Millennial Letters

A Closer Look at Bahrain's Opposition

If Bahrain’s public relations efforts deserved closer examination (see “Bahrain’s PR firm”), so too does its opposition movement. However, Foreign Policy beat me to it—see their November 7th interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, who runs the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Further investigation into the prominent rights organization is somewhat limited, however, given that the names of their board members have been pulled from their website over safety concerns. But perhaps a better corollary to Qorvis is Bahrain Watch, a group that’s also very interested in PR—so interested, in fact, that they tallied up the total amount spent by Bahrain’s monarchy on PR worldwide since protests began almost a year ago. That figure, they say, adds up to more than $30 million, a goodly slice of Bahrain’s $30 billion GDP. But back to Bahrain Watch, an entity that, like Qorvis, can come off a bit vague: 

Through research and advocacy, we seek to help Bahrain realize the development benefits of its limited resources by monitoring the state and its policies. … [The group is] focused on factual, evidence-based advocacy in the areas of political reform, economic development and security. … [The group] aims to serve as a catalyst for bringing diverse parties together, and to harness the power of social media and cyberactivists in order to improve governance and accountability.

Monitoring work is done by “independent researchers” both inside and outside the country, according to the site, which issues press releases like, “ACTIVISTS: BAHRAIN GOVT REPORT ON REFORM PROGRESS IS SUGAR COATING” and documents evidence of US- and European-supplied arms and riot control items used by government forces against protesters.

But let’s cut to the chase. Who funds Bahrain Watch, what with their research cited by everyone from the International Business Times to Iran’s Press TV? “So far, we have received no funding at all,” according to founder Bill Marczak, a computer science graduate student at Berkeley who recently helped reveal spyware used by Bahrain’s authorities to spy on their own citizens. “Expenses are paid from our own pockets, and we work on Bahrain Watch during our free time,” he told me by e-mail, adding, “Bahrain Watch is just us five.”

Meet the rest of the team: Dr. Ala’a Shehabi, whose Twitter handle describes her as a “persona non grata” in Bahrain and who was briefly imprisoned but has since been freed; the formerly Bahrain-based journalist and blogger Fahad Desmukh, whose most recent blog post accuses US congressman and Foreign Affairs committee member Eni Faleomavaega of being an “apologist” for the Bahrain regime; Durham University Ph.D. student Marc Owen Jones, who was born in Bahrain; and John Horne, an editor for the alternative foreign policy publication Enduring America Worldview.  

Despite turning a critical eye on the PR efforts of Bahrain’s ruling authorities, self-styled human rights organizations like Bahrain Watch—and a raft of similar groups that have popped up throughout the region in the wake of the Arab Spring—in fact operate along very similar lines, and indeed can have their own hidden agenda. In the fervor of advocacy, young activist groups can make the work of established NGOs more difficult and, lacking transparency, leave themselves open to accusations of foreign meddling—that favored catch-all of authoritarian regimes worldwide. Bahrain Watch is one of these young organizations, making its identity and purpose all the more difficult to parse in a country of complex politics. The Economist recently described it as “a pro-democracy lobby,” yet went on to cite their investigation into Bahrain’s public relations spending. One can only hope that by raising issues like that, or, to cite another project, the US government’s seeming indifference to the allegedly illegal use of their weapons in Bahrain, interest groups like Bahrain Watch are at least able to shame the press into more responsive reporting throughout the region. 


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English


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