Hard Lessons in Bahrain: Mike Diboll in the Chronicle of Higher Education

My article on my experiences in Bahrain education reform, culminating with the events of 13th March 2011, has just been published on line and in print in the Review section of the Washington DC-based Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle is the world’s leading news medium for higher education. Utne described the award-winning Chronicle Review as “a fearless, free-thinking section where academia’s best and brightest can take their gloves off and swing with abandon. . . .”

My Chronicle article can be found at the following link:

http://chronicle.com/article/Hard-Lessons-in-Bahrain/131429/

The article is important because a key plank of the Bahrain regime’s diplomatic and PR offensive is that it is a reforming regime which having acknowledged past mistakes is seriously committed to constitutional and legal reform and reform of law-enforcement. Continued British and American support of the Al Khalifa regime depends on the credibility of this reform.

My insider’s evidence on the reality of higher education reform in Bahrain is therefore a timely reminder as to what “reform” under the present regime really amounts to. This is a regime that is used to thinking that it can have it’s cake and eat it, that it can offer a simulacrum of reform to a gullible West, while behaving towards its people like any other authoritarian dictatorship in the Middle East. It amazes me how long they’ve been able to get away with this. My testimony is a wake-up call as to the limitations of so-called reform under this vile regime.

As “premium content” my Chronicle article is behind a paywall. However, the text of the article is as follows:

Hard Lessons in Bahrain

By MIKE DIBOLL

On March 13, 2011, I drove off the campus of the University of Bahrain for the last time. I negotiated my Land Rover slalom-style around makeshift roadblocks erected near the main entrance. Knots of Interior Ministry police in white helmets and holding riot guns stood guard with scores of baltajiyya, armed militiamen loyal to the regime. When I had arrived at work four hours earlier, the entrance had been normal. Now the road was littered with rocks, broken glass, wrecked cars, and pools of blood.

As a British academic, I had come to the Persian Gulf state to help improve its education system. Instead I became a first-hand witness to a pro-democracy uprising and the subsequent brutal crackdown by the government. I still believe higher education has the potential to help make such societies more open and free, but a murky swirl of politics and power can prevent any positive change—and risk turning well-intentioned partners into unwitting supporters of corrupt regimes.

My experience taught me that foreign scholars’ and universities’ involvement in education reform in authoritarian countries like Bahrain is futile unless more fundamental social and political change has taken place beforehand. 

I came to the country in 2007 to work at the University of Bahrain’s College of Arts. Later I became the head of professional development at Bahrain Teachers College, which was founded in 2008 as part of the Bahrain 2030 Vision for economic and education reform.

Led by the crown prince, the ruling Al Khalifa family’s chief reform advocate, the 2030 plan was meant to transform the small nation. Dependence on dwindling energy reserves was to be replaced by a dynamic, diversified economy based on finance, tourism, technology, and service industries. For the vision to succeed, the entire education system, from kindergarten to graduate level, required a radical overhaul.

Bahrain Teachers College was set up to help do this. New undergraduate and graduate degrees would prepare new educators who would replace didactic teaching with more student-centered learning that promoted critical and creative thinking.

A variety of outside partners provided assistance. The Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, received an eight-figure sum to be the lead consultant on curriculum revisions. Higher-education institutions in Australia, Britain, and the United States were also consulted. But little did we know that the college was to become a pawn in a broader power struggle within the monarchy.

Nominally part of the University of Bahrain, the intent was to make the teacher’s college as independent as possible from it and the Ministry of Education. If we encountered resistance, we were told the Economic Development Board, which was founded to oversee the 2030 plan and reported to the crown prince, would clear the path. It worked, for a while.

As 2009 gave way to 2010, the board became increasingly unable to work its magic. The teachers college lost its autonomy. Ministry of Education officials were inserted into the college to monitor its activities. Faculty members splintered into factions.

What were once legitimate topics of reform discussion became dangerous political statements. For instance, where there was once openness about the existence of failing schools, saying so now became an act of treason. Likewise, discussion of how to re-engage with socially excluded and disaffected youth were quashed, replaced by an authoritarian discourse on how to police “rioters” and “insurgents.” Contracts of competent professors deemed to be politically suspect were not renewed without explanation. New managers who had not been part of the 2030 effort were brought in.

My suspicion is that while the crown prince and his allies were sincere about reform, other members of the ruling family were firmly against it. Powerful forces were moving to undermine the movement as soon as it started, and eventually won out.

But these were not the only obstacles to changing the education system. A more fundamental issue—the strong sectarian divide between the minority Sunni rulers and the majority Shia population—hampered any progress.

Appreciating that education cannot be separated from its cultural and social contexts, I chose not to live in a gated expat compound but in a small house near Saar, one of Bahrain’s Shia villages, typical of where many of my students lived. Interacting with my neighbors I saw how decades of institutionalized sectarianism had created real inequalities of income, rates of unemployment, and access to health, housing, and quality of education.

That was a reality from which even the regime’s reformers tried to screen overseas faculty members and consultants, as if foreigners could provide a technocratic “off the peg” solution that would put right a failing education system without engaging with the wider context and Bahrain’s complex socio-political problems.

And it was this reality of inequity that exploded last year in the wake of the Arab Spring. On February 14, 2011, protesters poured into the streets to demand greater political freedom and equality for the Shia population. As the demonstrations grew, the monarchy struck back, with violent consequences.

The University of Bahrain was not exempt. On March 13, the campus erupted with clashes between “loyalist” students and those siding with protesters. I disobeyed instructions to lock myself in my windowless, 3rd floor office. I wanted to bear witness to the unfolding events. I visited the English Language Center in Building S20 where the loyalists who had attacked anti-regime demonstration that morning were holed up.

I saw them brandishing an array of weapons that can only have been brought onto campus with premeditated violence in mind, and saw how they were being worked into a sectarian frenzy by a clique of extreme pro-Saudi Salafists. As the violence intensified that morning these students were joined by wave after wave of pro-regime militia.

It is true that anti-regime outsiders who had entered the campus at the request of the demonstrators perpetrated unacceptable violence, but it was the loyalists who, supported by the riot police and with the university administration looking on, had initiated the attacks that day.

Disgusted by what I had seen, I fled the campus, ignoring the baltajiyya who waved my car to stop. Eight days later, I was on a plane back to Britain.

In May, I resigned from Bahrain Teachers College.  The university wrote back in June saying that surveillance of my Internet activity had shown me to be in breach of contract with regard to sectarian activity, illegal political activity, and activities aimed to bring the university in disrepute.

 To find some meaning in the brutality I’d witnessed, I studied education reform in the Baltic States and Iraqi Kurdistan. I concluded that these succeeded because political change had already taken place. There was a broad consensus as to the desirability of education reform as part of the wider project of nation building.

Western universities should keep that in mind as they seek to assist higher education in Middle East nations—and as they are lured with generous subsidies to work in oil-rich Persian Gulf states. The political transformations that are going on across the Arabic-speaking world do present opportunities for higher-education institutions to contribute their expertise to the building of open, civil societies. But to be successful and ethical, this involvement needs to take place after more fundamental political and social change has happened.

As for Bahrain, it continues to want to bolster its legitimacy through prestigious international links. In January 2012, the University of Edinburgh announced an agreement with the Bahrain Ministry of Education. After I and other concerned parties objected, pointing to the ministry’s complicity in human-rights abuses, the university ended the potential partnership. Let’s hope other universities take heed.

4 thoughts on “Hard Lessons in Bahrain: Mike Diboll in the Chronicle of Higher Education

  1. Dear Dr. Diboll,

    Kudos be upon Thee for all your priceless scholarly work. I was about to submit this draft per below to the Chronicle Review for possible publication as a letter to editor. May I ask you:
    to kindly edit it, if I may, and then, possibly guide me to have it appear in the next issue of the Chronicle Review.
    Thanks David Rahni (www.DrRahni.com and rahni@pace.edu in NYC)
    ____
    Dear Editor,
    Mike Diboll’s timely prose on Hard Lessons in Bahrain (The Chronicle Review April 13, 2012, pp. B4-B5) truly encapsulates the lingering dilemma, which is not only faced by the scholastic and the broader community in Bahrain, but it’s also endured by the academies and grassroots in most countries in this region—like the Arabs, the Persians/Iranians, and others. Indeed, without a sustainable level of fundamental socio-political development and economic parity, no amount of money and transplantation of modern educational reforms can truly transform the innate education of self-reliance in these societies. The Amnesty International reports that well over 50 people, almost all Shiites, have been killed in Bahrain, and thousands imprisoned, tortured, summarily tried and convicted as political prisoners of conscience since February 2011. It was ultimately the Saudi Arabian Special Forces that entered via the Fahad Causeway into the small emirate in order to quench dissent in Bahrain, but their effort was also futile. A so-called “Fact Finding Report” commissioned by the king, as pro forma as it was perceived, was further watered down and then thrown into the bin of oblivion. Whereas the al-Khalifa ruling family canceled their luxurious Formula One Grand Prix last year, they reinstated it this week against all advice and in the dire hope of dodging the domestic dilemma and by portraying the island is safe and secure. Despite these facts, what was most striking in the said article was Diboll’s proper use of the term, “Persian Gulf”, which is the internationally accepted name s since the Persian Achaemenian Dynasty, and as recorded by Herodotus, circa 535 BCE.

    The archipelago of Bahrain (less than 300 square miles, that’s half the size of Oahu, Hawaii) consists of one major and thirty two smaller islands, located at the southern shores of the Persian Gulf and next to the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Najd and Hijaz [Saudi Arabia has been a sovereign country for only one hundred years]. This archipelago was historically the fourteenth Iranian province through 1971- Before the British left, they administered a pro forma referendum to impel the fate of Bahrain as an emirate (sheikdom); Bahrain only declared itself a kingdom in 2002. In response to the protest by the Shah of Iran in 1971, the British recognized the sovereignty of three islands in the Persian Gulf, namely, Abu Musa, the lesser and greater Tombs, to Iran as a symbolic consolation prize..
    Bahrain’s population of 666,666 is comprised of 75% Moslem Shiites of Iranian ancestry, and 25% ruling Sunnis; the Sunnis are primarily of the Al-Khalifa clan that crossed into the island for pearl hunting from Najd 100 years ago. In fact, there is an additional 500,000 migrant workers and their children who are practically serving the less than 200,000 Sunnis, i.e., three for one. As Diboll pointed it out , the waste of revenues from non-renewable natural and human resources in the region will continue, unless the true aspirations for freedom, equality, and justice of all people , first leads to a transformative and transparent system of democratic government for Bahrain and as well as other countries in Southwest Asia.

  2. Dear Dr. Mike,
    I would like to thank you for writing and supporting Bahraini people.
    I am myself a Bahraini doctorate candidate at the University of Sydney- Australia and doing my research over the international media coverage of Bahrain’s uprising, so it would be great if we can cooperate.
    Also, could I post this article in a very well known opposition Bahraini website,” Bahrain Oline”? I am sure Bahrainis will be very thankful after reading it.
    Again, thanks a lot for playing a significant role in ending the partnership between the ministry of education and the university of Edinburgh.
    Regards,
    Zainab

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