Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bahrain and the GCCC: The Gulf Convenient Cooperation Council

The news of the week, not least here in Doha, is of course the rare public spat between GCC member states.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Emirates have taken their Qatar ambassadors and gone home, which if it means three less vehicles on the roads here then I am all for it.

Notwithstanding the shock of Gulf ruling families' longstanding private dispute having been brought into the open, the move wasn't exactly unforeseen.  As early as February 18, for instance, the London-based Al-Arab published a report titled "Saudi Arabia running out of patience with Qatar and is planning to take punitive actions." It told not only of a possible suspension of diplomatic relations, but also other sanctions, including possible closure of Saudi airspace to Qatar and the suspension of trade agreements.

There is no shortage of analyses of the origins and meaning of the Gulf's newest (and this time entirely self-made) political crisis.  I will say only that, glowing post-Arab Spring statements of solidarity and impending Gulf Union aside, the six GCC states are -- gasp -- six different states guided by six different interpretations of national interest that often but not always coincide.  The Omanis are aloof, the Bahrainis do whatever the Saudis and their Abu Sa'afa oil tells them, the Kuwaitis don't really want to get involved beyond mediation, the Qataris don't need to take orders from the Saudis, and the Emiratis AHH MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD!~!!

If the Saudi-Bahraini-Emirati move was meant to put pressure on Qatar's new ruler by evoking fears among ordinary Qataris of being ostracized from the extended Gulf Arab tribe, then it would seem to have failed thus far.  For example, following an article published today in Al-Ayam by King Hamad's "Adviser for Scientific and Cultural Affairs" Muhammad Jabar al-Ansari, in which the latter writes that Qatar "will pay the price" (he also goes after Oman), the editor of the Qatari daily Al-Arab used his column today to call on the state to end its financial assistance to Bahrain as part of the so-called post-2011 "GCC Marshall Plan."

More generally, Qataris I've talked to seem moderately apprehensive but mostly annoyed.  Indeed, much more affected seem to be Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati nationals living and working in Qatar, many of whom I've heard have been asked more or less politely by their respective governments to resign from their positions and return home. No collaboration with the enemy and all that. 

For those really interested in Qatar's possible strategic options going forward, see this piece by Simon Henderson.

More interesting from my perspective, however, is what the new political fault lines portend for Bahrain.  It is no secret that Saudi and Emirati displeasure with Qatar stems from its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet in Bahrain (and Kuwait; see Elizabeth Dickinson on this here) the group has long been not simply tolerated, but accepted as a legitimate political party.  More than that, it is an open secret (repeated even by the U.S. Embassy in Manama) that Bahrain's Muslim Brotherhood society al-Manbar al-Islami is bankrolled in large part by the Royal Court itself.

Remember when opponents of the Gulf Union expressed trepidation at the prospect that the political and cultural orientations of Saudi Arabia would, in the event of further integration, inevitably be imposed on the rest of the GCC member states?  Well, here we have an early example.  In Bahrain, instability born of the Muslim Brotherhood is decidedly not a domestic concern; indeed, until al-Wifaq's departure from parliament, the group represented, along with al-Asalah, one-half of the government's legislative majority whose job it was to block the opposition.  Will Bahrain now thank the society for its decade of service by declaring it an illegal "terrorist" organization?  If so, how long is popular enthusiasm for the idea of closer political ties with Saudi Arabia going to last among ordinary Bahraini Sunnis?

On the other hand, perhaps a new political witch hunt is just what the doctor ordered.  Yesterday, members of the Bahraini parliament, who since 2011 have gained a new lease on legislative life now that they need not concern themselves always with al-Wifaq, took the unprecedented step of voting to quiz the Minister of Finance, an Al Khalifa no less, for alleged financial irregularities.  Despite efforts by pro-government MPs to block the procedure, it seems that it will go forward, though a date has yet to be set.  And, in fact, those MPs that voted against the grilling are themselves being grilled (also here) on Bahrain's main Sunni (and nominally pro-government) forum.

Even more ironic than this, however, is the background to the quizzing.  From the Gulf News:
The Financial Audit Bureau report published in November detailed several financial abuses, prompting the Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa to order the formation of a committee to probe the allegations of financial irregularities.

The committee, chaired by Crown Prince and First Deputy Premier Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, comprised the four deputy premiers. It sat with all ministers and addressed all the issues and loopholes mentioned in the report. The Follow-up Affairs Ministry, tasked with scrutinising the report, covered 462 cases outlined by the report and recommended referring 20 cases of non-compliance to the anti-corruption and economic and electronic security general directorate.
What this summary does not mention, however, is that the Crown Prince's unusually forceful follow-up to the National Audit Bureau report followed public outcry over the Alba corruption scandal that implicated -- wait for it -- the Prime Minister.  Thus, Khalifa bin Salman "appointed" the Crown Prince to a committee to investigate charges of corruption ... by him.

On an unrelated note, finally, I want to extend a congratulations to my colleague Toby Matthiesen for the recent publication of the Arabic version of his book, Sectarian Gulf, and also for his apparent recent acceptance into the Muslim Brotherhood. It's a shame that his Saudi-based publisher should have borne the brunt of his indiscretion, though.  Friends, don't let friends publish books on sectarian politics in Saudi Arabia:

Update: Forgot to include this.  Fred Wehrey outlines a "New U.S. Approach to Gulf Security," in which he proposes "mak[ing] Bahrain the focus of U.S. reform promotion in the Gulf."

Update 2: The Project on Middle East Democracy has sent a letter to Barack Obama "calling on him to discuss the political crisis in Bahrain during his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. The bipartisan letter, signed by 27 former government officials, regional experts, and security specialists, urged the Saudi leadership to play a more productive role in resolving the ongoing conflict by promoting genuine political reform in Bahrain."

Update 3: It seems that the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain has already started--though it seems the government is so far content to let the UAE do the fighting. Last week Bahrain TV broadcast a program in which Dubai Police Chief Dhahi Khalfan accused Bahraini Al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood's social wing that shares a name with its beleaguered counterpart in the Emirates, of, among other things, "terrorism." Following the obligatory denial from al-Manbar al-Islami, the MB-affiliated writer for Akhbar al-Khaleej Ibrahim al-Shaykh has hit back, asking, "Fragmentation of the Sunni Street ... In Who's Interest?"

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tit for Tat in Bahrain

Only two months into the 2011 uprising, Hussein Ibish created something of a stir with an article for Foreign Policy titled, "Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?" Opposition activists in particular were offended by the suggestion that what was then an overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement could devolve into violence or terrorism.  Suffice it to say that Ibish likely avoided Twitter for a few days.

Of course, his question was not aimed at the integrity of demonstrators, but simply the political environment in Bahrain. "By leaving no room for peaceful dissent, " he summarized, "the Bahraini monarchy is creating the conditions for a violent revolt."

Such a thesis, I suspect, is no longer controversial, particularly following yesterday's sophisticated and premeditated attack on police in the village of Daih using a remotely-detonated bomb.  (Ugly opposition forum photos here.) While one can debate whether such an operation is best described as "terrorism" or "insurgency," given that the targets were police rather than civilians, still I think all can agree that Ibish's query is no longer rhetorical. (And we leave aside for the moment the question of Bahraini armed involvement in Syria, especially among Salafis.)

Of obvious concern is the nature of the bombing itself, which as the government has been quick to point out made use of exactly the sort of remote detonator confiscated in January on a boat apparently destined for Bahrain. At the time, the Ministry of Interior claimed that the detonators bore a "Made in Syria" label, though I have not seen this explicit connection made to yesterday's attack.

The following video, though dismissed by some as government fabrication, purports to show supporters of the group apparently responsible, the al-Ashtar Brigades, celebrating in Nuwaidrat the success of the deadly "operation" in Daih. The presence of small children certainly is not comforting.

Another unusual aspect of the case is the involvement of Emirati police personnel -- one of whom was among the dead -- in the anti-riot operation.  According to an Interior Ministry statement, the officer was in Bahrain "as part of the Amwaj Al Khaleej forces of the [GCC] Joint Security Agreement." He was not, then, part of the GCC's Peninsula Shield force, which the government continues to insist has never been involved in anti-demonstration operations (a claim supported by the BICI).

Yet the GCC joint security pact, agreed in 2012, is perhaps no less controversial.  Its terms still have not been released publicly, drawing anger and some protest among parliamentarians in Kuwait in particular.  Certainly, the presence of foreign police in Bahrain will come as an unwelcome surprise to many.

According to several people based in the Emirates with whom I've spoken, the case of the fallen UAE policeman has garnered national attention and given rise no little anti-Iranian sentiment.  Ruler of Dubai Sh. Muhammad bin Rashid has even taken to Twitter to eulogize "Tariq al-Shehi, Emirati father of four, ... martyred in Bahrain."
One wonders how this sentiment will translate into international relations.  On the one hand, one could imagine redoubled regional support for Bahrain so as to appear united in the face of ostensive Iranian-backed terrorism.  On the other hand, one might just as well expect the opposite reaction, on the part of the UAE in particular, which is to say to the Al Khalifa: you really need to get your house in order, as it's increasingly affecting the rest of us.

In this regard, the recent elevation of Muhammad bin Nayf in Saudi Arabia, now in charge of the all-important Syria portfolio, is of potential consequence.  The Interior Minister is said to be more pragmatic than his father with regard to Saudi countenance of potential Bahraini concessions to the opposition, and was even rumored to have been involved in an ultimately-abandoned plan to bring al-Wifaq representatives to discussions in Riyadh.

One really hopes that such potential sources of regional pressure or mediation pan out, because it's difficult to see how Bahrain's political-turned-armed conflict can be resolved internally.  Unless one believes that the state has so far held its punches in its dealing with the violent opposition, and that its heretofore inability to stamp out attacks such as yesterday's stems primarily from moderation in tactics, then it's not clear what else it can do to end the escalating insurgency. Arresting 'Ali Salman or 'Isa Qasim isn't going to change anything (for the better).

At the same time, despite official statements to the contrary, one has to imagine that the government views the violent street movement as almost entirely out of the sphere of al-Wifaq's influence. The state has therefore little incentive to enter into serious negotiations with the group, as it cannot credibly promise to deliver what the state wants, i.e. an end to precisely this sort of bloodshed and bad publicity.

Unfortunately, an escalating tit-for-tat contest between the government and radical opposition appears already well underway.

Update: The blog Jihadology offers a detailed look at Saraya al-Ashtar.