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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bahrain Contra Iraq: Foreign-backed "Terrorism" vs. Indigenous "Uprising"

Bouncing around in my mind for a while now have been two big-picture thoughts related to Bahrain, which at some point soon hopefully I will have time to write about more formally than here.

One of these is the disparity in narratives regarding what's going on today in Iraq and the discussion -- to the extent that one still exists in the mainstream media -- surrounding the continued political deadlock in Bahrain, which seems likely to be reiterated soon in the form of yet another opposition boycott of parliamentary elections this fall.

Obviously, the ideology and tactics of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have earned it few supporters, certainly not among governments, but one imagines also among ordinary people in Iraq and Syria.  Yet notwithstanding Western antipathy to the group, still the ongoing rebellion in Iraq has forced U.S. and other policymakers to engage very seriously with the longstanding grievances of Sunni citizens in particular -- so much so that President Obama has openly made American aid for the country contingent on substantive efforts to redress them.

On Friday, for instance, Obama is quoted in the Washington Post as saying,
So, any action that we make take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. ...

So this should be a wake-up call. Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together.
A sectarian group systematically marginalized from politics?  Security forces composed disproportionately and systematically of the politically-dominant sect?  A frustrated out-group largely oppositional to the government -- including a small minority of individuals willing to pursue even violence in order to rectify perceived discrimination in all aspects of society?

Why does that sound familiar?  Oh that's right -- that's a description of the status quo in Bahrain since (in the post-King Hamad period at least) 2002.

Except that whereas Iraq's Sunni community is recognized as having legitimate, domestically-rooted grievances owing to the retributive policies of the Shi'a-led government since 2006, in Bahrain the analogous complaints of the Shi'a are met with accusations of outside influence, as if decades (centuries, really, but who's counting right?) of marginalization were insufficient cause for popular rebellion. Iraq's is a Sunni "war of liberation," in the words of one former Iraqi army general (or, according to the Akhbar Al-Khaleej cartoon at the top of this post, an "intifada by Arab tribes"), while Bahrain's February 2011 uprising and aftermath continues to be nothing more than an Iranian-sponsored "attempted coup".

And in case you require some recent examples of the origins of such grievances in Bahrain, here are some choice ones from the past month:
  • Following a historic vote in March to publicly quiz Bahrain's Finance Minister over accusations of corruption, a decision later invalidated on a technicality under government pressure, on June 3 the opposition-less elected lower house of parliament voted to limit *its own ability* to question ministers. The change increases the threshold of votes required to question a minister from one-half to two-thirds. Among other things, such a change would effectively preclude a parliamentary quizzing even if al-Wifaq and/or other opposition groups (hypothetically) returned to parliament in the fall.

  • On the same day, parliament also approved a bill to replace the elected municipal council of the Capital Governorate -- a body that in February called for the resignation of its Al Khalifa governor over allegations of corruption -- with a General Secretariat appointed by the king and elected members of civil society institutions.

  • Two weeks later on June 17, parliament approved a bill allowing the revocation of Bahraini nationality from any citizen who acquires another nationality without written approval from Minister of Interior. Likely targets include political activists who hold dual-nationality, already no strangers to cancellation of their Bahraini citizenship, as well as Sunni tribal families rumored to be leaving the country for greener (and less burning-tire-filled) pastures elsewhere in the GCC.
A final item deserves a paragraph of its own. This is the continued athletic and international jet-setting exploits of Bahrain's "national" triathlon team.  This important Bahraini institution, which seems constantly to receive no little feigned fanfare and local media coverage, is indicative of the extent to which the ruling family and other elites apparently remain, in the space of a very small island, a world apart from the daily issues facing Sunni and Shi'i citizens alike.  (See the final bullet point about potentially significant Sunni emigration.)

Of the 15 team members reported in the Gulf Daily News story, five (one-third) are Al Khalifa, including two sons of King Hamad, and three others are Westerners. A perfect symbol of the "new Bahrain": Brits and royals.


Indeed, I was told in a recent conversation with a well-placed individual that Riffa increasingly is returning to its historical status as a tribal capital and seat of government, the King barely leaving his palace and members of the ruling family using a private airport there, avoiding altogether the hassle of coming into Manama.  Of course, why go to Manama when in 10 hours you can be swimming and biking in Syracuse, New York!

Bahrain: the first post-oil state.  Not the first to run out of oil or money from oil -- Abu Safaa takes care of that -- but the first to stop using oil money to provide for ordinary citizens, prioritizing instead royal jogging and biking trips to far-flung destinations.

Update: The Bahrain News Agency has finally issued its summary of Joe Biden's seemingly random "consultation" with King Hamad on Monday, ostensibly on the situation in Iraq. Of course, one suspects that Biden was on the giving rather than receiving end of the advice, which one hopes should have touched on some of the points in this post.  According to the BNA, the two "agreed on the need for the Iraqi leaders to set aside their sectarian strife and confront the serious security threat to their country." *Ahem* And the similar situation in Bahrain.

Not appearing in the BNA version, however, is another section of the joint statement, which the Kuwait News Agency helpfully reports:
It added that Biden and King Hamad also spoke about ongoing efforts at reform and dialogue within Bahrain, where Biden "encouraged the Government of Bahrain, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to reach agreement on meaningful reforms and a path forward that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Iraq Chaos, Fear of U.S. Realignment Feeds Bahrain Conspiracy Mill


If there's one thing disliked by most people, not to mention stock markets and autocratic leaders of nations held together by tenuous overlapping domestic and international political alliances, it's uncertainty.  Unfortunately, the somehow-unnoticed-until-four-days-ago ISIS takeover of broad swaths of Syria and Iraq has generated quite a bit of it now, and we seem to be approaching a full freak-out stage.

For most of the Arab Gulf, Kuwait being the notable exception given what happened after the last one, the specter of what Juan Cole calls the coming "Second Iran-Iraq War" is most frightening not because the GCC is likely to be caught in the (direct) cross-fire, but because it may finally cement what's been worrying Gulf Arabs -- leaders and ordinary citizens alike -- for the better part of three years: a tangible U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and, in the longer term, inevitable strategic alliance.

A post in Friday's New York Times gives a useful breakdown of the conflicting interests of the U.S., Iran, al-Maliki, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and the Iraqi Kurds, but the principle at work is simple enough: the enemy (Iran) of my enemy (radical Sunni insurgents) is my friend.  And when one begins to consider all the potential issue linkages that may be in play -- the Iranian nuclear program, the U.S. position on Syria, Iranian involvement with the Huthis in Yemen -- then the regional implications grow even more dizzying.

The upshot is that once-crazy-sounding claims by the likes of Khalifa bin Ahmad about secret U.S.-Iranian plots to overthrow Bahrain and the Gulf monarchies start to sound just un-crazy enough to get otherwise reasonable people riled up.  Hence the GDN's rendering of the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush preparing to unleash uranium-tipped Tomahawk missiles on Riffa, above.

Apart from analyses about converging U.S. and Iran rhetoric on Iraq, feeding this fear in Bahrain also is a more standard sort of scandal: reports of a "secret" U.S. document outlining a State Department program to "unseat" the Bahraini government.  The paper, apparently obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Middle East Briefing (more on these guys later), in fact is a classified overview of the well-known Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program.  

The Middle East Briefing "exposé" begins,
The Obama Administration has been pursuing a policy of covert support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other insurgent movements in the Middle East since 2010. MEB has obtained a just-released U.S. State Department document through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that confirms the Obama Administration’s pro-active campaign for regime change throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.

The October 22, 2010 document, titled “Middle East Partnership Initiative: Overview,” spells out an elaborate structure of State Department programs aimed at directly building “civil society” organizations, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to alter the internal politics of the targeted countries in favor of U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives.
In short, this "secret" document essentially repeats what appears very prominently on the front page of the MEPI website, namely that "MEPI supports organizations and individuals in their efforts to promote political, economic, and social reform in the Middle East and North Africa." (In any case, one has a hard time believing that any real "secrets" would be disclosed to a Dubai-based risk analysis firm, FOIA or no FOIA.)  Indeed, if the "analysts" at Middle East Briefing were looking for real controversy, they would have done better simply to browse MEPI's Wikipedia entry, which includes among other historical details its creation by George W. Bush and the appointment of Dick Cheney's daughter as its first supervisor at the State Department.

On the other hand, how one connects this decade-long program to a "policy of covert support for the Muslim Brotherhood" is beyond my powers of intuition.  I recall many Bahraini students on MEPI programs while I was in the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood is about as far from their politics as one can imagine.

One presumes, then, that the anti-MB purpose relates to the particular views of the founders of this Middle East Briefing, whose website tells that its parent company, "Orient Advisory Group, ... is a research and risk assessment firm based in both Washington DC and Dubai UAE." Hrm, imagine that -- Muslim Brotherhood hysteria coming out of the UAE! Methinks things are beginning to make sense.

The mebriefing.com domain name was registered less than a year ago on September 26, 2013, and since then the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be a sustained focus.  For instance, this article on "cooperation" between Washington and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood announces that "MEB will publish a series of reports based on documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the US State Department focusing on the US-Muslim Brotherhood 'understandings' in different moments of the relation between the two sides" -- of which the MEPI report is presumably one.

Of course, don't tell this to Bahraini officials, including the Interior Ministry's Assistant Undersecretary for Legal Affairs, as well as al-Asalah MP and anti-American extraordinaire Abd al-Halim Murad, who are busy calling for formal investigations and emergency parliamentary sessions, respectively.  Let's just pray they don't catch wind of the National Democratic Institute -- or the U.S. Navy base in Juffair!

Now for a few couple of items in lazy bullet-point form:
  • The GDN has published Bahrain-related excerpts from Hillary Clinton's new submission in the category of the contrived pre-presidential-run memoir.

  • Bassiouni gave an interview to Al-Monitor on Bahrain's BICI implementation on the sidelines of last week's U.S.-Islamic Forum in Doha, where he chaired a panel.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Tangled Web of Gulf Politics

"So this means you guys are going to protect us no matter what -- right?"

It's been a while since I've had a chance to post here. The manuscript for my forthcoming book on Bahrain was due May 1, and my family is set to be enlarged by one any day now. Oh, and I've spent the last few weeks moving across town. So I've gotten a bit behind.

The book, for which I'm still thinking of a catchy title, is based (on the empirical side) on my Ph.D. fieldwork in Bahrain, but deals conceptually with the case of ascriptive group conflict in the rentier state. As such, it should be of interest both to those who study Bahrain and the Gulf as well as political scientists generally.  I don't have an exact publication date, but I suspect it will be out (in the Indiana University Press Series in Arab and Islamic Studies) sometime in the fall.  I'll probably write more about it here once we're closer to that time.

As far as events in Bahrain go, it seems that the most notable news -- as has been the case for a few months -- is on the diplomatic front.  Something of a perfect storm of geopolitics now embroils the Gulf region: lingering but ostensibly easing intra-GCC tensions, lingering but ostensibly thawing Saudi-Iran tensions, seemingly progressing but could-derail-anyday-now nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S., and, with respect to Bahrain in particular, diplomatic maneuvering featuring its two Western patrons.

At the risk of being uncreative, we can just take these in order.
  • The GCC says that its internal "spat" has ended.  Yet this despite no apparent change in behavior by the offending Qatar, and even more curiously absent the return of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors to Doha. See David Roberts for the Council on Foreign Relations for some sense of what is going on.  Moreover, I've heard from several places about a secondary dispute involving Bahrain and Qatar particularly, related to accusations that the latter is attempting to poach (or already has poached) some noted Bahraini families, among them the Bahraini Al Jalahma.

  • I follow less and know less about the course of Saudi-Iran diplomacy.  But I read the newspaper enough to know that, after spending the past few months denying having done so, finally Saudi Arabia has admitted reaching out to Tehran for an official visit to Riyadh in an apparent effort to thaw relations.  At the same time, Simon Henderson reports on a "surprise rotation" of senior Saudi defense officials.

  • The status of U.S.-Iran negotiations I know and care even less about, mainly because following such things too deeply is a quick way to become disillusioned with the entire American political system. And since merely reading headlines in the New York Times is usually sufficient to do that, I try not to overdo it. So you can do your own research here.
On Bahrain we have too many items for a single bullet point:
  • The annual visit of a senior Bahraini dignitary--this year King Hamad himself--to the Royal Windsor Horse Show is turning out predictably, with rights groups and op-eds slamming the UK's support for dictatorships, etc. etc. Longtime friend of Bahrain Prince Andrew, who was set to be a keynote speaker at a Bahrain-organized "promotional event," has even been shamed into cancelling.  Of course, the UK having just in late April broke ground in Bahrain on the largest naval facility outside of the British mainland (see picture at the top), it's hard to imagine British-Bahrain relations undergoing a reversal anytime soon. Indeed, if the case is anything like British-Saudi relations, al-Wifaq is likely to be added to Britain's list of terrorist organizations à la the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • In contrast to the Brits' thoughtful horse show invitation, the U.S. sent King Hamad Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson, whom he was, one imagines, rather less pleased to receive.  Far from chairing promotional events, Patterson spent her two days in the country "underscor[ing] US encouragement of reform and reconciliation through the ongoing [sic] National Dialogue." (Someone really should tell her about the National Dialogue.)  One suspects she may also have reiterated U.S. annoyance at Bahrain's recent signing of trade deals with Russia.

  • The Washington Institute continues its coverage of Iranian destabilization of Bahrain and thus the Gulf and thus we can't trust them to follow through on any nuclear deal!$@% in "Iran and Bahrain: Crying Wolf, or Wolf at the Door?" This latest article is more clever than usual for its framing, on evidence in the rhetorical title and summary, as a piece critical of the Bahraini government.  In fact, the "criticism" is that Bahrain needs to do a better job of marshaling (what is already presumed valid) evidence in demonstration of Iranian involvement with the opposition, and should stop referring to everyone as "terrorists" so that Western observers can better make out who the real (Iranian-backed) terrorists are. Thus:
    Moving forward, the Bahraini government will need to exhibit a clearer commitment to rule of law, distinguishing between demonstrators and terrorists and dealing with each accordingly. Only then will its foreign partners be able to effectively assess new evidence of Iranian support for local militants.
    Ah, I see what you did there.
Finally, no longer Bahrain-related, but: The Monkey Cage, a new political science-y blog at the Washington Post run by former Foreign Policy Mideast Channel editor Marc Lynch, recently featured a great article by Kristin Smith Diwan on Kuwait's ongoing and unusually public royal feud.

Update: A post on Carnegie Endowment's Sada blog discusses Bahrain's Muslim Brotherhood conundrum.  Nothing new as far as I can see, but it's good that some others are highlighting this issue, which obviously involves a tenuous domestic and regional political balance that will be interesting to watch going forward.