Bahrain’s ‘progressive’ influence

American University has ties to royal family, but critics say institution should address kingdom’s human rights record.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has a close relationship with American University in Washington, DC [GALLO/GETTY]

In late April, a group of academics, scholars and human rights activists – including officials from Amnesty International – walked past the Sharjah Plaza to meet in the new School of International Service building at the American University in Washington, DC, as part of the university’s conference on the Obama administration and human rights. What most of them did not know was that, just above the bounding wooden stairs in the LEED-gold-certified building, existed an atrium named after a member of the Bahraini royal family, a family which faces accusations of human rights violations against pro-democracy protesters.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, heir apparent and deputy supreme commander of the kingdom, has a long-standing connection to the liberal American University: he received his bachelor’s degree in political science there in 1992; at least one of his children is currently a student. Last year, the prince donated $3 million to the university in exchange for the naming rights to the atrium near the entrance of the School of International Service.

While officials at the American University hail this close relationship with the ruling family of Bahrain, critics say the university should take an active role when it comes to human rights in Bahrain, including reconsidering its financial dealings with the Al Khalifa family. 

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told Al Jazeera the American University has a special responsibility to raise human rights issues at the highest level with the Bahraini authorities.

“Just for American University’s own reputation, regardless of whether it has impact or not, for it’s own credibility, they should be making every effort to raise strong views about the situation,” says Stork – who has testified before Congress about human rights violations in Bahrain.

However, the dean of the School of International Service, Louis Goodman, says there have been no such calls among the faculty and students.

“I’ve had lots of conversations with people about politics in Bahrain, but no one has come to me and expressed any concern” over the atrium’s name or its namesake, said Goodman, whose 25-year tenure as dean will come to an end in autumn.

Goodman says, along with being environmentally friendly and community-enhancing, the American University wanted the 70,000 square-foot building “to reflect transparency so you can see all the open windows and we’re very pleased with the way it worked out”.

In a blog post, renowned architect and winner of three US presidential awards William McDonough describes the School of International Service and its legacy as having “long worked for justice and peace… They’ve continually strived for a better world.” Characteristics that, he says, are embodied in the new building.

Assistant professor at the school, Shadi Mokhtari, who teaches courses on human rights and political Islam, recalls a number of students had opposed the university’s decision to accept donations from the crown prince, but adds: “I have not come across any significant student interest in taking up the issue since the protests and crackdown began.” This is despite the fact that, according to the Princeton Review, American University is the most politically active campus in the United States.

‘The progressive Prince’

In the case of Bahrain, it seems that Goodman thinks any talk of returning the money or re-naming the atrium is premature. 

“Universities have given money back when individuals have committed crimes. When the Libyan government had sponsored the Lockerbie Bombings, and a number of places including Georgetown University that had gotten funds from them, [they] returned the money,” said Goodman.

Unlike Gaddafi and Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi – who had donated $5 million to American University in 1984 to build what was known as the Adnan Khashoggi Sports Convocation Centre until his role in the Iran-Contra crisis was revealed – Goodman says a proper case against Prince Salman has yet to be made. 

Goodman says he has never met the crown prince – and what he knows about the situation in Bahrain is what he reads in newspapers.

Asked about the possible involvement of the crown prince in the crackdown, Goodman says: “From what I had always heard, he was the most important progressive person in the government of Bahrain and that’s probably still the case. What his role is and what he can do and can’t do I have no idea.”

Assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, Toby C Jones – who specialises in the modern Middle East – refutes Goodman’s assertion. 

“It’s certainly a stretch to call him progressive,” says Jones. “I’m not even sure what ‘progressive’ means anymore in Arab politics,” he adds.

Mokhtari describes the current human rights conditions in Bahrain as “simply appalling”. Mokhtari says reports of deaths and widespread torture in custody, targeting of healthcare professionals and even schoolgirls by the ruling royal family amount to a very serious human rights crisis in Bahrain, since demonstrations began on February 14.

Last year, the prince donated $3 million to the university in exchange for naming rights to an atrium near the entrance of the School of International Service
[Photo: AUW]

Head of the Foreign Relations Office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Maryam Al-Khawaja rejects the notion that the crown prince is moderate or progressive. She says his title as deputy supreme commander, which makes him second in command of the army, belies that assertion. 

“When the army opened fire on the protesters, the people saw him as responsible for it,” said Al-Khawaja. 

Although the crown prince had called for dialogue with the protesters in the days preceding the military crackdown on demonstrators, Al-Khawaja says: “Even if he did not directly hold a gun and shoot someone in the streets, he is responsible. He could have spoken out against it – that’s the least he could have done – he chose not to.” This silence, says Jones, “has basically been interpreted as condoning the crackdown”. 

Al-Khawaja, whose father, former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Abdullhadi Al-Khawaja, was detained by Bahraini authorities in April, says the case presented to the International Criminal Court earlier this month against the Al Khalifa family does not make any concessions for Prince Salman. Most Bahrainis, says Al-Khawaja, are unaware of the crown prince’s role in land reclamation and dredging practises, which are having massive economic and environmental impacts. Impacts, Al-Khwaja says, that most directly affect the poorest people in Bahrain.

Salman is earning millions from the land reclamation and dredging projects. Money, she says, “that should be going to the country”.

The prince’s economic interests have suffered greatly due to the recent unrest in the nation. “Protesters claim Salman only wanted dialogue to protect his economic interests,” a journalist told me. The Bahraini journalist, fearing government retribution, spoke on condition of anonymity. They had been detained for 12 hours and forbidden to write about politics, so interviews had to be by email. 

Bahrain the brand

Whether the public or the American University is aware of these accusations against the crown prince, Jones says continuing to refer to Salman as progressive, “makes it seem like the American University isn’t doing business with a ‘bad guy’.” In fact, Jones says, “we’re dealing with shades of grey”.

Jones says that in doing business with the Bahraini royal family, the American University and other institutions of higher learning are contributing to massive branding efforts undertaken by Gulf States in the last decade. 

Jones says, in trying to set itself apart from the images of excess associated with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Bahrain wants to be seen as a “significant centre of intellectual, cultural, economic and social life; something beyond oil.” Funding academic institutions and having their names splashed all over buildings Jones says, lends Gulf states “a veneer of ultra-intellectual credibility that they don’t really possess but that their pocketbooks allow them to buy”. 

This use of prominent US universities as part of a branding campaign is not limited to the American University and the Al Khalifa family. Just a few miles south of the university is The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Like Salman, the Saudi king’s nephew is considered to be much more “liberal” than the rest of his family in the ultra-conservative monarchy. Unlike Salman however, Prince Alwaleed, whom some believe has aspirations to succeed his uncle, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, has directly spoken out against the demonstrations in Bahrain – which he says are separated from the rest of “the Arab Spring” because of alleged Iranian influence. Alwaleed has also supported the March 15 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain.

The crown prince meets the British prime minister in London [GALLO/GETTY]

Al-Khawaja also sees recent travels by the crown prince, including a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, as part of an international branding campaign for the sheikhdom. “He’s touring the world speaking to people about why Bahrain is a good place and it’s not. We have more than a thousand prisoners being tortured in prison cells and more than a thousand people fired from their jobs,” said Al-Khawaja. Jones says such statistics complicate the reputation Bahrain has “milked” as the “politically liberal, socially tolerant, diverse, and open-minded” place in the Persian Gulf. 

Not how things are done

Though, she believes the School of International Service should consider taking some sort of action in light of the recent events in Bahrain, American University School of International Service alumna, Yelena Osipova, cannot see it happening. “It’s all internal business for the kingdom and a foreign school meddling in those issues is not how things are done in international affairs,” says Osipova. 

Goodman himself wonders what effect, if any, a statement from American University would have on the Al Khalifa family. “If you make a statement, you make a statement,” says Goodman, who doesn’t “know what the reactions can be” to any statements made by the university.

Osipova, who studied International Communication as a graduate student at the university, also points to the business aspects of the university possibly returning the money to the crown prince. “Would the school really ‘return’ the money? I doubt the school has $3 million in cash to return right now. It’s practically impossible,” says Osipova. 

Alison Ring, a graduate student of international media at American University, wondered what the impact of returning the funds would be for both parties. 

Ring, who attended a recent human rights conference – that was in part hosted at the School of International Service – says: “Making a decision like that is not without consequence, the motivation behind making the donation in the first place should be weighed.” In a later discussion, Osipova also wondered what impact such actions would have on future donations from Bahrain and other nations. “The school is growing and they need money to continue to achieve their goals,” says Osipova, speculating where else the American University could turn to for funding if other nations suddenly saw investment in foreign academic institutions as a risk.

Like Goodman, Ring is hesitant to take any action on the atrium, adding, “until the situation in Bahrain is resolved, and the International Court of Justice brings charges against the current government or not”.

Points of leverage

For Jones, action by the American University would set the institution apart, not only from other universities, but also from the White House, which has been accused of remaining tight-lipped on the island nation that is home to the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy – as compared with its attitude toward Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Jones says sending back millions of dollars may be a largely symbolic act, “but it might also be an indication more broadly of what American institutions and what Americans are willing to do in terms of stripping away opportunities for Bahrain’s economy to prosper.” 

Mokhtari, who teaches a course on Islam and Human Rights, says that though action by the American University alone may not make a drastic change in Bahraini policy “it can contribute to an accumulation of pressure and shaming to which state’s engaging in human rights violations often do respond.”

Al-Khawaja however, says that the American University returning the funds would have a huge impact on the ruling Al-Khalifa family, which she says cares a great deal about their image internationally. As the leaders of other Arab states slowly watch the developments of the “Arab Spring” unfold, Al-Khawaja says the American University returning the funds “sends a very strong message not only to [the crown prince], but to every dictator in the world”.

On a personal level, Al-Khawaja says she would hold the American University “in the highest regard if they did that, because we need to start somewhere. These institutions need to start saying they are not going to deal with and pay attribution to people who are committing crimes against humanity.” 

Source: Al Jazeera