In a world of tightening state budgets and immense citizen scrutiny over government spending, the Gulf states have exploited the practical advantages of non-democracy to carve out a useful niche as hosters and buyers of things whose traditional sponsors and markets are either already saturated or simply no longer willing or able to spend the money. Climate change conferences, advanced weapons systems, security forums, university campuses, luxury goods franchises, international sporting events, football clubs--these are just a few of the items that Gulf governments have found it useful to buy, rent, host, sponsor, and otherwise front the cash for. This of course is a win-win situation for everyone, as Western companies and organizations secure sales, funding, and continued existence, while otherwise obscure countries in a scary-sounding region can introduce themselves to international audiences, gain a bit (or a lot) of good PR, and in some cases perhaps even a return on their investment.
Such endeavors may also, of course, work to the immediate or indirect benefit of Gulf citizens, as in the case most obviously of local branches of Western universities. Yet, in case one should make the mistake of imagining that this--benefiting ordinary citizens--is the primary aim here, one need only look at Bahrain's recent embrace of American musicians (and good-looking people who happen to be dating American musicians and/or athletes but whose profession otherwise is unclear) in its latest attempt to show just how normal things are nowadays in Bahrain. Here is where the aforementioned organizational advantages enjoyed by Gulf governments comes into play. In the first place, the state's budget (and actual income, and spending) is anyone's guess, and in any event is not subject to public debate. For the one who thinks this or that is a waste of money: too bad, that isn't your concern. Second, and relatedly, who are you to tell us how to spend our resources? Are you smarter than this $500/hour market research company we just hired to help improve our international image? Ya, that's what I thought.
The December 1 visit of Kim Kardashian is especially illustrative because it's not clear who exactly wanted here there apart from teenage girls, Bahraini royals, and others willing to drop 500BD (~$1,250) for a seat at a private reception. Certainly, the opposition was not impressed with the visit, which it considered a legitimation of the state's recent escalation of repression. As Marc Lynch tells in a Foreign Policy column yesterday, the BCHR sent a critical open letter to Kardashian inquiring about her professed plans to meet with "local leaders." (See also the Washington Post's coverage here.)
But, as the video and photos below show, it was not simply the opposition that opposed the plan but also many Sunni Islamists, which organized a large protest in Al-Rifa', the sight of one of Kardashian's public appearances.
One sign, picked up by the NY Daily News, read: "[N]one of our customs and traditions allow us to receive stars of porn movies." (Bahrain's Sunni web forums similarly saw heated discussion about the appropriateness of Kardashian's visit.)
Interestingly, among these "porn movies" was a contribution by the Gulf Daily News, whose story on the visit achieved an impressive boob-to-text ratio:
Even Islamists in parliament attempted fruitlessly to block Kardashian's visit, whom, according to Al-Arabiya, they "describ[ed] ... as a woman with a 'bad reputation.'" The MPs, Sky News reports,
submitted an urgent proposal at the end of a parliamentary session where they referred to her as "an actress with an extremely bad reputation." ... But the motion was dismissed because other MPs [presumably government allies] quickly left the chamber.Silly parliamentarians, thinking they can actually alter policies with which they disagree!
Fortunately, some in the United States are now openly questioning the complicity of international stars and organizations in forwarding the public relations agenda of countries such as Bahrain. Already, the State Department canceled the planned upcoming "diplomatic tour" of some guy named Andrew W.K., who, as recounted in another informative Washington Post story,
announced on his personal Web site [in November] that “The US Department of State in partnership with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, has invited Andrew to visit the Middle East to promote partying and positive power.” It continued, “Andrew will begin his journey sometime in December, 2012 and will visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, music venues, and more, all while promoting partying and world peace.”WOO HOO! PARTAY!
The Post story continues,
Andrew W.K. tweeted late Sunday, “Shocked by the confusion over my trip to the Middle East? It’s NOT fake! I really am going there to party!” The Huffington Post reported he would be a cultural ambassador; W.K. later hinted that preparations had been ongoing for a year.Now, bravely, Marc Lynch is (respectfully) questioning the wisdom of another high-profile international event-cum-public relations boon sponsored by Bahrain, namely the annual Manama Dialogue forum organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Last year's event was canceled amid BICI scrutiny, yet the 2012 event is set to kick off on Friday. Perhaps it is too late to change things now, but Marc's words deserve repeating in any case (and unlike Marc, I need not worry about a snub next year, as I am not allowed in Bahrain anyway):
It now turns out that there was actually some truth to W.K.’s claims, though the State Department’s version of events is significantly different, and perhaps more plausible. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but it appears that what may have begun as a quiet event got blown out of proportion by a rock singer new to the subtleties of diplomacy, probably dooming the event, if it hadn’t been canceled already.
“And here I thought we were going to get through this whole briefing without that point coming up,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland sighed when a reporter asked this afternoon about the W.K. confusion. ”So we had a Bahraini entity that approached the embassy about co-sponsoring a visit by this guy, who I take it is pretty popular there in Bahrain,” she said. “That was initially approved, and then when more senior management at the embassy took a look at this, the conclusion was that this was not an appropriate use of U.S. government funds.”
The 2012 Dialogue is scheduled to begin on Friday, December 7. It boasts "the highest concentration to date of policy-makers involved in regional security," including "world-class journalists, experts and business leaders" (though not, presumably, Kim Kardashian). Canceling the Dialogue last year was the right call. I would like to see a case made for the value of resuming it this year, given that it sends a signal to the policy elite that it is once again legitimate and normal to do business in Bahrain. In terms of the rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime, what is the difference between resuming the Formula One race after a one year suspension, visiting to promote milkshakes, and convening a high profile regional policy forum?Yes, that--and take Andrew W.K. up on his call for PARTYING, POSITIVE POWER, and of course WORLD PEACE! (Not to be confused with Bahrain peace.)
I do not mean to single out the IISS, an organization for which I have great respect. In past years, by all accounts, the Manama Dialogue has been an outstanding event of its kind (full disclosure: I've been invited before but was never able to make it). But if we are going to hold Kim Kardashian to account, shouldn't we as a policy community do the same for ourselves? At the least, let's hope that the journalists and policy wonks who do take part in this regional forum take Maryam al-Khawaja up on her call to find the time during their visit to meet with activists and to draw attention to Bahrain's human rights and political issues.
Update: Kristin Smith Diwan breaks down Kuwait's post-electoral slide toward sectarian politics. If you're asking what that has to do with Bahrain, you missed this.
Update 2: An odd piece from two days ago that I just came across now in The Huffington Post. It is written by a "research and advocacy officer" of the BCHR, and its opening paragraph reads,
While some commentators [with a link here to a blog post by me] have recently been ringing the death knell of the Bahrain uprising, there is one place where the Bahraini government and their apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority: online. Given the recent complete banning of public protest in Bahrain, online dissent has become increasingly important to a revolution that refuses to go away.This is odd not only for the suggestion that I am a linkworthy "Bahraini government apologist," but also because the article in which I supposedly "ring the death knell of the Bahrain uprising" is, of course, online, where we are told "apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority." So: my post is at once a representative (and one presumes reasonably influential, if it is singled out here) piece of apologia, but at the same time entirely without influence or authority. Very strange.
The final bit of oddity comes later in the article in paragraph six, where Lubbock paraphrases a section from my dissertation regarding the ubiquity of Ahmad Al-Fatih--in fact, the bit: "al-Fätih" ( الفاتح ; literally, "the opener, conqueror") is copied directly. Once again, it is odd that a non-authoritative Bahraini government propagandist could provide useful background material for an article decrying Bahraini government propagandists.
Update 3: A Bahrain riddle: if Crown Prince Salman calls for political talks where no opposition representative can hear him--say, in a closed-door meeting with foreign ministers at the Manama Dialogue--does he make a sound?
Update 4: Apparently the crown prince's call for renewed talks was serious after all, or at least 'Ali Salman is under that impression. Reuters reports that the latter has been contacted "indirectly" but does not know when the talks would/will take place. Speaking to Reuters, Salman said that al-Wifaq would enter dialogue without preconditions but wants a popular referendum on any deal. Somehow I don't see that happening.