Kim Kardashian's December 1 trip to Bahrain to promote milkshakes brought all the Middle East tweeps to the yard. Her visit attracted both delerious young fans and a raucous protest (reportedly cleared away by the time she arrived), with conflicting accounts as to whether she actually ended up mixing a tear gas flavored milkshake. The Middle East twitterati had a field day of outrage and humor over the news, with pretty much my entire Twitter feed (and Bahrain's Foreign Minister) retweeting her now deleted "OMG can I move here please?" tweet. It's easy to poke fun at Kardashian. But did Kanye's girlfriend really do anything different than those foreign policy wonks willing to participate in Friday's 2012 Manama Dialogue?
Kardashian went to Bahrain and Kuwait to promote "Millions of Milkshakes." She evidently had a great time, declaring at the end: "Thanks Sheikh Khalifa for your amazing hospitality. I'm in love with The Kingdom of Bahrain." For this, she was roundly mocked by Bahraini opposition and Middle East commentators. Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja posted an open letter to Kardashian inviting her to meet with human rights activists during her trip. The one bright note, such as it was, came from @Therwees: "Kim Kardashian tweeting about Bahrain makes more news than actual Bahrain."
Kardashian, much like April's controversial Formula One race, generated positive publicity for a Bahraini regime which carried out an unspeakably brutal crackdown last year, continues a fierce campaign of repression, and has been utterly unrepentant. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry authoritatively catalogued the massive human rights violations during the crackdown:
The BICI report established authoritatively that the Bahraini regime committed massive violations of human rights during its attempts to crush the protest movement. Hundreds of detainees reported systematic mistreatment and torture, including extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape, sexual abuse including the insertion of items into the anus and grabbing of genitals, hanging, exposure to extreme temperatures, forced nudity and humiliation through acts such as being forced to lick boots of guards, abuse with dogs, mock executions, and being forced to eat feces (BICI report, pp.287-89). Detainees were often held for weeks or months without access to the outside world or to lawyers. This, concluded the BICI, represented "a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody" (Para 1238, p.298). And then there was the demolition of Shi'a mosques, widespread dismissals from public and private sector jobs and from universities, sectarian agitation in the media, and so much more. No political mistakes made by the opposition could possibly justify these acts.
The Bahraini regime has responded in at best a pro forma way, seeking to project an image of compliance without actually making any serious reforms or imposing real accountability. Human Rights Watch recently concluded that Bahrain had failed to implement most of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry -- an assessment shared by the Project on Middle East Democracy, which a few weeks ago found only 3 out of 26 recommendations implemented. Cherif Bassiouni, who had previously defended the BICI process, now argues that "a number of recommendations on accountability were either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly. The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture."
What's more, in many ways Bahrain's practices are getting worse, not better. Stiff prison sentences for activists such as Nabeel Rajab, arresting people for criticism on Twitter, targeting activists and critics, revoking the citizenship of activists, and banning all public protests do not suggest a regime on the mend. The violence which erupted a few weeks ago only highlights Bahrain's ongoing social and political deterioration. Even the U.S. State Department, which has rightfully been criticized for failing to pressure Bahrain on human rights and political reform, recently spoke out with unusually lengthy and detailed criticism of its escalating crackdown, and last week warned that Bahraini society could break apart. Neither pressure from domestic activists and international human rights organizations nor occasional international media scrutiny has had much effect.
Bahrain's regime has focused far more over the last year and a half on a public relations pushback than on addressing its real political deterioriation and human rights disaster. It has spent heavily on PR firms to rehabilitate its image, and anyone who writes or tweets about Bahrain has become quite accustomed to the inevitable responses which follow. Holding the controversial Formula One race in April was a key part of the attempt to demonstrate to the international community that Bahrain had returned to normal -- a portrayal somewhat undermined by the burning tires, furious activists, and critical media coverage which followed. (My all time favorite video response remains this "Epic Fail" from Katy Perry.) This Index on Censorship story suggests that whatever her personal intentions, Kardashian's visit falls into the same category of attempts to rehabilitate Bahrain's image without any meaningful policy changes. That protests and tear gas disrupted the international media coverage of her visit as well is therefore in some ways a promising sign that the reality of Bahrain's ongoing repression and failure to deal honestly with its recent past has not yet been washed away.
It's easy to make fun of Kim Kardashian, with her reality TV and 17 million Twitter followers and whatever else she's famous for other than having the coolest boyfriend on Earth. (And I have absolutely no clue about Andrew WK, whose supposed visit as a cultural ambassador sparked so much furor last week). But at least Kardashian has the excuse that nobody really expects celebrities to know such details about the countries they are paid to visit. What about the slightly less sexy but presumably better informed Middle East policy wonks?
In 2011, the International Institute for Strategic Studies wisely canceled its long-running Manama Dialogue forum in Bahrain. The 2012 Dialogue is scheduled to begin on Friday, December 7. It boasts "the highest concentration to date of policy-makers involved in regional security," including "world-class journalists, experts and business leaders" (though not, presumably, Kim Kardashian). Canceling the Dialogue last year was the right call. I would like to see a case made for the value of resuming it this year, given that it sends a signal to the policy elite that it is once again legitimate and normal to do business in Bahrain. In terms of the rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime, what is the difference between resuming the Formula One race after a one year suspension, visiting to promote milkshakes, and convening a high profile regional policy forum?
I do not mean to single out the IISS, an organization for which I have great respect. In past years, by all accounts, the Manama Dialogue has been an outstanding event of its kind (full disclosure: I've been invited before but was never able to make it). But if we are going to hold Kim Kardashian to account, shouldn't we as a policy community do the same for ourselves? At the least, let's hope that the journalists and policy wonks who do take part in this regional forum take Maryam al-Khawaja up on her call to find the time during their visit to meet with activists and to draw attention to Bahrain's human rights and political issues.
YouTube Screen Capture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE36X2lV85o
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.