Bahrain? Never Heard of It

by , September 11, 2012

News that a civilian appeals court in Bahrain upheld the harsh prison terms —including several life sentences — of 13 “Arab Spring” activists last week, drew rapid fire from the human rights community. Their “crimes” — organizing largely peaceful protests to demand social and economic reforms from the ruling monarchy in 2011 — had branded them convicted traitors and terrorists, the kind of appalling injustice that American patriots had fought against more than 200 years ago.

Bahraini security forces during the 2011 uprising.

“Today’s court decision is yet another blow to justice and shows once more that the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform but seem rather driven by vindictiveness,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

Bahrain’s Shia population took to the streets in February 2011 amid the wave of social and political uprisings across the Arab World. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia or even Libya, however, the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family — which has ruled the oil rich country (and the Shia majority) for two centuries — has managed to emerge unscathed. Instead, Bahrain has thwarted and suppressed its popular movement without fully engaging in the reforms it’s promised. Making it worse, the major mainstream coverage of the Bahraini story — including the brutal crackdown against protesters, their arrests, alleged torture in prison, the “disappearing” of activists and even doctors who have helped the wounded, the nighttime raids in Shiite neighborhoods — has been sporadic at best to non-existent.

You’ve got to wonder why. This week, a pair of stories by Glenn Greenwald (here and here) have re-engaged a debate about how western financial interests coupled with so-called “smart power” strategy in the region, has left the reform movement in Bahrain far behind. This only reinforces the longstanding accusation of American hypocrisy — preaching the goals of liberty for all humans, but only when it suits.

Feeble American Response

In his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, President Obama had very little to say about foreign policy, and even less to say about global human rights. He did make one sweeping nod to the people-driven freedom movements that have marked the last two years of his presidency:

“The historic change sweeping across the Arab World must be defined not by the iron fist of a dictator or the hate of extremists, but by the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people who are reaching for the same rights that we celebrate today.”

It’s no surprise he didn’t say more about the Arab Spring — his administration has not taken a clear approach to any of it. Rather it has offered a patchwork of official responses, ranging from full-on military assistance for anti-government forces in Libya, to a more tolerant, wait-and-see position with others, particularly in Egypt. There, U.S. officials condemned the violence against the protesters in Tahrir Square, and supported reforms in spirit, but were forced to contemplate a future relationship without their reliable dictator-friend, Hosni Mubarak, and with an Islamist party that says it won’t kowtow to U.S. influence.

But there are fewer places where the U.S. has gone out of its way to reassure those cracking the whip against protesters than in Bahrain. Shortly after the peaceful street protests were marred by government troops descending on the Pearl Roundabout on February 16, 2011 in a pre-dawn raid now known as “Bloody Thursday,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then-joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Bahrain and was effusive in representing our support for the monarchy.

Police burn tents at the Pearl Roundabout, epicenter of Bahraini protests in spring 2011.

Indeed, Bahrain harbors our Navy’s Fifth Fleet and has long helped in our wars — a “strategic ally” along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — so this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. There are a lot of business interests on both sides, too. According to the State Department, bilateral trade exceeded $1.7 billion in 2011. But the timing and the tone of the visit was still a shame. It was even more disappointing, after months of reports about torture and nighttime raids in Shia neighborhoods, the majority of the opposition’s prominent organizers still in jail or missing, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates would also pay a visit, again, delivering American support.

Since then, in an effort to look pro-active and sympathetic, administration officials have cheered the November 2011 findings and recommendations by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which documented 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture by government forces, and more than 4,000 cases of employees dismissed for participating in protests. Since its release however, the report is looking more like a smoke screen than an attempt at real progress, according to a 58-page report by Amnesty International, which said in April that “scores of activists continue to be imprisoned and investigations into cases of police torture and killing of civilians have not been sufficiently thorough.”

Amnesty also highlighted the glacial pace of the reforms recommended by the commission, which was appointed by King Hamad himself.

The U.S. says it’s actively encouraging the BICI report implementations, but it seems so feeble. Here is the State Department’s reaction to the aforementioned appeals court decision last week:

Well, we’ve talked about this before, as you know, when we had the [BICI] report and we had a long list of recommendations, and we’ve talked here about all of the recommendations that were implemented, about the list of those that remain, including in the police sector, et cetera. So we are continuing in our conversations with the Government of Bahrain to urge them to complete those lists of reforms…

The question of national dialogue, as you know, has ebbed and flowed in Bahrain.

Well, burn the house down. One could tell spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was already punching the clock at the end of this briefing. Unfortunately, she is the public face of the official U.S. response to the “hopes and aspirations of ordinary people who are reaching for the same rights that we celebrate today.” Not very inspiring, to sat the least.

What Gives?

Sure, much could be going on below the surface diplomatically, but it’s worth looking at what’s happening right in front of our faces. Because, that is what the rest of the world sees, and how it takes the measure of our sincerity as a global purveyor of freedom.

Greenwald reopened a can of worms last week in his reports exploring why CNN International would not broadcast “iRevolution,” a news documentary about social media and activism in the Arab Spring. He contends it was blackballed in part because of a segment led by CNN investigative correspondent Amber Lyon. Citing Lyon and sources within CNN corporate, Greenwald said the royal family had undue influence on the network’s Gulf State coverage and had complained many times about Lyon’s coverage of the protest movement.

CNN has denied Greenwald’s account in a detailed response, here.

Greenwald offers two reasons for what he says is CNN’s cave to the Bahraini government and for the lack of attention to the Bahraini crisis overall. One is the $32 million the royal family has paid London-based and American PR and lobbying firms to whitewash its image during the protests, and to represent their interests on Capitol Hill. More on that later.

The other is the elaborate financial ties between CNN and the Gulf States in the form of “sponsorship opportunities” that allow those governments to essentially purchase advertising time on the international network. But instead of straight advertisements, the money buys slick promotional packages that blur the line between news and infomercial with very little warning to the viewer at home.

From Greenwald:

CNNi produces those programs in an arrangement it describes as “in association with” the government of a country, and offers regimes the ability to pay for specific programs about their country. These programs are then featured as part of CNNi’s so-called “Eye on” series (“Eye on Georgia“, “Eye on the Philippines“, “Eye on Poland“), or “Marketplace Middle East“, all of which is designed to tout the positive economic, social and political features of that country.

The disclosure for such arrangements is often barely visible…

To the average viewer unaware of these government sponsorships, it appears to be standard “reporting” from the network.

The “Eye on Bahrain” program is just one of a long-standing stable of financially viable contacts between CNN and the government, mostly through the Bahrain Economic Development Board (BEDB), which describes itself as “responsible for marketing the Kingdom of Bahrain abroad.” Greenwald offers a number of quotes in which the BEDB pats itself on the back for promoting Bahrain via CNN news.

CNN is thus compromised: if CNN is allowing slickly produced, government-sanctioned promotional materials to run as news on its network, how are we to believe that it did not allow the government of Bahrain to influence its coverage on the Bahraini protests over the last 17 months?

Mad Men and K Street Mercenaries

As I wrote for The American Conservative this week, the monarchy cannot do all of this bullying alone. It needs western handlers — hucksters and operatives that know their way around the media, the think tank bubble and Capitol Hill. For at least a quarter century, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) data base, paid flacks and lobbyists have been working diligently to scrub the kingdom’s image and represent its interests in Washington.

For an even better idea of these efforts during the 2011-12 uprising, check out this nifty list of British and American firms hired by Bahrain on BahrainWatch.com.

Not surprisingly, the colonial impulse shines through with the Brits, who are raking in the vast majority of the $32 million spent so far, but it looks like the Yanks have no problem shilling for the monarch either. Those contracts include two connected to Democratic campaign guru Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign in 2004 and served as senior adviser to John Edwards in his unsuccessful 2008 bid.

Joe Trippi, strategist to the monarchs.

Trippi’s firm was hired by the kingdom’s Informational Affairs Authority in late 2011 to “provide advice and counsel on social and political reform measures, particularly with regard to the recommendations made by the [BICI],” as well as “advise and counsel on the online outreach activities.” Trippi subcontracted to Sanitas International to handle the second part of the agreement, which was to provide “strategic advice and assistance with outreach to members of the media and non-governmental organizations,” according to the FARA document (.pdf).

Bahrain Watch reported that the two firms shared the $30,000 a month retainer, plus expenses. Trippi & Associates walked away with $93,000 from the deal; Sanitas $194,694.

Also at the top of the list of American mercenaries is D.C.-based Qorvis Communications. Its international crisis communications arm is run by ex-State official Matt J. Lauer. Qorvis is a competitive one-stop shop specializing in “crisis communications,” “reputation management,” “marketing” and “government contracting,” among other services, according to its website. It’s clients include Sprint, Pratt & Whitney and the government of Mexico. For Bahrain, according to BahrainWatch, Qorvis signed a $40,000 monthly retainer for services that included pitching press releases justifying things like the July 2011 raid on Doctors without Borders, developing pro-kingdom websites, and holding briefings with journalists, government officials and think-tankers on Capitol Hill. The company ended up making $686,681 in fees and expenses from the lucrative deal.

The Odds Against Them

We could not end this excursion without mentioning how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored U.S.-Bahrain Business Council (USBBC), and affiliated Bahraini AmCham, helps grease the works for all of these PR and lobbying efforts. In October 2010, investigative reporter Lee Fang wrote about larger issue of how Gulf State interests enter the U.S. political and legislative fray through these organizations’ generous contributions and members’ fees. Depressing — but worth reading.

Simply put, people-driven movements in environments like this start out with the gravest of disadvantages. The way the cards were stacked in Bahrain, it’s a surprise we’ve heard about the protests at all. Just remember, the next time you hear Victoria Nuland say the State Department is “continuing in our conversations with the Government of Bahrain,” it’s because that is the least they can do, and they are doing the very least, because they have to do something to keep up charade.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

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