Joe Calzaghe, the retired boxing world champion, is reportedly heading to Bahrain’s Diplomat Radisson Blu hotel to share anecdotes about his long and illustrious career. This seemingly innocuous opening statement belies a more worrying truth, wherein the Bahraini regime is exploiting the visits of celebrities like Calzaghe to project an image of normalcy and tranquillity.
It is often this inadvertent, yet sometimes blatant, ‘celebrity anti-diplomacy’ that really riles human rights activists, for it undermines their attempts to highlight how the Bahraini regime have killed and tortured scores of civilians since 2011.
Calzaghe is the latest in a string of celebrities to visit the island. Other visitors since the outbreak of the unrest in 2011 include milkshake purveyor and socialite Kim Kardashian, opera singer Placido Domingo, Arab pop star Nancy Ajram, British DJ Calvin Harris, and most recently veteran blues musician Eric Clapton. In addition to this, there are the hordes of Formula One drivers who descended on Bahrain during the annual grand prix, an event also used to increase Bahrain’s international profile and project a veneer of civility and modernity.
"A distinction can be made between those celebrities who go to Bahrain"Of course, a distinction can be made between those celebrities who go to Bahrain with the simple purpose of self-promotion and money-making, and those who actively spout propaganda that supports the current regime. Nancy Ajram was certainly guilty of the latter, going on Twitter to describe Bahrain as a “lovely country that is walking on the path of success and prosperity year after year”. Others like Kim Kardashian, were a little more circumspect, stating that she wanted to ‘set the record straight’ on Bahrain. She then tweeted: “I just got to Bahrain! OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” While Bahrain is, indeed, pretty, Kardashian’s tweet glosses over any sign of the political repression suffered by many Bahrainis.
Both Kardashian and Ajram’s tweets indicate a ‘marginalisation of suffering’, one in which Bahrain’s political crisis is either ignored or made to appear absent. As Perlmutter and Wagner state, such rhetoric serves to show not what is actually happening, but to “direct public gaze” to an interpretation of reality as desired by the dominant power. In this case, the power in question is the Bahraini government, and their desired reality is ‘all is well in Bahrain’. So rather than being diplomatic, celebrities are attempting to influence public perceptions of a country’s image. In other words - it’s blatant PR, a form of voluntary ‘ambush-marketing’ in which Bahrain builds up its brand by piggybacking on reputation of celebrities.
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Those, such as Eric Clapton, who choose not to speak of politics, cannot be exonerated either. While I am a big Clapton fan (not so much Kim Kardashian), his trip to Bahrain elicited considerable disappointment on my part. His silence could be perceived as wilful blindness, or an unstated declaration of political ‘neutrality’. But, as Sara Roy argues, “any claim to neutrality is... nothing more than calculated indifference.” Similarly, it is impossible for the trip of any celebrity to remain apolitical, for their mere presence implies a tacit acceptance of the political status quo.
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While some academic literature on celebrity diplomacy posits that it is a “broadly positive” thing, it is important to draw a distinction. Arguably, such diplomacy can be useful in cases where celebrities are acting as advocates for humanitarian causes, such as George Clooney on Darfur, or Princess Diana’s charity work (though many would still disagree). However, there are more ambiguous areas of what might be called celebrity ‘anti-diplomacy’, such as a Dennis Rodman’s trips to North Korea or Sean Penn’s visit to Baghdad prior to the invasion in 2003. But even Rodman and Penn did not adopt the ideological position of the repressive regimes they visited, and Andrew Cooper argues that Rodman’s basketball diplomacy could erode North Korea’s sense of otherness, and possibly pave way for a thawing of US animosity to the regime.
Having said that, Bahrain is not an international pariah like North Korea, and there is no need to thaw relations with the west. On the contrary, it is Bahrain’s cosy relationship with Europe and the US that allows celebrities to justify their visits there. Also, celebrities have remained on the peripheries of actual diplomacy in Bahrain, choosing to either keep silent, or actively promote the narrative that the Bahraini regime are progressive and that everything in Bahrain is okay. While whitewashing human rights abuses by marginalising signs of a political and human rights crisis is pretty dastardly, turning a blind eye is no less excusable. In some ways, it is even more insidious, as it implies that there is not even a political issue worthy of discussion or debate.
Thus celebrity anti diplomacy, whether inadvertent or deliberate, is antithetical to the encouragement of human rights in Bahrain. For their part, celebrities should be discouraged from projecting a ‘business as usual’ in the country, at least until the regime shows genuine commitment to justice and human rights.