January 23, 2012

Bahrain’s King Hamad Suffocating Himself

The complex and often paradoxical nature of warfare is known to flip weakness into strength, and strength into weakness. Any actor, whether conventional or unconventional, must learn to limit or convert its deficiencies into a resource, and protect its strengths from dulling. Comfortably shielded by a thick international bubble, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa now embodies this strategic decay as some of his main advantages becomes liabilities. Not just Manama’s Fifth Fleet, which simultaneously keeps Washington in his pocket and international attention on his island.

After transiting through the nexus of politics and business - complacency is bad for both - the King’s low-intensity response to Bahrain’s uprising is incrementally suffocating his own kingdom.

Every Arab regime threaten by revolution has utilized tear gas to disrupt protesters from moving or gathering en masse. No government, however, relies more extensively on gas canisters than Bahrain’s security apparatus. The King’s small military, limited armaments and use of his police force, combined with the savvy to stay low profile, dictates a non-lethal response of rubber bullets and gas waves. Smoke clouded Manama throughout last week as Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s leading Shia oppositional party, attempted to organize a secession of rallies in the capital. Determined to crush the uprising, the monarchy rejected Al Wefaq’s permit request on the grounds of disrupting traffic and quickly smothered all dissenters.

As they often do, security forces also moved north for a funeral job in Muharraq. Here protesters had gathered to attend the burial of Yousif Muwali, whose body washed up in on January 13th. Al Wefaq alleges that Muwali was being held by police at the time of his death, while the government claims that he suffered from “psychological issues.” The government also rejected a petition to protest at Muwali’s funeral, but even authorized demonstrations require indiscriminate force to scatter. Those protesters who broke for a street outside Muharraq’s graveyard were first confronted with gas and violent force by police (likely foreign) and plain-clothes men. Police later intervened and restored order through more peaceful means.

By this point Yassin Asfour, a 14-year old asthmatic, had died of asphyxiation after being gassed at a separate protest. Several other recent casualties suffered fatal trauma to the head after being struck by gas canisters, a tactic employed in Egypt and Yemen.

So goes daily life in Bahrain, a week after King Hamad articulated a list of reforms during his “keynote” address. His changes to parliament and the constitution fell short of all established oppositional parties, along with street protesters demanding total regime change. Hamad has downplayed the island’s civil strife throughout 11-months of low-intensity conflict, whether blaming Iran for instigating a revolt or denying systematic abuses by the government. His “National Dialogue” and Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) took the cosmetic route to reform, a dead end in the Arab revolutionary wave, and the King remains determined to restore “normality” to his kingdom. Royal officials regularly meet with U.S. officials such as CENTCOM commander James Mattis and Ambassador Thomas Krajiski, resulting in official state propaganda.

“During the meeting, the Minister welcomed the US ambassador and reviewed with him existing bilateral military cooperation relations between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the friendly United States of America in addition to discussion of a number of issues of mutual concern.”

The King already defied pro-democracy protesters by holding his air show on schedule, bringing in nearly $1 billion of "business deals" while conjuring a false sense of progress. Although U.S. and British buyers were reportedly leery of Bahrain’s security environment, the conference drew high praise from Lockheed Martin’s regional president and U.S. Vice-Admiral. Charles Moore, a former commander of the Fifth Fleet, called Bahrain’s International Air Show (BIAS) “one of the best international aviation exhibitions” before touching on the uprising - and the King’s “wisdom.” His son, Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, is equally eager to hold Bahrain’s F-1 Grand Prix in April after 2010’s event was canceled in solidarity with the February 14th movement.

Both of these events are highlighted for their economic boost, when the developed and internationally subsidized island isn’t in dire need for cash. Although 11 months of unrest cost Bahrain’s economy an estimated $2 billion in lost revenue and foreign investments, King Hamad desires the perception of “order” above all else. Order maintains political and economic control abroad, whereas disorder scares away both sets of parties. The stronger and weaker forces of an asymmetric conflict wage a constant battle over the perception of stability.

“The reinstatement of our BIC colleagues is part of an important initiative towards national reconciliation and unity for the kingdom as a whole,” Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, told reporters. “I therefore welcome back our colleagues into the BIC family as we now look to focus on the future and the important job at hand.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa greeted BIAS in similar fashion: “We are looking forward and ahead and sparing no effort in bringing the country together."

The odds of Bahrain’s political collapse remains the lowest of any active uprising. Buttressed by a loyal Sunni minority and unflinching foreign support, King Hamad may be able outlast six years of determined resistance (the length of Bahrain’s last uprising) in the streets, political arena and international media. Except these odds received a boost from the regional phenomena and will continue to increase in proportion to his failed reforms. King Hamad and his foreign allies are slowly asphyxiating themselves. Trapped in their cocoon, the smoke of uprising could eventually ignite into an open blaze - to a point where Al Wefaq and Waad have no choice except to support regime change.

The King may brush aside Human Rights Watch, but deputy direct Joe Stork offers a realistic prediction of the future: “Since the crackdown on the protests authorities have violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations and silenced dissident voices through arrests, torture, and job dismissal. But people in Bahrain, and throughout the region, have made it clear that violent suppression isn’t going to make the issues go away. People want their rights.”

A wise King would give the people what they want before they demand his crown.

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