Dr. Joost Hiltermann is Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and Research Affiliate of the MIT Center for International Studies. Since 2002, he has managed a team of analysts based in the Middle East and North Africa to conduct research and write policy-focused reports on factors that increase the risk of and drive armed conflict. More recently, he has made several trips to Bahrain and written articles on the on-going crisis in this country. Dr. Hiltermann has a PhD in Sociology and was a former Executive Director of the Arms Division of the Human Rights Watch from 1994 to 2002.
IRD: In your articles about Bahrain, you discussed the sectarian aspect of the crisis in this Persian Gulf country. How do you see the responsibility of the government and the opposition in replacing the narrative of a peaceful uprising with a sectarian conflict?
JH:Resort to sectarianism is an abusive tactic in the Gulf, and indeed the wider region. Prospering as it does in fertile ground, both governments and political movements, whether Shiite or Sunni, can easily deploy it to exploit the fact that the lines between religion and politics are blurred. Bahrain is no exception: hardline elements in the government, the same who backed the crackdown a year ago, portrayed the protests as an attempt to establish a Shiite Islamic republic, or at least accused the protesters of having a Shiite Islamist-driven agenda. However, in doing so, they lumped together the opposition’s various strands, including both pro-reform and radical (regime-change) elements. This interpretation was rendered all the more credible by its reference to the attempted coup in 1981 and by the fact that Iran, which watched its neighbour bogged down in internal troubles, supported the uprising in pursuit of its own interests.
IRD:How do you see the role of Saudi Arabia in suppressions in Bahrain? Why do you think Saudi is trying to forge a unity with Bahrain?
JH: The entry of Peninsula Shield troops in March 2011 gave a clear signal that the time of dialogue was over and that the crackdown on the protest was about to begin under a Saudi-led GCC security umbrella. Yet Bahrain’s security apparatus is largely homegrown and has historically benefited more from British and Jordanian expertise and organisation than from Saudi cooperation.
Though present in the country until this day, GCC troops have not participated in the crackdown, staying in barracks far from urban areas. They serve as a reminder that any deal deemed detrimental to GCC/Saudi interests will not be accepted.
Saudi Arabia's attempt at strengthening the region’s monarchical model pre-dates King Abdullah's call for GCC union in December 2011. An earlier example was the invitation extended to Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC, which would turn it into a club of monarchies rather than merely a Gulf alliance. This was an attempt to close the ranks of the monarchies as a direct reaction to the overthrow of republican dictators during the Arab Spring. Since then, elections in post-revolutionary countries have brought Sunni Islamists to power. If the GCC union was warmly supported in Bahrain as a way to escape from its own internal conundrums, whether political or economic, in Saudi Arabia it probably seen as a way not only to curb Iranian influence by containing Shiite Islamists but also to thwart the danger of rising Sunni Islamism, particularly that of the Muslim Brothers, of whom Saudi Arabia is wary for historical reasons.
IRD:Do you believe that the developments in Bahrain can affect the civil society movements in the Persian Gulf region and in particular in Saudi Arabia?
JH:While people in Gulf countries have expressed their horror at the crackdown on Bahraini citizens, they also have demonstrated little explicit or organized support for their cause, apart from a few Shiite Islamists in Kuwait. The link between Bahraini protesters and their Saudi counterparts is difficult to assess, but the situation in the Eastern Province seems to be similar to the one in Bahrain, with a pro-reform majority pushing forward its national agenda and a disaffected minority undoubtedly looking at how much their friends in Bahrain will be able to achieve.
IRD: Do you see any possibility for genuine reform (particularly by the young crown prince) in Bahrain and a peaceful political process to solve the crisis?
JH:Prospects of renewed dialogue are bleak. It would have to be built on the Crown Prince’s failed dialogue last year, which the regime has conveniently blamed on the opposition's intransigence. There was some hope that the Bassiouni investigation would generate a genuine soul-searching on the part of all concerned about what went wrong, but implementation of the report’s recommendations has largely been unilateral and remains very limited in scope.
Too much hope is staked on this dialogue, as if it could solve the crisis by producing a magic formula. No comprehensive solution will be found unless and until dialogue is inclusive and continual, not haphazard and imposed by the regime. This will require a partnership approach, and support in the form of Western technical expertise for key reform files, such as police reform and media reform.
IRD:Do you believe that the Bahraini crisis has received the due coverage in the international media?
JH:It is impossible to judge what media coverage a crisis deserves, as it is not the way media works, but what is certain is that in the case of Bahrain there has been a classic media war, since all sides know that ultimately regimes fall when they lose their international legitimacy and support. The Bahraini government is used to carrying out public-relations exercises; it has hired PR consultants to enhance its image and reputation abroad while lashing out at media coverage of the uprising and restricting access to foreign journalists. It is now paying the decades-old price for exiling its opposition rather than dealing with it, as it faces the real challenge of an opposition movement bred on and conversant in Western notions of democracy, whose rhetoric and reasoning, no matter how radical or uncompromising, are equally if not more convincing than the government's line.