Words of the Times: “Rebellion” and “Monarchy” in Bahrain

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an overview of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to shape current events in the Middle East and North Africa, through its “financial and diplomatic might.” The Saudis are trying to buy off the Egyptian junta, “ease out” the president of Yemen, and “block Iran’s influence” in various ways.

Because it was a front-page piece in the Times, the story took pains to respect the Saudi point of view. which is—transitively or owing to the regrettable realities of global petro-politics or just is—the effective American point of view, which is that anti-authoritarian protests need to stop before they get too close to the oil. Or, as the Times put it:

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort to avert any drastic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the pace of political and social change at home.

Speaking of political and social change, last week, the Saudi authorities arrested a woman named Manal al-Sharif for violating the country’s ban on female drivers, a quixotic challenge to the Saudi system of gender apartheid. Overall, here’s what the State Department had to say last month about the model that our Saudi allies are so busy trying to protect:

The following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to change the government peacefully; torture and physical abuse; poor prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of fair and public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom; and corruption and lack of government transparency. Violence against women and a lack of equal rights for women, violations of the rights of children, trafficking in persons, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common. The lack of workers’ rights, including the employment sponsorship system, remained a severe problem.

Of events out in the world where the United States does more than issue reports, the Times wrote:

President Obama, in his speech last week demanding that Middle Eastern autocrats bow to popular demands for democracy, noticeably did not mention Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, sat prominently in the front row.

Among the things the president did say in his speech was this:

Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region.

Sorry, Saudi women. Or Saudi practitioners of non-state-supported religions. But Obama did mention Bahrain, another “long-standing partner,” which has unfortunately used “mass arrests and brute force” against protesters—as “Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there.”

The Times mentioned Bahrain, too—that the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six countries including Saudi Arabia, had

authorized the Saudis to send in troops to quell a largely Shiite Muslim rebellion in the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Bahrain.

Here, the Times’ word choices fit uncomfortably with the facts. The events in Bahrain were generally not described as a “rebellion” while they were happening. The protesters were nonviolent, and they weren’t calling for an overthrow of the government—at least, not until the government had started shooting, beating, and tear-gassing them.

The phrase “in the Sunni Muslim monarchy” is another problem. Does “monarchy” here refer to a system of government, or to a country that has such a system of government? “Monarchy” is the object of the preposition “in,” which suggests the latter—since the protests were taking place out in the streets, not among the members of the ruling Al Khalifa family.

But Bahrain is not a Sunni Muslim country; it is a majority Shiite country ruled by Sunni monarchs. The Saudi troops, armed with American weapons, are there to keep the country from falling into some form of majority rule. Their short-term interests in Bahrain align just fine with their own long-term vision.