Bahrain or Shine

In discussing the Middle East, media outlets and political pundits alike can’t seem to avoid lame catchphrases, which reduce the complex political developments in the region to a narrative palatable enough for the average Joe. In 2011, it was “Arab Spring” as the world hoped Arabs were actually capable of democracy, in 2012 the “Arab Winter” or “Islamist Winter” as it was proven that no, they weren’t, and the world was going to hell in an Islamist handbasket to boot. While it is early yet in 2013, it appears as though most countries that overthrew their old regimes are finding liberal democracies surprisingly hard to establish and maintain. Egypt, as I discussed last week, is most certainly at a crossroads; attempts at political reform in Tunisia are constantly being blocked; and it goes without saying that Syria, which will “celebrate” the two-year anniversary of the beginning of its revolution/civil war tomorrow, is in trouble. In fact, the doom and gloom that pervade the political news out of the region are less deserving of a seasonal than an atmospheric catchphrase: the Middle East is, at least as far as Western commentators are concerned, under a black raincloud at the moment.

But we have forgotten, as ever, about Bahrain!

After two years of unrest, it would seem that things are starting to look up for the Bahraini protestors, Shiites long oppressed by the country’s Sunni monarchy. Earlier this week, the King appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, to the post of first deputy prime minister. The Crown Prince is seen as a moderate figure in the Bahraini government apparatus (especially relative to his great-uncle, the Prime Minister) and has received praise in the past month for pushing a new round of dialogue between the regime and the opposition. And the good news doesn’t stop there: prominent political activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda was recently acquitted of charges of false propaganda, a surprising development considering that the regime has always jumped at the chance to throw annoying protestors into prison.

And to what (or whom) can we attribute these recent developments? One can assume, right off the bat, that they are due to some foreign influence. After all, Bahrain is not only stuck between a rock and a hard place Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it is home to the US Fifth Fleet naval base. With so many interests at stake in this tiny country’s stability, it goes without question that the outcome of its uprising will largely be determined by forces outside the archipelago itself. But other than Saudi Arabia’s military intervention on behalf of the Bahraini regime, there have been no state efforts to halt the conflict – and certainly nothing that would swing it in favor of the protestors. But if not national governments – then whom?

The answer to this question, it would seem, is Western-based NGOs. Unshackled by the national interests of their host governments, organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been persistent in their pursuit of human dignity for the Bahraini people. Earlier this year, Amnesty visited a major Manama prison and met with political prisoners to report on their living conditions and the circumstances of their detainment. The representatives later met with regime officials to push for the release of the protestors, whom they said were “prisoners of conscience” who had committed no punishable offense. And although those particular political figures remain in custody, several signs indicate that NGO work in Bahrain has been somewhat effective. It is promising that Amnesty was allowed to meet with government representatives and especially that it was able to conduct its prison study in the first place. Furthermore, the aforementioned acquittal of activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda is less surprising when considered in conjunction with this pro-activist NGO narrative. And even the Crown Prince may owe his cabinet appointment in part to human rights organizations’ advocacy for peaceful, respectful negotiation over repression.

Essentially, despite the stubborn refusal of Western governments to intervene on behalf of the Bahraini people, their NGOs have done it for them. All this suggests that NGOs are willing and able to do what their national governments are not. But are they really “able” to the same extent?

Though the presence of NGOs is having some positive effects in Bahrain, there are still deep structural problems in the country that can only be effectively addressed by the manpower, firepower and bargaining power of an actual foreign power. The national dialogue pushed for by the Crown Prince has stagnated, with government officials repeatedly denying the opposition the presence of both a royal delegate and a foreign mediator at the talks. And if that were not enough to demonstrate the regime’s staunch opposition to a mutually agreeable political solution, Amnesty’s latest Bahrain report claims, “…the lack of real political will on the part of the authorities to tackle human rights violations is enshrining a culture of impunity, and engulfing the country in entrenched unrest and fueling instability.” So what, then, is the solution – US intervention on behalf of the Bahraini people in the name of liberal values and democracy?

But despite what this may look like, I do not point out the inadequacy of non-governmental aid in order to make another call for a direct US intervention in Bahrain. To do so would be wholly unrealistic; as Obama’s upcoming first visit to Israel demonstrates, his administration persists in tiptoeing around its regional allies. Rather, I am commending the efforts of these NGOs, which (feebly successful results notwithstanding) I find preferable to full-scale US military involvement. Rain or shine, governmental or non-governmental, the West will always play a role in the Middle East (and particularly in countries as strategically important as Bahrain). But perhaps it is better in the long run for the Bahraini people to struggle with marginal gains with the help of NGOs than it is for them to achieve definitive initial success with the help of national governments. Though I may change my tune in the future if this conflict grows more violent, at this point I believe Bahrain would benefit even less from foreign intervention than it is from its current political stagnation, and that maybe NGO assistance is the only kind of foreign interference they should be getting.


  • Jorge Tamames

    Great article! I have a couple questions though.

    “there are still deep structural problems in the country that can only be effectively addressed by the manpower, firepower and bargaining power of an actual foreign power.”

    Does this mean Bahrein must be ironfisted by a foreign midwife, to use the Friedman lexicon? As you point out Bahrein’s problems come from being at the crossroads of opposing national interests. I don’t see how more foreign meddling might help, but then I almost never do.

    “the West will always play a role in the Middle East”

    Really? I imagine the US is eager to pull out as soon as it becomes energy independent, and much of Europe already depends more on Russian than on Middle Eastern oil. HROs might be there to stay, but I don’t believe they are “the West,” i.e. a Trojan horse for Western values/imperialism. So maybe we won’t always play an important role in the ME (which is desirable, given the track record).

    • Annika Lichtenbaum

      Definitely see your points – re: the first one, I meant that statement more relatively than absolutely, i.e. NGOs obviously don’t have the capabilities of states when it comes to putting a stop to what’s going on there. State intervention would come with its own strings attached, which is why I’m not advocating it; but compared to how successful the individual HROs have been so far, there are a lot of things a US/Western Europe strongarming could accomplish better.

      And as for the second point, I’m speaking more ideologically than in terms of concrete national interests. I believe the US and the rest of what qualifies as “the West” will always feel a sense of responsibility for political outcomes in the Middle East, and in the foreseeable future I honestly can’t see a region free from some form of Western meddling. I wouldn’t say HROs like Amnesty are secretly doing the West’s neoimperialist dirty work, but I do believe that on some level, they will always represent the responsibility the US/Europe feel for ensuring just democratic systems, human rights etc. in the region.

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