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.
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