Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bahrain, and the Anglo-American oil frontier

When, in 1968, the British government announced that Britain's formal protectorate in the Gulf would end in 1971, American planners were anxious and distraught. After Suez, the US had taken the lead in defending Anglo-American interests in the Middle East, but the structure of power in the 'East of Suez' was still conserved by the old colonial power. The Persian Gulf states at that time supplied 30% of total oil resources. The reconstruction of Europe and especially Japan after WWII was driven by Gulf oil. And the US had no alternative structure of security elaborated for when Britain let go.

Bahrain, off the eastern shore of the Saudi Kingdom, had been subject to many of the same basic forms of state and market formation as the Saudi monarchy itself. Its commercial markets were first penetrated by British capitalism when East India company adventurers first arrived in the eighteenth century. It became a British 'protectorate', courtesy of gunboat diplomacy, in 1861. When I say 'gunboat diplomacy', I am being quite literal. The British had first imposed a 'General Treaty of Peace' on Gulf states, signalling their subordination to British power in the 1820s. This stated that Bahrain was not permitted to dispose of its territory except to the United Kingdom, or get involved in a relationship with any government without British consent. It was a way of keeping competing European powers out of the Gulf. The British later imposed their own 'Resident in the Persian Gulf' to manage their growing paramountcy in the region through a series of local advisors in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. All of this was supported and maintained by a large naval squadron. In return Britain promised to support the rule of Shaikh Al Khalifa, which established the UK's tradition of supporting Sunni dynastic rule over a largely Shia population. This system of rule was later centred on the British Raj, which maintained a Shaikhdom in Bahrain, and used the islands-state as a base for defending its regional interests, particularly during WWI.

Until the discovery and use of oil, Bahrain's major trades had included pearling, but throughout the 19th Century it diversified sufficiently for Manama to become the dominant trading city in the Gulf region, overtaking Basra and Kuwait. When oil was discovered in 1932, however, and Bahrain began exporting in 1934, it was just as traditional industries were suffering a severe decline amid global Depression. Unemployment had been soaring, and the pearl industry sinking. The sudden availability of oil revenues, a third of which were nominally controlled by the Shaikdom, paid for state-led capitalist development. Bahrain became what some social scientists call a 'rentier state', inasmuch as it depended by far on revenues derived from the sale of its oil on international markets than from the productive efforts of the society as a whole. The modern state of Saudi Arabia was formed under King Abdul Aziz bin Saud with British support in 1932, and it too began to export oil, with the industry taking off in 1938. This is when the current ties with the Saudi kingdom and US capital were first forged.

When Socal and Texaco initially combined in 1936 to form Aramco, the subsidiary was intended to run the oil concessions in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Aramco, we know from Robert Vitalis, simultaneously created a public identity for itself as a partner in development and modernization, and reproduced the Jim Crow labour market structures then prevalent in the United States. The racial hierarchies maintained in the labour force, with white American workers at the apex and migrant workers from southern Asia at the bottom, still have operative effects in Bahrain's political system today. But the PR efforts, which involved paying a platoon of journalists, writers and scholars, building up research centres. Writers like Wallace Stegner took the 'myth of the frontier' elaborated by Frederick Jackson Turner, in which America's rugged democratic experiment was held to depend on the restless advance westward as hardy American citizens settled and improved otherwise empty land (oh yeah), and applied it to the oil frontiers. There, the oil companies were the pioneering heroes of civilization, the natives barely registering except as grateful recipients of racial uplift. At the same time, the British established more bases on the islands to entrench its control.

In partnership with British imperialism, represented in the person of 'advisor' Charles Belgrave, the oil firms helped construct forms of governance, geographies of accumulation, and market structures that guaranteed that this miraculous substance of myriad uses, this black gold, this vital source of industrialisation and advancement, would be controlled and directed by the 'West'. Bahrain, along with other Gulf states, was controlled from British India until 1947. In the postwar era, Britain maintained its 'informal' empire in the Gulf through a system of local advisors and client regimes backed by military force. Modernisation projects, such as the creation of a national education system, were built under British imperial tutelage. Challenges to the regime were assisted by British weaponry, as during the suppression of anti-British riots in the immediate post-war years, the containment of strikes by the left-wing National Union Committee, the crushing of pro-Egyptian demonstrations in 1956, and the putting down of the pro-independence March Intifada in 1965.

Until 1971, then, the British provided the security and patronage framework within which US oil capital operated. Under the banner of 'guided development', the British ruling class cultivated sterling-based networks of regional clients, and developed internal security apparati (mukhabarat) to sustain regimes which would operate only minimally within the integument of formal sovereignty. This model could occasionally conflict with US strategy. If American planners were not keen for rapid decolonization, fearing not just the exclusion of US investors but also the emergence of a worldwide systemic alternative to capitalism, they nonetheless had a conception of geographical accumulation, based substantially on the work of geographer Isaiah Bowman and other social scientists in light of their own experiments in direct colonial rule, which did not necessarily depend on direct territorial control. A global hierarchy of sovereign states operating an 'open door' policy was in principle compatible with US imperial hegemony, provided there was no revolutionary challenge to that hegemony. As such, the US had not initially worried overly about the Free Officers taking over Egypt in 1952, or Iraq in 1958. The real worry came later, in the 1960s, when Arab nationalism took a radical leftist turn. And though one context of Britain's declaration of withdrawal from its 'East of Suez' engagements was a traumatic defeat for Arab nationalism, there was still no certainty that ensuing movements and regimes would provide favourable territories for continued US capital accumulation. Britain's retreat from its imperial commitments 'East of Suez reflected defeat of a similar kind to that being inflicted on the US in Vietnam - this despite often brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Malaysia and Aden (Yemen). Because of the growing political and economic costs of these commitments for a crisis-hit British capitalism, the Conservatives pledged to honour Wilson's withdrawal plans.

The US strategy in the Gulf was thus to engage in a Metternichian 'power-balancing' strategy. This involved strengthening its ally, the Shah, who asserted an Iranian claim to Bahrain, while also working to bolster the opposing Ba'athist regime in Iraq. With respect to Bahrain, a US naval squadron took up where the British navy departed. The formally independent emirate of Bahrain maintained its cosy relationship with Anglo-American power. Despite the creation of a parliament elected solely by male voters in 1973, the monarch retained the ability to impose laws by decree, such as the highly repressive State Security Law. Surging oil revenues in the 1970s contributed to the restoration of relative political stability, and attracted waves of migrant workers from civil war struck Lebanon and from southern Asia. The decline of the Left and of Arab nationalism in the same period opened the field of dissent to Islamists inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup in 1981. In this context, the Anglo-American archipelago became an important counter-weight to the Islamic Republic, as its hosting of the US Navy's 'Fifth Fleet' provided a basis for the US military to threaten and contain Iran while Saddam Hussein mounted his invasion.

The ties with the Saudi kingdom, which was engaged in a region-wide struggle to prevent the influence of the Iranian revolution from spreading, were crucial in helping the Bahrain monarch defeat the Islamist challenge. In 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was forged to coordinate economic and political strategies among six key Gulf states, under Saudi hegemony. Economic associations were created to avoid the duplication of outlay. The Saudi-Kuwaiti-Bahraini Petrochemicals Company (Gulf Petrochemicals Company) was also formed. The Saudi-Bahrain connection was even rendered manifest by the King Fahd Causeway, a World Bank supported white elephant which has connected the Aramco city of Dahran to the refineries of Bahrain since completion in 1986. When oil prices collapsed in the 1990s, unemployment protests culminated in a wave of uprisings took place lasting from 1994 to 2000. The challenge to the monarchy united leftists, Islamists and liberals, and was met with much the same forms of indiscriminate violence by Saudi-backed security forces as we have witnessed recently. In fact, 'indiscriminate' may not be quite the word I'm looking for - the attacks were clearly targeted at Shi'ite areas. The uprising only ended when a new emir promised a series of liberalising political reforms specified in the National Action Charter, which - while carefully conserving private property and the market - included some promises of social justice, the defence of public property, and the extension of democracy. The official state of emergency imposed since 1975 was dropped, and women were permitted to vote for the first time in 2002. This reform was intended to do what repression had not succeeded in doing, conserving the power of the ruling clan. And it was supported by over 98% of the population in a nationwide referendum.

While these reforms did not turn Bahrain into a democracy, they did permit previously covert opposition groups to emerge into the open. Nationwide protests and strikes favouring real democracy and opposing the demeaning, racist treatment of migrant workers, have been a regular occurrence since, often defying official protest bans. These have combined the Shi'ite opposition with leftist and Arab nationalist opposition currents. Official racism, not only discriminating against and repressing the majority Shia population, who are deprived of all military-oriented jobs as well as roles in strategically important government positions, but also attempting to 'reclaim' Manama 'for Bahrainis' has been part of the conservative response to these protests. In the 2000s, the al-Wefaq (Islamic National Accord) party has been the major political vehicle through which the Shi'ite majority has attempted to resist discrimination. Though they boycotted the 2002 elections in protest at the dominance of royal-appointed placemen in the upper chamber, their participation in the 2006 elections saw 16 of their 17 candidates for a 40-seat lower chamber get elected. Al-Wefaq's support for greater democracy, the decentralisation of power and the redistribution of wealth and resources has always posed at least a latent challenge to the ruling royals. In place of governorates, it aims to transfer considerable power to municipal councils which would be controlled by the Shia majority. In place of a royal-dominated upper chamber, it seeks to place legislative power decisively in the hands of the elected majority and will work with other opposition parties to this end. Meanwhile its socially conservative 'morality' campaigns challenge the avowedly secular culture of the regime. Its emergence and support in the mosques is significant given the traditionally quietist role of religious authorities schooled in the conservative Akhbari Shia tradition. The biggest leftist bloc is National Democratic Action, which also boycotted the 2002 elections and has participated in the major protest movements. It is rooted in workers movements and womens' associations. In terms of members and votes, it is smaller than al-Wefaq, but both have been willing to work together in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary battles. The 'Democratic Bloc', formerly the Communist Party of Bahrain, did stand in the 2002 elections and received a decent share of the vote. There are also Sunni Islamist and salafist groups which are occasionally oppositional, and a relatively large liberal-right parliamentary group called the 'Economists Bloc' which supports the status quo.

The uprising in Bahrain began on the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter being passed by referendum. The accumulated grievances over the lack of democracy, discrimination against the Shia, the use of torture and repression, and the lack of workers' rights were already producing a serious challenge to the monarchy. But then, Tunisia. Then, Egypt. As protests were prepared for 14th February, the regime panicked. The kingdom ordered that every family be given 1000 Bahraini dinars (equivalent to $2,600) to celebrate the anniversary of the National Action Charter. But the bribe didn't work. Nor did the King's gesture of releasing 450 political prisoners. The police used tear gas and rubber bullets on 14th February. On 15th, they fired on the funeral of a protester killed the previous day. Protesters took control of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. On 16th, the protests grew larger. On 17th, hundreds were injured and dozens killed as police attacked the occupation of Pearl Square. The government imposed a state of emergency. Yesterday, security forces crackdowns included the murder of paramedics tending to injured protesters. Today, weapons from Britain and the US sustain Bahrain's crackdown, and the Saudi kingdom is reported to be supporting the repression in Bahrain. So, as in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East - above all Palestine - what the rebels are up against is not just their own state but a global configuration of power predicated on oil flows that stands behind it. It is that system of power based on neoliberal accumulation and oil capital If the Bahrain monarchy falls, then the crisis of US imperialism is intensified. The country may cease to host the US Navy. Saudi Arabia may no longer have its junior ally, and its own population, not least the Shia majority, may start to build on the protests already in evidence. At some point, the US will have to up its ante. But what will it do? Invade? Let Israel off the leash? And if it does either of these things, what are the chances that it may just radicalise and spread the revolution further still?