Of fathers and daughters

Summary: a Moroccan father grieves for his daughter; a Bahraini daughter risks all to save her father.

The academic and Stanford University Mellon Fellow Samia Errazzouki posted a tweet 11 September with a video of a grieving father whose daughter had died in the devastating earthquake that hit Morocco on Friday. She was one of the 2500 killed, with the number continuing to rise.  As Errazzouki reported in her tweet:

His daughter was rescued from the rubble and when he tried to move her from the harsh sun to secure medical treatment, (a) local official prevented him from doing so because he needed approval from chain of command. She died.

Errazzouki called the girl’s death “the human cost of Morocco’s authoritarian governance.” In a Guardian article published the day after the earthquake the academic was quoted  reflecting on the fact that the Moroccan king Mohammed VI spends most of his time living abroad in France. He flew in several hours after the earthquake and presided over an emergency disaster session on Saturday afternoon where he declared three days of national mourning.

Ultimately, nothing in the country gets done with(out) the green light from the palace … so much time was lost because [the king] was physically not there….Every second counts in these moments, every minute it takes to get approval, to double-check all these tedious time-consuming steps – people are dying. Lives could have been saved.

Mass graves for victims of those killed in the devastating earthquake in Morocco [photo credit: @Angryman_J]
Mass graves are being dug for victims of the devastating earthquake in Morocco [photo credit: @Angryman_J]
The Economist’s Nicolas Pelham has written at length about Mohammed VI in a piece titled “The Mystery of Morocco’s Missing King”  published in May of this year. He noted the growing anxiety of many Moroccans about their king and his lack of enthusiasm for a job he didn’t want. In a follow up conversation with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Jon Alterman Pelham noted

Without him, the state struggles to function. He’s just simply absent for much of the year, sometimes over half the year, but you need to have a king who’s in his kingdom. In Morocco, the king isn’t present.

Moroccans have thus far shown themselves to be tolerant of their king’s eccentric life style and his long absences but that tolerance will be tested as the country struggles to recover from the earthquake.

In Bahrain’s Jau Prison 800 prisoners of conscience are on hunger strike protesting conditions in the prison and the denial of rights including family visits and access to medical treatment. Among those protesting is the veteran human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. His daughter Maryam has campaigned relentlessly for more than a decade for his release. In June 2011, Alkhawaja was sentenced to life imprisonment on the bogus charge that he was attempting the overthrow of the government. His daughter in a tweet released 7 September announced that she will go to Bahrain this week in a bid to see her father, despite the likelihood that she will be instantly arrested and jailed.

In the tweet she says that refusing food puts his life at immediate risk from a heart attack or a stroke. “I can no longer sit around and wait for that call that tells me my father has died in prison.”

The Bahrain government has said it has no prisoners of conscience, that conditions in Jau including visitation rights are in line with international standards and that all inmates have access to necessary medical treatment as and when it is needed.

Maryam Alkhawaja’s tweet drew an editorial from the Washington Post which called on the Biden administration to prevail on the tiny Gulf island’s Crown Prince Salman, when he visits Washington this week, to free her father:

Like her father, she holds dual citizenship in Bahrain and Denmark. With Mr. al-Khawaja’s health deteriorating, Bahrain’s government could offer him compassionate release to Copenhagen so that he can get the care he needs. Bahraini authorities could also give local United Nations representatives and independent doctors access to the prison, to see for themselves the state of its inmates.

But as Jon Hoffman made clear in our podcast of 6 September President Biden no longer sees human rights in the Middle East as any sort of priority so it is unlikely that Antony Blinken, his Secretary of State and other senior Middle East experts in the administration will pay much heed to the editorial. (For more on her father’s story and that of other prisoners of conscience held in Jau listen to our 3 June 2022 podcast with Maryam Alkhawaja)

Rather, as Axios revealed on the week-end,  Blinken et al will be putting the finishing touches on an extensive security agreement with Bahrain when the crown prince comes to town.

That, according to Axios, is part of a larger strategy aimed at securing a defensive bulwark against Iran while reassuring Middle East authoritarian regimes that Washington does have their backs.

The site also argues that the enhanced security deal with Bahrain, home to the US 5th Fleet, is a precursor to similar deals with other Middle East states and a building block to a grand strategy announced on Saturday at the G20 meetings in New Delhi. The deal involves India, the Middle East and Europe and the creation of transportation lanes via land, sea, energy pipelines and high-speed data cables.  “This,” said Biden ”is a big deal, a really big deal.” Other players include Saudi Arabia – which has promised to commit US$20 billion – and Israel.

That the Israelis and the Saudis are on side together is further evidence of Biden’s other “really big deal” to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords.  Hoffman argues in the podcast that Saudi normalization with Israel “would entrap Washington as Riyadh’s security guarantor despite a fundamental disconnect between US-Saudi interests and values and it would formally cement America’s commitment to the underlying sources of regional instability within the Middle East.“

It is a risk that Biden and his advisors seem scarcely aware of so intent are they on containing China. Bolstering authoritarian states against Beijing may have short and even medium-term benefits. And it may be that Biden senses an opportunity to dead-end China’s Belt and Road Initiative as its economy stutters. Certainly, the president is playing a high-stakes, high-risk poker game, but it is one that all too readily has cast aside those cards in the deck marked human rights.

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