Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sectarian Backfire?

The Middle East Institute has just published a short essay by me titled, "Sectarian Backfire? Assessing Gulf Political Strategy Five Years after the Arab Uprisings."  The aim, as the title suggests, is to examine the extent to which the deliberate post-2011 sectarianization of Gulf politics by (mainly) Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has been successful from their perspective.  In particular, the piece attempts to counter the prevailing sense that the strategy has "backfired" for these governments, what with the rise of Da'ish, deepening of the Syrian civil war and the spread of war to Yemen, and so on.

But as I argue in the article, the strategy, insofar as it was implemented in service of the primary goal of regime security, has arguably succeeded beyond rulers' original expectations.  Mobilization of co-sectarians doubtless contributed to the immediate goal of fending off domestic oppositions.  And, since the rise of the Islamic State, it has also secured GCC governments huge arms deals and essentially a free diplomatic hand to act regionally and domestically in return for their support of the Western anti-IS coalition.  Meanwhile, the more onerous physical costs of the sectarian policy have been successfully externalized by Gulf governments.

Any change in this sectarian policy, I conclude, is far more likely to owe to the Gulf's changing economic circumstances than to a change in political calculation.

You can read the article here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Saudi Arabia Drags Bahrain Back into the International Spotlight

It's been a while, but I've managed to eke out a few minutes to post here just as confirmation that I've not died, joined the CIA and been sworn to silence, etc.

In fact, I was impelled to post mainly by the reemergence after a long hiatus of another source of Bahrain commentary, namely the "advocacy group" Citizens for Bahrain.  This group of pro-government Bahrainis and/or Western PR firm employees, whose e-mail listserv and other publication machinery was in full tilt in the run-up to last fall's parliamentary elections and then in the aftermath, in recent times has been relatively inactive.  The group sent over 100 e-mails during 2014, for example, compared to only around 20 in 2015, and most of these were concentrated at the beginning of the year.

Now, however, I've received three messages in the space of about a week--one attacking the British opposition leader for his criticism of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia ("the Bahraini dictatorship murdering its democracy movement, armed by us"—ouch) in his keynote address to the Labour Party; a second attacking Iran for its criticism of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the tragic hajj stampede; and a third attacking Marc Owen Jones and coauthors for their criticism of Bahrain in a new book edited by Jones and other Bahrain Watch members. Am I detecting a theme here?

Clearly, Bahrain once again is finds itself in the uncomfortable position of international scrutiny, and is doing what it can to fend off critics.  Yet, this case bears an interesting distinction from previous ones: renewed diplomatic pressure is coming not as a result of any development in Bahrain itself, or as a routine consequence of Bahrain's hosting of high-profile annual events such as the Formula 1 race or Manama Dialogue.  No, here we can clearly see that the spotlight on Bahrain is a side-effect of the much more massive spotlight being shined on Saudi Arabia owing to its disastrous foray into Yemen, the continued growth of ISIS, the further escalation of the war in Syria following Russia's entrance into the conflict, and general questions about the kingdom's management and leadership after two deadly incidents at the hajj.

In the past month alone, Saudi Arabia was blasted by the potential future Prime Minister of its strongest political ally, Great Britain; faced accusations by Iranian, Indonesian, and other officials about its handling of the stampede in Mina, including misrepresentation of the death toll; narrowly (and controversially) averted a UN resolution submitted by the Netherlands calling for an international investigation into the war in Yemen; and, according to this story in yesterday's Al-Monitor, apparently now faces opposition by members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to an arms deal that would send additional precision-guided munitions (and other high-tech weaponry promised as compensation for the Iranian nuclear deal) to the kingdom. The article reads,
“What we are concerned about is that there is not a military solution in Yemen,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the panel, told Al-Monitor. “What we want to do is get the parties serious about implementing a political solution. We thought we had a clear track to that, and it's off track right now. So we want to get it back on track.”

Cardin described the delay as a fairly routine matter of lawmakers and staff pressing the administration for answers and reassurances. He and others made it clear, however, that senators on the panel, particularly Democrats, have a wide array of concerns they want to see addressed.

“This proposal is receiving a considerable level of congressional scrutiny,” one Senate Democratic aide acknowledged.

A coalition of human rights and arms control groups has been working behind the scenes for weeks to try to get lawmakers to speak up against the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, which has been blamed for the deaths of more than 2,300 civilians over the past six months. Their message emerged in public Oct. 6 during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen that saw several Democrats question the wisdom of re-arming the Saudis.

“I fear that our failure to strongly advocate diplomacy in Yemen over the past two years, coupled with our failure to urge restraint in the face of the crisis last spring, may put the viability of this critical [US-Saudi] partnership at risk,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “The Leahy Law prohibits US security assistance — and many forms of defense cooperation — with forces that have engaged in gross violations of human rights. If reports are accurate, the Saudi indiscriminate targeting in the air campaign and an overly broad naval blockade could well constitute such violations.”
And, if this were not cause enough for concern, last week saw the widespread publication and reporting of two letters penned by an anonymous Saudi royal and circulated among senior members of the family that revealed significant factionalism within the Al Sa'ud over the leadership of King Salman and his son.  An article in yesterday's Foreign Policy blog sums up the near-apocalyptic mood nicely: "It’s Time for the United States to Start Worrying About a Saudi Collapse."

It is under this backdrop, then, that the traditional diplomatic relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, in which the latter comes to the former's defense, has been turned on its head.  In a show of support for the war in Yemen, in early September King Hamad announced that his own sons Nasser and Khalid would join the fight.  (Some pro-Iranian news outlets have since claimed that Khalid was injured or even killed in a Houthi missile attack in Ma'rib.)

Bahrain also reacted vociferously to suggestions by Iran and other countries to internationalize the hajj pilgrimage (and therefore divest Saudi Arabia of significant religious cache and tourist revenue) by handing stewardship of the Islamic holy cities to a neutral authority.  Indeed, one gets the impression that Bahrain's October 1 expulsion of the Iranian ambassador, ostensibly after the discovery of an opposition arms depot linked to Iran, was a response primarily to its role in keeping diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia.  For instance, this Bahrain News Agency story detailing a Shura Council's debate of "Iranian interference [and] threats" devotes three of six paragraphs to
the Iranian statements [that] bear threats to the GCC countries, [for instance] the statements of Iranian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Ali Al-Khamenei on September 30 during a graduation ceremony of cadets in which he targeted Saudi Arabia following the stampede in Mena during pilgrimage.

The committee voiced its categorical rejection of those defamatory statements which do not show any respect to the major role played by Saudi Arabia in serving the pilgrims and facilitating their rituals. It also added that the Iranian statements represented an explicit threat to sow sedition by disseminating fallacies.

The committee stressed that Saudi Arabia's security is part of Bahrain's security which is a red line, adding that those attempts will never succeed to shake regional stability and Iran's attempts to impose hegemony on the whole region will be doomed to failure thanks to the great awareness and determination of the GCC people and their belief in the Arab identity of the region and the wisdom its leaders.
It is notable also that another Saudi proxy, Yemen, cut diplomatic relations with Iran almost simultaneously, once again for Iran's alleged involvement in arming and training the opposition there. Several days later, the nephew of the late Sa'ud al-Faisal, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, told an audience on Capitol Hill that Saudis fighting in Yemen have confirmed the presence of Iranian and Hizballah fighters, and more generally warned against "increasing Iranian incursion into other states’ affairs." While his comments were not meant to represent the official position of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to imagine that they will not be taken as such.

Thus, it would seem that, faced with renewed threats from all sides, Saudi Arabia is doubling down on what it knows: the sectarian strategy in which accusations and resulting fears of Iranian empowerment are meant, first, to justify otherwise unpalatable actions; but, more importantly, to convince allies that there is no other option but continued support of Saudi Arabia in the face of far scarier alternatives. Five years after the onset of the Arab uprisings, one wonders how much longer such a strategy can hold out.

Update: I forgot to mention this article in Foreign Affairs published this week by myself and Michael Ewers on the topic of the Gulf states' non-acceptance of large numbers of Syrian refugees.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Rethinking the Rentier State: My Bahrain Book Finally Published

A friend wrote to say that he received his pre-order copy of my new book on Bahrain (and to a lesser extent the Arab Gulf generally), and it reminded me that I haven't really dedicated a full blog post to it. Obviously, I'm not going to go on and on about how great it is; mainly I want to inform readers that the 20% pre-order discount on Amazon is still available until the official publication date of June 8, even though (apparently) it is already shipping.  Or you could always wait six months or so until people are selling used copies for 99 cents or whatever.

The book is titled Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier StateNot such a catchy title, right?  Despite that, it is being published in the Indiana University Press Series in Middle East Studies, and we've already reached an agreement with another publisher for an Arabic translation. But I don't have a clear sense yet how long the latter will take.

The book draws upon my doctoral fieldwork in Bahrain, including the results of my mass political survey administered in 2009.  But the revision schedule was such as to allow historical analysis up through the 2014 parliamentary elections.  So it's actually quite current.

Analytically, the book attempts to understand the conditions under which the presumed "rentier bargain" -- rent-funded economic benefits for citizens in return for political loyalty or apathy for the state -- fails to operate, or operates among some citizens and not others. In doing so, it examines the political motivations of ordinary Gulf (mostly Bahraini) citizens as well as specific strategies of rule adopted by Gulf states.

Hopefully people will find it interesting.

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.

Update 2: A reader writes in regarding Sh. Nasr: "my understanding is not that he has plans to become Defense minister, but that he may head in the future a newly-formed Ministry for the National Guard."

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.