A busy weekend in Bahrain

A busy weekend in Bahrain
5 min read
03 February, 2015
Analysis: First 72 people were stripped off their citizenships. Then a new pan-Arab station was pulled off the air hours after it had launched.
Now you see it, now you don't. Al Arab was pulled after only hours (AFP)

It proved a busy weekend for the government of Bahrain. First came the announcement of the revocation of the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis. Hard on the heels of that decision came the closing down of Al Arab news channel only hours after its much-anticipated Sunday launch.

For a country striving to present itself as well along the high road of reform these two events suggest that the road itself has plenty of twists and turns and not a few bumps.

     Al Arab will probably do a pretty good job covering conflicts in the Arab world. It just won't do Bahrain.

The list of names of those who are no longer citizens makes for interesting reading.

Four come from a large and influential family, al-Binalis. The family has extensive commercial holdings and close ties to Bahrain’s rulers, the Khalifas. The most notable of the four is Turki al-Binali, a cleric described as “the imam of the Islamic State”.

His youngest brother Ali is also on the list, along with two of his cousins. Those two featured prominently in a video released in September of last year that denounced the ruling family. The video was a response to Bahrain's decision to join the coalition against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) and it urges Bahraini Sunnis to "defect from the Khalifas. They are not ruling by Sharia which means they have inserted themselves as gods next to Allah."

That is tantamount to calling the royal family unbelievers. According to the IS group, the fate of unbelievers is death, preferably by the sword.

One of those on the list, Abdulaziz al-Jowder was, in any event, not in further need of his citizenship. He is reported to have blown himself up at an Iraqi checkpoint last week.

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In all, at least twenty militants fighting in Syria or Iraq are named, a rather alarming figure given that the indigenous Sunni community from which they were drawn numbers roughly 200,000. It is a measure of the extent to which the Islamic State group is seen by some within the community, not as terrorists, but as warriors in a Sunni insurgency against Shia oppressors.

Certainly, one can understand and support the decision to revoke citizenship from a group of brutal fanatics who had already renounced their allegiance to Bahrain by joining the IS group.

But many other names are included - former members of parliament, opposition figures in exile or in jail in Bahrain, bloggers, journalists and even a handful who had taken out Qatari citizenship. These are not violent terrorists, they are, for the most part, simply people who have challenged the authority of the government in one way or another.

Among the reasons cited for lifting citizenship is the following: "defaming the image of the regime, inciting against the regime and spreading false news to hinder the rules of the constitution." Another is "defaming brotherly (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries”.

My father was a stickler for clarity and precision. If he were around today, he would have said language like that is vague enough and wide enough to drive a truck through. And that is precisely the point.

Mixing peaceful regime opponents with violent killers and their advocates is a heavy-handed attempt to silence legitimate dissent and it ought to be shown the contempt it deserves.

Still, from the authorities’ point of view it must have appeared a clever ploy.

How annoying then for the government to see a leading opposition figure, Khalil al-Marzook, on Bahrain's first independent news channel Al Arab the day of its launch.

Now you see it...

Al Arab is owned by the billionaire Saudi prince Al Waleed bin Talal. Its general manager and editor in chief is the distinguished Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Before launch, he told the New York Times: “We are going to bring in all sides in any conflict because right now we have a conflict in almost every Arab country."

Al Arab seemed a good solution to two issues: the restrictive nature of government controlled media in Saudi Arabia and the oft-repeated call for Bahrain to have an independent, non-governmental television channel.

Jamal Khashoggi has chafed under the watchful eye of the Saudi religious establishment for many years. He was twice forced out as editor of the country’s leading newspaper, al-Watan, for publishing articles that were deemed to be too liberal.

For their part, the Bahrainis had committed to reforming media in the wake of a highly critical investigation into human rights abuses committed by the government when it used force to put down a largely peaceful protest in 2011. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), led by the Egyptian Cherif Bassiouni, amongst other things called for comprehensive reform of a state controlled media that had stirred up sectarian hatred.

So putting the network in Bahrain secured some useful breathing space for Al Arab from the Saudi authorities and it ticked a box in Bahrain's agreed list of reforms. Trebles all round.

But the good idea quickly hit the buffers with the Marzook interview. Anwar Abdulrahman, editor in chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej, huffed in the Sunday edition of the paper, which has close links to the Bahraini prime minister, that Marzook was "radical to the core”. And then he posed the question: “Is Al Arab really Arab?”

Although the official reason given by the Information Affairs ministry for taking the station off the air was for "administrative and technical purposes", no one was about to take that at face value.

No doubt, it will return. Prince Al Waleed bin Talal will see to that. He is reported to be the 26th richest man in the world. That kind of money brings a lot of clout. The government will have to listen to him. But when Al Arab comes back will it “bring all sides to the conflict” in Bahrain?

One oppositionist in exile in London told me, "Al Arab will be back. And it will probably do a pretty good job covering conflicts in the Arab world." Then he shrugged and, laughing wryly, said, "it just won't do Bahrain."