May 9, 2012

Bahraini Princes Toil To Foment Division

Seeking to maintain the aura of normality cultivated by his father, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa recently traveled to Washington for high-level consultations with the Obama administration. Journalists at the State Department attempted to probe Al Khalifa's agenda with Secretary Hillary Clinton, but they would run into the same buffer that keeps Bahrain's opposition at arms length. One reporter refused to accept the Department's readout, asking spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, "where do you stand on the pace of the Bahraini reforms? I mean, you still have this gentleman who’s on a hunger strike. There have been kind of small, incremental steps at reform, followed by a crackdown of protestors and journalists." 

"Well, I think we’ve spoken about this before, that with regard to the implementation of these recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission, they’ve made some progress but we want to see more progress," Nuland answered. "We’ve talked to them about that regularly. We have also talked about the Khawaja case and other cases of concern, and I would not be surprised if those came up again today." 

The only transparent aspect of Clinton's meeting is the unchanging nature of U.S. policy in Bahrain. If one were to string the administration's various statements together (the relatively few that exist), minor differences would be noticeable over the past 14 months of protests. Washington's copy-paste diplomacy suggests that no policy adjustments are coming over the horizon. The administration, like the Saudis, simply will not allow King Hamad Isa bin Al Khalifa's government to crumble amid the Arab revolutionary wave. There is no Plan B to backup the status quo - full support for the monarchy - and words of caution are offered with this outcome in mind. Observers of Clinton and the Prince's meeting didn't receive a real update and they don't need one. 

The two-faced nature of U.S. policy is available for all to see

"Secretary Clinton affirmed the long-standing commitment of the United States to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain. They discussed the full range of regional and bilateral issues, including the Bahraini Government’s ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Secretary Clinton noted the steps already taken to implement the recommendations, but expressed that much work remains to fully address ongoing human rights issues, including individual cases. She encouraged the Bahraini Government to champion a clear process – in both word and action – that leads to meaningful institutional and political reforms that take into account the interests and aspirations of all Bahrainis."

The tone of the Prince's rhetoric can also be triangulated from past statements and the mindsets of other royal officials. Described as a "liberal's liberal," Crown Prince Salman acts with the unequivocal support of Western powers and is viewed as one avenue out of the crisis. He led the internal calls for reform, initiated supported a dialogue with the oppositional Al Wefaq and supposedly wants move long-standing Prime Minister Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa out of power. However the Prince retains a hard line too, eventually turning against a "divided" Al Wefaq like the rest of Bahrain's royal family, and his comments on Bahrain's Grand Prix echoed the country's conservative premier. "Canceling the race just powers extremists," the Crown Prince argued. "Having it allows us to build bridges and celebrate our nation as an idea that's positive." 

Similarly, Prince Khalifa believes that Bahrain's movement, "in the modern world," is what "we call a 'terrorist group'... supported by Iran and Hezbollah. What we are facing is exactly what the Americans are facing with terrorism." He delivered the same message to Britain's ambassador as Clinton met with Salam. Combined with the King's own rejection of Bahrain's opposition and an unflinching crackdown on protesters, the monarchy displays no sincere desire to rectify the island's inequalities and injustices. Security and political reforms initiated by Bahrain's National Dialogue and Commission of Independent Inquiry (BICI), both eagerly supported by the Obama administration, are designed to appease the international community without loosening the monarchy's grip on power. Neither capital seems concerned that these maneuvers will extend the conflict so long as they preserve authority for the foreseeable future. 

Clinton also ignored the status of Nabeel Rajab, who is being held on charges of inciting violence and illegal protests. Bahrain's leading human rights activist expects no less. A frequent critic of the Obama administration, Rajab was shunned while receiving a humanitarian award in Washington and is viewed as a nuisance for championing a new Bahrain. "The regime is funded by Saudi Arabia and the United States and for these powers true democracy to be created destabilizes their interests."

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