Alwaleed bin Talal has been a busy business man lately. As his cousins labor to protect the kingdom’s “investments” during an unstable environment, either through political hegemony or military force, the Saudi billionaire Prince is diligently strengthening his King’s media front. Already in possession of a vast media network across the Gulf, Riyadh has recognized the value of information and is hoarding accordingly.
The supposedly progressive Bin Talal broke new ice in December with a symbolic $300 million investment in Twitter (4% stake), but his liberal norms shouldn’t be confused with democratic urges. The $20 billion Prince also selected Manama’s Media City to host his globally-minded Alarab news channel - as if Bahrain’s uprising could get any darker.
Like King Abdullah’s royal circle, Washington counts the efficient suppression of Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement and preservation of America’s Fifth Fleet as a “foreign policy success.” Protesters are systematically quelled each day (especially on Fridays and weekends), funerals are often dispersed with tear gas, and any march on Manama’s Pearl Square is stopped before it begins. When Al Wefaq organized a non-violent demonstration to prove the uprising’s existence, calling on protesters to stand in front of their homes, security personnel forced some of them back inside.
Two weeks ago Bahraini personnel shot up Al-Wefaq’s headquarters under an international quarantine.
Far from “over,” as NPR recently reported, the 10-month island uprising is simply blacked out by extensive Western factors. The New York Times mainly pays attention when someone important is beaten or gassed (or its own Nick Kristof). The Wall Street Journal posts favorable assessment from Bahraini officials and U.S. consultants, something the Washington Post has picked up on. Neither U.S. mainstream media nor European powers can escape the gravitational silence of the Obama administration, but ample video can be found across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
"Ongoing repression in Bahrain is happening amid international silence as people demand democratization and reject dictatorship," Al Wefaq tried to tell the world.
Up until Thursday the Obama administration had no public comment on any of these incidents, instead devoting its usual level of attention to Syria and Iran. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland was then confronted with the loaded question of whether Bahrain “is off your radar screen.” Nuland naturally replied with a hint of indignity - “Of course it’s not off our radar screen” - even though the Department’s last comment dates to December 9th. Unlike Thursday’s Q&A, where Nuland needed prompting to address Bahrain, the spokeswoman began her December briefing with praise for King Hamad’s “credible and transparent” Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).
Nuland was immediately questioned about the latest suppressed funeral, but evidently hadn’t been briefed some 12 hours after the incident. This unbreakable pattern led former opposition MP Matar Matar to conclude, "The case of Bahrain is a great example of international hypocrisy. Democratic and liberation slogans go silent when it comes to Bahrain.”
In fact the BICI is functioning exactly as designed: “prove” the government’s outreach and minimize the uprising through shallow punishments and reforms. Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently reported that her team had “yet to see any prosecution of security forces for civilian injuries and deaths.” Bahrain isn’t “off” Washington’s radar either - the administration is actively concealing an obvious blip. The last official remarks on Bahrain trace to Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and they sound eerily similar to the monarchy’s self-adulation.
“It is a great credit to King Hamad that he initiated the BICI process and that allowed the Commission freely free hand to conduct its activities. It is unusual for a government to invite a comprehensive external review of such sensitive matters. We strongly support the King's courage in initiating the review and his commitment to address the reforms outlined in the BICI report.”
High praise for an investigation into the Kingdom’s use of torture.
Posner does deliver several choice words for King Hamad, supporting “a broader, future-oriented agenda” and expressing “concern about reports of excessive use of force... in response to ongoing street protests.” He speaks of the “need for improved community policing practices, crowd control procedures, and accountability for incidents of excessive use of force.” However these lines only superficially differ from the government’s account. For starters Posner qualifies his “concern” over “reports” of government violence, whereas he explicitly “condemns the use of violence by demonstrators which the government has an obligation to stop.”
Two Western “supercops” were also deployed to oversee Manama’s “crowd control.”
That some of Bahrain’s protesters have turned violent is indisputable. They can be seen throwing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at security personnel, and adopted a dangerous tactic of obstructing highway traffic with metal rods. Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman has called on all protesters to cease their use of Molotov cocktails in particular, but low-intensity violence is a natural expression of a populace that loses total confidence in the government. “My team,” said Pillay, “has come back with the message that there is a profound lack of trust in the Government.”
Posner’s rhetoric also mirrors the government’s campaign to brand Bahrain’s Shia uprising as violent and uncontrollable, fulfilling the cycle of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). No level of asymmetric resistance justifies the combination of political marginalization and disproportionate force.
Although Washington has cashed in on Iran’s Hormuz threat to highlight Bahrain’s indispensable Fifth Fleet, the Obama administration couldn’t ignore Friday’s latest incident. Speaking to al Jazeera after stepping into an ambush, Nabeel Rajab recounted how a group of peaceful (but non-permitted) protesters was confronted by Jordanian, Pakistani and Syrian riot police. Once dispersed, the head of Bahrain’s Center For Human Rights hid for “25-30 minutes” before emerging towards his car.
"Five, six, seven people, I don't know how many people. They were attacking from everywhere. When a police officer came, I heard them say, 'We found Nabeel lying down,' and I said, 'No, I'm not lying down - you're beating me... They said, 'Are Nabeel Rajab?' I said 'Yes', then they beat me more.”
At this point the Bahraini CO intervened “when he saw them beating me, they stopped, because he knew it was too much and they called an ambulance."
On Saturday the monarchy offered an alternate version of Rajab’s case, as it does after every death. Not only did he lack a permit to protest, he was medically assisted after requesting aid for an injury. Unable to avoid comment, an anonymous U.S. official would wade into the information battle to minimize Rajab’s fallout, expressing “concern” but remaining inside the Kingdom’s line.
"We are not opining on the facts of what happened here but we are very concerned about this case," he added. "In general, we are very concerned about the frequent reports of excessive use of force by the police, widespread use of tear gas."
Nuland would release a copy of his statements on Sunday - only conclude with praise for the monarchy.
“The Government of Bahrain has taken significant steps to implement recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and we urge it to complete this important undertaking without delay and continue the work of comprehensive reform. We encourage all the citizens of Bahrain to join in this effort, which can be the foundation for genuine reconciliation and a renewed spirit of national unity.”
These statements are unlikely to satisfy the majority of Bahrain’s opposition movement or Rajab, who delivered an unvarnished assessment of U.S. policy during a recent trip to the capita. Washington’s snug relationship with the monarchy provides rare transparency in a world of shadows. Al Wefaq has responded with politically correct appreciation, but Matar cautioned against the international community’s unsustainable position. He called for the Obama administration to apply real pressure on Manama, “rather than the international community just believing the regime's fake response, which contradicts the facts on the ground.”
As for Rajab’s foreign assailants, he predicts that they will never be found. Just another means of slipping Bahrain’s uprising into darkness.