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Bahrain Again

24 February 2013

Bahrain Again

By Gwynne Dyer

“Floggings will continue until morale improves.” As a way of dealing with a discontented crew it was much favoured by 18th-century sea-captains, but the Bahrain government has been an apt pupil. Alas, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa doesn’t quite grasp that this sort of policy statement must be clear and concise.

Announcing that the Bahraini authorities would intensify the repression that has prevailed since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations two years ago, the sheikh declared last October: “It has been decided to stop all gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before being reassured about security and achieving the required stability in order to preserve national unity.”

He’s got the spirit of the thing right, but he falls short in the clarity and brevity departments. (He’s obviously been listening to spin doctors, and they always hate clarity.) At any rate, the demonstrations, gatherings and marches have not stopped, although they have got even more dangerous for the participants.

Bahrain’s brief role in the “Arab Spring” began on 14 February, 2011, when demonstrators demanding a constitutional monarchy, a freely elected government and equality for all citizens took over Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of the tiny Gulf state. But one month later the protesters were driven from the square by force, and after that the repression became general.

By no coincidence, that was also when Saudi Arabian troops arrived “to help the government of Bahrain restore order.” (Bahrain is an island connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a long causeway.) Officially the Saudi soldiers were invited in by Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Unofficially, he probably had no choice in the matter.

Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, like Saudi Arabia’s and those of all the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman). However, 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia, whereas the rest of the GCC countries are overwhelmingly Sunni. And the relationship between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region is coming to resemble that between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century Europe.

The ensuing century of religious wars in Europe was not really about doctrinal differences. The wars were driven by the rulers’ conviction that people who did not share their particular brand of Christianity could not be loyal to them politically.

It was nonsense, but millions of Europeans were killed in the 1500s and 1600s in wars triggered by this belief. The same disease now seems to be taking root in the Arab Gulf states. Shias, it is argued, cannot be loyal to a Sunni ruling family. And if they object to being oppressed, it can only be because Shia-majority Iran has deliberately stirred them up.

There is a real political and military rivalry between Iran, the major power on the north side of the Gulf, and the smaller Arab states to the south-west. It has got even worse since the US invasion of Iraq ended centuries of Sunni rule and put a Shia regime in power there. The competition is actually geopolitical and strategic, not sectarian, but people get confused.

So Saudi Arabia worries a lot about the loyalty of the large Shia population (maybe even a majority) in its Eastern Province, where all the oil is. It was certainly not going to tolerate a democracy – which it thinks would be a “Shia” democracy, and therefore a hostile regime – in Bahrain, right next door.

And, of course, it believed that the downtrodden Shia majority in Bahrain (who cannot even serve in their own country’s army and police) had been stirred up by Shia-majority Iran across the Gulf. So when Bahrain’s king had still not got the pro-democracy protesters under control after an entire month, it sent its troops in.

This may not be what the king had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa intended: he was trying to negotiate with opposition parties about giving Shias a bigger role in the kingdom’s affairs. But Saudi Arabia didn’t want that kind of example right next-door, and it found hardline allies in the Bahraini royal family.

It may have played out somewhat like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow, determined to crush the reform movement there, got some second-rank Czech Communists to request military intervention. At any rate, hard-liners in the royal family have called the tune since then, while the king and the crown prince have effectively been sidelined.

The triumvirate who are now running Bahrain are Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister for the past forty years, and the brothers Khalid bin Ahmed bin Salman al-Khalifa, the royal Court Minister, and Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, who commands the Bahrain Defence Forces. (Do pay attention at the back; there will be a test on these names later.)

The brothers belong to the Khawalid branch of the royal family, descended from another royal who led a brutal crackdown against a Shia uprising in the 1920s. With them in charge, there will be no compromise, even though more than 80 Shia protesters have already been killed.

And even if it gets a great deal worse in Bahrain, no Western government is going to condemn the country’s rulers. That would seriously annoy Saudi Arabia, and they will never do that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 14 and 15. (“There is…confused”; and “The triumvirate…killed”)

The Arab Autumn

26 November 2011

Progress Report: The Arab Autumn

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Arab Spring” was fast and dramatic: non-violent revolutions in the streets removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, and similar revolutions got underway in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The “Arab Autumn” is a much slower and messier affair, but despite the carnage in Syria and the turbulent run-up to Egypt’s first democratic elections, the signs are still positive.

Demonstrators in Bahrain were driven from the streets by massive military force, and Libya’s revolution only triumphed after Western military intervention in support of the rebels. In both Syria and Yemen, originally non-violent protests risk tipping into civil wars. But there is still more good news than bad.

In October Tunisia held its first-ever free election, and produced a coalition government that is broadly acceptable to most Tunisians. Some worry that the leading role that the local Islamic party, Ennahda, gained in the new government bodes ill for one of the Arab world’s more secular societies, but Ennahda’s leaders promise to respect the rights of less religious Tunisians, and there is no reason not to believe them.

Last weekend, elections in Morocco produced a similar result, with the main Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, gaining the largest share of the votes but not an absolute majority. It will doubtless play a leading role in the new government, but it will not seek to impose its views and values on everybody else.

This Moroccan party took its name from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey, an Islamic party that has won three elections in a row and presided over the fastest economic growth in Turkey’s history. Like the AK Party, the Moroccan version is socially conservative, pro-free market, and fully obedient to the secular constitution.

These parties are “Muslim Democrats”, as one AK Party member in Turkey put it, comparing them to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. They have nothing to do with radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. They are simply the natural repository for the votes of conservative people in a Muslim society, just as the Republican Party automatically gets the votes of most Christian conservatives in the United States.

There was no revolution in Morocco: the new constitution that was approved by referendum last July was an attempt by King Mohamed VI to get ahead of the demands for more democracy that are sweeping the Arab world. It obliges the king to choose the prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament, rather than just naming whomever he pleases, and restricts his freedom of action in several other ways.

Similar changes are underway in Jordan, where King Abdullah II is also trying to ward off more radical demands for reform. And even the deeply conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula all supported the Arab League’s decision last weekend to impose sanctions against the brutal Assad regime in Syria, including an asset freeze and an embargo on investments.

Syria may yet drift into civil war, but its fellow Arab states are taking their responsibilities seriously: only two Arab countries voted against the sanctions. And Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned on 23 November after months of prevarication and 33 years in power, giving that country at least a chance of making progress towards a democratic future.

Egypt, by far the biggest Arab country, this week sees the start of parliamentary elections that will roll across the country region by region until early January. Demonstrators have re-occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, claiming that the army wants to hold on to power, but things are not quite what they seem.

The army has already conceded that the new president should be elected by next June rather than six months later, but the demos on the square were not really about that. They were an attempt to force the postponement of the parliamentary elections.

The newly formed liberal and secular parties tacitly back the demonstrators because they fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections. It may well do so, because it continued to operate in a semi-underground way during the Mubarak dictatorship while the old liberal parties just faded away. But the fact that some parties are not as ready as others for the elections is not an excuse to postpone them: Egypt urgently needs an elected government.

It will soon have one, and if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role in it, why not? It has long outgrown its original radicalism, and you can’t postpone democracy forever just because you don’t fully trust your fellow citizens.

That leaves Bahrain, the one Arab country where the “Arab Spring” was comprehensively crushed. But in Bahrain last week, the king received the report of an independent commission which concluded that there was no Iranian plot behind the demonstrations, and that many detainees had been “blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.”

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa expressed “dismay” at the findings and vowed that “those painful events won’t be repeated.” That may be a little disingenuous, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Bringing democracy and the rule of law to the Arab world was always going to be a difficult and tortuous process, but progress is being made on many fronts.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“This…States”)

Balancing Act in Saudi Arabia

28 September 2011

Balancing Act in Saudi Arabia

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s amazing how much sub-text you can pack into a single word. Consider this recent announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal elections and will EVEN have the right to vote.” Well, hurray.

On the other hand, you could easily accuse the 87-year-old monarch of dragging his feet on reform, because he waited until this year’s municipal elections were almost upon the country (they were held on Thursday) before announcing that women could vote the next time, in 2015. Boo.

But that’s not fair to King Abdullah. He’s actually moving fast on women’s rights, because 2015 will be only eight years after Saudi Arabian men were allowed to vote for the first time, in the 2007 municipal elections. AND women will henceforward also be eligible for appointment to the Shura Council, the 150-member unelected congress that the king consults with on matters of public concern. Hurray.

Hang on a minute. Two days after Abdullah made that announcement, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to receive ten lashes for the crime of driving while female. Boo. And then on Thursday the king overturned the court ruling and spared the woman. Hurray. And on and on, in a endless counterpoint of progressive measures and conservative crack-downs.

So what is actually going on here? What we are seeing is a few surface manifestations of the struggle that is going on among the Saudi elite about how to respond to the “Arab spring”. The pro-democracy movements are operating right along Saudi Arabia’s frontiers, in Jordan, in Yemen, and most frighteningly in Bahrain. Everyone agrees that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE – but what?

In the case of Bahrain, where a largely Shia protest movement threatened to infect the Saudi Arabia’s own Shias (who live mostly in the eastern province, where the oil is), the answer was clear. Bahrain’s democratic movement was crushed by force, with much of the force being supplied by Saudi troops that Riyadh lent to Bahrain’s ruling family. Indeed, it was probably Saudi pressure that swung the balance in Bahrain in favour of an armed crack-down.

Elsewhere, what happens beyond the borders is of less importance, for Saudi citizens know that they are vastly richer than Yemenis or even Jordanians. But they are probably not entirely immune to dreams of democracy, so what should be done to strengthen their immune systems?

When King Abdullah returned from three months’ medical treatment abroad in February, he announced a vast new package of welfare measures, including education and housing subsidies and 15 percent pay raises for government employees. Total cost: about $36 billion. That’s about $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Thus began the latest round in the perpetual tug-of-war between those (including the king) who feel that some economic and political concessions are necessary to head off worse trouble, and others (including much of the royal family and most of the religious establishment) who believe that even one step back from the status quo would put the regime on a slippery slope.

This is an argument that breaks out inside any autocratic regime whenever change threatens, and it’s clear which side Abdullah is on, but he has very limited space for manoeuvre.

His first priority is to keep his immediate family – around 22,000, at last count – in the style to which they have become accustomed, and their expectations are very high. If they collectively decide that his decisions are endangering their privileges, they will remove him. In a system of succession that does not have a strict rule of primogeniture, that is easily done.

Then he must contend with the ulema, the senior religious authorities of the Wahhabi sect of Islam that the Saudi ruling family has been allied to for more than a century. Their support is vital to the regime’s legitimacy, and it would certainly weaken if Abdullah carried out reforms that conflicted with their austere and deeply conservative vision of Islam.

If, despite all that, he chooses to make major reforms to the political system, he cannot even be sure that they will stop the slow decline in the ruling family’s authority. When forty percent of those in the 20-24 age group have no work, and fully half the country’s population is under-19’s who will be looking for work in the next two decades, you cannot call the system stable no matter how good the welfare system is.

There is a striking difference in what the pro-democracy movements have led to in the one-party dictatorships of the Arab world and in the traditional monarchies. In the dictatorships, mostly military, the outcome has been revolution and regime change: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, perhaps soon Syria. In Jordan and Morocco, by contrast, there is a good chance that the outcome will be much democratisation backed by a stable constitutional monarchy.

Such an outcome is unlikely in Saudi Arabia, which has a great deal further to travel. On the other hand, there is not much visible demand for full democracy in the kingdom; maybe some cosmetic measures will suffice. King Abdullah is old and ill, and he is hoping that will be enough.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“In the case…systems”)

Libya and Bahrain

21 February 2011

Libya and Bahrain

by Gwynne Dyer

Watching the extraordinarily rambling and repetitive speech by Colonel Moammar Gaddafi’s 38-year-old second son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, on Libyan television on Sunday night, I couldn’t help being struck by how ignorant the man was.

According to Saif, the protests in Libya are the work of drunks, criminals and foreigners who had been paid to destabilise the Libyan state. (“At this time drunks are driving tanks in central Benghazi.”) If everybody does not rally around the regime, there will be a terrible civil war. (“We are a tribal people.”) The country will break into a dozen separate emirates, all foreign investors will leave, and the oil will cease to flow.

Bereft of its oil income, Libya will have to close its hospitals and schools. Everybody will fall into a poverty so deep that it will take forty years to climb back out. The Americans and the British will take over the country. There will be a great plague, and it will rain frogs and spiders.

I made up that last bit, but he really said the rest of it. How can he imagine that Libyans will simply swallow this stuff? The regime doesn’t let them travel and state censorship is fierce, but Libyans are literate people and they are not fools. Saif’s threats will not persuade them – and neither will his promises.

He offered the concessions that are typical at this stage in the collapse of an Arab regime. There will be a great public consultation to discuss the country’s future, including a new constitution. Salaries of government employees will be doubled. If the people will just stop protesting, everything can change – except, of course, the regime itself.

Gaddafi’s son’s speech sounded just like the final television speeches made by Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before they fled their respective capitals, so it probably won’t be long now. The Gaddafi regime has already lost control of the eastern part of the country, and on Sunday the street protests spread west to Tripoli.

Saif al-Islam would not do well in exile; the money would not be consolation enough. He does actually care about the country, and he doesn’t understand why its people do not love him and his family back. Whereas his father Moammar, if he makes it out safely, will survive with his ego quite undented.

Forty-one years of absolute power have so shaped the character of the Clown Prince of Arab dictators that nothing can now shake his vainglorious self-regard. Even when the Libyans finally reject him, he will see it as their loss, not his. He never was very bright.

Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, heir to the throne of Bahrain, is playing a very different game. It was he who ordered the army to leave Pearl Square in Manama, the capital, on Sunday, two days after four protesters were killed and 231 wounded in a military night attack to clear the square. He understands that the survival of the monarchy now depends on persuading the majority of Bahrainis that the promise of fundamental reform is real.

He doesn’t yet control the riot police, who wounded several dozen more people with shotgun fire before they abandoned the square to the returning protesters on Sunday. So he hasn’t yet won the battle within the royal family over what to do next – but he probably will, for it faces the threat of a republican revolution in Bahrain.

The great difference between Gaddafi in Libya and the ruling families of all the other oil-rich Arab states is that they have the option of retreating into constitutional monarchy. Gaddafi can only rule or flee, but the al-Khalifas can make a deal.

The opposition parties have agreed to open talks with Prince Salman if he meets their demands: the current government must resign, political prisoners must be released, and the killing of protesters must be investigated. All those things will happen, and then the haggling will begin.

The protesters do not want more killing and they certainly don’t want to damage the tiny country’s wealth. (Bahrain’s 800,000 residents enjoy a per capita annual income of $25,000). But they do want an end to the disadvantages suffered by the 70-percent Shia majority in a state ruled by a Sunni royal family. They also want a real democracy, not the current halfway house.

Such a regime would be a frightening anomaly in a region otherwise ruled by absolute monarchies, but retaining Bahrain’s royal family would mollify the neighbours greatly. In Bahrain there is unlikely to be any further bloodshed, and the outcome will probably be a constitutional compromise.

In Libya, however, there might be more blood and no compromise. As Saif al-Islam Gaddafi warned in his epic rant: “You will see worse than Yugoslavia….The army is not the army of Egypt or Tunisia. They will support Gaddafi to the last minute….Sixty years ago they defended Libya from the colonialists; now they will defend it from drug addicts. We will fight to the last man and woman and bullet.”

Or alternatively, the regular army may simply force Gaddafi’s praetorian guard to surrender in Tripoli, as it has apparently already done in Benghazi. It could be over in Libya quite soon, as the old Arab order continues to unravel.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 10. (“Saif…bright”; and “He doesn’t…Bahrain”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.