Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Dr Mike Diboll

The following constitutes my evidence submitted to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee on the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The evidence I am presenting should not be considered confidential, and I would be happy to give oral evidence to the Committee, should that be felt appropriate.

(1) Summary

This evidence concerns my professional experience in helping to implement a major reform initiative in Bahrain 2008–11, it:

Highlights the challenges of implementing real reform in prevailing circumstances in Bahrain

Suggests that—current FCO policy notwithstanding—regime commitments to “reform” should not be taken at face value, and do not provide the basis for a sound, ethical or sustainable Bahrain policy

Suggests ways in which an alternative reform-based British policy towards Bahrain might be formulated

(2) Background

I am a British Higher Education practitioner specialising in the contemporary Cultural Studies of the Arabic-speaking MENA region, and in education reform initiatives in the GCC area. I am proficient in Arabic and have a PhD in Comparative Literature focusing on the Arab world, and have a portfolio of UK Masters level qualifications in Education gained between 1992 (while working in Egypt) and 2011 (while working in Bahrain).

I was Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the United Arab Emirates University 2002–2007, and at the University of Bahrain 2007–2008. I played a lead role in the start-up of Bahrain Teachers College (BTC) where I worked 2009–2011, and was Academic Head of Continuing Professional Development 2009–2010.

BTC was established in late 2008 as a key part of the ‘Bahrain 2030 Vision’ (2030) for economic and social development, established by the HH Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa -- Crown Prince of Bahrain and the ruling family’s leading reform advocate—and administered by the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB), an institution established by the Crown Prince parallel to the existing ministries in order to ensure the implementation of his reform agenda.

At BTC I had managerial oversight for the design, delivery and development of a new series of Continuing Professional Development programmes for all state-sector Bahraini educators at all phases of education and at all levels of seniority. This provision was to be delivered entirely in English, except for courses for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies specialists, and was intended to train Bahraini educators in learner-centred, discovery-based, problem-based and collaborative approaches to teaching and learning, in line with 2030’s vision for a flexible and vocationally relevant C21st education system for Bahrain.

Feedback from major employers suggested that Bahrain’s ‘traditional’ approach to state-sector education, based in large part on wrote-learning, didactic and teacher-focused instruction, was not adequately addressing the needs of the C21st employment market and needed to be radically overhauled.

My role involved ensuring strategic alignment between BTC CPD and 2030, liaising with the EDB and the Bahrain Ministry of Education (MoE), and an array of overseas consultants, including McKinsey’s the Institute of Education at the University of London, the UK Higher Education Academy, York St. John University, and the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore. It also involved me in undertaking regular visits, assessments and observations to schools all over Bahrain, including many of villages which were to play an important role in the Bahrain uprising.

(3) BTC between Reformers and Hardliners

BTC and its sister organisation Bahrain Polytechnic (BP) were established to provide a new approach to education in Bahrain. BTC was to provide radical innovation in teacher training and CPD, BP was to provide a vocationally relevant Higher Education alternative to the existing state sector university, the UoB. BP was inspired by the New Zealand ‘polytechnic’ model, and was managed and staffed mainly by New Zealanders.

BTC was established in October 2008 as a ‘professional’ college within the University of Bahrain (UoB), and effectively replaced the old College of Education, which had very close ties to the MoE—although a rump of the old CoE continued as a research institution. BTC’s diverse faculty included Bahrainis and Gulf and non-Gulf Arabs, and faculty from the UK, North America, Australasia, Africa and Singapore.

BTC was originally envisaged as an institution that would work towards achieving full autonomy from both the UoB and the MoE, and would become the lead body for all pre-service and in-service teacher-training in the Kingdom. The rationale for this was that the far-reaching reforms demanded by 2030 could not realistically be implemented by existing structures, which were considered at the EDB (and by implication by the Crown Prince himself) to be sclerotic, inefficient and self-serving bureaucracies.

Those of us who were involved in the start-up of the college were informed in briefings with senior people at the EDB’s Schools Improvement Programme (some of whom had UK OFSTED experience) that we should expect to experience internal resistance to change and innovation from within the MoE, the UoB, and the schools, but that we were hired as change facilitators, and that any serious resistance to change should be referred to the EDB, and that it would be dealt with at that level or, if necessary, by direct intervention from the Crown Prince’s office.

We were also informed that the Crown Prince considered the second decade of the C21st to be a generational, perhaps unrepeatable, window of opportunity to implement the real changes upon which Bahrain’s long-term sustainability and stability depended. From what we were told back in 2008–2009, he understood that failure to implement real reforms quickly could have serious and fairly immediate consequences for Bahrain’s prosperity, stability, and social cohesion.

When we began our reform work in earnest late in 2008 the truth of the EDB briefing became apparent:

While it is conventional to talk of the ‘Bahrain government’, it soon became apparent that we were working in the context of a complex array of competing and sometimes conflicting loci of power, shifting allegiances, and unofficial, parallel reporting structures

This complexity existed at every level at which we had to operate, from the highest levels of government to local communities, schools, even classrooms

Even individuals with quite junior job descriptions could exercise considerable unofficial power if they were connected to an unofficial reporting strand reporting ultimately to one of the loci of power opposed to the Crown Prince’s reforms

Laudable though most of these reforms were, they had nonetheless been formulated in a top-down, ‘Theory X’ manner, with almost no supporting research, needs analysis or consultation that reached into the heart of communities affected by the reforms

Very little attempt had been made to communicate the (powerful) rationales for reform to local communities, and to get communities’ ‘buy-in’ to the change programme

As a result, there was quite wide-spread opposition to certain aspects of the reforms -- for example making English the main language of teacher-training—leading to popular disaffection with and alienation from the reforms, in particular from senior teachers having to undergo what was in effect compulsory CPD delivered by ‘foreign’ faculty

This dissatisfaction came to be exploited by a number players opposed to the reform agenda. This included some of the oppositional political societies—but also, crucially, unofficial groupings around the Minister of Education, the Prime Minister of Bahrain, and the ‘Khawaaled’ faction of the royal family.

(4) 2010

For most of 2009 we were able to make good progress with our work in education reform, and the EDB were effective at overcoming resistance. However, during 2010 the contradictions involved in implementing reform in the context outlined above came increasingly to the fore.

Individuals and groups resistant to change, originally wary and uncertain of the solidity of the reform mission, began to regain confidence and assert themselves more openly. We began to recognise, belatedly, distinct group attitudes to reform:

Those who understood reform, were committed to it, and were determined to implement it.

Those who understood it, but who lacked commitment to it, or who were committed to reform they didn’t fully understand.

Those who expressed commitment to reform but were in fact either sceptical towards it, or were secretly working against it.

Those who began to express open resistance to reform, or were actively working against it.

Increasingly, the momentum of education reform began to shift from real, community-based, ‘chalkface’ change and innovation towards presentation and PR. Those who went along with this prospered, those who understood reform differently did not.

For example, no BTC faculty at all were invited to ‘The Education Project’, an international conference held at one of Bahrain’s most prestigious hotels. This was not organised by anyone involved directly in Bahrain education reform, but by a French PR firm. Likewise, I was working with consultants from a leading UK faculty of Education to develop an employability programme for underachieving school leavers. At a high-level meeting a senior consultant said he would like to visit a failing school in a poor neighbourhood. A spokesman for the MoE said, poker-faced, that these did not exist in Bahrain, while everybody at the table knew this to be a lie. The next day and on my own initiative I took the consultants on a tour of such neighbourhoods. While this resulted in a reasonably successful pilot programme, my indiscretion was reported back through opaque, unofficial channels to figures opposed to reform.

As 2010 progressed the EDB’s interventions gradually became less and less effective, until the stage was reached where they could be openly flouted. There were rumours, around April 2010, that the Crown Prince had lost out in an internal palace power-struggle with elements around the Prime minister, and that therefore his reform agenda had lost momentum and was about to be rolled back. Some of the more extreme rumours around at that time suggested that he might not eventually become King of Bahrain, and would be passé over in favour of Prince Nasser bin Hamad, Commander of the Royal Guard, who was much closer to the hardline, anti-reform elements.

From April 2010 onwards, moves were made against the senior management of the EDB, BTC, and BP, with individuals being moved aside or not having their contracts renewed, to be replaced either by Bahraini MoE or UoB stalwarts, or by outsiders completely unfamiliar the ‘2030’ vision and lacking any real understanding of or real commitment to it. People who tried to stand their ground were either unceremoniously sacked, or were subject to smear campaigns and allegations of financial impropriety in the state-controlled media.

In September 2010 I was told by Ian Haslam, the new Dean of BTC then two weeks into his job, that my contract would not be renewed. Despite repeated requests for clarification verbal and written, no explanation whatsoever was given for this, beyond a vague unofficial statement that I had ‘burnt bridges’ with persons unnamed—I took this to mean that I had stood up for reform, as I had been hired to do, against factions that were opposed to it.

Fortunately, during the previous academic year, I had worked towards a UK Master’s level in Academic Practice, delivered on-campus in Bahrain by a UK university and referenced to the UK Higher Education Academy’s Professional Standards Framework for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The HEA is the UK’s lead body for ensuring excellence in teaching and learning in HE, and the programme was delivered at UoB as part of the 2030 reforms. I received a Distinction at Master’s level, and was elected a full Fellow of the HEA. Thus, I was able to use this as leverage to obtain a further contract renewal, although by this time I could see that the writing was on the wall regarding my long-term involvement in education reform in Bahrain.

In October 2010 a series of elections to the Bahrain Parliament were mired in controversy that in turn led to open confrontation between the security forces and protestors. The issues concerned allegations of gerrymandered constituencies, interference with the electoral process and intimidation of candidates, the powerlessness of the Parliaments itself, the stalling of the regime’s attempts to reform itself, and the growing confidence of hardline elements opposed to reform and further democratisation. These difficulties led to an increasingly tense atmosphere both on- and off-campus.

Thus, when the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammad Bouazizi started the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Arab region, it was no surprise whatsoever that Bahrain would have its uprising, and soon.

(5) 2011

The uprising of 14th February 2011 was therefore a surprise to no-one and was clearly and obviously very much part of the ‘Arab Spring’. I stress this to counter bids by PR firms hired by the Bahrain regime, even, on occasion, by the FCO, to decouple Bahrain from the wider ‘Arab Spring’ phenomenon.

Working with undergraduate and postgraduate students and trainee and post-experience teachers in the GCC region between 2002 and 2011 has convinced me that the ‘Arab Spring’ is merely the political manifestation of a wider and deeper generational C21st shift in social attitudes and practices on the part of the first generation of GCC citizens to have experienced the massification of Higher Education, an increasingly diverse range or roles women in economic, social, and political activity, and the effects of globalisation, mass international travel, and global electronic interconnectedness. In the face of these changes the mismatch between the aspirations of younger GCC nationals and the political and economic systems of the region as they are currently constituted is glaringly obvious.

Suspecting I was a marked man by now anyway, I visited during March and April 2011 the occupied Pearl Roundabout—“Bahrain’s Tahrir Square” on several occasions, once witnessing the largest demonstration as a percentage of population of any of the demonstrations that took place anywhere as part of the ‘Arab Spring’. I was struck by the peacefulness and good humour of most of the demonstrators, but also by their determination. I took in the “No Sunni, No Shia—Just Bahraini” atmosphere of the occupation, and witnessed the regime’s blatant attempts to sectarianise the crisis.

On 13 March 2011 I witnessed a serious on-campus disturbance at the UoB, which began when a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration was attacked by a gang of ‘loyalist’ vigilantes who had arrived on campus equipped with pickaxe handles, iron bars, swords, spears and machetes; these were supported by Ministry of the Interior Police.

Disobeying instructions to lock myself in an upstairs room I tried the best I could to bear witness to events. While under attack, the demonstrating students called their villages for support. Protesters began to arrive en masse from the villages, and a general melee ensued in which all participants committed acts of outrageous violence that were an insult to the dignity of an academic campus. However, it is important to remember:

Violence was initiated by ‘loyalist’ vigilantes.

The protesters’ violence was defensive, in response to this attack.

It took a good deal of ingenuity to escape from campus safely. I began to receive threatening phone-calls, some of which I was able to trace to the Ministry of the Interior and the National Guard. Following the Saudi intervention of 17th March I was threatened by a man in uniform wielding an assault rifle. I left Bahrain leaving everything behind on 21st March, and in May resigned, concluding that the academic freedom, human rights, and security situation in Bahrain had rendered ethical professional practice in Higher Education impossible. In September 2011 I submitted substantial written testimony to the BICI.

The UoB refused my resignation, citing surveillance of my Internet activity, withholding a substantial five-figure end of contract settlement: their letter to me1 in the regard is attached with this evidence. I am given to understand I am on an arrest list as a “threat to national security” were I to return my daughter was born there).

I am currently in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance while I try to re-establish my career in the UK.

(6) Implications

Current British policy towards Bahrain and Saudi Arabia seems short-termist, driven to far too great an extent by blatantly commercial imperatives, rooted in the geo-political realities of the mid-C20th and, in case of Bahrain, nostalgia.

The apparent selectiveness of UK ‘Arab Spring’ foreign policy leaves Britain open to accusations of hypocrisy in the Arab world and beyond, and fails to take account of the profound generational shifts in social attitudes that underpin the uprisings. Thus, the UK risks being left “on the wrong side of history” during a C21st that will see far-reaching geo-political re-alignment.

In particular, FCO belief in “reform” in Bahrain seems misplaced. The pre-Arab Spring regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia all promised “reform” in their hour of crisis, but only in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia has the UK taken “reform” at face-value.

The UK has done some valuable back-channel conflict resolution work in Bahrain, notably the InterMediate initiative to bring together the reformist regime and moderate opposition elements. However, my experience trying to implement a major reform initiative in Bahrain has taught me that:

This is not a unified government or regime, but a loose alliance of sometimes conflicting loci of power with radically divergent ideas of what Bahrain is, united loosely by family allegiance.

Among these groups are genuine reformers, but also those genuinely opposed to reform.

Real reform has to involve real research, consultation, outreach and communication reaching down to grassroots communities—in the current atmosphere of distrust it is hard to see how this can happen.

There are forces in Bahrain who see reform as a mere delaying tactic, obfuscation, or PR, who will endeavour to turn real reforms into “paper” or presentational ones.

Successful reform in Bahrain will probably require a level of hand-on follow-up that is not possible in the current environment.

Above all

Meaningful reform in the constitution, the economy education, the judiciary, policing &ct cannot take place until more fundamental reforms have taken place first. These fundamental reforms include an end to institutionalised sectarianism, equal civil rights for all Bahrainis, and real democratic political representation.

While these reforms can take place within the context of a constitutional monarchy, this is unlikely to take place without substantial external mediation or supervision, probably via the UN. British policy towards Bahrain should be aimed at facilitating this, and while it is right to support behind the scenes or otherwise forces genuinely committed to reform in Bahrain, Britain should unambiguously condemn the machinations of hardline elements, and make continued British support of the Al Khalifa monarchy absolutely conditional on progress on real reform.

19 November 2012

1 Letter not published

Prepared 21st November 2013