Bahrain’s Window Dressing Reforms Can’t Hide Botch Job

This blog is cross-posted from the Huffington Post:

Geneva: I learned the hard way about painting ceilings. If you don’t do the hard prep work properly, it’s a false economy. Just slapping on a top layer of paint, however fancy, hides the stains for a while but without the cleaning, sanding, crackfilling, replastering, undercoating, taping and all the other things you need to do beforehand the paint soon flakes and peels, and crumbles back onto your head. You end up having to start again. It’s an expensive lesson.

Bahrain’s government is beginning to see what happens when you take short cuts – its reform program, hurriedly applied and largely cosmetic, is now falling apart, looking every inch the botch job it is.

For a few years the ruling family in the small Gulf kingdom had, with the help of lavish PR and some gullible governments, persuaded many that it was serious about lifting its violent repression. In June last year the US State Department cited “meaningful progress on human rights reforms” in its reasoning for lifting holds on some arms sales to the kingdom.

But a series of consequential public judgments on Bahrain’s politics and economy in recent weeks, culminating in today’s seizure of human rights defender Zainab Al Khawaja, have exposed the shallowness of reform and the intent to continue silencing peaceful dissent, suggesting the ceiling is falling in on the country’s fake reform project.

In his statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council here a few days ago, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he was “disturbed by a widespread practise of what could be termed ‘human rights window-dressing,’” and that “Human rights obligations should not be a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise designed only to boost a country’s international image.”

He called out Bahrain by name, complaining that “political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders continue to be silenced by arrests, revocation of citizenship and deportation. Profound reform is still required, to achieve much more inclusive participation”.

Bahrain’s response, typically, sounded like one from a government in denial, claiming the High Commissioner’s statement constituted an “unacceptable form of interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom,” as though the UN should mind its own business the it comes to its members’ attack on human rights, and a bunch other lies, including that “the judiciary enjoys the highest degrees of independence, honesty and transparency and … [Bahrain’s] adherence to maintaining human rights and supporting everything that would respect these rights.” It bizarrely claimed too the High Commissioner’s had somehow “made the remarks at the wrong time” as though after a good night’s sleep he might have seen things a bit differently in the morning.

Such senior-level criticism from the UN obviously hurts the kingdom’s credibility but it’s just the latest major verdict on how badly the government of Bahrain is doing. Already this month the international ratings agency Moody’s stripped it of its investment grade credit, condemning its credit rating to what financial experts call “junk territory”. In a frightening analysis for potential investors, Moody’s put Bahrain’s fiscal breakeven oil price at $106 a barrel for 2015-16, but predicted the actual price would only reach $38 a barrel.

Moody’s downgrade came a couple of weeks after another major international financial rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, also withdrew its investment grade credit from Bahrain, noting that the government’s debt burden has doubled since 2009.

These votes of no confidence in the economy are part of a wider commentary of mismanagement by Bahrain’s ruling family, which in recent years has sought to paper over the substantial cracks in its record by hiring expensive PR firms to promote a false impression internationally. This has, to some extent, worked. But the embarrassing defeat of ruling family member Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa in the FIFA presidential election shows the family’s record, when examined close up, looks every bit as ugly as a hurriedly-painted ceiling.

There is a growing disquiet about Bahrain from those once prepared to give its benefit of the doubt. Several officials from other governments at the UN this week told me how they now feel conned by years of flimflam about political change by the Manama regime.

Attitudes in Washington appear to be changing too. Last month the State Department, long regarded as sympathetic to its military ally’s promises of reform, called for the release from jail of leading political opposition figures Sheikh Ali Salman and Ibrahim Sharif. A few weeks ago Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who sits on the powerful Intelligence Committee, called out the ruling family’s lies: “As they tell it, they’ve turned the page on that chapter of Bahrain’s history… [but] for Bahrain to move forward, the government will need to release the opposition leaders still languishing in its prisons.”

He was joined by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East, who noted how “freedom of expression and assembly in Bahrain are still not protected, and that those who do engage in peaceful dissent continue to be prosecuted under vague and subjective laws”.

Painting over problems is not reform, and Bahrain’s botch job is being found out. It needs to start again, this time properly, because its cracks are getting dangerously big.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on March 14, 2016


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