Is the Arab Gulf stuck in 2011? Josh Rogin wants you to believe it is
Far too many journalists use 2011 as the reference-point for the internal dynamics of the states of the Arab Gulf. Old narratives are rehashed, polished and redeployed without the requisite reflection of how societies, economies and states have changed in the meantime. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Bahrain.
Bahrain’s chapter in the so-called Arab Spring was not defined by violence. Of course, violence did erupt in 2011; Hezbollah, the Youth of 14 February, Sacred Defence, Al Wafa and later Saraya Al Ashtar cells ensured that protests turned into riots, that Molotov cocktails were hurled at police and that bombs exploded in civilian areas. These groups were itching for a sectarian conflict. But they had no traction and the violence was neither widespread nor especially potent. There were casualties, but these were few and far apart and the country’s security personnel managed to contain the situation at home as the Gulf Cooperation Council took up positions to prevent Iran’s direct intervention.
Bahrain’s leadership and civil society then teamed-up to reiterate the national goals of enhancing processes of dialogue, strengthening structures that support religious tolerance and, generally, building a shareholders’ society. One of the chief architects of Bahrain’s reforms is Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa who launched a National Dialogue (which was abandoned by the Iran-backed Al Wefaq), worked hard to revamp the country’s national economy and social system, enhance Bahrain’s security and increase its international engagements.
Given that Bahrain is a loyal ally of the US and knowing that the Crown Prince has taken important steps to ensure that the country maintains the momentum to reform despite the turbulence in the wider region, it is very disappointing that key media outlets — like the Washington Post — have purposely adopted a polarising narrative rather than a fair one. Consider Josh Rogin’s commentary ‘Congress presses Trump on human rights in the Gulf,’ (17 September 2019) which is, essentially, an ill-informed, haphazard attempt at decontextualising Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s visit to Washington. Key narratives in the article are worth revisiting.
The very first paragraph reads: ‘Trump praised the Gulf leader for his country’s purchase of military equipment, but said nothing about Bahrain’s downward slide on freedom and human rights.’ This paragraph is the fly-trap meant to draw in readers. It is punchy, glossy and patently false. Bahrain has taken extraordinary steps in terms of Human Rights: its National Institute for Human Rights, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Supreme Council for Women and the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence (etc) are tasked with promoting local and international human rights, women’s right and empowerment, religious understanding and partnership. They service all of Bahrain no matter of sect or faith or passport, citizen, resident or visitor. This is why Bahrain continues to gather accolades from international expatriate group’s, from the UN Development Agency and many others—it is climbing up, not sitting down on human rights. Arguments to the contrary are inaccurate. And, of course President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa spoke about a lot of things, not only of Bahrain’s purchase of Patriot missiles. But in the black and white world of polarised journalism, the purchase was meant to highlight the ‘bad’ military — even though Bahrain needs such defensive systems to defend itself from, say, Iranian missiles — in order to negatively cast the US-Bahrain relationship and use it to take a stab at Donald Trump.
That theme is further developed throughout the rest of the commentary. Rogin remarks that ‘partners who abuse their own people are less stable and less secure. That’s why it was a pillar of US foreign policy to urge Gulf allies to slowly liberalise — until Trump took office.’ Bahrain is not a serial abuser and neither has the liberalising trend been halted or reversed. Instead, it is apparent that Rogin is using Bahrain to attack the US under Trump and may therefore be more liberal with interpreting accuracy. This point is reflected in the examples Rogin uses: he eludes to the cases of Nabeel Rajab and Ali Salman — claims that the former was arrested for ‘tweets’ and the later for being the ‘main opposition’ — to indicate that Trump is soft on Bahrain. To be clear, Rajab was arrested in 2015, before Trump’s election, and not for tweeting (as such) but for the incitement to violence carried in the tweet. Salman (also arrested in 2015) is a foreign-backed agent that sought to overthrow the government of Bahrain. He literally stood under a banner that said as much and rallied is supporters to that end. His Al Wefaq was one of many opposition groups and he was arrested for his role in destabilising the state. Rogin also makes reference to those few that have been executed — after lengthy trials — for crimes of terrorism resulting in death. Bahrain has not executed any other person except for convicted terrorist-murderers.
Then, about halfway through, Rogin shifts gears to talk about Saudi Arabia and the case of Jamal Khashoggi. Actually, the commentary never really returns to Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa or Bahrain but anchors itself in the internal US discourse on Yemen and the Saudi role in it. And then it is over with a warning that ‘Congress is still watching.’ In other words, the Democrats are moral in their foreign policy preferences while Trump is ‘laissez-faire.’ Of course, the Democrats have their own skeletons to contend with — re: empowering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp in Iran through the nuclear deal — but with Rogin in their corner an alternative, more forgiving, reality will surely be peddled.