.  Here I think less needs to be said in response since this is a strange reading I assume not shared by many.  I was making two points: 1) as acknowledged by the group itself, it seems clear that one target of the reforms was Sunni Islamist candidates, which is likely to please Saudi Arabia given recent tension over the usually well-represented (in parliament) Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain, as well as the U.S.; and 2) that by all accounts the United States has resigned itself to the relatively limited electoral reforms in lieu of pushing for something more substantive, partly because they need Saudi and Bahraini support on ISIS. 

Finally, the group notes that Osama al-Tamimi is not running for re-election, which I did not know and which is too bad since he seems like a funny guy. On the other hand, I did not suggest that getting rid of him was the "sole intention" of government in dissolving the Central Governorate; rather, I wrote that "the outspoken anti-government Osama al-Tamimi ... represented 'Isa Town in the former Central Governorate, and it is unclear how the changes will affect his prospects." Misinterpret much?

Update 2: In its latest effort to drum up popular enthusiasm for -- or more likely, given that it writes in English, international appreciation of -- Bahrain's upcoming elections, Citizens Bahrain has published what it calls the "definitive guide" to the parliamentary vote.  Without subscribing to the group's conclusions about the substantive significance of the vote, or about the "appropriateness" of Bahrain's bicameral system in which the unelected Shura Council maintains veto power over legislation, one can nonetheless praise the comprehensiveness of the guide, which breaks down the race in some detail in each of the 40 districts.

Some interesting facts: Bahrain will be without the famed Lateefa al-Gaood, who has apparently tired of representing her non-existent constituents in the South; and Jassim al-Sa'idi has already frightened his opponent, a sitting MP of some renown, into withdrawing.  Finally, al-Asalah has broken ranks with the National Unity Gathering folks, who are on the other hand coordinating with al-Manbar, no doubt renewing speculation about the NUG's links with the Brotherhood in Bahrain.

Finally, if some intrepid individual were to compute the average number of registered voters per governorate, and in Sunni- vs. Shi'i-dominated districts, that would be interesting to see.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bahrain Drain



Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted here, but that's what happens when you're traveling around the U.S. with a three-year-old and three-month-old.

Despite this preoccupation, I've managed to produce at least one thing over the summer, and it's something I've been meaning to write about for a long time (even alluding to it here on occasion): the matter of Sunni tribal emigration from Bahrain, rumors of which have been swirling for a year or more.  By all accounts, most or all of these migrants have headed to Qatar, giving an added dimension to the ongoing GCC dispute.

You can read the article at Foreign Affairs using the links above.  But, as is often the case, the published version differs considerably from my original formulation, so I thought I would also post the latter here as I'm in no danger of violating copyright rules.

I wouldn't say I prefer my original per se, but the focus and audience are certainly different, and the latter section especially examines some issues that are of more interest to people who care about Bahrain than people who care about foreign affairs generally, and thus didn't make the final cut.

So, without further ado:



Bahrain Drain

To the long list of maladies presently afflicting the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain – protracted political deadlock and violence, poisonous sectarianism, and a diplomatic row with longtime political-military patron the United States – one can now add this to the list: the country is losing citizens. Or rather, its citizens are, in increasing numbers, losing Bahrain. And those heading for the exits are not all whom one might expect.

There are, of course, the thousands of mainly Shi‘a Muslim opponents who have sought refuge or formal asylum abroad in the aftermath of Bahrain’s popular rebellion begun in February 2011, many of whom remain active from Washington, London, and other European capitals. So too have many younger Shi‘a left the country not for any immediate fear of punishment, but in pursuit of better economic and educational opportunities, Bahrain’s favorable jobs and scholarships – such as exist -- reserved disproportionately for “loyal” Sunnis. Finally, there are the one hundred or so individuals, among them academics and former parliamentarians, stripped altogether of their Bahraini nationality for crimes allegedly committed during or since the uprising.

Yet such exiles, if lamentable, are not unexpected or even recently unprecedented. Similar forces of exodus and banishment accompanied another Shi‘a-led intifada spanning the latter half of the 1990s, citizens returning home only after a series of goodwill pardons and reform promises by King Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifa upon his 1999 succession. In times of heightened discrimination and oppression, Bahraini Shi‘a have never shied from exercising the option of political exit – whether to ride out the storm elsewhere, or to start anew in friendlier lands.

These, however, are not the source of Bahrain’s present demographic troubles. Indeed, from the state’s perspective, if dissidents and job-seekers opt to burden some other government, all the better. Rather, the problem is that Bahraini Shi‘a are today being joined by a far less likely group of émigrés: tribal Sunnis. Indispensible allies of the Al Khalifa since aiding in the eighteenth century conquest of the island, the tribal element in Bahraini society forms the bedrock of support for the ruling dynasty by remaining essentially apolitical, a sturdy counterweight to perennial, destabilizing confrontations between religious and ideological factions.

In parliament, for instance, whereas non-tribal Sunnis and Shi‘is are organized into political societies defined strictly along confessional lines, tribal MPs run and serve euphemistically as “independents,” affording a reliable bloc of pro-government votes largely unmoved by the political battles of the day. Though typically controlling only around a third of seats in the elected lower house, the tribal bloc, which includes parliament’s three-term speaker, has remained a reactionary force successful in blocking unwanted legislation, topics of debate, and procedures such as the quizzing of ministers.

That some in this constituency have tired of playing the role of reserve division, faithfully helping to forestall needed progress to their own political and economic detriment, is understandably the source of no little consternation on the part of Bahrain’s rulers. Yet, still refusing to admit their own culpability in the social and economic disintegration of their country since February 2011, the Al Khalifa are laying blame for Bahrain’s Sunni flight elsewhere.

Tribal families are not fleeing the political dysfunction and economic malaise that has characterized the latter half of King Hamad’s reign, Bahraini authorities insist, but instead are being “lured” away by promises of nationality and attendant benefits by neighboring Qatar. This accusation, and its practical political significance to Bahrain, goes far toward explaining the latter’s otherwise odd involvement in the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Beyond the Brotherhood

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the unprecedented step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014, they were joined in their protest by the far less influential Bahrain. The unusual and unforeseen nature of this “family spat” between Gulf monarchs, combined with the apparently obvious cause of the dispute, overshadowed the curious nature of Bahrain’s involvement, largely ignored as less intrinsically consequential, a reflexive position of solidarity with political-economic patron Saudi Arabia, or both.

Indeed, if the diplomatic measure was uncharacteristically public, the reason behind it seemed clear enough: longstanding frustration over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its real or imagined affiliates in the Gulf. Officially, Qatar was accused of violating a GCC internal security pact agreed only several months prior, which barred “interference” in other members’ affairs. Yet such an offense applied not at all to Bahrain, where the Brotherhood’s political wing, al-Manbar al-Islami, enjoys an unblemished pro-government pedigree and, alongside tribal and Salafi blocs, forms the core of state legislative support. Outside of parliament, the group also was instrumental in organizing the popular Sunni counter-revolution of February and March 2011.

So it is that when Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared political war on the Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist organization just two days after their ambassadorial recall, Bahrain baulked. Speaking at a conference in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa indicated that his country would not follow suit, insisting al-Manbar was a strictly domestic actor with no link to the “global movement” destabilizing governments elsewhere. Subsequent clarifications attempted to bridge Bahrain’s tenuous position between GCC unity and domestic stability, achieving a sufficiently ambiguous policy on the Brotherhood as to allow it to maintain the status quo.

Bahrain’s clear interest in preserving good relations with one of its core constituencies, one moreover with close ties to senior members of the ruling Al Khalifa family, raises the question of why it joined the dispute with Qatar in the first place. If Bahrain’s perception of the Brotherhood differs wildly from that of its more skeptical neighbors, and if the latter seem at least to accept the realities behind Bahrain’s position, then why needlessly rattle the domestic political cage at a time when ordinary Sunnis continue to provide an essential pillar of stability in the face of continued Shi‘a opposition? Was Bahrain simply compelled to fall in line behind Saudi Arabia, whose oil subsidies provide nearly two-thirds of state revenues annually? Or did Bahrain have reasons of its own?

Reengineering a Nation

Until very recently, little of substance could be tied definitively to the latter possibility. Rumors of Bahrainis moving to Qatar to join local branches of extended tribes – prominent families such as the al-Manna‘i, al-Rumaihi, al-Muhannadi, al-Musallam, and al-Jalahma – have swirled for more than a year, some corroborated by Qatari contacts with familial ties to recent and soon-to-be migrants. Yet other Bahrainis insisted that the government had succeeded in dissuading citizens from leaving with promises of benefits in line with those offered by Qatar.

By early July, there remained little doubt where the truth lay. A hasty amendment to Bahrain’s nationality law stipulated stiff fines or forfeiture of citizenship for those who, without official approval, took the nationality of another country “whether of their own volition or through others’ incitement.” Less than a week later, Bahrain’s foreign minister gave a candid television interview in which he accused Qatar directly of engaging in “sectarian naturalization” for its explicit targeting of families with local tribal ties, employing the same term used by critics of Bahrain’s own program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis in return for police and military service.

Former Qatari Justice Minister Najeeb al-Nuaimi would acknowledge recent changes in both the scope and modality of his country’s naturalization of Bahrainis, telling Doha News, “Before, people had to move to Qatar, drop their Bahraini citizenship and then live in Qatar for three years before being granted Qatari citizenship, but now decisions are being made in just 24 hours.” Sitting officials were less forthcoming, yet it is no mystery why Qatar might seek to bolster a citizenry of around 275,000, which at less than 15% of the total population is vastly outnumbered by expatriates even by Gulf standards.

After a month of mutual recriminations played out over diplomatic and social media channels, on August 15 the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Qatar had agreed to stop offering citizenship to GCC nationals, among other concessions, and raised the hope that withdrawn GCC ambassadors may soon return to Doha. But Bahrain’s rulers ought to take little solace, for this forced cessation does nothing to address the underlying incentives driving Bahrainis abroad. Just as the promise of relative stability and better pay draws to Bahrain Sunni recruits from Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, so too will Bahrain’s own citizens — Shi‘i and Sunni — continue to be enticed by favorable social and economic conditions prevailing elsewhere in the Gulf and beyond.

This raises for Bahrain several worrying prospects. First and most obviously, Sunni defection could obstruct or at least delay the government’s key goal of reducing Bahrain’s historical Shi‘a majority to a demographic minority. Second, with an estimated 100,000 foreign Sunnis having already received Bahraini citizenship since the late 1990s, representing perhaps a third of the total Sunni population, a gradual exodus of indigenous tribes would mean that an ever higher proportion of remaining Sunnis are in many important cultural respects non-Bahraini and indeed non-khaleeji or even non-Arab, further complicating what is already a highly contested national identity and balkanized society.

Finally and most importantly, whereas prominent tribal families contribute a political and economic surplus for the state, being both stalwart supporters and major pillars of private industry, naturalized Sunnis are net extractors. Already Bahrainis of both sects complain bitterly of public housing and other benefits going disproportionately to new Sunni arrivals at the expense of “original” citizens. And while it true that the state can expect loyalty in return for its investment in the short term, the example of Kuwait demonstrates the long-term pitfalls of citizens purchased in this fashion, whose commitment is only so steady as the stream of benefits they expect to gain.

With the potential slow dissipation of its tribal element, Bahrain thus stands to lose more than just a reliable pro-government constituency. Allied tribes are the bedrock of the ruling regime, yes, but they also are productive in the non-oil economy, and represent – at least in the imagination of the Al Khalifa – the essence of what it means to be Bahraini.

In May 2013, eighteen months after revoking the nationality of 31 Shi‘a citizens for having “damaged state security,” Bahrain granted citizenship to 240 permanent British residents for “making a major contribution to the prosperity of the kingdom.” Personally announced by King Hamad on a visit to the United Kingdom, he insisted that their “loyal service more than justifies it.” Yet, unless the ruling family begins to focus similarly on the prosperity of its kingdom, instead of continued punitive measures against opponents, the notion of nationality will be an increasingly hollow one in Bahrain, as an ever greater number of its indigenous population is driven away.

Update: Citing a story at Al-Bawaba News, Akhbar al-Khaleej reports that patriotic Bahraini families are "refusing Qatari nationality despite all temptations," instead renewing their pledges of allegiance to King Hamad. According to the article, the "intransigent country" of Qatar continues to pursue Bahraini families despite earlier reports that it had agreed to end naturalization of Bahrainis; "nd thus the issue  ... is still ongoing and [the two sides] are at a standstill."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The New Bahraini Diplomacy:
Screw All You Guys


-- "Man, I love this guy right here!"
-- "No, THIS guy!"


It is a telling descriptor of the state of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East that a American diplomat's expulsion from a country -- an allied country, no less -- elicits no more than perfunctory "deep concern" from the State Department, in the way that it might be "deeply concerned" about recent inflammatory comments by the Ecuadorian Minister of Agriculture, or about the recent shortage of hamour at LuLu.

Yet that's precisely where we are today in Bahrain, which does not even bother to call the U.S. bluff any longer, telling its longtime political-military patron instead to take its Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and shove it.  Tom Malinowski, former Washington director for Human Rights Watch appointed to his current position in 2012, got the boot Tuesday two days after attending the Ramadan majlis of al-Wifaq, where, as seen above, he caught up with his old buddy 'Ali Salman over some Johnny Walker Blue.

It would seem that photos from the event went viral -- including one that also included the DCM of U.S. Embassy Manama -- sparking mass spontaneous ventricular tachycardia among Bahraini Sunnis, who then appealed to the state to take action.  And the rest, as they say -- as they say -- is history. Before Malinowski could even land in Washington, 'Ali Salman was brought in for questioning, having violated the newly-instituted law against meetings with diplomatic representatives without official permission.  (It would seem to be the first time that the law, prompted in the first place by public outrage at the U.S. Ambassador's meetings with al-Wifaq, has been enforced.) Reuters reports that Sh. 'Ali has since been charged, along with Khalil al-Marzuq, himself only recently cleared on separate "terrorism" charges.

Apart from the aforementioned "deeply concerned" from the State Department and some comments by Malinowski himself, Bahrain's unprecedented move seems to have generated a disproportionately muted official reaction.  Perhaps State realizes now that it may not have been a great idea to send as political ambassador the former Washington Director of Human Rights Watch and author of a summer 2012 article titled "Bahrain: Prison Island." As Simon Henderson says in coverage at the Wall Street Journal, "It's pretty provocative to send someone who is an outspoken critic of your country to go and preach human rights. ... It might have been appropriate, but it's not diplomatic. ... You're asking the Bahrainis to eat humble pie."

Such is all the more true as Malinowski's apparent mission for the trip was to attempt to broker an agreement between al-Wifaq and "regime moderates" (i.e., the Crown Prince) that would secure the former's participation in upcoming parliamentary elections.  (Though it isn't clear from what I've read whether he met Sh. Salman before being booted.)  At a time when Gulf Sunnis see the U.S. aiding the Shi'a-led government in Iraq against a Sunni insurgency, continue to show no interest in stopping the bloodshed against Sunnis in Syria, and poised to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran, one could see where American involvement in Bahrain, symbolized in the person of Malinowski, may not have been viewed as impartial or to the likely benefit of ordinary Sunnis.

A cartoon in Akhbar al-Khaleej.  Malinowski to "Snake of the Embassy" (presumably U.S. Ambassador Krajeski): "You're a snake like me; why didn't they kick you out too?"

Finally, not helping matters also were recent events prior to Malinowski's visit, including a long piece in the New York Times tracing post-Arab Spring sectarianism back to Bahrain (one that did not include any quotations from government officials), and more importantly the killing of a police officer in a bombing in East Ekar the day before Malinowski's visit. Of course, critics would say that al-Wifaq and other oppositions societies, while claiming human rights violations and cultivating U.S. and Western attention on that basis, in fact are violating the rights of the rest of the country's residents by continuing to foment deadly extremism among members of their own community.

Illustrative of this range of reactions is a New York Times editorial that appeared after the expulsion titled "Bahrain's Bad Decision." The article is useful not in its substance, which is highly critical of the Bahraini move and does not even cite Malinowski's previous role at HRW, but in the readers' comments on the piece, which fall into the following three familiar categories:

  • Idealist: Of course the U.S. is right to be critical of Bahrain's human rights record. The U.S. should have pulled out the Fifth Fleet a long time ago; if not for the U.S. Navy, the Al Khalifa wouldn't have a country left to oppress.
  • Anti-Imperialist: Of course the U.S. is trying to overthrow the Bahraini government. Just look what they did in the Ukraine.  How is that working out exactly?  The Gulf monarchies are dictatorships but they're the only real friends the U.S. has, and we should stop repaying them by destabilizing their countries whenever we get a chance.
  • Realist: If human rights were so important to the State Department or the U.S. government, then they should stop sending Assistant Secretaries every six months and instead do something about it, like threaten to pull out the Fifth Fleet. Short of that or some other costly signal that they are serious, they need to shut up about human rights in Bahrain and elsewhere, which only serves to give unfounded hope to the opposition, rile up government supporters, and insult everyone's intelligence. 

Finally, also on the subject of playing nicely (or not) with friends, Bahrain's FM finally has come out in the open with long-rumored accusations that Qatar is stealing its (Sunni) citizens, which Sh. Khalid cites as a main reason for the suspension of diplomatic relations in a televised interview. Gulf News quotes him as saying,
Many Bahraini citizens have been lured by Qatari nationality under the pretext that they have families in Qatar. The issue of nationality has a security dimension. Another issue is that the Qataris are discriminating between the citizens of Bahrain and are acting on a sectarian basis. If the Bahraini is Sunni and member of an Arab tribe in Bahrain, then the door is wide open [for Qatari citizenship]. However, if he is Shiite, the door is shut."
Of course, since the families being "lured" are all tribal families (I've heard Al Jalahma and Al Mana'i, e.g.) with other branches in Qatar, the characterization as "sectarian" in nature, while perhaps true in the sense of their being Sunni, owes simply to the fact that there are no Shi'i tribes in the northern Arabian Peninsula.