Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Conversation with Emile Nakhleh on Al Khalifa Family Dynamics

Two posts ago I linked to an article by Emile Nakhleh titled "Bahrain Repression Belies Government Stand on Dialogue." Nakhleh--a fellow former Fulbright to Bahrain; author of a recently-reissued book on the country; and frequent writer on Middle East politics--argues in short (and as he has previously) that that it is Khalifa bin Salman who is responsible not only for derailing attempts to exit the current crisis, but more generally for undermining the cause of democracy (or at least liberalization) in Bahrain since independence. Accordingly, he suggests American diplomats strengthen the prime minister's competitors within the ruling family so as to marginalize his deleterious influence on any future dialogue initiative.

Having communicated with him previously, I wrote Nakhleh in response to the article, asking in particular whether he might not have omitted an important player in the game of Al Khalifa politics, namely the Royal Court and Defense Ministers (i.e., the khawalid). What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth that included many insightful details based on Nakhleh's first-hand familiarity with many of the personalities involved owing not least to his time--15 years--with the CIA. The conversation for me proved so interesting, in fact, that I thought I would post it here (with his permission of course). Indeed, if there continues to be a lack of dialogue among the political forces in Bahrain, at least we may have a dialogue about the political forces in Bahrain.

Before this, however, some news-related housekeeping is in order. This Friday will see the crescendo of a week's worth of mass rallies organized by the five main (legal) opposition societies, including Wa'ad, al-Wifaq, and some others that don't matter so much. The slogan, "We won't leave the streets [literally, the squares]," is announced in a pretty flier that looks like it might be for an Apple product:

The rally is in fact a march beginning at 5:00pm from the Shakhura Roundabout to the Saar Roundabout, i.e. a good way down al-Budaiyi' Road. As Faysal al-Shaykh noted in the Al-Watan column I posted yesterday, "we will wait and see" as to the state's response to the rally given recent warnings directed at 'Isa Qasim about using Friday sermons to "incite" violence and political action. (Someone, apparently, has responded. Al-Wifaq reported on Tuesday that a hawza in Muharraq was attacked by "civilian militias." Recall that Muharraq was also the sight of clashes in December between 'Ashura' procession-goers and members of 'Adel Flaifel's "Military Society.")

Just in case Bahrain needs some additional encouragement to act, pro-government groups will hold their own counter-rally on Saturday in Muharraq and in al-Hinayniyya (i.e., al-Rifa'). Rather than at opposition terrorists, however, this is directed at "the influence of the U.S., British, etc.," according to organizers. (Sadly there is no flier, which raises serious questions about the latter's commitment.) More interesting still is that this "طوق القادسية," as it's being dubbed, was prompted explicitly (again, according to the announcement) by the exhortations of "writers in daily newspapers"--chief among them, presumably, Al-Watan. So yet another good reason for our Al-Watan Wednesday.

Combined with recent opposition protests outside the naval base in Juffair, then, the U.S. continues to get it from both sides--from Shi'a upset about continued American support for the government; and from Sunnis upset about continued American influence on government decisions. And here I thought preserving the political status quo in Bahrain was supposed to serve U.S. national interests.

With this as a perhaps off-topic introduction, I reproduce below my conversation with Emile Nakhleh. I hope readers find it interesting and/or useful.

Update: Going for the all-time intramural GCC co-ed record, Bahrain has foiled yet another terrorist plot. How can we be sure? Well the Interior Ministry blows stuff up in a video (see the last 2:00). Obviously. Interestingly, it seems that it is a rule of explosives detonation that the phrase "Fire in the hole!" be said only in English.

A Conservation with Emile Nakhleh on Al Khalifa Dynamics

I wanted to write to say that I enjoyed your latest piece on the renewed hopes of dialogue in Bahrain for the Lobelog. I wonder, though, given your emphasis on Khalifa bin Salman, where you see the khawalid (Khalifa and Khalid bin Ahmad) in all of this? Even if the king and CP have been marginalized in the post-February period, surely the Royal Court and especially the Field Marshal have grown in stature. Do you not see them as an independent force within the ruling family?

I think this question is especially important now as the Saudi case serves to raise the issue of succession after the PM is finally gone. Obviously he backs (and you suggest the U.S. back) Muhammad bin Mubarak as his eventual successor; but the khawalid have their own rival candidate in Khalid bin 'Abdallah. If another from among the khawalid were to gain the premiership, they would then control that position along with the military and Royal Court--no small fact.
I knew Abdallah, Khalid's father, back in the early 70s and had frequent discussions with him. I believe he was the Minister of Justice at the time. He, like the PM, opposed the opposition’s demands for reform and in fact objected to the whole move toward a constitution and a National Assembly. He was very fond of Bahrain's heritage and culture and thought any reform that would limit the power of the family would not be good for Bahrain. When he would talk about Dilmun and the early inhabitants of the island, he conveniently forgot that al-Khalifa conquered the island only 200 plus years back!

I don't believe the PM would designate his deputy Shaykh Muhammad as his successor without making sure he has the Khawalids and other Khalifas on his side. I'm not even sure he would necessarily support Shaykh Muhammad. The old guard within the family never really trusted him—they viewed back then as ambitious and reformist. Besides, Some of them privately even mentioned his non-Khalifa mother.

I agree with the view that the Saudis would play a role in the succession to Khalifa. The interesting analytic question is what impact the Saudi intervention in the internal affairs of the family will have on the on-going friction among the different centers of power within the royals. I am sure Shaykh Muhammad, as he did in the past, will try to stay above the fray. That's how he survived on the inside track!

If the King loses the succession fight, Khalid bin Ahmed and Khalifa bin Ahmed (Royal Court and the Field Marshal) will likely dominate the scene with Saudi blessings and support. If this happens, I'm not sure they will be satisfied with keeping Hamad as a figurehead king or Salman as CP. I certainly expect the growing tensions within the ruling family to become more public and the in fighting more ugly. Perhaps for the sake of family survival, cooler heads would prevail.

In the meantime, violence continues and the ruling family does not have the luxury of time despite their sophisticated and rapid response PR. For example, the PM office responded to my previous op-ed in the FT in less than 24 hours with an op-ed that was published in the same newspaper the following day! Most people who follow Bahrain in Washington have come to believe that if serious dialogue were to occur, the King and his son should be involved and that the PM would not be a credible participant. The deputy PM could be a bridge between the old guard, the reformist faction, and the opposition.
I much enjoyed hearing your first-hand knowledge of some of the personalities involved.

As for Khalid's father 'Abdallah, from what I've heard his son seems to be of a like mind: opposed to reforms (and especially concessions to the Shi'a) on *ideological* rather than pragmatic political grounds. This seems to be a theme among the khawalid, a fact I have explored in a longish article I finished a month or so ago titled "The Securitization of 'the Shi'a Problem' in Bahrain."

As for your larger point regarding Khalifa's successor, who then do you see as a viable alternative to Muhammad? Not his son, presumably, who by all accounts sounds unliked and barely competent. And Khalifa must know that by choosing a weak candidate he is essentially ceding his position to the khawalid. Or do you believe that the latter is a more appealing alternative from the PM's point of view--i.e., better to leave the country in the hands of the Royal Court and military (with the implicit backing of Saudi) than an indecisive nephew and his upstart son (with the implicit backing of the U.S.)?

The main argument of my aforementioned article is that, as intellectually unappealing as it might be, the present conflict in Bahrain is at bottom a case of intra-familial competition, and little can be resolved on the ground until this works itself out--or until someone helps work it out. (Although I think I am less sanguine than you about the U.S.'s direct influence here. This business of "improving the position of the Crown Prince" through visits to DC and some spare helicopter parts is laughable. Better to pressure the Saudis to intervene I would say.) More and more, I think this interpretation is correct.
Tensions within the family are not new; they go back to the early days right after independence. To illustrate, when British diplomats in Bahrain reported to the Home Office on my book back in 1976, the point they found most "amusing" was my discussion of the internal tensions within the ruling family. The main point of the book they thought, according to declassified British diplomatic correspondence, was my "analysis of the first national elections to the constituent Assembly in 1972." (See Ali Rabi'a's book al-Tajriba al-Maw'uda: al-Haya al-Dimoqratiyya fi al-Bahrain, 2010, pp.338+).

I don’t think Muhammad's son will be seriously considered for the PM position. I think the tension will be between Khalifa and his nephew Hamad. If Khalifa loses, which is a distinct possibility, I won't be surprised to see Hamad appoint his son the CP as the PM. Precedents of such an appointment are all around them in the neighboring emirates, including in Saudi Arabia. If such an appointment occurs, the Royal Court and the Military would be held in check. The King could also appoint Muhammad (presumably as an interim) to provide continuity and even gravitas. I imagine this path would ultimately lead to Salman taking over the PM slot, while of course remaining the CP. The familial old-age respect, which Hamad has accorded his uncle, would not necessarily extend to the Khawalids or other Khalifas, especially if they don't support the King. If some sort of union occurs between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the short-term, which I doubt, it would be a sign that Khalifa has maintained the upper hand within the family. If the King and some of his supporters push back on the unification scheme and succeed, he will end up on top.

Now that Nayef is gone, Khalifa has lost a major supporter within the Saudi powerful hierarchy. I don't think Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz (new CP) or Ali ibn Abd al-Aziz (new MoI) have the same ideological affinity toward Khalifa or are as invested in having Bahrain become another "province" of Saudi Arabia. Since they are not as viscerally opposed to reform domestically, and hence tend to be closer to King Abdallah's position, they might not be as opposed to some sort of reform in Bahrain. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.

I also don't think it's all that "laughable" to raise Salman's profile through visits to Washington. Much to my disappointment, the administration seems to play a very cautious game vis a vis Bahrain--presumably because of Saudi Arabia. Since the "Arab Spring" started, Washington was always focused on who is the most appropriate interlocutor in whatever country. Unfortunately, Bahrain is no exception. I've been arguing with my friends inside and outside the government that we must take a more forceful position toward Khalifa and his policies, for fear of terrorism against our presence in that country. What concerns me is that more and activists within the Bahraini opposition, including some of Khalifa’s strong Sunni supporters, are beginning to blame the US for perceived collusion with al-Khalifa. If Washington decides to push for genuine reform and meaningful dialogue in Bahrain, it can do it on its own without the urgent need for Saudi support. Riyadh would still be needed, however, to provide a cover.
Interesting your suggestion that Bahrain might preform a reverse Kuwait maneuver--combine the CP and PM for reasons of political expediency rather than split the roles. I suppose the CP does already have some experience in running a (shadow) cabinet, i.e. the EDB. Do you see the Khalifa - Hamad struggle as likely to come to a head before the former's eventual passing? or is the present situation sustainable if obviously destabilizing?

I suppose the GCC meeting in December will be useful is demonstrating the extent to which Saudi-Bahrain union remains on the list of priorities following the death of Nayf. On the other hand, it may complicate one's interpretation of the intra-Al Khalifa struggle insofar as the initiative's failure (assuming as I do that it will fail) may leave open two possibilities: that it failed because the King succeeded in obstructing Khalifa; or because the Saudis lost interest. Perhaps either alternative would strike a blow to the PM, but the internal situation could remain ambiguous.
As long as the situation is sustainable, the family will try to keep the internal struggle under wraps; they loathe airing their dirty laundry in public. However, if street confrontations escalate and repressive reaction becomes more noticeable internationally and more damaging to business and the economy, the King will come under more pressure, especially from respected members of the Sunni community, especially business people, and mainstream Shia families, to contain the situation and initiate meaningful dialogue to resolve the impasse. If the King responds positively to such pressure and begins to explore avenues for dialogue, Salman would re-emerge as a principal player. Khalifa's stature would then suffer. Unfortunately for Khalifa, the Bahraini situation is not a purely internal matter; international actors—including the US, Saudi Arabia, etc.—would have a stake in the outcome and therefore might push harder for dialogue. Most people don't expect the PM to be a key participant in the envisioned dialogue.


  1. Just to throw another spanner in the works, given Hamad's ill-health it is probably more likely that he will pass away before his Uncle... and what then? Presumably this will play rather well into Khalifa's hands, and will see the CP ostracised. Alternatively on the CP's accession to the throne, will the USA swing in with more substantial support to support the best chance for reform?

  2. Justin, although this was noted and especially towards the end of your conversation with EN, I would like to highlight that nothing brings the conflicts within the ruling family out in the open and exacerbates them except the people pushing forward. It seems more and more likely that the more people push, the more we come close to a tipping point where these issues continue leaking from underneath the ruling family out of economic necessity, such as this:

  3. US Deeply Concerned Over Terror Plot in Bahrain.

    What do you think of US response to Ministry of Interiors' video?

  4. @Kiwi: A reasonable response. Indeed, stories of the king's ill health are much more prevalent than those about Khalifa bin Salman. I agree that in that case (and probably in any case) the question will turn largely around the influence of outside actors--the U.S. and especially Saudi Arabia. Will the former be forceful in pushing for the CP? And can the latter be convinced to back down from staunch support of the PM?

    @Anon: Agree entirely. See also this story about the drop in prime rents--by 14%--in Manama in first quarter 2012.

    @Makkii: U.S. seems to be signaling to the (formal) opposition that time is running out for a political bargain; that al-Wifaq is losing control over the Shi'i street and the government can't wait around forever while people become more radicalized.