Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lord Have Mercy: Bahrain's Pearl Monument is Gone

When our family lived in Bahrain, we drove past Bahrain's Pearl Monument many times. It's the closest thing to a national symbol, hearkening back to the days when pearl fishing was one of the two major industries of the country, alongside fishing.

Thus, anti-regime protestors made a strategic choice to emulate Cairo's Tahrir Square here. They were striving to make this a national debate, employing a unifying national symbol. Although the protestors mostly came from the Shiite majority of the population, they repeatedly stressed the non-sectarian nature of their demands (see earlier posts on this blog for details). And they pressed for specific reforms toward a constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, the government side claimed this was a sectarian matter and rallied Sunnis against the protestors. They showed their true colors by pulling down a national symbol to make sure they didn't have to share power.

The sad part is that the crisis could have been resolved, and now it's only inflamed. Had the government agreed to the resignation of the sitting prime minister (who's been there over 40 years) and new parliamentary elections without gerrymandered districts, ensuring a majority of seats for the majority of the population, the protests would likely have ended. Instead, the government has made only minor concessions.

And then, this past Monday, they invited at least 1,000 Saudi National Guard troops into the country to intimidate the opposition, reinforce the government, and enable a harsh crackdown.

And then, yesterday, the government tore down the Pearl monument to erase a "bad memory" (in the words of Bahrain's foreign minister). For a sense of how this is playing in the Shiite world, check out this  video:

For anyone who's been tracking developments in Bahrain over the past six weeks, including our friends in Bahrain, the only bad memories are of the Al Khalifa regime's crushing of non-violent protestors. First, the regime cleared the Pearl Monument area in a brutal crackdown in the middle of the night on February 16. And then it cleared the area in broad daylight on Wednesday.

I was hopeful that this could be resolved peacefully, but now I'm afraid that this situation will only get worse. So, in good Lenten fashion, I pray for mercy: mercy for those suffering in Bahrain, mercy for those suffering in Japan, and mercy for the whole world.

Tomorrow's prayer from the Book of Common Prayer goes like this:

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hillary Clinton Says Bahrain Government is on "Wrong Track," But Doesn't Condemn It

Nick Kristof of the Times points out today that Bahrain's government is a close friend of the US. Yet our close friend "pulled a Qaddafi" in violently suppressing peaceful protest.

So what was our response to the violence? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Cairo yesterday and  responded to multiple questions in multiple interviews. She clearly said that the Bahraini government was on the wrong track, but she didn't exactly condemn them or take any steps to sanction them:

To Steve Inkseep of NPR:

QUESTION: As a realist, watching the news from Libya, watching the news from Bahrain, where the government has fired on protestors, are you in a position of accepting that some of the Arab uprisings are simply going to fail?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No. But we are in a position of supporting the popular uprisings by people themselves and doing everything we can to help nurture that democracy. We’re alarmed by the situation in Bahrain, and we have spoken very forcefully against the security crackdown, in fact, at the highest levels of the government. And with the Gulf countries, we’ve made it very clear that there cannot be a security answer to what are legitimate political questions. And the sooner that the government of Bahrain and the opposition, which has resisted negotiations as well, get back to the negotiating table, the more likely that this matter can be resolved. And there has been absolutely no doubt about where the United States has stood on this. And we have communicated that in every way possible.

To the press pool:

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think what’s happening in Bahrain is alarming, and it is unfortunately diverting attention and effort away from the political and economic track that is the only way forward to resolve the legitimate differences of the Bahrainis themselves. We have made that clear time and time again. We have deplored the use of force. We have said not only to the Bahrainis but to our Gulf partners that we do not think security is the answer to what is going on.
Now, we’ve also said to the protestors that they have to engage in peaceful protest and they should return to the negotiating table. As you probably know, Jeff Feltman [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] is in Manama, is in constant touch with the government. There’s a lot of other communication going on. We have also reminded the Bahrainis that they have an obligation to keep medical facilities open and to facilitate treatment of the injured, and we want to see an end to the use of force and a return to negotiation.
QUESTION: So basically, the use of force is the wrong track?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, it is the wrong track. And we believe that a long-term solution is only possible through a political process.

To Kim Ghattas of the BBC:

QUESTION: When you look at what’s going on in Libya and in Bahrain, it seems to me that – or it seems to a lot of people that the lesson from the Egyptian revolution is quite clear, a lesson that Arab leaders can draw: Don’t give an inch to the protestors, unleash your fire power, or you’re out the door like President Mubarak.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that’s a wrong reading of history. I think the --
QUESTION: But isn’t that what these leaders are doing in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they may be taking short-term measures that will not have the long-term effects they are seeking. I think the situation in Bahrain is alarming. We have made it very clear at the highest levels of the government there that we think they’re on the wrong track, that they need to resume immediately a political dialogue. We deplore the use of force against demonstrators, and we deplore the use of force by demonstrators. We want a peaceful resolution. We also would remind the Bahraini Government to protect medical facilities and to facilitate treatment of the injured, and we have called on our friends in the Gulf – four of whom are assisting the Bahrain security efforts – to force through a political solution, not a security standoff.
QUESTION: But they’re your allies, and they’re not listening to you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I wish we could get everybody in the world to do what we ask them to do. I think that would make for a more peaceful world, but countries make their own decisions. But the United States stands very clearly on the side of peaceful protest, nonviolent resolution, political reform. And I think that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia are really the models of what will happen. It may take a little longer, but there is no turning back the tide of democracy and the universal human rights of every person to have freedom and an opportunity to fulfill his or her own dreams.
QUESTION: So what leverage do you still have on countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? They’re your allies. You – they – you train their armies. You supply them with weapons. And yet when the Saudis decided to send troops into Bahrain – and I believe Washington made clear it wasn’t pleased about that – they said, “Don’t interfere. This is an internal GCC matter.”
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they are on notice as to what we think. And we will intend to make that very clear publicly and privately, and we will do everything we can to try to move this off the wrong track, which we believe is going to undermine long-term progress in Bahrain, to the right track, which is the political and economic track.

To Wyatt Andrew of CBS News:
QUESTION: Let’s move to Bahrain, please. There was renewed violence in Bahrain today. Several pro-democracy demonstrators were killed. This comes on the heels, in just the last week where both Secretary Gates and you have asked the Bahraini leadership for restraint. So what is American policy now that the Bahraini leadership doesn’t seem to be listening?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we find what’s happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators. We’ve made it very clear to the Bahraini Government at the highest levels that we expect them to exercise restraint. We would remind them of their humanitarian obligation to keep medical facilities open and to facilitate the treatment of the injured, and to get back to the negotiating table. We have also made that very clear to our Gulf partners who are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, four of whose members have sent troops to support the Bahraini Government. They are on the wrong track. There is no security answer to this. And the sooner they get back to the negotiating table and start trying to answer the legitimate needs of the people, the sooner there can be a resolution that will be in the best interest of everyone.
QUESTION: But right now, Madam Secretary, does it make the United States look bad? Does it give the United States a black eye to be so allied with a monarchy that is now shooting its own people?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we are absolutely opposed to the use of force, and we have said that repeatedly. Secretary Gates gave a very strong message to the Bahraini Government when he was there, and not only urging restraint but pointing out all of the problems if they were to pursue any other alternative. So we have been very clear about that, and we are going to continue to stress what we think is in the best interests not only of Bahrain and the people of Bahrain, but of the entire region. This kind of use of force against peaceful demonstrators, a refusal on all sides – because we want to make sure that no one is using force, whether they are in the security forces or in the demonstrators, everyone needs to resolve their differences in a peaceful manner and to look for a political solution. There is no long-term alternative other than that.

To Andrea Mitchell of NBC News:   
QUESTION: There are more casualties in Bahrain. The Saudis intervened. The other – the UAE and others moved in, even after you had appealed for calm and expressed your deep concern. What does this say about the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Defense Secretary Gates was in Bahrain only last Friday and had no heads-up that this was going to happen.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I know. I think it’s fair to say from everything we are seeing that the situation in Bahrain is alarming. We are in touch with the highest levels of the Bahraini Government today, as we have been for the last – a period of time. And our message is consistent and strong: There is no way to resolve the concerns of the Bahraini people through the use of excessive force or security crackdowns. There have to be political negotiations that lead to a political resolution. We have urged all the parties, including the Gulf countries, to pursue a political resolution. That is what we are pushing, along with others who are concerned by what they see happening. We would remind the Bahraini Government of their obligation to protect medical facilities and to facilitate the treatment of those who might be injured in any of the demonstrations and to exercise the greatest restraint. Get to the negotiating table and resolve the differences in Bahrain peacefully, politically.
QUESTION: They’re ignoring us so far. Is there anything more that you can do?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we are very concerned and have reached out to a lot of different partners. There’s a lot of the same messages coming in from across Europe and the region to the Bahraini Government. And in fact, one of our assistant secretaries for the region is actually there working on a – literally hour-by-hour basis. We do not think this is in the best interest of Bahrain. We consider Bahrain a partner. We have worked with them. We think they’re on the wrong track, and we think that the wrong track is going to really affect adversely the ability of the Bahraini Government to bring about the political reform that everyone says is needed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lent: Bahrain Crackdown and Japanese Horror

It's Lent. And there are all kinds of horrible things happening in the world.

Somehow that seems right, since Lent is about entering into the stories of suffering, pain, and death in the life of Jesus (see chapter 6 of the book for more on Lent).

Because of globalized media, we hear and see all kinds of stories across the world. And the most compelling and gripping stories are those like the devastation in Japan. We cannot help but be gripped by the stories we see and hear. There are live amateur videos of the wave of water sweeping into villages and towns, steadily leveling everything. Nuclear meltdowns are looming. It's overwhelming.

But it's Lent.

On a smaller scale, our family is gripped by today's crackdown on peaceful Bahraini protestors. After hoping for dialogue for a few weeks, at least a thousand Saudi troops swept over the causeway into Bahrain on Monday, reinforcing the Bahraini security forces so they could burn down the encampments on Pearl Roundabout (see video below). In this tiny country that we love, it's sad and depressing.

But it's Lent.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Before the Deluge, the Downfall of the Big Three

Avant le déluge--before the deluge--of Arab protest, I usually blogged once a week on a story that related to the book. Today's news may well bring another wave of stories about the Arab world, since it's Friday and young men will soon be pouring out of mosques after midday prayers across the region.

But, before the next flood of stories, consider another huge story that deserves our attention: the near-collapse of the American car industry. Paul Ingrassia's recent book Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster (New York: Random House, 2010) tells this story in compelling fashion, and it's worth spending some time highlighting some lessons from the book for those of us interested in the globalization of labor.

How did Chrysler and General Motors (two of the old Big Three) end up collapsing by 2009?

1. Both the autoworkers' union and car industry executives are to blame.
Ingrassia, a longtime reporter on the car industry for the Wall Street Journal, describes the craziness of the United Auto Workers' (UAW's) Jobs Bank, which paid assembly line workers up to 95% of their wages for not working during layoff periods. Lavish retirement pensions and health care benefits for retired autoworkers strained corporate coffers.

But the executive teams at the Big Three also invite some scorn in Ingrassia's tale--and not just because they repeatedly caved in to union demands. (Note: Ingrassia's story is primarily told from the corporate boardroom, rather than the assembly line, but even then it's still pretty damning of our corporate elites, and he does draw on interviews with one assembly line worker in Illinois.) Executives also played accounting games to generate paper profits (not unlike the disgraced energy company Enron). They also tolerated shoddy quality, turned to SUVs for easy profits, and failed to anticipate high oil prices. They got lazy and complacent.

2. The 1970s hollowed out the Big Three, exposing fundamental weaknesses
The book has an entire chapter that includes the fiascoes of the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto (perfect symbols of the excesses of the industry). The Vega was assembled at the GM Lordstown plant, where young workers, perhaps influenced by the hippie movement, rebelled against an attempt to speed up the assembly line from 60 to 70 cars per hour "to an incredible 100 cars an hour" (p. 52). The "Lordstown Blues" became a famous example of disillusioned industrial workers sabotaging their own products. The Vega engine also had design flaws (p. 53).

Meanwhile, the Pinto sedan had a design flaw, with the rear axle behind the gas tank. When rear-ended by a vehicle traveling thirty miles per hour or faster, this is what could happen:

"Ford engineers had known about this [design flaw] when the car was launched . . . [b]ut the company's cost-benefit analysis determined that the number of lives that might be saved weren't worth the additional $5 a car required to strengthen the design" (p. 59). Ouch!

3. Japanese innovations in production processes were never adopted by U.S. carmakers, despite their obvious benefits
In contrast to GM's failed experiment in collaborative work environments at the Saturn plant in Tennessee, Honda built a plant in Ohio that relied on Honda's research and development department, which "was funded by a share of the parent company's revenue and thus was safe from cost-cutting drives" (p. 66).

Honda's US operations started out with a motorcycle plant in Marysville, Ohio, where a 37-year old guy from Canton, Ohio named Al Kinzer was one of the first people hired, after an extensive interview process that tested potential employees for their attention to detail. The Honda manager would ask interviewees "to write their first name on a name tag and to place the tag on their left shoulder. Some applicants would put it on their right shoulder, and others even forgot to wear it at all. They were crossed off the list" (p. 70).  After being hired, Kinzer was unimpressed with the fact that all employees, both management and workers, were to wear the same jumpsuits. Nor would managers get assigned parking spaces near the front door. "At Honda, parking would be strictly first-come, first-served, regardless of rank" (70.) There was "no executive dining room, no separate bathrooms, and no separate locker room to change into their work clothes--all in sharp contrast to Detroit" (p. 70).  It was all about having a common purpose and minimizing hierarchy. The bosses needed to "explain the reasons for managerial decisions and to get consensus where possible" (71).

Once the Honda car lines were up and running, workers had to hustle:
working on the Honda assembly line was an aerobic workout that caused some associates to lose twenty pounds after a few months on the job. Factory discipline meant associates couldn't swig soda, smoke cigarettes, or munch on snacks while working, as the workers in Detroit's factories could do. But there were benefits. Instead of being told, in effect, to check their brains at the door, Honda's workers were being encouraged to contribute their ideas, as well as their manual labor, to the manufacturing process. If their suggestions produced efficiencies that eliminated someone's job, even their own, the person would be transferred to another job instead of being laid off. Workers were told they wouldn't be laid off, except as a last resort, and Honda's growing U.S. sales . . . meant layoffs never happened (pp. 74-75).
Shocking! And when the UAW tried to get Honda workers to unionize, the workers refused. This was not the American model of dysfunctional industrial capitalism, made famous in the Dilbert cartoon. And, sadly, the American model has never really been updated in car manufacturing. GM tried to imitate Honda in its Saturn experiment but that experiment failed.

In chapter 5 of the book, I highlight two examples of corporate innovation that tried to empower workers, but they seem like minor exceptions to an overwhelming trend of dreary American workplaces (as in the TV series The Office).

Chrysler's plant in Belvidere, Illinois was all too typical. The autoworkers' cushy safety net created a "who cares?" attitude that was reinforced by management, which claimed to care about quality but was more worried about keeping up quantitative production schedules.
Sometimes when workers pointed out defects, they were ordered to ignore them, because "it's just a Mexico car"--that is, bound for the Mexican market. Once when [one worker] suggested a more efficient method for installing windshield wipers--the sort of suggestion the Japanese welcomed in their factories--he was rudely rebuffed by his supervisor. After that he pretty much kept his mouth shut (p. 199). 
Ouch! And then we wonder why the US manufacturers have lost market share.

4. The 1980s and 1990s "comeback" of the US companies was illusory.
Although the American manufacturers learned from Japanese competition, they still failed to learn the deeper lessons. For example, in 1982, GM demanded that the UAW make concessions: a wage freeze through 1984, postponing some cost-of-living raises, and getting rid of some paid holidays. But on the same day they got this concession, GM announced a new plan that would make it possible for executives to earn bigger bonuses (p. 80). Chrysler's Lee Iacocca also launched a cost-cutting plan, but spared his company suite in Manhattan's Waldorf Towers, where the company paid $2 million for gold-plated faucets (p. 94).

As Ingrassia puts it, "Tone-deaf executive excess would be a constant in Detroit, right up until the Big Three boarded their corporate jets in 2008 to beg for a government bailout" (p. 94).

The 1990s were the decade of highly profitable SUVs. With low oil prices that worked for awhile, but it left Detroit unprepared for the future. For a long time, the Japanese companies were puzzled by the SUV trend and left Detroit to its own devices. Eventually, they caught up and started to out-compete the Big Three. Even in this protected corner of the market, the Big Three started to lose out.

5. A little virtue goes a long way
Ingrassia argues that William Clay Ford, the head of the Ford family, which still has a controlling stake in the family company, basically "fired himself" as CEO in 2006: "stepping aside required a portion of courage and self-awareness seldom seen in the corner offices of American companies. Changing the CEOwould prove to be the move that saved Ford Motor, while sticking with the CEO would be the decision that doomed GM" (pp. 188-89).

By contrast, GM stuck with Rick Wagoner for a long time, despite his failure to change GM's culture, which destroyed itself through "complacency, arrogance, and hubris" (p. 273).

6. The bankruptcy process might have saved GM and Chrysler (and UAW) jobs . . . but for how long?
As befits a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Ingrassia covers the financial maneuvers between the car companies and Obama's White House task force in 2009. Although there were some odd twists and turns in the process, it did help to force the companies to take steps that they wouldn't take on their own.

7. The old model of American industrial capitalism is in question
Ingrassia writes,
General Motors had virtually invented the modern corporation, with professional managers, as opposed to family founders, presiding over decentralized operations that were governed by central financial control. It had pioneered modern marketing, public relations, and the hierarchy of brands that made automobiles vehicles for social as well as physical mobility. It had set standards for everything from style to design to corporate healthcare plans (p. 273). 
What comes next? Will Apple, Google, Facebook, and the rest of Silicon Valley lead the way? Can they create thousands of jobs that allow ordinary workers to send their children to college?

It's not clear how we'll ever return to the boom years when what was good for GM was good for America.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Nonviolent Wave?

Nearly every morning lately, I wake up thinking that I'll blog about stories related directly to themes of my book. Today was no different. For the third consecutive day, I sat down hoping to review a book on the decline of the U.S. car industry. Then I checked the news from the Arab world, which is stunning again, as it has been every day for the past few months.

And now I need to say something else. 2011 will be known as a decisive year in world history for its dramatic upheavals: the year of the Arab Wave. But the question is whether it will remain a nonviolent wave.

The king of Morocco and the president of Yemen both announced yesterday that they will advance political reforms that partially meet protestors' demands. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI announced that the country would go through "comprehensive constitutional reform" (for full text of the speech click here). In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been facing daily protests against his regime, said in an address carried on national TV that he wanted to introduce a new constitution to make Yemen's government a parliamentary system. Nonviolent protestors have pushed these regimes to do something that was unthinkable a few months ago. 

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the Arab world in a wave of mostly peaceful unrest (Libya excepted). I see at least two forces pushing this wave.

First is globalization:

  • Economic globalization contributed to uneven living standards. On the one hand, it improved health and sanitation standards, causing the population to boom. On the other hand, it didn't do enough to get Arab economies moving to create enough jobs for young people.
  • Political globalization--specifically, the global institution of the sovereign state as the authoritative political structure--leads the protestors to demand specific changes within their own countries, rather than pan-Arab or pan-Islamic changes. Because the structures of authority are now unchallenged, there is little possibility of linking protest movements across national boundaries (a version of this argument about the impossibility of transnationalism was made by the French scholar Olivier Roy way back in the 1990s). Instead, we have seen distinctly different movements within each country, tied to their unique political histories.
  • Cultural globalization--the exploding awareness of global trends within the region, driven by the Internet and satellite television--has led to a speedy spread of stories, ideas, and images. People see what their neighbors in other Arab countries are doing. Demonstrations and people power toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, while it continues to generate revolutionary fervor in every Arab country but Syria. Globalized media breed intense awareness, the possibility of networking, the desire to imitate others, and the consciousness of regional and global solidarity. During the Egypt crisis, I found it amazing that pro-democracy demonstrations were organized outside Egyptian embassies around the world within a few days. People abroad felt connected to Egyptian protestors and felt compelled to support them.

The other factor here is non-violence, which is sorely lacking only in Libya. In a piece in today's New York Times, Erica Chenoweth of Wesleyan University argues that non-violent protests are actually more successful in bringing about transitions to democracy. As she puts it,
Although the change is not immediate, our data show that from 1900 to 2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure increases to well over 50 percent.
The good guys don’t always win, but their chances increase greatly when they play their cards well. Nonviolent resistance is about finding and exploiting points of leverage in one’s own society. Every dictatorship has vulnerabilities, and every society can find them.
Alas, the rebellion in Libya failed to stay non-violent (not that one can blame the rebels, who were facing violent crackdowns by the Qaddafi regime). But the details in Chenoweth's forthcoming co-authored book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011), suggest that non-violence may be a more successful strategy than violent resistance.*

If the protestors stay non-violent across the region, we may see a number of new democracies emerge. Or if they take the Libyan route, we could see lots of bloodshed and a possible triumph of tyranny.

I know which route I'm praying for, and it ain't Libya's.
* The same day I wrote this, Sojourners published a blog post on Chenoweth's work.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Helpful Take on Bahrain

Jean-Francois Seznec of Georgetown University has just published an interesting analysis of the Bahrain crisis on a site affiliated with the Arab Studies Journal.

He focuses on the combination of four volatile factors:
  • The split between the reformist crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, and his great-uncle the (corrupt but powerful) prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa.
  • An opposition divided between the reformist al-Wefaq group, which had elected eighteen members to the gerrymandered and weakly empowered lower house of parliament, and the more radical al-Haq group, led by Hassan Mushaima.
  • The younger, Facebook generation which emphasizes being Bahraini over religious sectarianism.
  • The large regional neighbors, Saudi Arabia (population 20 million) and Iran (population 65 million). The Saudis back the royal family hardliners (the prime minister), while Iran backs the mostly Shia protestors.
No matter what, he argues, the royal family will have to lose power, either to the Saudis (in the case of a crackdown) or to the population (in the case of a negotiated transition toward constitutional monarchy).

If the U.S. State Department is wise, it should be supporting negotiations toward real power-sharing. I think the appointment of a Shiite prime minister out of a freely, fairly, and democratically elected parliament would end this crisis. 

For now, the U.S. embassy in Bahrain was sharing donuts with protestors who were asking the U.S. for help the other day (see video).

It'll take more than sugar to satisfy the opposition. We need our government to push for a democratic transition in Bahrain, or else this crisis will only continue.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Women in Bahrain Protests

Check out the nice little video here interviewing women who are taking part in the protest movement at the Pearl Roundabout.

Yet another reason why we should be optimistic about hope and democratization trumping radical Islamic violence. Yet another example of Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare (he'd hate women being politically involved).

Saudi Sticks, Bahraini Carrots, Secular Demands

Protests continue to roil the Arab world. Citizens in Egypt and Tunisia keep pressing their regimes toward reform. Libya is collapsing into civil war. But keep your eyes on the Gulf region, on both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

After Friday's protest marches in Saudi Arabia's Eastern (al-Hasa) Province, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior issued a statement reminding "some people" that "the applicable laws in the Kingdom strictly prohibit all forms of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins." A not-so-subtle hint to those who were marching on Friday.

Will this law be enforced strictly on this coming Friday, the "Day of Rage" announced on Facebook? If not, expect protests to swell. If so, we may see violence. Either way, Friday, March 11 could be a decisive day in Saudi and Arab history.

Over in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family is sticking with the carrot strategy. Their interior ministry pledged to hire 20,000 people, edging partway toward the demands of protestors, who complain that Sunni foreigners are naturalized as citizens and then hired as security and military forces. (The interior ministry is considered second-rate compared to the defense forces anyway.) But as I've been arguing on this blog, buying off the opposition will no longer work. At this point, it's just insulting.

"This is about dignity and freedom — it’s not about filling our stomachs." 
This is the message that the tottering regimes of the Arab world need to hear. What ordinary, young citizens want is an end to corruption, an end to repression, and an end to politics as usual. They want their voices to be heard. They want the rule of law. They want term limits for prime ministers or presidents. They want better governance. They want a growing economy and the prospect of good jobs.

Note what they are not saying. They are making modest, incremental, tangible, secular demands. These are not the demands of crazy religious fanatics. The protestors are not railing against the United States or Israel or chanting "Islam is the solution"--the vague, utopian slogan of the Islamic movements. They are asking for real reforms in the structures of power. (A demonstration today outside the U.S. embassy in Bahrain was not attacking the US, but asking for its help.) Democratization, not revolution, is their goal.

One observer of the Bahrain protests describes a sign with pictures of all the British prime ministers that have served since 1970: all eight of them. Below that is a picture of all the Bahraini prime ministers since then: one (Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, right). After 41 years in power, he's gotten a little corrupt and out of touch. Hence, it's no surprise that the the protestors in Bahrain marched to the Prime Minister's office yesterday and demanded that he resign. 

The other interesting thing about the Bahrain protests, noticeable to anyone who's seen photos of the past two weeks of protests, is that nearly everyone is waving a Bahraini flag. The protestors are playing down their Shiite religious background and pushing their demands in the context of national unity. The discourse is using the terms of secular nationalism rather than of religious grievance.

Although this could change if things get ugly, I think this is another encouraging sign. And although we may be paying more for gas in the next few weeks, the turmoil may give birth to a more stable region for decades to come. Stay tuned. . . 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Another Solid Analysis of Bahrain

Jane Kinnimont of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) published a helpful overview of the history of Bahrain's struggle for a constitutional monarchy on the Foreign Affairs website.

Lots of observers are tracking the situation, which continues to remain tense, but this piece offers some historical perspective. None of us can predict what will happen next. Stay tuned.

Protests in Saudi's Eastern Province

Here's a video of a protest march today in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. These young men were protesting the recent imprisonment of a Shia cleric named Tawfiq al-Amer, who has advocated openly for the empowerment of Shiites in Eastern Saudi Arabia, where they are a majority.

Hopeful Signs?

The other day at a forum on "Egypt, Social Media, and the Middle East" I praised the Obama Administration's handling of the wave of domestic unrest sweeping across the Arab world. And my colleague Greg Miller stressed that a role for Islam in the politics of these countries does not mean that we are headed for another Iranian Revolution. All of us stressed that the current situation is overall hopeful and not scary. Other than rising oil prices, which will only go up next week, the news is mostly good.

Our message: Let's not lose the good news in the midst of the upheaval. In the long run, in most countries, this process should yield more stable and legitimate governments.

This morning I see more positive signs that our hopeful analysis is holding up so far--and that the Obama foreign policy players have handled a fast-moving crisis pretty well:

  • The Washington Post reports that administration officials actually understand the distinction between al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In fact, they are preparing for the possibility that peaceful Islamist political parties might play roles in the transitions in places like Egypt and Tunisia. (In Tunisia the Islamist al-Nahda party has been legalized.)
  • Foreign Affairs, the voice of the foreign policy establishment, published an excellent piece about sectarianism in Bahrain by Kristen Smith Diwan, one of the leading experts on Bahrain alongside Rutgers' Toby Jones. If people are listening to her analysis, which seems highly accurate in light of my experience in Bahrain, they will realize that empowering the Shia opposition in a truly democratic process (as opposed to the faux democracy of the past decade) is safer than repression. So far our government has been on the right side of this. As I told the forum crowd the other day, Obama most likely told the Bahraini government not to shoot their own people anymore. That's a wise policy right now.
  • The other foreign policy establishment, (which is now owned by the Washington Post), ran a piece early in the week on Saudi Arabia by a respected expert on Saudi Arabia that reinforces my concerns that serious protests will emerge next Friday, March 11. The title is ominous: "Yes, It Could Happen Here." Really, if it can happen in Oman, it can happen anywhere. And while large-scale protests next Friday could scare the oil markets, it could also scare the Al-Saud family into a process of dialogue with opposition forces in the country that could yield something like a constitutional monarchy.

Of course, we could all be wrong. The chaos in Libya, which is quickly turning into a civil war, could turn out to be the norm across the region. But for the moment, it seems like level heads are mostly prevailing in the region and in Washington.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Haven't Given Up on Tom Friedman . . . Yet

If you've read my book, you know that I respond critically to Thomas Friedman's views of globalization in every chapter. Lately, though, I've found his columns in the New York Times less and less helpful.

But yesterday, he published a column analyzing the wave of unrest in the Arab world that reminded me why he's still worth reading from time to time. We have to remember that he got his start in the Middle East, after he earned an M.Phil. in Middle East studies from St. Antony's College at Oxford. And his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, has some first-rate stories from the region in the 1980s.

In addition to the obvious factors--"tyranny, rising food prices, youth unemployment and social media"--yesterday's column also describes some less obvious ones that contributed to the Arab revolts:
  • The Obama factor (a guy with the middle name of "Hussein" becoming president of the US offers hope). 
  • Google Earth (where poorer Bahrainis could see with their own eyes the large estates of the Al Khalifa family, while they lived in cramped conditions). 
  • Israel (whose top leaders have been arrested lately for corruption, right next door to Egypt).
  • China (which hosted the lavish Olympics despite starting from a position of poverty similar to Egypt's in the 1950s)
  • The Fayyad factor (the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyad, who is running the West Bank by promoting clean, effective, efficient governance).
The only problem with this list is that it mostly assumes that Arabs had to look outside their countries to be galvanized into action. It plays down the role that ordinary people played on their own. Did they really need to look at Israel to think that they wanted their corrupt leaders to be held accountable? Were people just sitting there passively?

Still, this is an interesting picture of a networked Arab world, full of young people who watch Al Jazeera and hear about what's happening all across the globe. Surrounding all these Arab revolts is the process of, yes, globalization.

What I mean is this: Taking Manfred Steger as our guide, we can define globalization as referring to "the expansion and intensification of social relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space" (Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed., p. 15). We are seeing in the Arab world the consequences of a whole generation of young people connecting with each other and the outside world, of a whole generation becoming conscious of their power to change the world, and of a whole generation making those changes happen.

Thanks to Friedman, we can embed this global process in localized Middle Eastern contexts.

Footnote to earlier posts: Now it looks like the United Arab Emirates' rulers are trying the old pre-emptive carrot strategy of buying off opposition in advance. They have promised $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects to the poorer of the seven emirates that make up the federation (in addition to the wealthy ones of Dubai,  Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, that would be Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwai). That may be a sign of more danger to come.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Inside Job" Won Best Documentary

Semi-regular readers of this blog (all two of you) might remember that Charles Ferguson's documentary film Inside Job has interested me for awhile now (see previous posts here and here.)

For those of you, like me, who don't obsess over the winners of the Academy Awards, I'm pleased to report (a little late) that Inside Job won this year's award for best documentary feature.

It's nice to see the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarding a great and important film that all Americans should see.