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Wednesday
Apr252012

Bahrain Special: How Regime Supporters Became The "Silent Majority" for 3 Foreign Journalists

A PR Mission: The Starbucks in Juffair where 3 Bahrainis --- "the silent majority" --- converted three foreign journalists

See also Bahrain Follow-Up: The Regime's PR Mission and Formula 1 Journalist Joe Saward


Jointly written by John Horne and Scott Lucas:

We regularly highlight the efforts of the Bahraini regime and its supporters to get out the "right" story about the political situation in the kingdom since February 2011, emphasising that the King and the Government are pursuing reform and that protesters are disruptive, misguided, or even worse. Indeed, on Monday, we posted a feature of both the clumsy (an item in the regime's Gulf Daily News) and the not-so-clumsy manipulative (the steering of an article in The New York Times to denounce the opposition) in the campaign.

Results have been mixed, despite the spending of millions of dollars on public-relations firms and in-house publications, especially amid the recent controversy over the Bahrain Grand Prix. Today, however, we tell a story of success for the regime and its supporters:

THE FOREIGN JOURNALISTS: David Tremayne, Formula 1 correspondent for The Belfast Telegraph and The Independent of London; Brad Spurgeon of The New York Times; and Joe Saward, who has a leading blog on Formula 1

THE BAHRAINIS: real estate businessman Hasan Emad; university lecturer Yaqoob Salman Mohamed Al-Slaise; and banker Ahmed Al Mahri

THE MISSION: Persuade the three journalists that reports of discontent are exaggerated; that protesters are a troublesome, very small minority; and that the regime will ensure stability and order if media bias can be countered and exposed.

THE OUTCOME: David Tremayne, writing on Tuesday for his outlets, tries to counter his own sectarian framing with the "silent majority" he finds in the three Bahrainis:

What did Bahrain gain from the grand prix? And that doesn't mean just the Sunni leadership, who were so insistent on it going ahead, or the vocal Shia protesters upon whose every word so many media outlets hung during the weekend. It also means the silent majority of law abiding Bahrainis....

Perhaps the most interesting view came from their friend Ahmed Al Mahri – because he is a Shia and they are universally portrayed as anti-F1. "The grand prix marketed Bahrain," he said. "Nobody knew anything of Bahrain before it. And staging it this year helps us because people like you are here and you are listening and getting the right picture of what's going on in the country. And it boosts the wealth, not just for the organisers but for the little people, the taxi drivers and the corner shops."

Brad Spurgeon is "Finding a Different Bahrain Than the One I Expected" from "Six Guys in a Starbucks":

What was most interesting for the journalists was to hear from these people who called themselves the equivalent of the “silent majority.” They are neither members of the ruling family nor demonstrators. But they clearly feel torn between the two groups. They also feel that they have a great deal to lose if an Islamic Republic or some other form of religious state is imposed....

Despite the division between the Shiites and Sunni, Ahmed, who is Shiite, spoke of the love at least some people have for the rulers.

“The crown prince and the prime minister are idols for us,” he said. “The crown prince is highly targeted, same as a prime minister; but the prime minister has a long experience in the country. I am not saying he is perfect. There have been many voices here and there say he is no good, and all the rumors. But the thing is that the people in Bahrain, most people, they don’t want him to leave. They love this man, the honor of this man, and we respect him.”

What these men fear the most, they said, is the alternative that is being offered and suggested and fought for by at least some of the demonstrators: “The danger of this is that a very large portion of them follow the Ayatollah who openly says he wants a theological system similar to what is in Iran,” said Yacoub.

And Joe Saward is converted:

Before I went to Bahrain I thought very differently about the troubles there. I was very critical of the decision for F1 to go there....But it became clear very quickly that this was no insurrection and that the one group of people who were not being given a voice were the silent majority to whom no-one was bothering to talk.... The sport ended up serving the interests of both sides in the conflict --- with no real voice for the views of Yaqoob, Hasan and Ahmed and the hundreds of thousands of others like them.

But how did this success come about? Who were the three Bahrainis and how was this fortuitious meeting set up? Let's rewind....

First, some context: last week, other F1 journalists such as Kevin Eason of The Times, Tom Cary of the Telegraph, Bryon Young of the Mirror, and Ian Parkes at the Press Association, were taken aback by what they witnessed, especially when they ventured outside the capital Manama. They conveyed scenes of peaceful protests being violently suppressed, spoke with villagers who suffered at the hands of security forces and the authorities, and witnessed the angry retaliation of some in the opposition throwing Molotov cocktails against police. They expressed grave concerns at the murder of Salah Abbas Habib, whose body was found on Saturday morning, dead from shotgun wounds and internal bleeding, allegedly at the hands of security forces.

Beyond the F1 reporters, other journalists specialising in Bahraini and international news would have first-hand experience of the security forces. On Sunday night after the race, amidst protests and clashes in villages such as Bilad Qadeem, two Japanese journalists were detained, Colin Freeman of Britain's Sunday Telegraph and his Bahraini fixer were seized, and a three-person team from Britain's Channel 4 were taken into custody as the Bahraini activists with them were harassed and beaten.

These events, and coverage of them, clearly ruffled the feathers of John Yates, the British police advisor to the Bahrain government. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Yates took offense at media coverage which focused on unrest, accusing "supposedly respectable international news agencies [of reporting] details that simply were not true". For Yates:

The abiding image I have of the Grand Prix last weekend was of thousands of people enjoying themselves at the post‑event parties. Yet the media reports in Britain told a different story. Headlines suggested that the country was in flames and that there was a serious safety risk to the Formula One teams.

But how could Yates support his view of enjoyment and all being normal? He turned to a blog post by the "experienced motor-racing correspondent" Joe Saward, which claimed that reports of a heavy police presence in Bahrain are simply wrong and "the media is not giving the regime the benefit of the doubt".

Saward's opinion, put out in an earlier comment that the "world's media" was putting out an "exaggerated view of what is actually happening on the ground", is genuinely held. It is also one based, according to his etry, on staying in the Juffair neighbourhood of the capital Manama and --- through the necessities of his job --- almost always staying within the F1 bubble.

Still, the complete invisibility of the opposition to Saward --- given the tens of thousands who turned out in Manama on Friday to protest for reform and the release of political prisoners --- is remarkable. In his lengthy reflection on Monday, Saward notes:

We never saw a single protester, let alone a rioter. We saw a lot of police cars, but only one armoured car. We saw no burning tyres, smelled no tear gas. We even went to some of the hotspots such as the old Pearl Roundabout, but all was quiet.

Challenged about the claim in comments on the entry, Saward replied:

As to whether I went to the hot spots or not, I hardly need to. The views of the extremists are everywhere so it was actually a waste of time to do that. It was better to talk to the silent majority.

Saward's language echoes that of Crown Prince Salman, a primary force for the Grand Prix, who told a brief press conference on Friday that "cancelling the race would encourage the extremists" --- a comment noted by Saward at the time. Perhaps not a surprise then that, after Saward finds that he is cited in the pro-regime paper Gulf News Daily, the Crown Prince personally requests a meeting to shake his hand and thank him for his work.

Although Brad Spurgeon puts in some caveats around the account in his two blog posts --- recommended on Twitter by Matt Lauer of Qorvis, the public relations firm working for the Bahrain regime --- he walks a similar line to Saward:

You had to go to look for the demonstrations to find them. In much of Manama, life went on as usual. I saw no troops in the streets of Manama, and only a few on the way to the circuit. Life was so normal in the sectors of the city where I stayed at my hotel that I was even able to participate again in an open musical jam session at a local bar where I had done the same thing two years ago when covering the race, before the revolution.

The French Canadian band leader told me that life was completely normal for them in their bubble of a world in Manama, even if they knew there was an uprising going on.

Although we knew there were demonstrations and violence going on, we felt that the coverage in the news media, and what our friends and family had as an image of the country, was feeding on itself to produce an image of disaster that was not like the life we were encountering here — despite our knowledge of atrocities and demonstrations.

Spurgeon also leaves with a false --- religious, not political --- understanding of the uprising: "The battle here in Bahrain is sectarian: Sunni vs. Shiite," apparently reached after his Starbucks meeting with the three Bahrainis who are "men in the middle".

And that in turn echoes the third journalist, David Tremayne, who see the encounter in the cafe as a navigation between "Sunni leaders" versus "Shia protesters", quoting Yaqoob Salman Mohamed Al-Slaise, "Violence does not bring democracy nor better human rights, nor does sabotaging a sporting event bring reforms. It only leads to more hatred and spite and keeps us in a political stalemate."

So once again: how did these three Bahraini bring about a road-to-Starbucks conversion? According to Saward:

Enter Hasan Emad, a blog reader, who wrote welcoming me to Bahrain: “I am a normal citizen, have my own business here in Bahrain, and I live in Juffair. It is going to be my great pleasure to invite you for a cup of coffee or a dinner if you have a time to do so. So we can sit and chit chat about F1 and what is going on here in Bahrain”.

Why not? I thought. Here was a chance to hear from people who are not activists. I was slightly worried that this might be a government plant but I would have to figure that out as I went along. I did not for one minute think I would be kidnapped or anything like that. I mentioned to my pal David Tremayne that I was going to be doing this and he asked to come along, in his role as a reporter for The Independent. Similarly Brad Spurgeon of the International Herald Tribune joined the party. Hasan turned up with a mate called Yaqoob Salman Mohamed Al-Slaise, a Sunni IT lecturer at Bahrain University and the five of us then wandered off to Starbucks in Juffair where we met up with Ahmed al Mahri, a Shia banker. We sat upstairs at a large table where Hasan said he used to do his homework. We had talked about F1 and it was clear that Hasan was a huge fan.

It should be noted that Saward is being a bit coy here. Tremayne is more than his pal --- he and Saward are co-developers of Grandprix+, an online F1 magazine which boasts of how it is published within hours of every race. Alongside his reportage, Tremayne also works for the FIA, the body overseeing Formula 1, in an official capacity, as the British representative for the FIA Land Speed Records Commission.

So is Saward also being coy about his Bahraini contact? Here were three Formula 1 journalists who had spent their time in Bahrain rather sheltered from realities outside Manama, in contrast to their colleagues Eason, Cary, Young, and others. At the same time, they had been critical of the decision to stage the race and the damage it has done to the image of F1, with Saward and Tremayne both attacking F1 head Bernie Ecclestone's belief that all publicity is good publicity. Spurgeon was also in Iran in 1978, witnessing the revolution which ultimately installed the Grand Ayotollah as Supreme Leader, and he arrived in Bahrain wondering whether he would be seeing tanks on the streets of Manama. Prime candidates, perhaps, to relay a particular message back to a "Western" readership.

Hasan Emad, "the blog reader" and "a normal citizen" who "turned up with [his mate] Yaqoob Salman Mohamed Al-Slaise", first met the three journalists at TGI Fridays in the Juffair district of Manama. They "spoke mostly about Formula One" before Emad and Al-Slaise suggested going for coffee, where Ahmad al-Mahri was waiting. Spurgeon notes that the men "called themselves the equivalent of the 'silent majority'" and said "they were so close they were like brothers".

The religious affilations of the three men were scrupulously noted by all the journalists, keen to convey that the trio was comprised of two Sunnis and a Shia. To them, looking at the Bahrain situation through a sectarian lens, this seems to somehow represent balance. Al-Mahri's perspective, positive towards the F1, is "perhaps the most interesting ... because he is a Shia". Saward even puts in a reminder in his entry --- "Ahmed, the Shia remember, says" --- to ensure the reader recalls the supposed significance of Al-Mahri's sect before he quotes his political views at length.

That sectarian positioning bolsters the political views of the three men: respect and full support for the AlKhalifa monarchy; a belief that the opposition in Bahrain is Shia in composition, encourages violence, and intends to overthrow the AlKhalifa's with a Shi'ite theocracy backed by Iran; a recognition that some reforms may be necessary but should happen at a gentle pace and be facilitated under a "dialogue" which keeps so-called "extremists" out; concerns that the continued instability in Bahrain is damaging inward investment and harming the national economy.

All legitimate views, held --- beyond the sectarian framing --- by a section of Bahraini opinion. But a "silent majority"?

Only a few minutes of research away from Starbucks would have offered complexity. According to EA sources, Al-Slaise is a member of the Gathering of National Unity (TGONU), the Sunni loyalist movement which emerged in February 2011, with supported by the regime, to counter the protests. In a recent interview, linked to Al-Slaise's quotes in another article, TGONU leader Abdullatif al-Mahmood described the organsation's positioning against the protesters who are "a certain group of Shiite...working...to bring up their children on aggressiveness and hatred". It is TGONU that Al-Slaise presents to the journalists as the embodiment of the "silent majority".

And then there is the framing of Al-Mahri as the "good" Shia in the "silent majority", taking a moderate line. Far from being silent, Al-Mahri has been vocal on Twitter and in an opinion piece in February for Middle East Voices, a website supported by Voice of America, in denouncing the opposition --- not just a protesting fringe but leading societies such as Al Wefaq. Al Mahri, echoing the views of "hard-liners" among the regime and its backers, writes tha Al Wefaq supports "terrorist acts" and leads the plot "to hijack the country and form an Islamic republic".

Last Saturday, Al-Mahri tweeted seeking urgent help finding videos, quite possibly for a certain meeting in Starbucks:

Another crucial message given to the journalists by Al-Mahri was the support of the so-called "silent majority" for the ruling family. Both Saward and Spurgeon report this, marking the sect of the speaker as significant. Spurgeon writes:

Despite the division between the Shiites and Sunni, Ahmed, who is Shiite, spoke of the love at least some people have for the rulers.

“The crown prince and the prime minister are idols for us,” he said. “The crown prince is highly targeted, same as a prime minister; but the prime minister has a long experience in the country. I am not saying he is perfect. There have been many voices here and there say he is no good, and all the rumors. But the thing is that the people in Bahrain, most people, they don’t want him to leave. They love this man, the honor of this man, and we respect him.”

That full support given to the Crown Prince, compared with the qualifications added to the praise of the Prime Minister, is significant --- it bolsters the line of the Crown Prince's advocacy of "reform" against the possible intransigence of the Prime Minister. Saward, possibly unaware of the political dynamics, continues:

Respect will lead to dialogue and it happened last year, but when people are rejecting the outcomes of that, through violence in the street, this doesn’t help the country to move on. Come and participate with us to improve the future, don’t just stand your ground and fight on the street.

That sentiment leads back to John Yates, British policeman turned supervisor of Bahrain's security forces, keen to suggest that he speaks for alll Bahrainis:

So, the Grand Prix in Bahrain is over. The teams have packed up and the circus has moved on. They have a left a small nation feeling bewildered. Bewildered at the level of ignorance about what is really happening here, at the level of animosity and bile, at the media bias. And bewildered that so many in the UK, a long-standing friend and ally for two centuries, could so readily swallow everything opposition groups and activists were saying....

Like many Bahrainis and expats ... I am bewildered by the level of criticism aimed at a nation that has acknowledged its mistakes, but has plans in place to put things right.

Perhaps the last word should be given to a member of the so-called "silent majority" --- however they were put at a table in Starbucks with three foreign journalists --- in Bahrain. Al-Slaise tweeted on Monday, after the reporters had gone home:

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