I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for several days now.
It took a while for me to gather my thoughts, and for them to crystallise. But I’m ready to write now. Let me repeat what I said in my popular February blog post: I don’t claim to know the full truth, nor do I claim to be an expert. Like many people in this beautiful country, I have some views on the crisis we’re going through. Remember this is a blog and what I write here is my opinion. I’ve formed my opinion through the following methods:
1) Using my own common sense
2) Reading anti and pro-government newspapers
3) Having lots of conversations with Shiite, Sunni and expat friends and acquaintances
4) The social media (the least reliable source of information)
I’m sharing openly and honestly, and would ask you to keep and open mind, and more importantly, an open heart. Okay, ready? Here goes:
The Spectrum: Two extremes with a silent middle
The most troubling thing that has emerged in this crisis are the extremists on both sides. On the protestors side there are those calling for the death of the Royal family and the government, and on the other are the ones who consider all the protestors traitors who deserve nothing less than death. And between those two extremes are the majority of the population that vary from leaning towards the protestors to leaning towards the government.
I’ve attempted to portray the spectrum in a simple diagram. I hope it makes sense (I avoided the colour red in portraying either side). Let’s call the anti-government side the “Left”, and pro-government side the “Right.” The extreme Left’s view can be summarised as follows:
- Mostly Shiite
- Don’t want dialogue (“Too late for that! Too many people died!”)
- “Death to the ruling family!”
- Our way or no way!
- Don’t mind using violence to get their way (as seen with terrible attack on the university of Bahrain)
- Lie and cheat for their cause.
Remember this is the extreme Left. A few notches away from the extreme are those who want reform with a new constitution, an elected government and a constitutional monarchy (and that is subject to interpretation). They might not condone violence but they might (or might not) mind provocation, intimidation or disruption of normal life for others. And it goes on until you reach the extreme Right. They can be described as follows:
- Mostly Sunni
- Yes to the ruling family.
- “These protestors are trouble makers!”
- “They are backed by Iran”
- “No changes needed!”
- Our way or no way!
- Don’t mind using violence to get their way.
- Lie and cheat for their cause.
As mentioned, between the two extremes are a so-called silent majority (which is not as silent as when the crisis first began) who might sympathise with points from either side, but have a general leaning towards one or the other. Their views are summarised below:
- Believe that some changes are necessary
- Both sides have valid points (and are annoyed by certain behaviours in both camps)
- Yes to dialogue, and QUICK!
- Re-introduce stalled reforms
- Reduce corruption
- No to violent and intimidating demonstrations
So to summarise my point, most of the Bahraini society is not either “anti” or “pro” government; they lie somewhere on the spectrum from Left to Right.
My position (for those who care)
My personal motto can be summarised in this sentence “Yes to the Royal family, no to corruption”. I consider my self a Royalist, and I suspect I always will. I suppose I sit somewhere on the orange side of my diagram, very close to the middle. Let me add that being a Royalist does not mean I condone all the actions of the government. It does not mean I’m a yes-man or some sort of puppet or robot. I have a brain, thank you very much.
Why I’m a Royalist
There are several reasons. First of all, the Arab Gulf region has been ruled by various tribal families for centuries (if not millennia), and uprooting that system and replacing it with some sort of democratic republic in my opinion won’t work. Rightly or wrongly, we are not ready for a fully fledged democracy. We don’t have the maturity for it nor do we have the education levels required for it.
Second, I think by and large they’re doing an okay job. You have to remember that all things are relative. One should not compare the Bahraini or GCC ruling families to Western governments, but rather to other third world countries, and to other Arab countries. Yes, they have corrupt elements, but don’t all governments have them, including Western ones? Personally, in the last few of years I’ve come to the conviction that the US government is one of the most corrupt in the world – but that’s a topic for another day.
Through my late father, I dare say I had a unique insight into how ruling families operate and think. I was lucky enough to meet four Arab heads of state before I was 19 years old! I don’t say this to brag, but to make a point. They’re not ruthless dictators hell-bent on exploiting their people. Rather they’re (mostly) good people doing the best they can. In a very short period of time they had a massive influx of oil money come in, and they tried to help their countries as best they could. They introduced modernisation initiatives and massively upgraded their countries’ infrastructures. And they tried to “share the wealth” as best they could.
They also saw it as their right to enrich themselves with the oil money. For me, it’s not a question of whether they can enrich themselves (there aren’t many poor Royal families around in the world). Rather, it’s a question of when is enough? A ruling family should never enrich itself at the expense of it’s people. I’d say the GCC Royal families have mixed results in this regard.
Moving on, the third reason I’m a Royalist is because the alternative is damn scary. Better a family who ruled for hundreds of years and we know well, then someone else who’s agenda we don’t know. The most likely alternative is an Islamic government, which is not appealing at all. Let me repeat what I said in last month’s blog post, “The main problem with having the religious and political leadership combined is that the leadership starts talking in the name of God, and justifies their actions in the name of God. People can so easily be arrested and murdered when it’s done in God’s name.”
The last reason I’m a Royalist is personal. I myself, and my family in general have seen nothing but kindness and generosity from the ruling family in Bahrain. Though I cannot claim to be close to anyone senior in the family myself, my father, grandfather, uncles and great uncles had excellent relations with the late Emirs Shaikh Essa bin Salman Al-Khalifa and Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, and with His Majesty King Hamad.
I’d like to relay a few personal stories if I may. In the early 1990′s my late father was to be moved from being Saudi Ambassador to Bahrain to being the Saudi Ambassador to London. I had decided to stay in Bahrain to continue my studies here. I was in the University of Bahrain at the time and did not want to leave all my friends behind.
Shaikh Essa very generously gave my father a farewell dinner, when he heard that I was staying in Bahrain he turned to me and said “Suhail you are like my son. Consider yourself like Hamad. If there is anything you need just let me know.” I thought that was incredibly sweet of him. Who else would go through the trouble being this kind and generous to an ambassador’s son?
Another story. During the Azza [funeral reception] of my father last August, His Majesty King Hamad came to give his condolences. He generously made time to sit with just my mother, myself and my siblings. He said some very nice things about my late father, and it almost seemed like he had tears on the corners of his eyes. He told me and my siblings that we should consider ourselves like his children, and that we should not hesitate to ask him if we need anything.
I consider myself to be very privileged to be the son of a great man (bear with me on this, I’m getting to a point). One of the many benefits of being my father’s son was the many things I learnt from him, and another one was being able to accompany him occasionally on visits he made to His Majesty King Hamad. Having seen the King talk privately among his friends and acquaintances, I can unequivocally say that he loves all his people. On the few times I’ve tagged along I’ve heard him speak on many topics, including his people. And the King never used any derogatory or demeaning language to describe any of them (unlike we see happening with some members of the Extreme Left – and Right for that matter). Though I don’t recall the details of the conversation, I do remember someone once bringing up the topic of Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain, and the language he used was always along the lines that he considers all the people his children and that they should all be treated equally. I got the distinct message that he detested the notion of discrimination against any citizen.[Note to any weirdos who might think I'm showing off by talking about these things, please note this blog is not for you. Please scurry along and go somewhere else. I have nothing to show off about and nothing to prove.]
Okay, back to ruling families in general. You have to remember that they consist of fallible people who can make mistakes, and sometimes they make big ones. And they sometimes get bad advice. I now want to move on to some more specifics about Bahrain.
The truly amazing things the king did
To give credit where credit is due, since His Majesty King Hamad came to the throne some amazing reforms have been introduced. Here are some of the highlights:
- Introduced more freedom of speech and allowed opposition views to be heard (Heck! He allowed an opposition!)
- Curbed corruption and improved corruption-detection methods
- Allowed political exiles to return to Bahrain and even placed some of them in the government
- Improved government transparency
- Introduced an amnesty for all sides that were involved in past political conflicts
- Introduced a constitution and (limited) democracy
Now, show me another third world head of state that did this much and such a short period of time? True, His Majesty’s government is not perfect, but I think we have to be fair to it.
So what went wrong?
Why are we in the mess that we are in today? I think His Majesty’s government made a few mistakes. Here are the main ones that I can think of:
1) Reforms stalled:
The rate of reforms slowed over time, and they seem to have stopped altogether. The nation was on such a high in 2002 and 2003. There was jubilation and so much hope for the future. But as time went on everything just seemed to stop. The reforms just deflated.
2) The opposition was not taken seriously:
I suppose the government’s view of the opposition was something along the lines of “you should be thankful for what you have, don’t be so demanding!” The opposition’s view seemed to be “yeah but what you gave us is not enough! We want more!” They seemed to view the opposition as annoying ingrates, and did not take their concerns and demands too seriously (some of which turned out to be quite legitimate). I’ll leave it up to you to decide who was right – or who was more right.
3) Inconsistent behaviour:
I think this is the big one. There was clear and open communication in some areas, but vagueness and ambiguity in others. Corruption was halted in some areas, but tolerated in others. There did not seem to be a consistent policy regarding many issues. Internet was open and free, then it was censored. Some opposition websites were allowed, while others were blocked. Some vocal opposition members were allowed to speak and go about their business, while others were arrested (and allegedly tortured). Some topics were discussed openly in the papers, but would later become taboo. It was quite confusing, not to mention frustrating.
4) Political naturalisation:
I can’t think of a single person who likes this policy. It did so much damage and brought the country back a million years. I hope this policy will be stopped and reversed.
Right, moving on…
Mistakes made during the events of February 14th
I think both sides made some serious mistakes during the “uprising” of 14th of February. I don’t want to repeat my self , but let me start with the oppositions mistakes:
1) Peaceful but angry but vengeful but provocative but violent:
As I said last time, there were people with various intentions (ranging from peaceful to hell-bent on violence). Lets be honest here, the demonstrations were not all “peaceful”. A true peaceful demonstration in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King means peaceful in all aspects. Provoking the security forces and calling them names but not attacking first is not peaceful. Also, disrupting the lives of ordinary Bahraini citizens by blocking roads, slowing traffic and intimidating families is not peaceful.
2) Bad timing:
I think choosing the anniversary of the Charter was not right. Why try to embarrass the King like that? I don’t think this helped their cause one bit. Also, calling it “the day of rage” did not help. Besides, how can a day of rage be peaceful?
3) Speaking on behalf of “the people”:
The Arabic word for the people is Al-Sha’b (الشعب). In Egypt the protestors held up placards saying “Al-Sha’b want to overthrow the government.” And the opposition here copied them. The only problem was that they did not represent all the people, only a portion of a portion of the society. Personally, it upsets me that someone shouting violent anti-government slogans is claiming to speak on my behalf.
4) Not understanding how threatened regimes react:
I’ll repeat what I said before, the way the Pearl Roundabout was cleared on “Bloody Thursday” the 17th of February was completely unjustified and unnecessarily brutal. However, the gathering there was illegal. And you’ve got to remember when a regime is threatened it WILL react and defend itself. How do you think the US government would react if waves of people started marching towards the white house “shouting death to Obama!”? I suspect they’d react with riot police and tear gas. In fact during the same week as the unrests were taking place here, I saw a news report on a European news channel showing rioters in the German city of Dresden being confronted by riot police and tear gas.
5) Being disorganised and unleashing chaos:
One thing that is clear is that the protestors/rioters did not have the same agenda. And we can see this now where we have some protestors running amuck, and the opposition leaders not being able to rein them in. This was exemplified by the ugliness that was seen at the University of Bahrain. There are no words to describe this horrible scene.
So where do we go from here?
As one European relative mentioned to me recently “democracy means making compromises.” I think both sides need to make concessions, how else are we to move forward? Personally, I think the opposition has some very valid demands, and they obviously feel very strongly about them, or else we would not have this crisis that we have today. So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on how this country can move forward. First, my recommendations for the government.
Recommendations for the government
1) Introduce a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
If the South Africans managed to get over their decades of racial tensions caused by Apartheid, then surely we can too? Should be a lot easier for us too. I suggest we bring in some South African experts and conduct an honest and open Truth and Reconciliation process where everyone can talk openly and honestly about their grievances. I think the very fact that people will be allowed to speak openly will help them to heal. The proceedings should be aired live without edits on a dedicated Bahrain TV channel for all the world to see. After the proceedings are over the government should take the appropriate actions so that the country will never suffer through another crisis like this again.
2) Curb corruption and get rid of corrupt government officials:
Like I said, we made huge strides in the last decade, but more could be done. All government officials should be clean as a whistle. This, over time, will hopefully bring back trust in the government.
2) Treat all government job applicants equally:
I’m referring here to jobs in the Ministry of Interior and The Ministry of Defence. If as a Bahraini society we really have no difference between Shiites and Sunnis, why do Shiites only have limited opportunities in these ministries? I’m happy to hear that the government has opened 20,000 jobs in the Ministry of Interior. A good first step but there are many others to go.
3) Investigate the housing issue:
This seems to be a very sensitive topic with the opposition. I personally cannot claim to know anything about it, but it seems many citizens are unhappy with the rate of government housing developments, and the distribution of the housing.
4) Investigate claims of citizens “not living in dignity”:
Again, I don’t know enough about this topic, but obviously the protestors feel that they are treated in an undignified manner. The very fact that they feel so strongly about it must mean there is some truth to it. This should be fully investigated and corrective steps should be taken to remedy the situation.
5) Improve the education system:
In my opinion, the most important part of a country is it’s education system. If that’s flawed, then the country is flawed. We need better education and quick! Otherwise we continue to graduate young people who either have a sense of entitlement, or a sense of hopelessness. Surely we can do better than that! I also recommend that religious classes of both sects are taught. When I was in government school, only the Sunni version of Islam was taught. That can’t be healthy (I presume this is still the case but I don’t know for sure). To promote harmony, Shiites and Sunnis have to understand each other better, and where better to start than in school?
6) Stop political naturalisation:
Like I said, I don’t think anyone really liked this. The sooner it is stopped the better.
My Recommendations for the opposition
1) Embrace the olive branch that was offered:
What confuses me (and scares me a bit) is that the opposition is acting stubborn and harsh while they’re not in power. How would they behave if they were in power?? Why create obstacles and demands when the government is finally willing to listen? Okay, some of our brothers and sisters have died (which bothers everyone) but does that justify acting unreasonably? The opposition has scored a major victory by getting the government’s attention. Even the King said on the radio “lessons were learnt.” I’m not a religious scholar, but as I understand it the Holy Quran commands us to “lean towards peace” if the opposing party has opted for peace [Surrat Al-Anfal]. Also, the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) forgave his aggressors after the “Fath Makka” victory. He said to the people who tormented and tortured him, and killed his followers and family members “Go for you are free.” Let’s use our Blessed Prophet as our role model.
2) Stop using the word “Al-Sha’b”:
You don’t speak on behalf of the Bahraini people. Yes you have serious grievances that need to be addressed, but do you have the right to cripple the country, and frighten other Bahraini citizens and their families?
3) Stop the drama:
Why wear “kafan” [the burial cloth for the deceased] to protests? I repeat, the opposition has made a very powerful point and has scored a massive victory by getting the King’s attention. They have also garnered massive national and international sympathy from the events of “Bloody Thursday”, why ruin it? They lose sympathy every day the protests are escalated.
Right, I’m not done yet dishing out advice…
My advice to everybody else:
1) Control your emotions:
Look, these are tense and difficult times, but things are only made worse by negative comments in the social media or in public. Remember that everybody is tense, so you have to work extra hard on controlling your emotions. Breathe and try to stay calm.
2) Respect other’s opinions:
This is a national crisis, and we have to be open and understanding to each other’s grievances. Many people seem to have the attitude of “you’re either with me or against me!” It’s not so simple, the world is not black or white; it has many shades of grey in between. The Bahraini spectrum and views are wide, so let’s try to keep an open mind and heart.
3) Avoid sarcasm and racial slurs:
I get a lot of tweets and FB comments from people making sarcastic and demeaning comments about the opposing camps. I usually ignore these. I don’t believe that this helps. I think we should all avoid fanning the flames. We are all equal in God’s eyes and let’s be better than those who want to spread hatred.
4) Stop negative messages dead in their tracks:
If you receive a negative tweet/SMS/BBM or whatever, don’t forward it. Do your part in stopping the hatefulness.
5) Work on improving yourself:
This is a powerful spiritual principle, the more people introspect and work on improving themselves, the better the world will become. Personally, I’ve been spending a lot of time and energy on staying calm, positive and optimistic. I breathe and try to stay calm whenever I feel my temper rising due to something that has happened.
The amount of Du’aa [prayer asking for something, not part of the 5 daily prayers] I do these days has probably gone up ten fold. I pray for wisdom and for wise men to prevail. I pray for His Majesty and I pray for the Crown Prince, who surely feels like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I pray for all those who want genuine changes and improvements for the country and do not condone violence.
Will Bahrain get out of this Crisis?
I think so. If we allow it to, this could be one of the best things that ever happened to this country. God willing the young men who passed away will not have died in vain. They gave their blood so that this country can become better, and God willing it will become better.
I have faith that wisdom and wise men (on all sides) will prevail. And I pray and pray and pray…