In a popular caffé in Ramallah, last Tuesday evening was an unusual one. Instead of the noisy atmosphere, loud arguments over a game of cards, sounds of cups, and the legendary voice of Um Kalthoum streaming out of a radio, making its way through huqqas’ smoke, it was rather a cold silence that reigned. All eyes and ears were turned towards the TV screen hanging on a wall, where the signing ceremony of the normalization agreements between Bahrain, the UAE, and the occupation state, was broadcasted. A hard voice breaks the air; “Traitors! How much did Trump pay you!”. Another voice follows from the back seats; “These liars are supposed to be Arabs! Can you believe that!”.
Two decades ago, the news from Bahrain was very different. In April 2002, thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and in support of the Intifada, which was then at its height. Demonstrators surrounded the US embassy and attacked it with Molotov cocktails, protesting the US bias towards the occupation state. One young Bahraini, Mohammad Shakhouri, was killed by the Bahraini police fire while protesting.
It is hard to believe that the second normalization deal with the occupation state in less than a month came off the hands of Bahrain. Like the UAE, who signed the first deal, it is a tiny Gulf monarchy dependent on its oil production, as well a big consumer of US military technology. But unlike the UAE, Bahrain is a country with a vibrant civil society and a long tradition of political activism. Bahrain was, in the 1950s, a bastion of Arab nationalism and at the forefront of progressive movements in the Arab world, before it was even independent. In 1970 Bahrain was one of the first Arab Gulf states to elect a parliament.
This political awareness in the Bahraini society has always had as part of it a strong sense of self-identification with the Palestinian cause, as another expression of the popular longing for liberty. A common feature with the majority of Arab countries, whose struggles for freedom have been suppressed by tyrannic regimes who have at the same time protected the interests of the occupation state and its US sponsor for decades.
It is difficult to dissociate the Arab regimes’ internal political crisis from the normalization of their ties with the occupation state. Most Arab governments, especially those of the Gulf region, face a constant crisis of legitimacy. As autocratic monarchies with little or no popular participation in political life, these regimes need to search for legitimacy outside their borders. The purchase of US weaponry, accompanied by a nationalistic discourse against some potential enemy is one way of making-up the legitimacy they need.
Traditionally, the occupation state was this potential enemy-excuse in the official speech of these governments. Later in the 1990s, the Gulf states replaced ‘Israel’ in their discourse by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which in addition to US weaponry, allowed countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to invite US troops into their soil. This lead to the increase of the rift between governments and elements of their own societies, namely, religious radicals, who gradually merged with Al-Qaeda. This new phenomenon gave birth to a whole new type of public enemy: terrorism. The new non-state enemy, unlike Israel or even Saddam Hussein, allowed these governments to actually engage in real military action without any political cost, on the side of the US, using and purchasing more of its military equipment.
But when it comes to being a military ally of the US in the Middle East, arming to the teeth, and boosting local nationalism based on cultural, ethnic, and religious differences, there is no better potential enemy to use as an excuse, to these states, than Iran. In their continuous search for legitimacy, the Arab Gulf states found themselves on the same side of their supposed traditional enemy; the state of ‘Israel’. Normalization for these governments was on their path of ensuring their very survival. It was only a matter of time Before it became official.
Stability without democracy
At the same time, the Gulf states need to ensure stability domestically. And stability for these regimes is more than just a condition they need to invest in. It is rather the essence of their function. Stability means the absence of any political or social mobility, as the continuous result of a structural organization of relations. A structure inherited from the colonial powers that combine elements of tribalism and modern institutions.
These political structures which Professor William Nassar identifies as ‘neo-patrimonialism’, share the same features throughout the Arab world. It is a form of state-organization that has, as a primary function, to produce political and social stability, without any political participation by the society. It is a combination of tribal mindset and modern institutions that keep people away from influencing their countries’ policies while keeping the same people in power.
neo-patrimonial regimes share a number of characteristics. First, they are all personalized systems, where a despotic ruler personalizes the state in his own figure. The leader’s figure is the subject of the national cult. Second, they are clientelistic. They distribute services and benefits through a hierarchical network of loyalty, where the head of the system rewards his loyal subordinates, who in turn, reward the ones lower on the leather, and so on. This makes people struggle to come as close as they can to this network of loyalty and integrate it, in order to access services and opportunities. What is supposed to be social rights, like health care or jobs, become gifts and rewards for loyalty. Third, they are rentier regimes. They take little or no taxes from their citizens because they depend economically on their natural resources, like oil and natural gas. This kills the concept that the state is a social enterprise that belongs to people who fund it because they simply don’t.
But the most important characteristic of neo-patrimonial regimes is their constant search of political legitimacy in nationalistic, religious, or alleged revolutionary discourse. A discourse that needs to have a potential enemy, and that the entire system needs to justify itself constantly. This enemy that came eventually to be Iran, which supposes a deeper merging with the US (and Israeli) interests in the Middle East. This is how the neo-patrimonial, autocratic, despotic nature of many the Arab Gulf states became the a condition for their eventual normalization of relations with the occupation state of ‘Israel’.
But after the turn of the century, the neo-patrimonial systems in the Arab world were running out of capacity to produce stability. A new generation of young Arabs was getting tired, thirsty for freedom and social justice, and their discontent grew rapidly. The wave of Arab uprises that started in Tunisia in 2011 reached the Arab Gulf quickly and made its first impact precisely in Bahrain. In February 2011 young Bahrainis took to the streets peacefully demanding political reform, social justice, and freedom.
The regime responded with violence, killing dozens, that later became hundreds. Protesters, activists, and community leaders were imprisoned and tortured, some were even executed. Despite this repression, the uprising never stopped. To this moment, the popular movement of Bahrain continues to challenge the power of the state.
A growing distance
The Bahraini regime’s need for an external legitimization reached its peak. It came to meet a particular need of Donald Trump, who desperately tries to score political achievements before the coming elections in November. Conveniently for Bahrain, the time has come to officially normalize ties with the occupation state. A further step in its search for legitimacy, as an alternative to political and social reform in favor of its own people.
This is why, it wasn’t surprising to see Bahrainis take to the streets, once more, last Tuesday, to protest the normalization deal. Protesters in the streets of Manamah gave witness not only to the real stand of the Bahraini people but also to the distance between them and their government. A distance that grows every day between the power and the societies across the Arab world, as citizens continue to raise their voices even louder, claiming participation in their destiny. A distance which as it grows, pushes governments further away from their peoples, and closer to normalization with ‘Israel’.