After Formula One scrutiny, Bahrain hires a fan of Saddam Hussein to improve its image

Well, nothing else is working.

By , Staff writer

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    Bahraini antigovernment protesters shout at approaching riot police Sunday, April 22, in Sanabis, Bahrain, on the edge of the capital of Manama. Security forces in Bahrain set up checkpoints and stationed armored vehicles in antigovernment strongholds Sunday to confront possible protests coinciding with the Gulf nation's Formula One Grand Prix.
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Last weekend's Formula One race in Bahrain brought exactly the kind of attention that the tiny kingdom didn't want.

Instead of a global event highlighting its qualities as rapidly advancing economy, Bahrain received a storm of attention over its use of tear-gas, birdshot, and torture against democracy protesters.

The Sunni monarchy, with a Shiite-majority population, ended the weekend with a fresh black eye. Sure, the event went on, but only after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, the daughter of human rights activist Abdel Hadi al-Khawaja was arrested as she protested against her father's indefinite detention, and motor-sport journalists were forced to to tackle politics and oppression, rather than tactics and technology, in their columns. (Ahead of the race, F1 correspondent Kevin Eason of The Times wrote, "whatever happens in Bahrain this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.)

Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy, had this take on events:

"This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability."

Bahrain has plenty of international supporters. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to Manama to help in the crackdown against protesters last year. And Bahrain is crucial to the United States's regional-security strategy, playing home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet (a key component in any future military showdown with Iran), which is no doubt a big reason why the Obama administration has treated with kid gloves the country's recent human rights record.

But Bahrain faces an increasingly sectarian opposition at home. So what's the embattled monarchy to do? Apparently, appoint Samira Rajab as its new minister of information to help improve its global image. She has long been opposed to the US agenda in the Middle East and has a track record of stirring up sectarian tensions.

"The Bahrainis spend an enormous amount of energy and money to control their image ... but they're clearly losing the narrative war," says Toby Craig Jones, a Rutgers historian who studies the Gulf. "They're not winning the message and then they do stuff like this. It's very strange."

How strange? The public-image manager for a key US ally is a fan of Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by US troops and executed by the Iraqi government in 2006, and has frequently attacked the US role in the region.

How much of a fan? Ms. Rajab wrote after Hussein's execution that he was a "martyr" and a "freedom fighter" who had defied "Anglo-American arrogance." She characterized the US war in Iraq as the work of "crusaders" and praised Hussein's past efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.

In May 2007, then US Ambassador to Bahrain William Monroe, wrote in a confidential cable released by Wikileaks that Rajab was the "driving force" behind a three-day conference in the Bahraini capital that had ended up focusing on the grievances of Sunni Arab and Baathist Iraqis.

What was meant to be a pan-Arab nationalist conference ended up focusing on figures then resisting the rise of the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, and the sectarian overtones of the talk created a minor local controversy.
 
Among the speakers at the conference was Harith al-Dari, a Sunni Iraqi preacher who called for greater coordination between that country's then raging insurgency and Al Qaeda. A film was played that portrayed Iraqi Sunnis as the principal victims of violence in the country (the raging sectarian civil war at the time in fact claimed tens of thousands of both Sunni and Shiite lives).

"These incidents led to a great deal of criticism, including inside the conference itself, and local columnists condemned those using the event to incite sectarianism," the ambassador wrote. "Conference participants told the [deputy chief of the US mission] that Shura [Consultative] Council member and pro-Saddam Baathist columnist Samira Rajab was the driving force behind the event, saying she had put together the list of attendees opposed to the new Iraq - 'mostly rejectionists and pro-Baathists, not Arab nationalists.' Local activists complained about the extremism voiced at the conference and attempts to 'widen our differences.'"

Ambassador Monroe wrote that he raised concerns about "Rajab's role in pushing a sectarian agenda" at the conference with Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family. "Shaikh Khalid said the event was a 'gathering of relics' and he would not meet with any of the delegates. They should not have allowed a sectarian film to be shown. He noted that the conference opened on Saddam Hussein's birthday, April 28, which he did not think was a coincidence."

Mr. Monroe concluded that "through her speech and decisions about delegates, speakers, and activities, [Rajab] was able to spread her virulent views in favor of the armed insurgency and against the United States, Iraqi government, and those supporting it."

In an interview in 2010, she said the 9/11 attacks on the US were a "fabricated operation" designed to advance political interests inside the US to "create a new ghost to replace the ghost of communism." And in 2005, she attacked Iraq's Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, that country's most revered religious figure, as an American stooge. That column infuriated Bahrain's Shiite community, which complained she was feeding sectarian conflict. Sistani, who wields enormous influence in Iraq, largely stayed aloof of the US occupation.

Rajab, a former journalist and member of Bahrain's consultative council, is a reminder of the strange-bedfellows being made by increasingly fractured regional politics, with countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia calling for the fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syrian (an Iranian ally, after all) while jealously protecting their own positions at home, with the acquiescence of the US.

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