The latest issue of the Middle East Policy Council's journal contains a lengthy essay on US policy towards Bahrain, basically arguing that reforms in the tiny Gulf kingdom should stop short of full democracy.
Its author, Ronald Neumann, is a former US ambassador to Bahrain and currently president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, and his essay is a troubling example of the extraordinarily charitable attitude that many in the western diplomatic establishment still display in relation to Gulf autocrats.
Neumann rightly points out that US policy towards Bahrain, in its present form, lacks clarity and is leading nowhere. He also points out that almost everything about the situation in Bahrain "is as contested as it is complicated".
If the need is for clarity, though, it might be better to dwell less on the complexities (which Neumann does at length) and focus instead on some guiding principles.
One clear and simple principle which would serve as a good starting point is that people everywhere have a right to choose their own government and hold it accountable – and that when they seek to exercise their right it should not be the role of the US, or anyone else, to stand in their way.
In Bahrain's case, that basic principle has become clouded by other concerns such as America's perception of its regional interests and a desire for stability. The US is no exception in this – all countries seek to protect their own interests – but when those interests appear to conflict with democracy we need to ask whether they are being interpreted correctly.
Stability and US 'interests'
The "stability" argument is an old and familiar one that has led the US down the wrong path many times before. Stability sounds comforting and desirable but in the Middle East particularly it is also a codeword for preventing significant change. Autocratic regimes promise their people stability in return for acquiescence – and that is dangerous because in the long run it leads to more instability, not less.
Political systems actually need a degree of instability because that is how change comes about. Reforming early and often, before the system crashes, is the way to keep it healthy and resilient. The alternative – the "artificially constrained systems" beloved of Arab autocrats – may look calm on the surface but as pressure builds up below they are liable to explode.
Regimes that fail to recognise this and refuse to take reform seriously are planting the seeds of future instability, as are the countries that support them.
There's a similar problem with defining "American interests". Are we talking short-term or long-term? Policies that seem a good idea in the short term may turn out to be a very bad idea in the long term, especially in the Middle East. The region is in the throes of a political upheaval that will take decades to play out. Somewhere along the way the monarchies of the Gulf will either fall or become marginalised beyond recognition and other countries, including the US, need to start preparing for that. Leave it too late and they risk ending up on the wrong side of history.
A case against democracy
Opposing real democracy in Bahrain may not strike many people as a particularly smart way to prepare for the future, but let's consider Neumann's argument.
His starting point is that Shia Muslims form a majority of Bahrain's population (nobody is quite sure how big a majority they are because the government would rather not find out). Thus, in a one-person-one-vote system, if Bahrainis voted along sectarian lines, the result would be a permanent Shia majority with no alternation of power. Neumann writes:
"When people vote as a community, an elected majority becomes a function of community size. This is very different from a flexible system in which losers in one election believe they have a chance to become winners at another time. If the tyranny of a minority is (rightly) seen as wrong by the majority, absolute control by the majority is equally seen as wrong by the minority."
That certainly presents some problems (which I'll come to shortly) but Neumann seems reluctant to acknowledge that this hypothetical tyranny of a Shia majority could scarcely be less accountable than what we have today: the tyranny of a Sunni minority headed by the Khalifa family.
Apart from the king himself, the apparently unsackable prime minister is the king's uncle. He has been in office for almost 44 years and is the world's longest-serving prime minister. Four of the five deputy prime ministers are also members of the Khalifa family, as are the ministers of interior, finance, foreign affairs, justice and culture.
Not content merely with governing, the Khalifa family dominate other aspects of life in Bahrain too. In sport, for example, they are in charge of the Olympic committee, the football association, the equestrian federation, the tennis federation, the table tennis association, the volleyball association, the motor federation, the cycling association, the swimming association, the shooting association and the women's sports committee.
Bahrain does have a parliament, though it's constructed to allow some input from the public without jeopardising minority rule. What Neumann describes as "serious gerrymandering of electoral districts" ensures that in the lower house Bahrain's Shia majority can never win more than 18 of the 40 seats. As an extra precaution, the upper house is entirely appointed by the king and is empowered to block legislation from the lower house.
Neumann's objections to full-scale democracy in Bahrain hinge around three main points which also fit neatly into the regime's propaganda line: that it would result in sectarian politics and a possible theocracy, that the rights of the Sunni minority would be over-ridden, and that Bahrain would fall under Iranian influence.
The point about sectarianism is especially ironic considering who much the regime has done to promote it – partly by keeping the Shia community marginalised and disadvantaged and, more recently, rallying the Sunni community to its side by stirring up fears of Shia domination. A similar pattern can be seen
elsewhere in the Gulf.
This need not be happening. When the uprising broke out in Bahrain in 2011, the early protests brought Sunni and Shia together in calls for reform. If the regime were really serious about avoiding sectarian politics it would be trying now to build bridges, not inflaming tensions.
Neumann is on stronger ground in worrying about the protection of Sunnis under majority rule. In countries where people are unfamiliar with the workings of democracy, the problem of majoritarianism and its effect on minorities is not well understood. We have seen that in Libya during debates about a new constitution and in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak.
But, equally, that should not become an excuse for trampling over the rights of the majority in Bahrain or giving special protection to the Khalifa family. One person one vote should be the starting point, under a constitution that provides strong guarantees for minorities. Shia political parties would also have to reassure the Sunni community by demonstrating their commitment to that.
Fears about Iran
Neumann devotes a large part of his essay to discussion of Iran's influence among the Shia in Bahrain. He doesn't entirely buy the regime's propaganda claims which he says "usually exceeded what we saw in American intelligence reporting" and points out that the local Shia are not monolithically tied to Iran:
"Shia in Bahrain are divided in both origin and doctrinal practice. Some are Arabs long resident in Bahrain; some are of Iranian descent but resident for over 100 years; others arrived after the Iranian revolution. They follow different marja-e taqlids (religious guides). A significant percentage pay the Shia religious tax (khums) to the Iranian leaders, first Khomeini and later Khamenei. Bahraini Sunni authorities usually paid no attention to these distinctions."
Ironically, many of the Bahraini Shia used to have ties to Iraq but these have declined:
"A significant portion of Bahraini Shia followed Iraq-based marjas, so-called 'quietists' who tended to stay out of politics, at least until the US invasion of Iraq.
"However, during the long and repressive Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, the Bahrainis found it unsafe to seek religious instruction in their traditional religious schools in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala. Hence Iran was the only destination available for students. This trend added to Bahraini-government suspicion."
Neumann also talks about Iran's historical claim to Bahrain which was abandoned by the Shah in 1971, adding that "after the Iranian revolution, there were fears in Bahrain that Iran would again assert its claim".
No fears about the Saudis?
While this doesn't quite amount to scaremongering, Neumann seems far less concerned about Saudi Arabia's meddling in Bahrain. Whatever fears there might be about Iran, it hasn't actually become militarily involved in Bahrain's political conflict but the Saudis have. In March 2011, acting under GCC auspices, Saudi National Guard forces – in Neumann's words – "crossed into Bahrain".
This "support" (as Neumann describes it) "gives Bahrain's government the financial and military depth to resist pressure".
"The Saudi position has become increasingly important," he says, "as the House of Saud is a major financial supporter of the Bahraini government".
This leads him to suggest that Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy and itself a long-time exponent of sectarianism – might play a "mediating role" in bringing reform to Bahrain.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 22 December 2013