Photo by Al Jazeera English
Hey, do you happen to be the proprietor of a family-run dictatorship in the Middle East? Tired of seeing stories about your country that are all “Bahrain Princess Accused of Torture” and “Teenager Killed in Bahrain Anniversary Protests” and “The US Sold a Bunch of Weapons to Bahrain During Its Brutal Crackdown” and even “King of Bahrain Beats Up Arab Pop Star on a Yacht”? That sure is some bad “optics,” as they say in the business, and you probably can’t repair your reputation solely through articles titled “Bahrain a Land of tolerance...” in government-run media outlets, especially when that ellipsis might be an indication that even the “journalists” on your payroll can barely believe the shit they’re writing.
One way to solve your image problem would be to welcome reform and stop committing gross human rights violations – haha, just kidding! Clearly that’s not on the table, so you need to spend millions on PR and invite journalists to your brand new Formula 1 racetrack to see how lovely it is. According to Bahrain Watch, that's what the country's regime has been doing: it's spent at least $32 million on image management since the start of the Arab Spring. I'm familiar with this because one of these companies threatened to sue the Guardian for libel after I wrote an article with Nabeel Rajab which accused the Bahraini security forces of torturing employees at the F1 track. The PR firm did not question that torture had taken place, just that it had not happened on the premises of the F1 track. The libel threat was eventually withdrawn after a footnote was added to the article, but the point was made: we have money, and we will bully and threaten you if you criticise us.
I was at an interesting meeting the other day at a London-based think tank, where a Bahrain-regime spokesperson earnestly told me that there was no point spending money on PR to make Bahrain look good anymore, as everybody knows about the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report confirming that torture was widespread and systematic in Bahrain during the uprising. Funny then, that the regime seems to continue to employ a bunch of firms to do PR work for them. In fact, a number of individuals and groups giving evidence to the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are known affiliates of the Bahraini regime – including retired general Sir Graeme Lamb, who is employed by G3, one of the biggest firms currently working to boost Bahrain’s reputation, but failed to mention that association in the evidence he presented to the committee.
Lamb, for his part, claims he did not know that G3 was paid by Bahrain when he wrote op-eds in support of the regime. He’s apparently not in the habit of googling his employers. If he was, he’d learn that G3 – whose chairman is Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster and Britain’s richest man – has a lucrative $2.3 million contract to improve Bahrain’s international reputation. King Hamad has had at least three personal meetings with His Dukeness, most recently earlier this month, presumably to discuss avoiding the shitstorm of bad PR which will inevitably accompany this year’s Formula 1 race in April.
G3 is a “strategic advisory consultancy” (whatever that is), which has fingers in a wide and delicious selection of pies. They were embroiled in the Liam Fox corruption scandal in 2011, worked for BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest arms company, and recently hired John Yates, the former London police chief who resigned over the phone-hacking scandal and then worked for Bahrain “reforming” its police force. He seems to have done as ineffectual a job at that as he did in London, since the Bahraini cops are still using excessive force on protesters and firing tear gas and shotgun blasts at people from close range. From the outside, the company appears to be an old-boys network of senior functionaries and aristocrats who make money off their connections in underhanded but legal ways. In other words, exactly the kind of organisation that would have no problem doing business with a repressive regime.
The overriding narrative of all the PR that Bahrain pays for, which helps legitimise UK and US support for the regime, is that the country is run by a fundamentally decent government on the path to reform. Yet absolutely nothing has changed in Bahrain since at least the 1950s. The demands of reformers are the same now as they were then: an accountable government, elected by the people, with a separation of powers and an independent judiciary. As was the case back then, the opposition is accused of having links to foreign powers (now Iran, then Nasserite Egypt) and the regime is assisted by British “advisors”. These parallels are clear from the below video, a news report from the '50s:
Bahrain has made previous attempts to enhance its reputation through failed high-profile projects, like being a destination for Concorde jets, and it’s trying again with Formula 1 racing. (Apartheid South Africa used F1 for similar purposes in the '80s.) But now, the violence is getting worse, and the digital tools at the hands of protesters are far more powerful now than during the last uprising in the '90s. Bahrain’s regime must have a lot of chutzpah, or hubris, to think that such transparent “reputation management” would fool anybody who is paying attention. But if they were in touch with the people, they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.
The ossified autocratic system of government favoured by the Gulf monarchs lags far behind the progressive consciousness of the people they rule. Bahrainis have often said to me that they no longer want to be subjects of their state, but equal partners in its government. They will never go back to being ruled without their permission or consent. It is up to their despots to decide how long the violence and unrest must last before they realise their time has passed. Building a fancy racetrack and hiring a few PR firms isn’t going to make a difference in the long run.
John Lubbock has been volunteering as a researcher at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights since the start of the Arab Spring. Follow him on Twitter: @jwsal