Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Obama and the Street Vendor of Manama

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 22 May 2011 13:41

Unfortunately, the sheer eloquence of President Barack Obama’s Arab Spring speech only served to underline some of the fundamental contradictions in US policy towards the wider Middle East region.

True to form, the US president made sure to enliven his remarks by incorporating stories of individual destinies into the more abstract themes of Washington’s policy towards processes of democratisation in the Middle East. He mentioned the experiences of protesters in Tunisia (“the street vendor of Tunis”), Egypt, Libya and Yemen. There was even a reference to Damascus.

There was no such special reference to Manama, the capital of Bahrain. It is true that in a later section of his remarks, Obama did comment on the situation on the island, albeit briefly. But in that particular case he refrained from sympathising with or personifying the protesters, relying instead on boilerplate phrases focused on “dialogue”, not dissimilar from what any US president could have come up with. There was even a silly reference to the effect “that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law”, as if to legitimise the government discourse that the demonstrators were primarily made up by criminals. What a joke.

The problem in the case of Bahrain is that the feeble attempts at dialogue between rulers and ruled – always with foreigners with vested interests in the country standing by as onlookers and more or less passively supporting the status quo – have been going on for quite some time.

For example, more than a half-century ago, on 6 March 1935, a British official commented, “it will not be easy for the Al Khalifa [the ruling family of Bahrain] to maintain their tribal form of rule but it is in many respects well suited to the Island…”

Similarly, on 14 April 1939, Trenchard C Fowle in the British residency in Bushire discussed the question of political reform in Bahrain as follows:

“[Reform would be] most unpopular with the Al Khalifa family and would make us unpopular with them, whereas at present they are extremely loyal and friendly to us. The Family have already discussed the question amongst themselves and regard the formation of a council as the end of the Khalifah rule in Bahrain… since the Bahrain administration is already good and efficient, what need is there for a council? To sum up, the present autocratic government of Bahrain suits us very well, and any advice from us to the Shaikh and his Family to change its form for a more democratic one would not be palatable and would tend to make us unpopular with them.”

And, unsurprisingly, there were hints that pockets of radicalism were unrepresentative, perhaps even of foreign origin? In a report dated 18 February 1935, a British official carefully pointed out the distinction between “country Baharina who are decent folk”  and “certain evil townsmen” who were trying to “lead them astray”.

Even more conservative voices reigned in Simla in India, home of British policy-making in the Gulf at the time. Wrote O Caroe to the secretary of state for India on 6 November 1935: “I am directed to inform you that while the Government of India feel that there is much in the administration of Bahrain that is susceptible of improvement, they consider it desirable to proceed with caution in the matter of giving advice to the Shaikh of Bahrain in the constitutional as opposed to purely administrative sphere… To sum up, the GoI feel that no representations should be addressed to the Shaikh suggesting the introduction of popular institutions of a democratic nature, or carrying the implication that the support of government to the ruling family will depend on the degree in which the ruler meets the aspirations of the Baharina [indigenous Shiites].”

That was of course exactly seventy-six years ago, but the parallels to the way in which the US government is approaching the same ruling family today are quite striking. Back then, the British would typically censure only the worst of the excesses of the Al Khalifa. Indeed as late as in the 1950, only the most extraordinary in terms of mistreatment of the Gulf population by their Arabian rulers would ruffle feathers in British circles, as seen in a report from a British diplomat in Jeddah dated 5 March 1950: “We have noticed at para 14 of the Bahrain intel summary for the latter half of January that a Bahraini is reported to have been flogged to death at al Khobar [in Saudi Arabia, not even mentioned by Obama] for the heinous crime of playing a lute. We should like to have any confirmation of details of this which you may possess. We are as you know concerned with the administration of ‘Saudi justice’ as it affects British protected persons working here as well as citizens of the UK”. Fast forward to today’s situation when Obama says “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain” and demands that prisoners must be released from jails. These are tiny steps forward compared to what is truly required.

Obama juxtaposed his meek call for dialogue in Bahrain to the situation in Iraq, which he appeared to highlight as a shining example of how multi-sectarian democracy can work. Two comments are in order in this respect. Firstly, sectarian conflict in Iraq and sectarian conflict in Bahrain are two completely different animals. Sectarian tension in Bahrain incorporates an ethnic component that is altogether absent in Iraq: Most Shiites of Bahrain consider themselves as “Baharina”, the indigenous, agriculturalist population of Bahrain that became subjected to the rule of raiding Bedouins from Arabia in the eighteenth century. As if to underline the overlapping dichotomies of sect, myths of origins and ecological patterns of adaption, as late as in the 1930s the Bahraini ruling family (Sunni, recently settled Bedouin) would let their camels graze freely around the island including in the gardens of the  agriculturalists (Shiites, original Baharina)! Even the British got slightly concerned about “a complaint of long standing [among the Baharina] that the Al Khalifa camels eat their crops.”  By way of contrast, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq both see themselves as descendants of the Arabian tribes and often try to outbid each other in proving their attachment to Arab tribal values. True, correlations between sectarian identity and myths of descent like those seen in Bahrain exist in other GCC countries too, but in many cases they are mitigated by a degree of further complexity and subdivision within both Sunni and Shiite camps, since there are often both Sunnis and Shiites of Iranian descent involved (as seen for example in Kuwait). But in Bahrain, the majority of Shiites are also Baharina and this adds a special dimension to the conflict.

Second, Obama, seems to overplay the extent to which Iraq truly is such a wonderful triumph of democracy in the Arab world. Yes, the Iraqis “have rejected the perils of political violence in favour of a democratic process”, as Obama said . (Incidentally, as Obama failed to remind us, they also rejected Vice-President Joe Biden’s agenda of comprehensive federalisation of the Iraqi state.) But even the participants in the current unity of government in Iraq are beginning to criticize the formula of government that was adopted when Maliki was appointed for a second term back in November 2010. 44 ministries and three vice-presidencies are seen as ridiculous and ineffective in terms of providing services for Iraqi citizens, and regular security ministers have yet to be appointed due to ongoing bickering between the many members of the oversized government. The truth is that in today’s Iraqi “democracy” parliamentary politics has lost much of its meaning since almost every decision of significance is arrived at behind close doors outside the parliamentary compound.

If he is genuinely interested in safeguarding regional stability in the Gulf, Obama ought to go beyond “dialogue” in Bahrain and do a more critical evaluation of  “multi-ethnic democracy”  in Iraq. To do that while at the same time making provisions for a post-2011 US presence in Iraq and securing a home for the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy somewhere in the Gulf can prove to be something of a challenge.

26 Responses to “Obama and the Street Vendor of Manama”

  1. Hayder al-Khoei said

    When Obama says “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights,” there is evidently a between-the-lines disclaimer that reads “but only if your rights stand in the way of our interests”

  2. Mitsui said

    Thanks, interesting insight into the history of political decent in Bahrain. I hope the world wakes up to the horrible human rights violations against the Baharina before its too late.

  3. Originalbahrani said

    Yes, the indigenous people of Bahrain are the Arab Shiaites who refer to themselves as “Baharna” singular “Bahrani”. The Alkhalifa are none but invading bedouins. Our ancestors let us of horrific crimes committed by these you claim to be royalty now. They robbed farmers of produce, stole openly from the people and killed many. The British government stood by these criminals then and now, the Americans. The British and American interest should be safguarded( their ‘friends’ divide the spoils with them ) and let the innocent oppressed people die!

  4. Bella said

    I’m not disagreeing with what you said about the Baharna being most of the Shia, but there are also Persian shia in Bahrain, referred to as Ajam, and there are Sunnis who are not from the bedouin of the peninsula, namely the Hwala, who are from southwest Iran (well actually, they claim to have originated in Bahrain but went to southwest Iran during the Safavids for economic opportunity and then returned). The Hwala used to speech Persian and Arabic but that generation has just passed away and now their grandkids in their 30s only speak Arabic. So you see, there are divisions within Sunni and Shia in Bahrain too, but they are not very pronounced because over time, they have been de-emphasized: the Hwala losing their Persian and disassociating from southwestern Arab Sunnis in Iran (though there are still family ties for some), and the Persian Shia “Ajam” have been largely kicked out except for a few families (and btw, the people who started to kick them out were the British colonialists who wanted Bahrain for themselves and felt that Iran was a threat to their interests in Bahrain so they kicked out Persians and brought in Indian colonial subjects!). So Bahrain, because it is smaller than Iraq, has been easier for power players to manipulate.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Bella, many thanks, I did not mean to ignore the Ajam, just to say that relatively speaking, the Baharina are in a more dominant position in Bahrain than in other places like Kuwait where the Ajam still appear to be playing an important role. Of course, some of the Shiites of Saudi Arabia see themselves as Baharina as described by Laurence Louer (the “old” region of Bahrain stretched from the island via al-Ahsa to Basra), and there are (or used to be) colonies of Baharina from Oman to Suq al-Shuyukh in Iraq and Arabistan/Khuzestan in Iran. However, in Iraq they are a small minority – many of them are Shaykhi Shiites (in Basra and Karbala) and a few are Akhbaris.

  6. Jason said

    I fully believe that the U.S., unlike colonial era Britain, has turned a page and now supports democratization across the entire Middle East. There is an order of progression that needs to be followed, however, so as not to endanger future progress, or even suffer a serious setback. The Khamenei/Ahmadinijad Regime needs to come down first before turning the Bahrainis loose. (It is also a prerequisite to resolving the Palestine/Hamas/Hezbollah/Israel Dilemma) We also need to consolidate sustained democracy in Egypt (and Iraq) – without a takeover by extremists. Once those steps are completed and digested, then there will no longer be any reason for the U.S. not to make a “full-court press” for democracy across the ME, including our old “friends” in KSA, etc.

    I interpreted Obama’a speech as the final nail in the coffin of the “Realist” wing of American foreign policy of supporting dictators as a long-term means of achieving stability. We are now back on Bush’s democracy agenda. Only under Obama (and especially Biden), we can expect the execution to continue to be clumsy and full of contradictions.

  7. Santana said

    I totally understand the US position on Bahrain and it would appear that there is a double standard but in reality the USG has a wealth of information on the inner situation in Bahrain and have concluded that it is FAR from what everyone thinks !What little criticism the USG has given Al-Khalifa was for violations after the storm and mainly for public consumption.
    This is purely an Iranian play.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, if one follows your logic it would be very hard to understand US policy in Iraq, since the chances of the Iranians strengthening their influence there seems stronger than in Bahrain, and far more is at stake geopolitically. More generally, I’m trying to make the point that the poor Bahrainis have been waiting patiently for reform for almost a century and that the great powers keep dithering and say, “just wait a little longer”. The UK said that in 1935 and the US is saying that in 2011.

    Santana, anything you have that can be published on the specifics of Iranian influence in current events would be greatly appreciated.

  9. Jason said

    Reidar, I agree whole-heartedly that ideally Iran should have come also before Iraq. In fact, MANY people were saying so at the time. I think there were other reasons that it was assumed that it would be easier to do Iraq first: the UN resolutions were already in place, we already had air superiority from enforcing the no-fly zone, defectors had convinced the Bush Admin that it would be a cakewalk and that moderate Iraqis would quickly rise up and build a democracy. There was a means to bring the American public on board given the Gulf War I finding of advanced WMD and Sadams refusal to comply with inspections, and the sanctions regime was hurting normal Iraqis but not its intended target the Sadam Regime, etc, etc.

  10. bks said

    Jason, I’m very confused by your latter comments. You seem to be saying that Bush lied to the American pubic about Iraqi connections to 9/11 and ignored Hans Blix’s reports of no WMD in order to bring democracy to Iraq? Further you state that he should have invaded Iran first (why?). The only one abandoning realism appears to be you.


  11. Jason said

    Bks, Have you been living under a friggin rock for the last 30 years? The obvious reason to prioritize regime change in Iran that it actively destabilizes and co-opts other would-be democracies through proxies and mercenaries that turn them into satellite states: Hezbollah brought down a democracy in Lebanon; Hamas did the same in Gaza, Badr Brigade and/or Mahdi Army would have taken over Southern Iraq had U.S. forces not intervened to smack down the Mahdi Army several times.

    Yes, I do believe that the connection between 9/11 and Iraq was exaggerated to mobilize the American public, BUT THERE WAS A LEGITIMATE BELIEF THAT THE WHOLE LOT OF ME DICTATORSHIPS WAS A BREEDING GROUND FOR POVERTY, MISERY, AND ANTI-AMERICAN TERRORISM THAT WOULD OBTAIN WMD SOONER OR LATER. The Bush Admin believed that if they brought down Saddam that other dictatorships would begin to crumble as well, leading to a democratic awakening similar to the one that had recently occurred in Eastern Europe. As we all know, it turned out to be much more difficult than hoped for, mostly due to interference from Iran and its lapdog, Syria, who did everything in their power to destabilize Iraq, even sending in teams of the IIRG.

  12. Salah said

    If he is genuinely interested in safeguarding regional stability in the Gulf
    Although this may be correct or genuine.The real safeguarded the regional stability it’s mostly because Palestinians case and the occupation of Israeli of Arab land for the last 40 years.

    But to which level US/Obama genuinely in their words? I things we can not take Obama’s words only as reflection of good will, G W Bush promised Palestinians and the world in his own world before he leaves the White house it will be two state solution in Palestinians, he left none of his words comes true.

    The history tells us the only time that US were genuinely participated in the stability in the region during President Eisenhower pressured Britain, France and Israel into agreeing to a cease-fire and eventual withdrawal from Egypt.

  13. bks said

    Jason, Iraqi connections to 9/11 were “exaggerated”? I realize that it’s a tough job to justify American imperialism, but we have now seen the evidence and read the memoirs. Bush, Cheney, Rice and Powell were lying. As to where I’ve been the past thirty years: I’ve been right here watching an assortment of Presidents shed innocent blood and bankrupt the country for an incomprehensible foreign policy. Surely if any country deserved to be invaded after 9/11 it was the great democracy of Saudi Arabia.


  14. Jason said


    Is it justified to draw any positive conclusions about the level of maturation of Iraqi military and other security institutions from the fact that they appear to be holding together and functioning despite the inability of the politicians to agree on ministers? If any serious fissures or other problems have developed I certainly have not heard about them.

    I also wonder how well those institutions will survive the loss of American assistance at the end of the year. It would be extreme folly by both Obama and Maliki to endanger this fragile state for their personal electoral victories. But alas, Obama has sworn to his core, left-wing supporters to remove us from Iraq.

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, maybe they are not killing each other in scores but that’s just about it. They are not exactly delivering decent services to the Iraqi people.

    PS the 911 debate doesn’t really belong to this post so please pursue it elsewhere if you want to discuss it further.

  16. Santana said

    Has anyone seen this new report from the Institute on the Study of War (ISW) just came out yesterday- related to the pullout controversy.

    Click to access PolicyBrief_ExtMilRoleIraq.pdf

  17. Santana,
    This is an interesting report put in the way a North American thinks, not an Iraqi. Although it seems comprehensive at first reading, it is severely deficient because it does not address the possibility of what will happen if no agreement was signed. The assertion that Maliki will reach a decision based on risks, not benefits, is misleading: Maliki wants to stay in power, Iran can support him from outside the political process, the USG wants him out from within the process of two terms limitation, Maliki has more to benefit from his guarantor Iran. If the US wants Maliki to agree it might as well negotiate directly with Iran and cut the crap about democracy.
    On the other hand, if democracy really matters then the US should only stay under a UN mandate (Not NATO which will turn Iraq to another Afghanistan) and let the UN run census and the elections.

  18. Jason said

    Thanks, Santana. Not too encouraging.

  19. Salah said

    Although you went in details with Obama and the gulf countries, specifically Bahrain pointing to the Sec. structures of Bahraini society there. While Obama and other are talking about Arab spring revolutions, which spread here and there, what happing in Syria despite some US/ western voice here, you never mentioning Iran in this matter.
    Although Iranian falsely tagged the Arab spring revolutions as a Islamic waking revolution rooted to Khomeini revolution, Iran position still very strange what going on in Syria.
    طهران تحذّر قادة دول المنطقة: حرب الخليج الرابعة عن طريق سورية
    من جانب ثان، عرض رفسنجاني الى التطورات في اليمن وليبيا ومصر والبحرين وتونس، كما قال «اما في سورية فان الشعب في حال مقاومة(…) ان مثل هذه التحركات ستتواصل لان الشعوب اصبحت واعية وانها غير مستعدة للقبول بالاستبداد والعمالة للاستعمار

    what your take of Iran from Syrian revolution here Reidar?

  20. Santana said

    Thanks Faisal- I agree with your comments- the ISW has invited me to visit with them this week so I will try and get more clarity as far as what they have in mind if no agreement is signed.

  21. Xenophon said

    Faisal Kadri,

    So is it your belief that Maliki wants the US out, i.e. that he is trying to run out the clock on the US while taking measures to divert the inevitable American wrath as such a serious strategic blow to (perceived) US interests?

    This would be the counter-interpretation to the view that Maliki has been playing the Sadrists along and is trying to find a way to bypass them and renege on his commitment to end the US presence.

    I certainly agree that Maliki wants to stay in power, but how confident is he that Iran will facilitate his political survival rather than work to supplant him with one of their preferred Shia politicians once the Americans are out the door?

  22. Kermanshahi said

    The Iranian stance is the same as the American stance only the other way round. The Americans support revolutions only in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, when it happens there they’ll be the ones doing all the cheer leading for the revolution, supposedly supporting democracy, but when it’s Bahrain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia, then all of a sudden the government needs to take measures for their own security. Don’t forget, Obama refused to call on Ben Ali or Mubarak to step down until they had actually gone, when suddenly he supported the people. Same will happen in Bahrain, if the regime there would fall, after they’re gone the Americans will suddenly announce that they were supporting the people from the start. Iran’s stance is the same, only they support all revolutions against pro-American regimes, they just don’t want a revolution in Syria, because Syria is an Iranian ally.

  23. robinson said


    you say:

    “alas, Obama has sworn to his core, left-wing supporters to remove us from Iraq.”

    1. The SOFA drafting and signing was overseen by the previous US administration. Are you suggesting that Obama unilaterally tear up the SOFA?

    2. Gates has repeatedly and publically stated that if the GoI asks USF to stay, DoD will be receptive. Do you honestly think Gates is contradicting executive policy when he says this?

  24. Xenophon,
    Good comment. No, I am not suggesting that Maliki truly wants the US out, he owes his life to the US who saved him from the Sadrists during his campaign in Basrah. Maliki is an unreliable ally of Iran, and Iran is an unreliable ally of Maliki.
    The Americans will never be completely out of the door very soon, the Kurds will make sure of that, I think Iran understands this and knows that anyone more reliable to them than Maliki will be problematic with the rest of Iraq.
    I think an extension agreement is possible but it will imply covert understanding between the US and Iran at the cost of democracy; we will end up with even more loss of credibility and confidence in the political process because of short term American thinking, thats why I defend a UN cover and international partnership with the US in all future role in Iraq.

  25. Jason said

    Robinson, Obama and Maliki both should be pushing very hard for a new SOFA. I have serious doubts about Obama’s resolve as the 2012 election, and Gates retirement, draw closer. The ONLY reason he beat Hilary in the Dem primary was his promise to get us out of Iraq.

  26. Jason said


    It is strange to a “North American” to observe Iraqi politicians’ fixation with transparent self-interest and foreign alliances while seemingly ignoring their constituent voters. The apparent belief that their continued positions will be determined by foreign alliances assumes that future elections will be Iranian-style fakes. Maybe that is their goal after the Americans are gone. Is that what you are predicting? Otherwise, the voters may throw a monkey-wrench in the plans.

    Perhaps Talabanin should threaten to call for snap elections to put things back into focus and force them to address the needs of Iraqis.

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