Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Historic Fart - The Final Post

My favourite story as a kid was the ancient arabian version of an episode of the Simpsons. Certain versions of Tales From the Thousand and One Nights, contains a short story called "The Historic Fart". Running to my father's lap and reading this story to him, he found it so funny, he'd make me retell it to any guests visiting our home, with a proud smile on his face. A little summary of the story goes like this:

It recounts the humorously lamentable story of a young man called Abu Hasan who, upon his wedding night, “let fly a fart, great and terrible” that shamed him into abandoning his bride and house full of startled guests. Thereafter '9irt, for its sanitary and respectful nature, acquired such attention that records were kept indicating the first time a person of distinction was heard to break wind. Thus, in conversation with a stranger, it was not uncommon for an Arab proudly to say: “I was born on the very night that Abu-Hasan farted!”

This isn't just a story of of a legendary fart, this is a story of how something embarrassing can often go unforgotten!

On that note ladies and gentleman, fellow bloggers, and silent observers lurking in the shadows, I wish to thank you for being great readers over the last 7 months and being interested in what I have had to write which represented my views and my views alone. I started the blog on impulse, blogged continuously on impulse, and now wish to end it on impulse. I refer my readers to other great Bahraini bloggers out there, both the established and the new, whose links you will find on the left of this page. One worthy of a special mention is the blog of Ward and Wardah - the painful story of exile, prison, and government tyranny.

I wish, like the legendary Historic Fart, to be remembered imemorially as the passionately cocky Bahraini blogger who babbled on for 7 months and then decided to shut up.

Maybe we'll meet again in another life or should I say, another blog... but for now I bid u farewell.


(PS i'll keep comments on for another week or so to wrap up the discussions before this blog becomes totally defunct).

Khalaf's take

There is only one serious Bahraini academic who has attempted to write and publish papers studying the socio-political situation in Bahrain, and that is Abdulhadi Khalaf (2005, 2002, 1998), sociology Professor in Lund University, Sweden. You can find his most relevant papers here:

What the Gulf Ruling Families Do when They Rule
A King’s Dilemma –Obstacles to Political Reforms In Bahrain (highly recommended)
Contentious politics in Bahrain, From ethnic to national and vice versa

Since Dr Khalaf is a regular reader of this blog, I hope that he would partake in this discussion and elaborate on certain concepts related in the above articles, which may help each of us concerned with the political situation in Bahrain, contextualise history and analyse events in this framework. This fits in nicely in the series of posts that I wrote a few weeks back. It takes us out of the common and rather obtuse terminology we often used when discussing politics (government/opposition, sectarianism etc. ) elevating the discussion to a slightly higher intellectual standard. It is heavy stuff, and took me a while to read and digest, however, I will summarise the main concepts here.

These concepts are that of ‘vertical segmentation’. Sustaining vertical segmentation of society has proven a useful form of social organisation and, hitherto, an effective vehicle for rule. He also contends that contentious politics is the result of the tension between two socio-political forces in Bahrain; the champions of enlightenment, and the defenders of the status quo. He also explores the instruments of regime stability, and the way the monarchies subdue society through effective use of strategies of penetration, fragmentation and marginalisation. And that even when combining what Michael Mann calls the “despotic power” of pre-modern states and the “infra-structural power” of the modern state, the Gulf monarchies have maintained their capacity.

“One of the immediate consequences of its control of rent and its circulation is making loyalty to the royal family a social as well as a political imperative. Unlike other society/state situations, what can be observed in the Gulf monarchies is shaped by two characteristic features of the state. The first is that the state is the ruling family, in other words more just an instrument of the ruling families. Rather, there is a distinct intertwining of state and the ruling families in a relation of indistinguishable organic unity. The second is that the state/ruling family is off-limits for all other social actors.

In its turn, the state promotes levels of dependency by citizens on its agencies, its welfare services and other facilities. Within this relation of dependency, a citizen becomes “disinclined to act economically or politically on his own behalf, let alone seriously criticise the state”.

Citizens, including merchants, entrepreneurs and business people, become more pre-occupied with attempts to access the rent circuit than reaching to build productive efficiency.”

Specifically on recent developments in Bahrain, he says:

“Recent history of contentious politics in Bahrain […] is a tension between the socio-political forces defending the status quo (plus minus) and the socio-political forces championing what has been referred to as enlightenment (plus minus). In Bahrain, according to Khuri (1980:198) 'this enlightenment meant rejecting sectarian politics, opposing colonial rule and the tribally controlled regime, and championing the cause of labour classes'. At the risk of over-simplification, the forces of status quo (plus minus) included the ruling family, the notables and the clerical establishment, while the forces of enlightenment (plus minus) most of the nascent business community, civil servants and workers.”

“Moves towards constitutional order in 1973-5 and since 2001 have not contravened the concentration of power…

While the ruling family may have wanted on both occasions to acquire constitutional legitimacy, it did not accept the formal and informal political, administrative, and judicial consequences of that legitimacy. The price seemed simply too high…There are some factors to add to this.

First, the ruling core has continued to exercise full control over all major sources of surplus appropriation. This unrestricted control has enabled it to continue steering the major economic and political actors, play them against each other and affirm their dependence on its goodwill. All other classes and social strata lack solid economic capabilities outside the orbit of the regime. All of them are dependent on the regime’s economic ventures and the political goodwill of its ruling core for their survival and prosperity.

Second, neither 1973 nor 2001 constitutions provide for mechanisms to separate the regime and its ruling core from government. The ruling family’s core continues to lead executive and administrative organs as well as other institutions of the state such as the judiciary, the military and the security forces. In spite of constitutional stipulations, all organs of state continue to be extensions of formal and informal powers of the ruling core.

Third, resources at the disposal of the regime, the docility of its social base, and regional and international support, have enabled it to embark on a massive reconstructive operation. These resources have enabled the regime to dismiss totally calls for a return to constitutional rule. Moreover, to the dismay of increasingly demoralised opponents, the regime has actually been able to initiate a modernisation process of its institutions, or to borrow an expression, with rather than against tribalism and communalism.

Strategies of control

Byman and Green describe six strategies of control that ruling families in the Gulf employ. These are:

1) use of aggressive security services to monitor, and at times suppress, opposition;
2) cooptation of dissidents and potential dissidents through extensive use of largesse; dissidence is also contained through control of the media via subsi-dies and direct funding or the threat to suspend publication and not so much through formal censorship;
3) creating divisions within communities and fragmenting any political opposition;
4) cunning and ideological flexibility which helps appease local critics and off-set outside meddling;
5) pseudo-participation using appointed and partially representative majlis to provide for discussion and input into decision-making; and,
6) accommodative diplomacy and the use of aid to placate foreign adversaries.

Vertical Segmentation

A very insightful concept explored is the idea of 'vertical segmentation of society' (maintaining a division of society and social institutions into a number of vertical parallels that are separated from each other through, mainly political, sanctions), as one of the main factors preserving the Al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain which has been "gradually expanded and refined into an effective instrument of power and of legitimacy of power. "

Vertical segmentation, in Bahrain, is maintained through mobilisation of tribal, confessional, and ethnic myths, through appropriate parts of communal histories, through co-optation as well as through actual use of physical force. Top dogs within each vertical segment are strong enough to keep order within their sphere but not enough to prevent the regime from intervening, directly or indirectly, whenever need arises. On an extreme end of the segmented system one finds the ruling family itself and chiefs of some of its tribal Sunni allies, while on the other extreme one would find the impoverished local Shia peasants. Foreigners, presently making more than one-third of the population, continue to be outside the system. Paradoxically, foreigners who live as temporary residents with virtually no other right than right to work, play important roles enabling the regime to maintain its hold on society.

Obviously, vertical segmentation between Sunni and Shia communities is the weightiest, but not the only, form of the system. Other criteria for social stratification operate separately or alongside confessional affiliation. In particular, wealth, kinship, as well as tribal and rural-urban backgrounds will persist and contribute, whenever mobilised, to strengthening segmentation of the socio-political order.

Effective manipulations of existing hierarchies, sustaining a suitable level of vertical segmentation, and pre-empting opportunities for horizontal, cross-hierarchy, interaction provided al-Khalifa, with a strategic asset to maintain its rule and a local source to legitimate that rule.

Oil, particularly since the oil boom of the mid-1970s, provides sufficient resources to continue recruiting additional, potential, intermediaries from nearly every social background. The entrepreneurial sector, for example, which was a major beneficiary of oil-boom investments, provided the ruling families with a new, and relatively modern, source of intermediaries. Advancement within this sector has been personal and based on political loyalty and acumen, rather than tribal or sectarian proximity to the regime. Project contracts, big and small, have been awarded largely for political loyalty. Those entrepreneurs whose loyalties were in doubt simply lost their access to contracts. Being in the good books of the ruling core and other senior members of the ruling family adds some considerable push to a business venture. Regular attendance to the weekly majlis, court, of any of these potentates, or preferably all, provides as strong a guarantee as any bank credit.


Political reforms in Bahrain since 2000 have provided a model for the kind of measures that do not require the ruling families to give up any of their privileges, including their control over economic resources and political institutions as well as their command over the armed forces and the security apparatuses. While the Bahraini scheme represents a significant step towards reducing symptoms of the prevailing political stagnation, it could generate new problems. Concessions by the ruling families may embolden local elites to demand more substantive political reforms. On the other hand, procrastination is likely to be more dangerous if it leads to enraging the gradually expanding networks of domestic and foreign actors demanding change. The urgency of the situation could force even the most reluctant of the Gulf rulers to conclude that reforms must go beyond the customary episodic cosmetic changes.

The most interesting of the papers I found, was the one on the King’s Dilemma, if you're going to read just one, i'd recommend that one. In it Khalaf evaluates and analyses the situation solely from the King’s perspective, the ‘astute tactician’, how the novice king cohabitates with his uncle who remains the strongman in the country, as the longest serving Prime Minister in history. Unfortunately I cannot copy and paste off this paper for some reason, so I leave it up to you to peruse and discuss. He touches on the weakness of the secular left, the mutual mistrust and the internal squabbles of the ruling family that are fuelled by political reforms that would challenge tribal privileges. Extremely insightful exposition, ends with the question : “how far needs a non-democratic ruler move on the path of political reforms before realising the reform process is becoming futile or even counter-productive?” He cites the important point right at the end, “Mutual mistrust is a serioius threat to any future collaborative attempts to rebuild bridges between the regime and its opponents. Second the corrosive effects of past decades of misrule, mismanagement of resources and violations of human rights, makes current reforms appear temporary and unsustainable”.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The survival of the cockiest

British humour which entails sarcasm to the extent described as ‘cocky’ is a deeply engrained cultural disposition and difficult to acquire. I’ve learnt two things about the importance of cockiness for the British species:

1. For each and every cocky remark, there is an equal and opposite cocky reply.

2. Cockiness is essential if u want to make it in a white-male dominated world. It is actually a yardstick for success.

There is a deeper reason behind this that reveals an important trait in the cocky-minded. Sarcasm requires a certain amount of sharpness, wit and quick judgment. Possessing this skill means that you can engage Brits in a conversation they find meaningful and entertaining. Even if it is a pile of tosh, the important thing is the ‘ability to converse’ in this manner. The epitomy of British cockiness was personified in the form of George Galloway a couple of weeks back whilst testifying in front of US senators, but programs like Have I Got News For You or even Prime-Ministers Question Time in Parliament would underpin the perfect course on how to improve your ‘cockiness in conversation’. Cockiness and its underpinning sarcasm is another British institution (other than penny-pinching). To be cocky or not to be cocky, that is the question.

Cockiness however, is considered an extremely undesirable characteristics in eastern cultures in general (except Egypt, Egyptians can be terribly cocky). I’m not sure what the Arabic word for it is but a local phrase often used in Bahrain is ‘lsaan toweel’ – long tongue. And if you’re deemed too cocky then u’d get chastised with the phrase, “lsanish yi7taj ga9” ie ur tongue needs to be cut. Cockiness verges on the common perception of rudeness and insult. Humour over here is a different paradigm all-together. This is a culture of gental joviality, mojamalaat, not one of quick comebacks.

(As an side, isn’t it ironic, I don’t know the Arabic translation of cockiness/sarcasm or the English translation of mojamalaat..a cultural clash for sure, someone plz help out!)

You maybe thinking why I’ve brought this topic up. Last week, in a coffee shop with some friends, to my left was seated an English patrician. Excusing himself to the bathroom he asked me to kindly look after his belongings. I naturally agreed. When he came back he decided to start a conversation. Although I rarely talk to strangers, this guy seemed a bit of a character, in his 60s, redevelops properties in the French riviera, with absolutely nothing in common with a twenty-something veiled arab woman. It was a bit of an effort to make idle chatter, but "min baab almojamala" as we say in arabic, or for the sake of common courtesy I made the effort. In the end out of no where he said this:

“I can tell you’re not going to be very rich, but you will have a very interesting life full of experiences ahead of you”

Although this remark isn’t cocky in itself, it was the way in which it was said. How the hell does he have the audacity to prophecy my life!!! So I asked him, “ and how did u reach that conclusion, by reading my eyes?”

“No, I do lips”

“Hmmmm” I thought to myself…how the hell do u read lips…bloody English cocky twat. Dismissing this remark and bidding him farewell, I left the place, but two weeks on, im still wondering why he consciously decided to make a point of the fact im not going to be rich. I don't think it was the ripped jeans or the old trainers that did it. Im not actually worried that i'll live in poverty my whole life and if it was an issue for me, there isnt a shortage of affluent men on bended knee. It really did feel like I was in a movie and the guy was some sort of messenger. Then again, its probably another cartload of cocky tosh I'm thinking too much into.