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On Bahrain & RUSI 14, June 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar.
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My views on the current problems in Bahrain are clear. They appeared in the Guardian at the end of last year and they are not flattering. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph:

To paraphrase the quote most often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, I reserve the right to change my mind should new evidence present itself, but so far there is no proof whatsoever of Iranian interference to any significant degree in Bahrain’s internal affairs. Certainly Iran is not “responsible” for the recent uprisings in Bahrain.

Again, in a less than flattering manner, I discuss Bahrain in terms of the Gulf Union for RUSI here and for Foreign policy here; I’ve blogged about the Bahraini security crackdown here; I lay bare Bahrain’s core security concerns here; I criticise a puff piece on Bahrain here; I discuss the tragedy of the KSA intervention in an article titled The Endgame in Bahrain for RUSI; I wrote about the dynamics of Sunni/Shia issues in the Gulf for someone here; I’ve noted the typical lack of evidence when accusing Iran of perfidy in the Gulf here; I disemboweled a shocking Wall Street Journal article on Bahrain here; and I refer to the Bahraini authorities’ molehill of evidence of Iranian interference here.

Does this mean that RUSI as an organisation, my employers for some time now, is thus to be dumped in the anti-Bahraini pot? Not so much. And does RUSI’s organising of a roundtable in Bahrain mean that RUSI is automatically dumped in the pro-Bahraini pot? Not so much.

While there are clearly deep differences between writing some articles on a topic and entering some kind of relationship to put on a series of events, neither one necessarily represents the totality of opinion in a given organisation.

The event

I’ve not been involved in the preparation or execution of the roundtable event in Bahrain and I’ve not attended the sessions, so what I say is coming from secondary sources.

Obviously, it appears that the Bahrainis have stacked the deck and have not issued visas to people that they agreed could attend the events. This is a monumentally silly thing to do. It looks absurd, it attracts all the wrong kind of attention, and is deeply counterproductive as Kristian Ulrichesen, one of the spurned attendees and a genuine Gulf expert eloquently notes in Open Democracy. The only note of caution that I would insert here is to say that a touch of judgement should perhaps be reserved until one sees the results (RUSI’s commentary, analysis, reportage) of this roundtable.

Why?

There is a logic to castigating RUSI noting that it should not lend the fevered rantings of a segment of opinion in Bahrain the forum to rant further. This makes sense to some degree, but to my mind is profoundly undercut by the deeper need to engage.

The first article that I ever wrote for publication in February 2008 discussed this exact point in relation to KSA (Asia Times Online here, and the same idea for Infinity Journal here). In these articles I cite the (depressingly reoccurring) example of a maid in early 2008 in KSA who was to be whipped because she was raped after getting into a car with men to whom she was not married. Yet this absurdly barbaric sentence was quashed by King Abdullah thanks in large (if not quantifiable) part to the storm of Western-led pressure. If my memory serves me well, even Hilary Clinton got in on the act.

I suggest, therefore, that Western engagement in KSA, which is – obviously enough – done mostly on a Government/commercial basis, was profoundly important in this case. Moreover, it does not seem to be a huge leap to me to suggest that had the West disengaged from KSA as there is significant pressure to do, then America’s or Britain’s key role in KSA would be replaced by Russia or China, and I think we can be certain that neither Beijing nor Moscow would have batted the proverbial eyelid about this poor victim who was to be whipped.

[Lest any trolls descend on this last paragraph: no, I’m not trying to suggest that profit-seeking western companies are performing altruistic duties in KSA, but that there are clear, positive ramifications of engaging in KSA nonetheless.]

In a similar vein, I just don’t see the utility of disengaging with Bahrain. I don’t see what would be gained or how it would improve the situation. Does anyone really think that what Bahrain needs is further isolation, condemnation, and finger-wagging? Or, to put this another way; would such an approach lead to some kind of an equitable solution faster? I don’t presume to understand how one can effectively and quickly facilitate the sides in Bahrain in coming to a compromise of some description, but I think that engagement by RUSI or HMG or whomever is likely to be a (small) part of the answer.

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Like all RUSI researchers, I write this post in a personal capacity, for the Institute does not hold a corporate view, precisely in order to encourage a free flow of ideas.

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