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Bahrain: a busy time for Qorvis

February has been a busy month for Qorvis, the American public relations firm hired at $480,000 a year to spruce up Bahrain's tarnished image.

For starters, there was the usual round of "good news" press releases to be churned out highlighting the kingdom's tolerance, its culture, its charitable work and, of course, its economic progress:

Bahrain's Ambassador to the United States Emphasizes Religious Freedom in Speech to Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (Feb 25)

Bahraini Schools Stress Tolerance (Feb 23)

Seventh Annual Spring of Culture Festival in Bahrain Draws International Artists (Feb 21)

Bahrain's ALBA to Expand Production Capacity by 2015 (Feb 19)

Bahrainis Send Donations of Humanitarian Aid to War-Torn Syria (Feb 17)

Bahrain's Ambassador to the United States Hails Bilateral Ties, Emphasizes Progress of Reform in Speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (Feb 14)

Bahrain's Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Nonoo Launches Official Blog (Feb 14)

Competitive Investment Rates Draw Logistics Provider to Bahrain (Feb 11)

New Hospital Gives Bahrainis Better Access to Services (Feb 7)

New Training Programs Encourage Bahraini Employment (Feb 1)

Bahrain's ambassador to the US, Houda Nonoo, also launched a blog. Is she writing it herself, I wonder – or does Qorvis give her a hand? Either way, it certainly gushes:

"Bahrain’s wonderful story has been told for centuries and in many chapters. While we all embrace our important past, we look more to the stories of tomorrow to keep Bahrain progressive, peaceful and a worthy companion to our friends around the world.

"Through this blog, I will endeavor to provide insight and thought to what is happening today in Bahrain and share my country’s journey to enact political reform, to provide economic opportunity and to engender a sense of national unity. This will let us communicate directly with the American people and others who wish an unvarnished, accurate report on what is taking place in Bahrain, the US’s longtime friend and strongest ally in the Middle East."

Last Thursday, Ambassador Nonoo gave a talk to Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington about Bahrain's "superlative record in preserving religious freedom " (according to Qorvis's press release):

"Bahrain is a free and open society. Women are fully empowered members of society. Although Bahrain is a Muslim country, religious minorities – including Christians, Jews, Hindus and Baha'i – enjoy full freedom of worship," Ambassador Nonoo said. "Today, next to mosques, Bahrain is home to 19 registered churches, a synagogue, Hindu temples and many other places of worship."

All very nice, but that's a bit different from what the US State Department said in its most recent report about religious freedom in Bahrain:

  • The constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of religion but does provide for freedom of worship ... however, in practice, the Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favoured status, and the Shia population faced discrimination.

  • During the reporting period there were reports of mass arrests of Shia activists, including clerics, with some allegations of torture, censorship of religious sermons, and the revocation of citizenship of a prominent Shia religious leader and his family -- although later restored. 

  • Construction of places of worship required approvals from a number of national-level entities, as well as municipal entities. 

  • According to several non-Muslim religious groups, the Ministry of Social Development's (MOSD) restrictions on contact with "foreign" entities caused significant operational difficulties for some churches and other groups.

  • Only a few Shia citizens held significant posts in the defense and internal security forces ...

  • Shia citizens were underrepresented in the Ministry of Education ...

  • Holding a religious meeting without a permit was illegal; however, during the reporting period there were no reports of the government denying religious groups a permit to gather.

  • The government funded, monitored, and exercised control over official Muslim religious institutions, including Shia and Sunni mosques, religious community centers, Shia and Sunni religious endowments, and the religious courts ...

  • Some anti-Jewish political commentary and editorial cartoons appeared, usually linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without government response.

Meanwhile on Twitter, Matt Lauer, the "passport carrying truth teller" who heads Qorvis's Bahrain operation, continues to recommend suitable reading material. One is an item in the Sacramento Bee which turns out to be a word-for-word reproduction of a Qorvis press release. 

Another is an article by Morgan Roach on the Heritage Network's website headed "The many faces of Bahrain's opposition movement". It ends with Bahrain/Qorvis's standard PR line:

Too often, outside observers who have called Bahrain’s reforms “cosmetic” are too eager to leap to the defense of the opposition without fully considering its many faces. Bahrain’s government is far from perfect, but then again, so is the opposition.

A new tactic this month, reported by the non-profit news organisation ProPublica, was to organise a visit to Washington by three young Bahrainis who were supposedly representing "the leading voice for change and reform" in Bahrain.

According to ProPublica, though, they were actually members of a "youth delegation" put together by Qorvis and their "modestly pro-reform message was mixed with sharp criticism of the opposition in Bahrain and complaints about negative media coverage in the US".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 February 2012. Comment.

Stratfor's "intelligence"

There was a short-lived flurry of excitement yesterday when WikiLeaks began publishing emails that appear to have been hacked from the servers of Stratfor, a Texas-based "global intelligence" company.

"What we have discovered is a company that is a private intelligence Enron," WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange announced, claiming that the emails provide "a treasure trove of nasty details".

While it's quite possible that there may be evidence of some dodgy practices somewhere among the 5.5 million emails, I'm not gasping to find out. Along with many others who write about the Middle East, I have always regarded Stratfor as a bit of a joke. Its "intelligence" gathering is nothing special – much of it comes from published sources – and its analysis is often flaky. 

Max Fisher, writing for The Atlantic, draws a similar conclusion:

As a former recipient of their "INTEL REPORTS" (I assume someone at Stratfor signed me up for a trial subscription, which appeared in my inbox unsolicited), what I found was typically some combination of publicly available information and bland "analysis" that had already appeared in the previous day's New York Times. A friend who works in intelligence once joked that Stratfor is just The Economist a week later and several hundred times more expensive. As of 2001, a Stratfor subscription could cost up to $40,000 per year.

Whatever you think of its output, though, Stratfor (short for "strategic forecasting") is clearly very good at marketing itself. It claims to have 300,000 subscribers and many of these are large corporate clients that have either bought into its mystique or simply can't be bothered to search Google for themselves.

Unfortunately, WikiLeaks seems to have swallowed the mystique too, imagining that it's a privatised version of the CIA – which it is not.

The reality becomes clearer when you learn from Twitter that a non-Arabic-speaking Stratfor "agent" was spotted in Cairo asking the way to Tahrir Square.

In one of the leaked emails, a major in Israel's military intelligence is found informing Stratfor that "Yemen will be completely out of water in eight years". Asked if this is Israel's own assessement of the situation, the major replies that he read it on Wikipedia but then, on reflection, suggests that it can be attributed to published "studies".

In another email, Coca-Cola wants to know about PETA, the animal rights group, in case it takes action against sponsors of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Coca-Cola has asked Stratfor a few basic questions, such as how many members PETA has in Canada and how many attacks it has carried out there. Stratfor's reponse is to put interns on the case. "I need all the information our talented interns can dig up by COB [close of business] tomorrow," an internal memo says.

Last December, Strafor published a report on Syria which made the contentious assertion:

"Most of the opposition's more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue ..."

This was eagerly latched onto by sympathisers of the Assad regime and was later cited in an article by Aisling Byrne (which I critiqued at the time). But the credibility of Stratfor's report was somewhat dented by the elementary mistake of describing two senior figures in the Assad regime as Sunni Muslims. A correction has since been posted at the end of the report saying that they are in fact Alawites.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 February 2012. Comment.

Gay rights and the Arab Spring

I think it's fair to say that while gay Arabs have been generally supportive of the Arab Spring, the Arab Spring has not been very supportive of gay Arabs.

The activists among gay Arabs certainly see themselves as part of a broader struggle – which raises the question of how far they should set aside their gay activism while fighting for bigger and more immediate goals.

This question came up last November when a Facebook group wanted to declare January 1 as Egypt's National Gay Day. A blogger in Cairo called Nilesby doubted that it was a good idea and wrote:

"Is shocking people this way going to support our cause, or harm it? Is the time ever 'right'? ... I do think there are times that are more appropriate than others. There are also ways more appropriate than others. How to measure this 'appropriateness'? I have no idea."

As a warning, Nilesby went on to point out the divisions and harassment that had occurred earlier that year in Egypt when people attempted to celebrate International Women's Day.

Another blogger dismissed the argument that the time isn't right, and wrote:

"Over and over we have waited, and put the 'greater' cause ahead, only to find ourselves pushed back once things are settled ... We have learned that yes, the time is not right, simply because the time for us to speak out was yesterday.

"Our demands do not break the 'movement', it is the 'movement' that breaks itself by not including us. Our demands are only ours because the 'greater' cause only rarely embraces them ..."

Even so, and taking a longer view of the prospects for gay rights, I think the Arab Spring is opening up new possibilities. 

There are basically two strands to achieving LGBT rights (and sexual and gender rights as well). One is institutional acceptance, which involves changing laws, and the other is social acceptance, which involves changing people's attitudes. You need to have both, but in practice they don't always happen simultaneously.

What we are seeing with the Arab Spring is the beginnings of generalised institutional change, starting with the removal of authoritarian regimes. But that is also being driven by social pressures – frustrations over a lack of freedom (at a personal level as well as a political level), frustrations over a lack of economic opportunities, a lack of opportunities for self-fulfilment, and so on. 

These social pressures for change began long before the events in Tunisia and they'll continue long after the dictators have gone.

Looking elsewhere in the world, institutional acceptance of LGBT rights has often been the result of political upheaval. For example, South Africa when apartheid ended, or Latin America when the age of the military juntas came to an end.

I can't visualise anything similar happening with LGBT rights in the Arab countries at present and I think they are more likely to follow the more gradual route that we saw in Britain, among other places.
What happened in Britain was partly a change in ideas about the function of governments - that policing what consenting adults did in private was not a legitimate concern of the state.

There were also changing ideas about the law. One was a recognition that in order for a crime to take place there has to be a victim, and when two people of the same gender agree to have sex together there is no victim.

Another was recognition that laws against homosexuality were generally unenforceable – since the vast majority of same-sex acts went unpunished – and that this was making a mockery of the legal system as a whole.

On the institutional front, I think these are the sort of arguments that have some prospect of being accepted in at least some of the Arab countries eventually. Lebanon is certainly moving in that direction. There has been persistent talk of overhauling the penal code to remove those sections that are no longer seen as part of government's legitimate business – including the one that criminalises "all unnatural intercourse".

On the social front, as far as changing public attitudes towards LGBT rights is concerned, I don't see much scope at this stage for a confrontational in-your-face style of campaigning – mainly because the number of people willing to stick their heads above the parapet is too small.

In Lebanon, though, the local LGBT organisation, called Helem, has been functioning openly for about 10 years now and has played quite a smart game.

This has been based on raising the visibility of gay people in a fairly low-key kind of way and presenting them as part of the country's social and political fabric. The first public appearance of a rainbow flag in Lebanon, for example, was during a demonstration in 2003 against the Iraq war.

They have also worked hard at cultivating allies among other sections of civil society, constantly making the point that LGBT rights are an integral part of human rights.

In 2006, when Lebanon was being bombed by Israel, Helem's office became the centre of a relief operation for people who had fled their homes – and this certainly helped to change perceptions of them among the Shia community, and even in Hizbullah.

It's now more than 10 years since I first started writing about gay issues in the Middle East. In the beginning it was still very much a taboo subject but I think there is more awareness now, at least among the more progressive elements, that gay Arabs do exist – despite the lack of public role models – and that the challenges posed by sexual nonconformity won't go away.

These challenges are fundamental in many ways and go to the heart of the Arab Spring. They raise questions about the relationship between the state and the individual, and above all about the continuance of patriarchal rule. 

In a patriarchal system, where masculinity is highly valued and gender roles are rigidly defined, any deviation from the sexual "norms" and expected gender roles is not only subversive but is regarded as extremely threatening.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 February 2012. Comment.

Orientalism revisited

In an article newly posted on al-bab, Philip Rushworth examines the current state of the debate about Orientalism. 

Hopefully, this will become the first in a series of "great debates" on Middle East topics. The idea is to provide some general background to the subject, highlight the key areas of dispute and provide some pointers for further reading.

Comments from readers are welcome, and can be sent to the usual email address. Suggestions for other topics to be covered in the series are also welcome.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 February 2012. Comment.

Documents added to the website

I have added a couple of new documents to the website (in English translation) which readers may find useful for reference purposes:

Syria's new draft constitution 

This is the draft which President Assad has said will be submitted to a referendum later this month.

The transition agreement for Yemen

This document sets out the terms for a political transition in Yemen, including President Saleh's departure from office. The full text has not been widely available but has now been translated by the Yemen Peace Project.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 February 2012. Comment.

'Spontaneous demonstrations' are expensive

It has long been assumed that the pro-government demonstrations in Syria are anything but spontaneous – that government employees and the like are obliged to take part in them. A series of intercepted emails from the Ministry of Presidential Affairs now provides some confirmation of this – especially in relation to the cost of organising them.

Last weekend, a list of email addresses and passwords of ministry officials was mysteriously posted on the internet, and journalists and activists have since been trawling through them. Al-Ayyam, a recently-established Syrian pro-democracy website, reports:

Emails uncovered sent to Presidential aide Akram Issa, detail billings and accounts and efforts made in advance to create these spontaneous rallies in support of the President.

The email in question marked SPAM in the subject header, states Governors involved offered their verbal commitment to pay the supplier of these protests yet have not paid up their dues as per the Minister’s request. Attachments in the email detail itemized descriptions of the outstanding balance, which reach a total of 1.1 Million SYP in October 2011 (before the inflation of the SYP) at the time equaling $20,000.

The rally in Lattakia province alone cost the administration 315,000 SYP the bare minimum, the supplier writes, to make the rally seem like an acceptable turnout.

An attachment titled “Details of the Flag Raising Rally in Lattakia” includes 45,000 SYP ($800) spent on 60 kg of confetti to be thrown in the air the moment the Syrian flag is raised. One hundred sweaters for the flag raising crew in the colors of the flag totaling 2,500 SYP ($580) and sound system rental for the rally at 500,000 SYP ($9000).

In another attachment titled “Detailed billings to the personal account of Monhal Zeitoun” costs for rallies held in Damascus, Sweida and Hasakeh province are itemized. The supplier writes under the header for Damascus “Campaign: Our martyrs, your blood runs in our veins” and details expenditures of 150,000 SYP ($2,600) to cover sound and broadcast of the event including another 49,000 SYP ($875) for printed t-shirts. A miscellaneous amount of 57,000 SYP includes costs for ironing clothes, supply of water, taxi cabs and a refrigerator and its transport.

Other emails from the Syrian ministry include correspondence in 2010 between George Galloway, the former British member of parliament, and Buthaina Shaaban, one of Assad's closest advisers.

Galloway once addressed Saddam Hussein with the words: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability" and his attitude towards Syria appears not dissimilar. In his emails to Shaaban he describes Syria as "the last castle of Arab dignity" and asks her to "convey my respect and my admiration to His Excellency the President".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 February 2012. Comment.

Lizzie Phelan blames west for Aleppo bombings

Lizzie Phelan, the British "independent journalist" whose fanciful reporting of the Libyan conflict attracted a good deal of attention on the internet last year, appeared on Russia Today yesterday, blaming Britain, Israel, France and the US for the double bombing in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Phelan, also known as Lizzie Cocker, told viewers:

I would say that this attack was directed from London, Tel Aviv, Paris and New York. The explosions themselves were huge. I have spoken to people in Aleppo who are in fear for their lives and there were people up to 20km away who felt the explosions.

So let's look at the evidence for the fact that this attack was actually directed externally. Of course it was carried out by so-called Free Syrian Army insurgents but first of all I would just like to say that this attack is clearly a response to the Russian and Chinese veto. It is a message from the west: if we don't get our way through the United Nations security council we are going to go ahead with destabilising the country, Syria, by any means possible.

She has also written about it on her blog, under the headline: "Western sponsored massacre in Homs [sic] a direct response to Russian and Chinese Veto". (She seems a bit confused between Homs and Aleppo.)

Last month Phelan was interviewed by New York Times journalist Robert Mackey about her coverage of Libya and Syria. Here is one exchange:

Mackey: I also wanted to find out more about your reporting from Libya, and ask how you respond to allegations that you supported the government of Col. Qaddafi? All in all, I'm trying to get a better understanding of what drives you to speak out against Western governments but apparently lend your support to governments, like those in Iran, Russia and Syria now, that have been accused of serious human rights abuses.

Phelan: Again this is another deceitful question and epitomises the manipulative approach of the world’s powerful media, such as newspapers like the NYT.

Here you are asking me this question because the west’s major powers and media criminalised Muammar Gaddafi, Iran etc by accusing them of abusing human rights.

So you are trying to put me into this trap by saying that if I support Muammar Gaddafi, and Iran I also support abuses against human rights.

But first of all this question of human rights is an absolute fallacy and is at present the number one stick used to bash leaders of independent developing countries in order to provide a moral justification for the imposition of the western system upon those countries ...

Factually speaking Libya was a paradise for human rights and Muammar Gaddafi was due to receive a human rights award prior to the NATO onslaught. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 February 2012. Comment.

New move on Saudi women drivers

Saudi Arabia has moved a step closer to lifting its unwritten ban on female drivers. 

It is reported that a committee of experts will look into "issues that have a social dimension and no legal basis [in Sharia]" that are currently dealt with by the courts. The issues they have in mind, apparently, are those that cause "uproar at home and abroad" and impact "negatively on the image of the judiciary".

Discussing this on her blog, Eman al-Nafjan says: "From the wording of the report it is clear that this committee is most likely set up to solely deal with the women driving ban issue."

Last year a number of Saudi women were arrested for defying the ban and currently two are suing the authorities for refusing them a licence.

Last week, activist Samar Badawy, filed a lawsuit against the interior ministry’s traffic department for illegally preventing her from applying for a licence. Another campaigner, Manal al-Sharif, has brought a similar case General Directorate of Traffic after her application for a licence was ignored.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 February 2012. Comment.

Busy Lizzie 

You may have been wondering what happened to Lizzie Phelan, the British "independent journalist" who reported Colonel Gaddafi's numerous successes against the rebels in Libya last year.

Well, the fall of Gaddafi didn't bring an end to her endeavours. Last month she re-surfaced in Syria, once again proclaiming that the situation there is not as the mainstream media portray it (see video above).

While conceding that there are "some problems", she told TV viewers: "What I've witnessed here is completely different from what has been told to the public in the west, in England, the United States and other countries." 

She explained that she had seen no big demonstrations against the government but had seen "a massive one in support of the government".

Phelan's reports from Libya were often reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's information minister in 2003 denying the fall of Baghdad. When rebels entered Tripoli in August, she suggested this was just a part of Gaddafi's cunning plan:

"What we’ve heard is that the strategy of the Libyan government and army was to permit the rebels into the city because previously they have been operating in sleeper cells and therefore it was very difficult to know who they were and where they were hiding, so this strategy was part of bringing them out of the woodwork so that they could be dealt with quite swiftly."

A day later, she claimed that scenes of jubilation in Green Square, shown on al-Jazeera, were faked.

Phelan is also known as Lizzie Cocker. Under the latter name she appeared as one of the star speakers at London University for the launch of the Equality Movement last year, addressing a crowd of about 500 people on imperialism. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 February 2012. Comment.

Previous blog posts




February 2012

Bahrain: a busy time for Qorvis

Stratfor's "intelligence"

Gay rights and the Arab Spring

Orientalism revisited

Documents added to the website

'Spontaneous demonstrations' are expensive

Lizzie Phelan blames west for Aleppo bombings

New move on Saudi women drivers

Busy Lizzie


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 29 February, 2012