Bahraini Milkshakes

Kim Kardashian's December 1 trip to Bahrain to promote milkshakes brought all the Middle East tweeps to the yard.  Her visit attracted both delerious young fans and a raucous protest (reportedly cleared away by the time she arrived), with conflicting accounts as to whether she actually ended up mixing a tear gas flavored milkshake.  The Middle East twitterati had a field day of outrage and humor over the news, with pretty much my entire Twitter feed (and Bahrain's Foreign Minister) retweeting her now deleted "OMG can I move here please?" tweet.   It's easy to poke fun at Kardashian.  But did Kanye's girlfriend really do anything different than those foreign policy wonks willing to participate in Friday's 2012 Manama Dialogue?

Kardashian went to Bahrain and Kuwait to promote "Millions of Milkshakes."  She evidently had a great time, declaring at the end: "Thanks Sheikh Khalifa for your amazing hospitality. I'm in love with The Kingdom of Bahrain." For this, she was roundly mocked by Bahraini opposition and Middle East commentators. Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja posted an open letter to Kardashian inviting her to meet with human rights activists during her trip.   The one bright note, such as it was, came from @Therwees: "Kim Kardashian tweeting about Bahrain makes more news than actual Bahrain."

Kardashian, much like April's controversial Formula One race, generated positive publicity for a Bahraini regime which carried out an unspeakably brutal crackdown last year, continues a fierce campaign of repression, and has been utterly unrepentant.  The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry authoritatively catalogued the massive human rights violations during the crackdown:

The BICI report established authoritatively that the Bahraini regime committed massive violations of human rights during its attempts to crush the protest movement. Hundreds of detainees reported systematic mistreatment and torture, including extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape, sexual abuse including the insertion of items into the anus and grabbing of genitals, hanging, exposure to extreme temperatures, forced nudity and humiliation through acts such as being forced to lick boots of guards, abuse with dogs, mock executions, and being forced to eat feces (BICI report, pp.287-89). Detainees were often held for weeks or months without access to the outside world or to lawyers.  This, concluded the BICI, represented "a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody" (Para 1238, p.298).  And then there was the demolition of Shi'a mosques, widespread dismissals from public and private sector jobs and from universities, sectarian agitation in the media, and so much more. No political mistakes made by the opposition could possibly justify these acts. 

The Bahraini regime has responded in at best a pro forma way, seeking to project an image of compliance without actually making any serious reforms or imposing real accountability. Human Rights Watch recently concluded that Bahrain had failed to implement most of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry -- an assessment shared by the Project on Middle East Democracy, which a few weeks ago found only 3 out of 26 recommendations implemented.  Cherif Bassiouni, who had previously defended the BICI process, now argues that "a number of recommendations on accountability were either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly. The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture."

What's more, in many ways Bahrain's practices are getting worse, not better. Stiff prison sentences for activists such as Nabeel Rajab, arresting people for criticism on Twitter, targeting activists and critics, revoking the citizenship of activists, and banning all public protests do not suggest a regime on the mend.   The violence which erupted a few weeks ago only highlights Bahrain's ongoing social and political deterioration.  Even the U.S. State Department, which has rightfully been criticized for failing to pressure Bahrain on human rights and political reform, recently spoke out with unusually lengthy and detailed criticism of its escalating crackdown, and last week warned that Bahraini society could break apart. Neither pressure from domestic activists and international human rights organizations nor occasional international media scrutiny has had much effect.  

Bahrain's regime has focused far more over the last year and a half on a public relations pushback than on addressing its real political deterioriation and human rights disaster.  It has spent heavily on PR firms to rehabilitate its image, and anyone who writes or tweets about Bahrain has become quite accustomed to the inevitable responses which follow. Holding the controversial Formula One race in April was a key part of the attempt to demonstrate to the international community that Bahrain had returned to normal -- a portrayal somewhat undermined by the burning tires, furious activists, and critical media coverage which followed. (My all time favorite video response remains this "Epic Fail" from Katy Perry.)  This Index on Censorship story suggests that whatever her personal intentions, Kardashian's visit falls into the same category of attempts to rehabilitate Bahrain's image without any meaningful policy changes.   That protests and tear gas disrupted the international media coverage of her visit as well is therefore in some ways a promising sign that the reality of Bahrain's ongoing repression and failure to deal honestly with its recent past has not yet been washed away.

It's easy to make fun of Kim Kardashian, with her reality TV and 17 million Twitter followers and whatever else she's famous for other than having the coolest boyfriend on Earth. (And I have absolutely no clue about Andrew WK, whose supposed visit as a cultural ambassador sparked so much furor last week). But at least Kardashian has the excuse that nobody really expects celebrities to know such details about the countries they are paid to visit.  What about the slightly less sexy but presumably better informed Middle East policy wonks?   

In 2011, the International Institute for Strategic Studies wisely canceled its long-running Manama Dialogue forum in Bahrain.   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?  

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.  

YouTube Screen Capture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE36X2lV85o

Marc Lynch

Failing Syria's refugees

   -- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog -- 

 There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever.  But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?  

Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps. 

But, as with the Iraqi refugee crisis of the mid-2000s, the international community is once again failing to respond to this urgent humanitarian problem. The United States has given almost $200 million to help Syrian refugees, and Britain some $85 million. But it clearly is not enough. As a harsh winter approaches, international relief agencies report significant shortfalls in their funding appeals and failures to deliver on promised contributions. UNHCR reports that donors have met only 35 percent of its $500 million appeal. Save the Children claims a $200 million shortfall and only 50 percent funding of its refugee relief needs. On Tuesday, the United Nations World Food Programme expressed deepening concerns over rapidly deteriorating food security inside Syria, compounded by inhibited distribution with the escalating and expanding conflict. Meanwhile, host governments complain of the economic and social burden, and many fear their destabilizing impact.

The international community should have learned more from its poor performance in dealing with Iraqi refugees over the last decade, of the deep human cost and the long-term destabilizing effects of such refugee flows.  Dedicating serious resources to assisting Syrian refugees seems like an obvious and core part of any effort to contain and mitigate the regional fallout of the crisis -- whether or not Assad quickly falls, and regardless of the questions surrounding military intervention. 

The shortcomings of the international response to the Syrian refugee crisis across the region is difficult to fathom given its obvious humanitarian and strategic importance. It is even more difficult to justify given that helping refugees offers such an obvious way to "do something" without committing to military options deemed unwise. Humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees should be a high priority that does not get lost in the ongoing debates over arming the opposition, the course of the internal war, and possible military interventions.  The problem here is not really the United States, which has provided the largest share of official relief, but rather the Gulf states which have not matched their words of support with money, other states which typically step up in such situations, and the broader donor community. 

POMEPS and The Middle East Channel recently spoke with Northwestern University Assistant Professor Wendy Pearlman, who has just returned from over a month in Jordan interviewing Syrian refugees. Watch the video here:



For more from the Middle East Channel on Syrian refugees, see:

- David Kenner, "Winter is Coming"  (Nov 1)

- Justin Vela, "Turkey's Men in Syria" (Sep 18)

- Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, "Syrian Spillover" (Aug 10)

- Stephen Kalin, "Little Solace for Syrian Refugees in Egypt" ( Aug 10)

- Justin Vela, "No Refuge" (Mar 7)

- Nicholas Seeley, "Jordan's open door for Syrian refugees" (March  1)