Red faces over Bahrain's PR visit

Bahrain's latest PR offensive, which involved sending a 200-strong delegation to the United States under the banner "This is Bahrain", has ended in a rather comical fiasco.

Earlier this week, the delegation – from the pro-government Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations (BFEA) – claimed to have secured a cooperation agreement with MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) during their visit. 

BFEA's secretary-general, Betsy Mathieson, was 
quoted as saying:

"Bahrain suffered unfairly from negative media reports and 'This is Bahrain' looks forward to working closely with the Middle East Media Research Institute, which does an outstanding job on many fronts."

report by Gulf Digital News, a Bahraini website, went so far as to claim that BFEA had signed a "memorandum of understanding" with MEMRI.

In publicising their supposed achievement, BFEA seem to have been unaware that MEMRI is a well-known Israeli propaganda outfit (see my previous blog post). The Bahrainis also seem to have been much more eager to strike a deal with MEMRI than MEMRI was to strike a deal with the Bahrainis.

MEMRI has now posted an account of what happened on its website, headed "Bahrain and the politics of deceit". It begins: 

Recently we at MEMRI hosted a delegation from the Kingdom of Bahrain at our main offices in Washington, DC. Briefing visitors is a regular thing we do and the Bahraini group came the same week as a delegation of international students from a major American university and another one from one of uniformed service schools.

The Bahrain delegation was different. Ostensibly a private group, it came accompanied by a camera crew and photographer from the Bahrain state media and a handler from the Bahrain government. Although most Bahraini are Shi'a Muslims, the delegation was assembled to give an impression of remarkable diversity and included a Hindu priest, an Anglican cleric, a Coptic priest and a handful of actual Bahrainis among a mostly expat crew.

The meeting proceeded as these sessions tend to do, with MEMRI explaining our work of translation and analysis of the voices and images of the region and how we see the multiple crises and challenges affecting the region. The comments of "This is Bahrain", which is what the group calls itself in the form of its leader, an expat lady businesswoman, were a bit … odd. Instead of a dialogue about serious matters – say, for example, the challenge of Salafi jihadist extremism (the most prominent ISIS cleric is a Bahraini) or of Iranian subversion in the Gulf, or of the challenges of sectarianism – we heard a potted public relations song and dance guaranteed to deceive only the unwary.

"Did you know that Bahrain has, unlike the United States, generous maternity leave?" Or that the King subsidises Shi'a Ashura celebrations and is building the largest Cathedral in the Arabian Peninsula? 

One could only recall how miserable third world dictatorships like Cuba boast of their healthcare to distract attention from their lack of basic freedoms or how Russian President Putin recently inaugurated a giant mosque in Moscow in order to try to present a certain message through a projection of religious architecture.

As the meeting ended, the expat lady leader mentioned in passing the idea of signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). We responded diplomatically that this is something that can be talked about in the future, particularly about what exactly would such a MoU possibly be about. MEMRI has no MoUs with any governments and is an independent research institute.

Imagine our surprise the next day when we saw public remarks from this expat businesswoman that MEMRI had signed a MoU with Bahrain!

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 30 September 2015