Rarely reported in the West has been the concerted repression of democracy activists on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, the first among equals in the peninsula, has been ruthless against any suggestion of democratic reform. Most recently, the Saudi authorities arrested the Qatif-based cleric Nimr al-Nimr, shooting him in the leg and killing several people during the operation in the village of al-Awwamiyya. Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz said that al-Nimr is “the spreader of sedition” and “a man of dubious scholarship and dubious mental condition, and the issues he raises and speaks about show a deficiency or imbalance of the mind.” In the Kingdom, to champion democracy is a mental illness. Al-Nimr is not alone. The authorities have arrested Ra’if Badawi, editor of Free Saudi Liberals, and activists such as Mohammed al-Shakouri of Qatif, the hotbed of unrest. The Saudis cleverly use blasphemy laws to hit the democracy activists hard. The activists are “those who have gone astray” (al-fi’at al-dhallah), and it is the truncheon that is tasked with bringing them back to their senses.
For a year, the Bahraini authorities have been unrelenting in their crackdown against democracy campaigners. Most recently Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a veteran of the al-Khalifa prisons, was arrested for an insulting tweet. On June 22, about thirty activists of the al-Wefaq party, led by their leader Sheikh Ali Salman, marched east of Manama with flowers in hand. The police fired tear gas and sound bombs, injuring most of the demonstrators. Things are so bad in Bahrain that the UN Human Rights Council passed a declaration calling on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to implement the recommendations of his own appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Unsurprisingly, the United States, the United Kingdom and seven European Union states (including Sweden) sat silently and did not endorse the declaration.
Matters have taken a turn for the worse in the United Arab Emirates (of the seven emirates in this union the most famous are Dubai and Abu Dhabi). There the authorities have shown no mercy to al-Islah, the Association of Reform and Social Guidance. Since March of this year, the UAE has arrested at least fifty activists, including the human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori as well as Khaifa al-Nu`aimi, a young blogger and twitter user. The attack on al-Islah began in December 2011, when the full enthusiasm of the Arab Spring reached the gilded cities. The government promptly arrested its main leaders, and stripped seven of them of their UAE citizenship. The UAE Seven, as they fashioned themselves, released a statement calling for reforms “in the legislative authority so as to prepare the climate for a wholesome parliamentary election.” Nothing of the sort has happened, and indeed the crushing blow to the activists has been swifter and more powerful.
On July 24, University of Sharjah law professor and a former judge, Ahmed Yusuf al-Zaabi, was sentenced to twelve months in prison for fraud. The government alleged that he had impersonated someone else (his passport said he was a judge even as he had been dismissed from the bench for his support of the 2003 call for political reforms). The recent arrests are a piece of this general policy of intolerance for political diversity, and for any call to reform. On August 1, Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork called upon the US and Britain to “speak out clearly, in public as well as in meetings with UAE officials, about this draconian response to the mildest calls for modest democratic reforms.” There is silence from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, in February 2011, that the US would “support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent and accountable.” The asterix to that statement said the following: “citizens of the Gulf need not apply.”
Arab Desert Democracy.
John Harris, the architect of Dubai, wrote in a 1971 master plan that the UAE’s political system was a “traditional Arab desert democracy [which] grants the leader ultimate authority” (this is quoted in Ahmed Kanna’s fabulous 2011 book Dubai: The City as Corporation). The term “desert democracy” had become clichéd by the 1970s. In 1967, Time ran a story on Kuwait as the “desert democracy,” a title the magazine reused in 1978 for its story on Saudi Arabia. The idea of “desert democracy” refers to the Gulf monarchies allowance of a majlis, a council, to offer advice to the monarch, at the same time as the oil-rich monarchs pledge to provide transfer payments to the citizens for their good behavior (in 1985 the leader of the illegal Saudi Communist Party said that these payments made the Saudi workers “the favorites of fortune”). If this basic compact is violated by the call for greater democracy, for instance, the monarch is enshrined to crack down. It is almost as if the Gulf Arab monarchs had read their Bernard Lewis, the venerable Princeton professor, whose What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Modernity and Islam in the Middle East (2001) notes that the “Middle Easterners created a democracy without freedom.” All the usual Orientalist props come tumbling in: tribal society, Arab factionalism and so on.
The fog of culture is convenient, but it does blind one to much simpler explanations. The emirs of the Gulf have no interest in sharing power with their people who might ask embarrassing questions about the extravagant living of the royal families off the petro-dollars. No elite willingly submits to democracy, the “most shameless thing in the world,” as Edmund Burke put it. It has been piously hoped since the 1950s that the “next generation” of the Gulf Arabs will be more moderate then their forbearers, that distance from their Bedouin tents will turn them into Liberals. The Saudi King Abdulla is 87, his crown prince Salman is 77 and sick. Their younger descendants have not shown any eagerness to move a reform agenda. The costs would be catastrophic to their family’s control of the wealth. The US government is well aware of this situation. A 1996 State Department cable points out that the “Royals still seem more adept at squandering than accumulating wealth… As long as the royal family views (Saudi Arabia) and its oil wealth as Al Saud Inc., the thousand of princes and princesses will see it as their birthright to receive dividend payments and raid the till.” Reform is a distraction to their plunder.
US Ambassador James Smith wrote to Secretary Clinton in February 2010 that the US-Saudi relationship has “proven durable.” Much the same has been said of the US and European relationship with the rest of the Gulf. Oil is of course key, but it is not the only thing. Political control through the military bases is equally important. Of the many bases, the most significant are the Naval Support Activity Station in Bahrain, the air base at al-Dhafra in the UAE, and the air base at al-Udeid in Qatar. Democracy and other such illusions can be squandered by the West to forge a realistic alliance with the Gulf Arabs who share, as Ambassador Smith put it, “a common view of threats posed by terrorism and extremism [and] the dangers posed by Iran.” One of Iran’s great threats is its attempt to export its style of Islamic democracy, anathema to the Gulf Arab monarchies. The US has lined up behind aristocracy against democracy.
The power of the Gulf sovereigns is increasing, although the sovereigns are less stable. The people have already been through the stages of al-mithaq (the pact) and al-hiwar (the dialogue). Far more is wanted. Night descends. The mukhabarat (political police) and the mutaween (religious police) are on the move. There is gunfire. There are shreaks. There is silence.
Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.
And why did the US government pressure King Hamad to establish this commission and to issue this report? Because the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the US wants to maintain its basing rights on the island kingdom in order to protect its hegemonic position to assert its dominance and control over the Middle Eastern Arab regimes. The commission and the report would demonstrate, it was argued, the maturity of the Al-Khalifa regime and its ability to learn from its mistakes and reform its government.”
Hearings were held today, Wednesday, August 1, 2012, in the US Congress on the “Implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report” by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (named in honor of the former Democratic representative from California who died in 2008).
Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) co-chaired the hearings which took place in Room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC.
And what did they examine you ask? They purportedly examined the extent to which the government of Bahrain has implemented the BICI proposals.
And what are the BICI proposals? These are recommendations included in a report issued by a commission headed by renowned Egyptian-born international criminal law professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni in November of 2011.
And why did Bassiouni issue this report? Because he was paid by Hamad Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses during the regime crackdown on democracy protesters from February 14, 2011, when the Arab Spring rebellion commenced in Bahrain, until Saudi Arabia sent in the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council’s (PGCC) so-called Peninsula Shield Forces on March 14, 2011 to “restore order.” Presumably what happened from the 14th of March, 2011 and afterward could not be attributed to the King or his hangmen and, therefore, were off-limits to Bassiouni and his investigators, even though the killings, the torture, the arrests and jailings, the beatings and harassment continue to this day-i.e. 17 months after the civil conflict erupted-as do the near-daily protests by the pro-democracy citizenry which periodically march in the streets in the hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their resolve against the monarchy.
In essence, King Hamad was strongly urged by the US Department of State and others to whitewash the murders, tortures, beatings, arrests, jailings, harassment and other crimes of his regime by establishing a commission-the so-called Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)- on June 29, 2011, headed by a distinguished jurist-i.e. Cherif Bassiouni-so as to indicate a degree of self-reflection and self-criticism in the hope that the world community would absolve him and his regime of any responsibility for maintaining an autocratic 229-year-old hereditary monarchy and allow the kingdom to return to business as usual.
And why did the US government pressure King Hamad to establish this commission and to issue this report? Because the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the US wants to maintain its basing rights on the island kingdom in order to protect its hegemonic position to assert its dominance and control over the Middle Eastern Arab regimes. The commission and the report would demonstrate, it was argued, the maturity of the Al-Khalifa regime and its ability to learn from its mistakes and reform its government.
When did Bassiouni issue this report? The date of the issuance of this infamous 500-page Bassiouni Report was Wednesday, November 23, 2011 when senior members of the Al-Khalifa family gathered in one of the King’s palaces, along with numerous reporters, to hear Bassiouni present a 45-minute verbal summary of his findings. Allegedly, the Report “took 9,000 testimonies, offered an extensive chronology of events, documented 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture, and more than 4,000 cases of employees dismissed for participating in protests.” To his credit, Bassiouni rejected the regime’s completely unfounded claims that the pro-democracy protests were externally initiated by the country of Iran, and he also recommended a series of reforms designed to prevent human rights abuses from re-occurring. The Report, however, failed to place any blame on the leaders of the Al-Khalifa regime, assigning responsibility for instances of torture, excessive use of violence, and other human rights abuses to low-level functionaries.
And how did the king react to the Report? King Hamad expressed deep appreciation for Cherif Bassiouni’s efforts and vowed “to learn” from the “painful events.” The king stated that laws would be reformed to “give greater protection to the valuable right of free speech” and, bizarrely, “to expand the definition of ‘torture’ to ensure that all forms of ill treatment are sanctioned by our criminal laws.” Hamad promised to hold officials accountable and to dismiss those who were not up to their tasks. Then, the king thanked the regime’s military and the PGCC Peninsula Shield Force for restoring order.
After all of this pageantry of fine talk was uttered with the hope of great expectations, the king then finished with a tirade against the Islamic Republic of Iran for “inciting our population to engage in acts of violence, sabotage, and insurrection” with “propaganda [that] fuelled the flames of sectarian strife.” And though he acknowledged that Commission Chair Bassiouni had found no evidence of such external subversion of Bahrain’s internal affairs, the king nevertheless assured everyone that the charge was indeed true and was self-evident to “all who have eyes and ears and comprehend Arabic.”
This last rant by King Hamad thus illuminated to all endowed with reason and a scintilla of fair play that none of the BICI reforms would be implemented as intended and that the regime could now go and congratulate itself once again on pulling off an international public relations coup that would effectively exonerate the regime of any responsibility for its crimes against humanity.
In his expert testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the Honorable Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, reiterated the usual clichés expected of a US government bureaucrat when he stated that:
“For more than 60 years, the United States military has worked closely with its Bahraini counterparts. The Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the country serves as a pillar of our regional security strategy in the [Persian] Gulf region. The U.S. – Bahrain relationship is particularly important in the face of rising threats from Iran.”
Posner then went on to congratulate the Bahraini king. He stated:
“The BICI process was unprecedented both in its scope and the unfettered access the BICI team were granted. King Hamad deserves great credit for initiating this commission and for allowing an independent body to take a critical look at Bahrain’s human rights record and to report so extensively on its findings. We also commend the King for accepting and committing to implement the recommendations of the BICI report.”
Posner then testified that though Bahrain is a strategic partner of the United States, it is nonetheless at a “crossroads.” For example, he noted, there are “deep divisions within Bahraini society” with “[a]lmost nightly confrontations” between the protesters and the police. Posner stated that there are “reports of continuing reprisals against Bahraini citizens who attempt to exercise their universal rights to free expression and assembly.” Also, he testified, that permits for demonstrations are “often denied.” Moreover, he pointed out, the regime “has stopped granting permits for organized demonstrations in central Manama.”
Noting that the much ballyhooed “dialogue” has “broken down,” Posner remarked that “[t]here is little evidence that Bahrain is moving toward a negotiated political agreement on issues such as the powers of parliament and electoral districting.”
For its part, Posner said that the US is pursuing a two-track strategy to promote “meaningful dialogue and negotiation” with the first track focused on encouraging all actors in Bahrain to engage in dialogue while the second track encourages the government to sit down with the civil society organizations “to make progress” on issues “such as safety, health, education, labor, and policing.”
Citing “a fundamental lack of trust between the police and the people whom the police are meant to serve,” Posner recommended “genuine” dialogue to establish trust. Commending the government for certain nominal reforms, he nonetheless urged action on a “full range of other BICI recommendations” including “dropping charges against all persons accused of offenses involving peaceful political expression including freedom of assembly, prosecuting those officials responsible for the violations identified in the BICI report, and ensuring fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases” and “continuing work to professionalize and diversify Bahrain’s security forces to reflect the communities which they serve.”
Referring to several hundred pending criminal cases against protesters and noting that many protesters remain in prison after more than a year, Posner particularly condemned the regime for prosecuting 20 medical professionals whose crime was assisting not only pro-monarchy supporters but, as well, pro-democracy activists. The regime “received convictions in nine of 18 felony cases against medical professionals before the appellate court, with sentences ranging from one month to five years,” he noted. Fear and trepidation currently pervade Bahrain’s healthcare system, and Posner pointed out that many young Bahrainis “often elect not to seek treatment in public clinics and hospitals when they are injured for fear of being turned in to the police by their doctors on allegations of participating in demonstrations.” The sectarian divide promoted by the regime between Shi’as and Sunnis has created a shortage of talent in critical areas and damaged the reputation of Bahrain’s medical services as a consequence.
Posner also highlighted the inability on the part of the regime to hold accountable “those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report.” To date, he pointed out, “only nine policemen-five Pakistani and one Yemeni national and three Bahrainis are known to have been brought to trial for human rights violations.” Furthermore, stated Posner, “[o]ngoing violence in the streets between police and protesters points to the need for professional, integrated police and security forces that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and that adopt a community policing approach.”
Wrapping up his testimony, Posner premised his concluding statement on the fact that “President Obama has said that stable, democratic societies make the best partners and allies.” With this acknowledgment, Posner concluded: “And so while there is no single path or timetable to forging a real democracy, there are a core set of underlying principles that, as Secretary Clinton recently noted, ‘have to be enshrined not only in the constitution, not only in the institutions of government, but in the hearts and minds of the people’.”
Trying to make a monarchy act democratically is about as useless as trying to make a pig fly. Apparently Posner recognizes the futility of reforming the criminal Al-Khalifas. If so, then the Obama Administration has two options: either stick with the Khalifa monarchy and try to put out or quiet down the fire of revolution in Bahrain knowing full well that the regime will not reform itself, or quietly set the stage for a democratic regime transition in the island kingdom in order to extend US basing rights in Bahrain into the next generation. The Khalifas are betting that everything will remain the same and that, eventually, the people will quiet down and stay home.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the United States, Colin S. Cavell earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Louisiana State University in 1982, his Masters of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of New Orleans in 1987, and his Doctorate of Philosophy degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts in February 2001. In addition to teaching political science with the Junior Statesmen Foundation Summer Program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Dr. Cavell has taught at the University of New Orleans in New Orleans, Louisiana, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusett. He is the author of Exporting ‘Made in America’ Democracy.
- Familiar refrain characterizes Posner’s remarks at Congressional hearing on Bahrain (bahraincoordinatingcommittee.org)
- Bahrian’s Shia Population conitinue their Protest amid Brutal Crack down by Al Khalifa Forces (jafrianews.com)