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Bahrain's latest PR stunt

Good news from Bahrain where the American PR firm Qorvis was recently hired at $40,000 a month to polish up the kingdom's image.

An announcement via PRNewswire reveals that Bahrain is to fund "a state of the art special hospital in Somalia as well as a nursing school to train medical personnel." It says: " His Majesty King Hamad of Bahrain has prioritized aid to Somalia in hopes of meeting the famine-stricken country's growing medical needs."

Meanwhile in Bahrain itself (and not reported on PRNewswire), twenty doctors, nurses and paramedics who treated activists wounded during anti-government protests have been sentenced to jail terms of between five and 15 years by a military court.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 September 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 1 October: A press release about the medics has now appeared, detailing the accusations agains them.

A watershed moment for Saudi women

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Saleh 'tricked Saudis' over return to Yemen

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Documents added to website

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Bahrain election spin

Something is going on at the official government news agency in Bahrain. Normally it churns out dull and unilluminating reports about royal comings and goings, such as this one:

"His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa today received Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who conveyed greetings from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdulla bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

"HM the King and Prince Faisal discussed bilateral relations and means of boosting cooperation to achieve joint interests."

So it came as quite a surprise on Saturday when a very different kind of report appeared on the US-based PRNewswire, issued in the name of the Bahrain News Agency.

Written more in the style of a western newspaper, it concerns the recent by-elections in the kingdom and portrays Bahraini voters as heroically defying protesters in order to exercise their democratic rights. The protesters, meanwhile, are portrayed as menacing "roving gangs" who threatened voters and a TV journalist as well as injuring a number of police officers. 

The reality, of course, was a lot more complicated, as a report from the Financial Times shows.

But what are we to make of PRNewswire's version? The Enduring America blog suggests – perhaps correctly – that it was written for the Bahrain News Agency by Qorvis, the American public relations firm that recently signed a $40,000-a-month contract with the government to spruce up the kingdom's tarnished image.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 September 2011. Comment.

Saudi women get the right to vote

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Journalists face jail in Oman

While the sultan of Oman has been winning gratitude from President Obama for helping to secure the release of two American hikers imprisoned in Iran, the plight of three men facing jail in Oman is attracting less attention.

Journalists Ibrahim al-Mammari and Yousef al-Haj have been sentenced to five months each for defaming Oman's justice minister and his deputy, and "insulting" their dignity. Haroon al-Muqaibli, an official in the justice ministry, received a similar sentence for leaking information to them, and the journalists' newspaper, Azzamn, is to be forcibly closed for a month.

The charges arose from an article (in Arabic) last May which made allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the ministry.

The men are currently free on bail pending an appeal next month.

Yusuf al-Haj, the reporter who wrote the offending article, described the verdict as "a blow to all journalists" and "a low point for Oman’s judiciary". "This is a political trial aimed at silencing all Oman’s journalists," he told Amnesty International.

A spokesman for Human Rights Watch said: "Using defamation charges to shield public officials from criticism is a clear violation of the right to free expression. Oman should respect the right of journalists and newspapers to operate freely and expose alleged corruption."

Earlier this year, Oman witnessed street protests against corruption, rising prices and a lack of freedom. A dozen ministers were dismissed but accountable government and free expression in Oman still seem a long way off.

Reuters notes: "Last year, a blogger was jailed for one month for criticising a government minister and this year two reporters were suspended and one detained for several days."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 September 2011. Comment.

President Saleh returns to Yemen


President Saleh, who had been receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia since he was badly injured in an assassination attempt last June, arrived in Sanaa suddenly on Friday morning amid celebratory gunfire from his supporters.

The situation in Yemen has deteriorated markedly during the last week and unless the president has some dramatic new move up his sleeve, such as resignation, his return seems almost certain to make matters worse.

The Saudis and Americans had been trying to keep him in Riyadh in the hope that a transition of power could be arranged, but efforts in that direction have made very little progress. 

Earlier this month, John Brennan, President Obama's counter-terrorism adviser (who has been heavily involved in discussions about Yemen) was quoted as saying that he no longer objected to Saleh returning home. 

According to the Yemen Post, Brennan said he "now felt comfortable enough" to allow Saleh's return, though he would not condone such a move either.

"I've told him that I do not believe it's in his interests, Yemen's interests or our interests ... to go back to Yemen," Brennan reportedly said.

On Monday, Saleh was also met the Saudi King. Details of their meeting were not disclosed, though it's said they discussed "ongoing violence in Yemen".

During Saleh's absence, his son and nephews – who hold senior posts in the security forces – have been fighting on his behalf, ranged against Saleh's kinsman, General Ali Muhsen, and the Ahmar family's tribal militia. The result was a military stalemate and, following the recent massacres of protesters on the streets, Saleh presumably argued that his return was necessary in order to restore order. Whether that will be the actual result is another matter.

There were rumours in Sanaa early on Friday that Saleh was preparing to address his party, the General People's Congress, and announce his resignation. How credible those rumours are is difficult to judge at present, and they could simply be a ruse aimed at quietening things down.

If he really intends to step down, he could have done so earlier from Saudi Arabia. By returning to Yemen and then resigning he would expose himself to the risk of prosecution. Before leaving for Saudi he had been seeking guarantees of immunity as part of a transition deal.

A straightforward, clean-cut resignation would be very much out of character; if Saleh does announce that he is stepping down, it would be surprising if there were not a lot of strings and conditions attached.

There are reports that protesters in Sanaa have welcomed news of Saleh's return as providing an opportunity to put him on trial.

Regarding the timing of Saleh's return, it may be worth noting that next Monday – September 26 – is the anniversary of the republican revolution that overthrew North Yemen's king in 1962. It is a national holiday, usually marked by a speech from the president.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 September 2011. Comment.

Election victory for Saudi men

More than 5,000 men have put themselves forward as candidates for next week's municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. This is only the second time in almost half a century that Saudis (or rather, Saudi men) have had an opportunity to vote.

In 2005, half the members of the relatively powerless municipal councils were elected for a four-year term (the other half were appointed by the king). Fresh elections were originally due in 2009 but were quietly forgotten about – postponed for "re-evaluation" – and have now come back to life, possibly stimulated by the Arab Spring.

Once again, the authorities have chickened out on the question of women's participation and activists are calling for a boycott of the polls.

In 2005, the authorities defused complaints about the exclusion of women by citing technical problems relating to the registration of female voters, provision of gender-segregated voting facilities, etc, etc, but hinted that "next time" would be different.

The next time has now arrived, and it's still the same. Earlier this month, the royally-appointed Shura Council recommended (in the face of some internal opposition) that women should be allowed to vote but, even if the king were to accept their recommendation there would not be enough time to make the necessary arrangements for this year's elections. 

So, once again, women are left waiting for the "next time" and, even if they are allowed to vote then, there is no sign of them being allowed to stand as candidates.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 September 2011. Comment.

Spinning Bahrain, the Qorvis way

It emerged last month that the American public relations firm, Qorvis, has signed a $40,000-a-month contract with the government of Bahrain to spruce up the kingdom's tarnished image.

Heading the firm's Bahrain operation is Matt Lauer, listed by Washington Life magazine earlier this year as "one of the most influential people under the age of 40" in the US capital.

A former State Department official, Lauer joined Qorvis in 2004, bringing with him "some of the most cutting edge tactics of public diplomacy", according to PRNewswire. 

"What we have done at Qorvis is develop an agile and nimble force of public diplomacy practitioners to provide demonstratable progress and geopolitical solutions for our clients," Lauer was quoted as saying. "We are loyal to our clients and our clients are loyal to us. This because our clients can actually witness the progress we make for them."

So what progress has Qorvis made so far towards rehabilitating Bahrain's repressive regime? 

The past week has brought a stream of press releases, all proclaiming good news about Bahrain and presumably drafted by Qorvis on the government's behalf:

  • Bahrain's Ambassador to the United States Acknowledges the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, Reaffirms Strong Bi-Lateral Ties (Sept 11)

  • Bahrain Prepares for the New Academic Year (Sept 9)

  • Bahrain's Government Continues to Move Forward With Reforms (Sept 8)

  • Bahrain Establishes National Audit Court to Combat Corruption (Sept 8)

  • Bahrain's National Dialogue Draws Support from Turkish President (Sept 7)

The basic message, then, is that Bahrain remains a steadfast ally of the United States, that it is pressing ahead with reforms as calm returns and (if we are to believe the Turkish president) is working for peace and stability in the Middle East.

None of this appears to have fooled the Washington Post, however. In an editorial on Saturday, it called on the Obama administration to take a firmer line with Bahrain – so Qorvis plainly has an uphill struggle on its hands.

Lauer has also posted a few of his own notes about Bahrain on Twitter (where he describes himself in his profile as a "passport carrying truth teller" who enjoys cocktails). 

On August 12, he tweeted:

"Attended a fascinating Iftar @BahrainEmbDC. Imam, Reverend, and Rabbi all gave talks on the commonalities of faiths."

A press release on the same day gave a little more detail. The imam and the rabbi at the embassy's iftar were both recruited from Clergy Without Borders – an inter- faith organisation which may not have realised it was being used for the regime's PR purposes.

One of Lauer's aims, apparently, is to promote Bahrain as a tolerant country. In an email to PRNewser last month, he wrote:

"The government [of Bahrain], as a whole, has worked hard to protect the rights and freedoms of people from all religious backgrounds and ethnicities ...

"Bahrain is unique, and is a multi-faith and multicultural society. The government strives to preserve this tolerant characteristic. We help communicate the positive work the government is undertaking."

So the embassy iftar might be viewed as an example of Bahrain's tolerance – except that the religious problem in Bahrain is not really between Muslims, Christians and Jews, but between different kinds of Muslims (a Sunni minority rules over a marginalised Shia minority). Needless to say, the imam who attended the iftar, Yahya Hendi, is a Sunni – though one who has expressed tolerance for Shia Islam too.

An interesting example of spinning negative news about Bahrain can be seen by comparing two press releases: one issued by the information ministry in Bahrain, the other circulated on PRNewsire in the US (presumably by Qorvis).

The information ministry press release announced that a man named Nabeel Rajab had been questioned by Bahrain police for publishing "incorrect news" on the internet in a manner "that was likely to disturb public security". 

The US version emphasised that Rajab had been "summoned openly and in full accordance with Bahraini law. He was not arrested or detained, and he left the police offices within one hour."

Not only that. The US version went further and sought to justify the authorities' action:

"The government of Bahrain has become increasingly concerned that unconfirmed and potentially incendiary information could incite fear and anger that might lead to public disturbances and even violence.

"The government of Bahrain supports the freedom of its citizens to express their political opinions and acknowledges that opinions from many different individuals and groups can play a positive role in the national reconciliation process. The government, however, is deeply concerned that unconfirmed rumors or incendiary information issued by any well-known organization or individual could create a dangerous situation in which lives and property are placed at risk."

Neither press release bothered to mention that Rajab is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (and in that capacity has been a target for systematic harassment by the regime).

In a similar vein, on August 3, Jill Grozalsky of Qorvis circulated an email to journalists defending an armed raid on the premises of Médecins Sans Frontières in Bahrain and the arrest of one of its staff.

The background to the raid (not mentioned by Ms Grozalsy) was that the regime had been harassing doctors who treated injured protesters, and some of those injured had been avoiding hospitals for fear of arrest.

MSF explained: "Since February, when demonstrations began in Bahrain, MSF has seen almost 200 injured and ill patients who did not seek care in health facilities because they feared being arrested for any involvement in the protests or for any affiliation with the protesters."

The Bahrain regime took exception to MSF's activities and decided to crack down, on the pretext that it was "operating an unlicensed medical centre".

Ms Grozalsky of Qorvis then informed the world's media that Bahrain was merely being "vigilant" in protecting its citizens from unauthorised health services:

"While the government of Bahrain routinely welcomes international humanitarian organizations, Bahrain cannot allow any such organization or individuals involved with such an organization to breach Bahraini law. In an area of such fundamental importance as public health services, the Government of Bahrain has a duty to be vigilant in licensing those authorized to provide health services and likewise a duty to investigate those who do so without a license.

"The criminal process is underway and Mr Mahdi [the arrested man] will be accorded the full rights under Bahraini law."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 September 2011. Comment.

Yemen: a new transition plan

Efforts to resolve the political crisis in Yemen are now focusing on a transition plan proposed by the United Nations rather than the earlier plan put forward by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

AFP reports that President Saleh's party, the General People's Congress, has agreed to discuss the UN plan within the next few days. The plan, which was drawn up by UN envoy Jamal Benomar during talks in Yemen last July, has four key points according to AFP:

1. A handover of power by Saleh to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, followed immediately by talks on a transitional period ranging from three to six months.

2. The formation of a reconciliation government during the interim period.

3. Restructuring of military bodies.

4. Setting a date for a new presidential election and preparating for it.

This is broadly similar to the earlier – ill-fated – GCC plan. The main differences are that the UN plan involves a longer transition period and also includes military restructuring.

Military restructuring is important because key parts of the security apparatus are controlled by members of Saleh's family, thus posing an obstacle to political change. Saleh has been receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia since June, when he was badly injured by a bomb explosion in his palace. Vice-President Hadi is supposedly running the country in his absence but Saleh's military relatives have prevented him from fully taking charge. 

Placing the transition under UN – rather than GCC – auspices gives it added authority and may remove some political difficulties (at one point, Saleh was objecting to Qatar's involvement). Even so, the UN's plan is likely to encounter the same problems as the GCC plan – namely, that its implementation depends on goodwill and cooperation from Saleh, and up to now he has only been interested in procrastinating and prevaricating. 

It is not unlikely that Saleh will try to drag out any "transition" process until the official end of his presidential term in 2013. Constitutionally, he is not allowed another term after that though he could put forward his son, Ahmad, to succeed him.

Saleh now appears to have largely recovered from his injuries and it is widely believed that he is still in Saudi Arabia because the Saudis and/or Americans have been keeping him there – fearful that his return to Yemen would make the situation worse.

On Sunday, however, John Brennan, President Obama's counter-terrorism adviser (who has been heavily involved in discussions about Yemen) was quoted as saying that he no longer objected to Saleh returning home. 

According to the Yemen Post, Brennan said he "now felt comfortable enough" to allow Saleh's return, though he would not condone such a move either.

"I've told him that I do not believe it's in his interests, Yemen's interests or our interests ... to go back to Yemen," Brennan reportedly said.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 September 2011. Comment.

Lies and more lies from Bahrain's regime

The government of Bahrain is developing quite a reputation for lying – in particular, by circulating false claims of international support for its repression.

Last week, Amnesty International issued a statement about the 14-year-old boy who died during a peaceful demonstration in the kingdom – apparently after being hit by a police teargas canister. 

In the statement published on its website, Amnesty accused the Bahraini police of using excessive force. "The police have a duty to uphold the law, but it is completely unacceptable to throw heavy gas canisters at children," an Amnesty spokesman said. "The authorities must investigate."

The next day, Bahrain's pro-government media carried a very different version of the statement (example here, in Arabic). The Bahraini version said Amnesty had "confirmed" that opposition parties in the kingdom were seeking to exploit children and placing them in demonstrations for "political gains".

This did not appear anywhere in Amnesty's published statement and Amnesty then issued a further statement insisting that it had said no such thing.

It is by no means the first time that something like this has happened.

Back in April, I noted the foreign ministry's highly implausible claim that Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, had declared his support for Bahrain's "security measures" (i.e. its violent suppression of protesters). The ministry also claimed that the UN chief had "praised the political reforms led by His Majesty the King and Bahrain's progress and prosperity at all levels".

This was more or less the opposite of what he actually said. According the UN press release that summarised his remarks, Mr Ban urged "maximum restraint and caution" and hoped that the authorities would start "serious, inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders" as soon as possible.

In June, it was the turn of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to have words put into her mouth. Pillay had visited Bahrain in an effort to establish a UN mission to investigate rights violations there.

The official Bahrain News Agency quoted her as saying during a meeting with the social development minister: "Certain information which we received about the developments [i.e. unrest] in Bahrain was untrue." On that basis, Pillay had supposedly "acknowledged that the situation in Bahrain is by far different, and is thus incomparable to ongoing unrest in other countries in the region".

The UN then issued an unusually angry statement saying the Bahrain News Agency's report had "grossly misrepresented" the meeting. It continued:

"The High Commissioner would like to stress that she made no such statement, and is disturbed by this blatant distortion of her words. She will formally request the Government officials who attended the meeting to issue a correction."

A correction does not appear to have been forthcoming, though the Bahrain News Agency (which had not in fact been present to report the meeting) did publish an opaque two-paragraph note saying it had got its (mis)information secondhand from the Ministry of Social Development.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 September 2011. Comment.

Yemen and the spin doctors

Just over a month ago I noted that the Bell Pottinger, one of Britain's leading public relations firms, had been hired by President Saleh's regime in Yemen and was working for "an unnamed special entity" set up by the government in Sana'a.

Research by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has now cast some more light on this mysterious affair. It appears that the "unnamed special entity" is the National Awareness Organisation – a body founded and chaired by the president's nephew, Colonel Tareq Saleh, who is also in charge of the presidential guard.

Besides trying to improve the country's image abroad through its website, the National Awareness Organisation has been running a "patriotism" campaign within Yemen. It has been distributing millions of posters, bumper stickers, CDs and other promotional materials with its patriotic message, according to Yemen Today.

"The awareness committee also plans to revise [school] textbooks to reflect love of country and moderation," Yemen Today added. "They have organised an art gallery focused on combating extremism and terrorism. More than 70 artists, representing all of the Yemeni provinces, contributed to the gallery showing their support for national unity."

Bell Pottinger's public relations work for unsavoury regimes (others in the Middle East have included Bahrain and Egypt under Mubarak) is controversial and usually rather secretive. Details emerged in this case because Bell Pottinger sub-contracted the American PR firm, Qorvis, for at least part of its Yemen-related work.

In the US, unlike Britain, lobbying work for foreign governments has to be registered with the Justice Department, and on August 4 Qorvis filed the obligatory documents relating to its contract.

Qorvis's sub-contracting role was to carry out "media outreach for print and television media and strategic communications consultancy" in the US for the Yemeni National Awareness Organisation at a rate of $30,000 per month.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism says: "In November 2010 Bell Pottinger also contracted Qorvis to place an opinion article by a Yemeni official in a news outlet, as part of its work for the foreign ministry."

That raises another interesting question: what was the article, and where did it appear?

Searching on Google, I can find only one that fits the time-frame and general description. On November 24, the Huffington Post published this article under the name of Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister. 

After some initial blathering about "the great gains Yemen has made in recent years in the fields of security, tourism and wider economic development", the article continued:

"Those who have been reading the international press in recent weeks, who have not had the good fortune to visit our country and enjoy its rich history and age-old traditions of hospitality, would naturally conclude that there was little to Yemen other than the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is a shame that this false image has become so prevalent because nothing could be further from the truth ...

"I would like to take this opportunity to assure the international community that the Yemeni government remains steadfast in its commitment to root out terrorism. Our security forces will continue their relentless efforts to fight against Al Qaeda. The people of Yemen stand firm behind their government and its fight against radicalisation and terrorism." 

Dr Qirbi (who I met a few years ago) speaks excellent English and I doubt he would have written such drivel without the intervention of Qorvis. Also, as anyone who has offered an article for publication by Huffpo will know, you don't need an expensive PR firm to act as go-between. If I were Saleh's nephew I'd say I had been thoroughly ripped off.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 September 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




September 2011

Bahrain's latest PR stunt

A watershed moment for Saudi women

Saleh 'tricked Saudis' over return to Yemen

Documents added to website

Bahrain election spin

Saudi women get the right to vote

Journalists face jail in Oman

President Saleh returns to Yemen

Election victory for Saudi men

Spinning Bahrain, the Qorvis way

Yemen: a new transition plan

Lies and more lies from Bahrain's regime

Yemen and the spin doctors


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Last revised on 09 October, 2011