Bahrain in the shadow of the Libya War

Support by the Arab League for the military operations in Libya has been an effective diplomatic means for Saudi Arabia and the GCC to redirect interest in internal Arab states of affairs away from the Arabian Peninsula and onto North Africa. The strategy seems to work nicely: the silence surrounding Bahrain has been deafening.
Lars Erslev Andersen
13 June 2011

There was little interest in travelling to Bahrain in mid-March. The arrivals hall at Manama Airport was equally deserted – so were the streets on that warm night, the silence disturbed only by the repeated honking of car horns sounding the chant of the demonstrators: “down down Hamad”. Bahrain was shut down. The big shopping malls were practically deserted, the streets half-empty and entirely devoid of westerners. Business conferences had been cancelled, as well as the Formula One Grand Prix. Wishing to be closer to the events unfolding at Pearl Roundabout, I found a different hotel. The life of the place consisted of a kindly Asian bartender and a perpetually burger-eating Irishman, a construction site manager, I believe, as well as the shadowy figures of foreigners sneaking into the Russian bar to see Filipino girls who while posing as singers seemed more adept at coaxing money from these lonely men. 

What did the protesters want? The ghostly silence of the capital was echoed in the international media. Not even Al-Jazeera, based in neighboring Qatar, found the peaceful and surprisingly well-organized protest, at times numbering 50,000 people, in Bahrain newsworthy. The programming of both the English and Arab versions of the network was dominated by developments in Libya and the ongoing international negotiations aimed at starting a war there. There was no news from Bahrain – save a few images and articles on the network’s English website. The uprising did, however, receive massive coverage in the Iranian media – but who cares about the Iranian media? Apart from the Arab opposition newspaper Al-Wasat, local media only reported on the copious gifts the Bahraini royal family bestowed upon its citizens: money, promises of public sector employment, housing plans etc.

A Danish diplomat had described the uprising, saying that “a few hundred people had taken to the streets, protesting rising food prices”. This description might easily have been taken at face value by anyone not present in Pearl Roundabout, where the large-scale protests were being organized and people were gathering every night for discussions, speeches and fellowship. The hovering presence of security service helicopters could not be ignored; a constant reminder that Big Brother is Watching You. On one occasion, actual live rounds were issued from above, aimed at a reporter from The New York Times. Shortly after this, all media attention was seemingly deflected from events in Bahrain.

The protests, however, were not just a matter of “a few hundred” people disgruntled with rising food prices. Tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators were demanding economic reform, political rights and a constitutional monarchy, based in Pearl Roundabout, which is just below the road connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. The square is named after a large monument, a pearl, symbolizing the traditional trademark industry of the country: pearl fishing. The monument was removed by the government, in order to prevent it from serving as a uniting symbol for the popular uprising. ‘Pearl Roundabout’ is gone, replaced in popular memory by ‘Martyrs’ Square’.

Before the removal of the monument, something resembling a festival atmosphere had existed in the square. All branches of the opposition manned booths where conversations could be had with fundamentalists, republicans, socialists and liberals, as well as representatives from trade unions and human rights organizations. Everybody was there, courteous yet eager to convey their demand and hopes for change. In between the booths free food and drink was served, posters were sold and in the middle of the square a podium had been erected from which speeches were made by opposition leaders, who afterwards were quite willing to engage in conversation – even with the singular Danish scholar, the sole westerner roaming the booths. The podium had been ‘decorated’ with seven coffins symbolizing those already lost to the military’s efforts to check the protests. Young activists from the 14 February Movement had organized a media centre to accommodate journalists and other interested parties, the numbers of which did not, however, serve to keep the activists busy. Instead, their time was spent planning the movements of the protests over the next couple of days.

A single western diplomat appeared in the roundabout, remaining in the safety of his Mercedes. Beckoning to me from behind his rolled-down windscreen, he insisted that being in the square could be very unsafe as, “they sometimes attacked foreigners”. The same message was impressed upon me by the Asian staff at my hotel. I cannot say whether they believed this to be true or were speaking in bad faith, but surely their admonitions were misguided: for had a single protester attempted to harm me in any way, 50 others would have been quick to prevent it, lest negative and counterproductive messages be conveyed to the outside world. They needed me as a messenger, not as a victim of violence on their part. And I am happy to serve them. The western diplomat might, on the contrary, rightly have warned me of the Bahraini security forces, who were quite zealous in intimidating anyone in their vicinity.

In the event, shortly after my departure,1,500 soldiers and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Manama, fortifying the royal palaces and business districts. The following day, the Bahraini security forces, which are primarily made up of Pakistani migrant employees, cleared Pearl Roundabout as well as other protest sites. A state of martial law was declared, nightly curfews were imposed, people were locked up, opposition politicians jailed, bloggers persecuted and the major opposition newspaper banned. Most recently the so-called Supreme Court has initiated a process meant to dissolve the two major opposition groups, one of which, Al-Wifaq, won 18 of 40 seats in the most recent election to the Bahraini parliament.

But even the clearing out of Pearl Roundabout and the devastating suppression of the opposition failed to earn any notable mention in the international media, now competing for close-ups of fighter aircraft heroically bombing Libya. Since the crude intervention of the regime against the protest, my in-box persistently brims with photos showing young people bearing the marks of physical abuse: beaten with truncheons or hit by rubber bullets, as well as reports of incarcerations, the shut-down of news sources etc. – meanwhile, the international media showcase the king happily announcing that the insurgency is over and that order has been restored. Apparently, his words are accepted as gospel: after meeting for 90 minutes with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, on 6 April, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, asked whether developments in Bahrain had been discussed, merely answered “No”. Silence, it seems, is by far the more convenient option.

Recent developments

Political tensions in the island kingdom have been ongoing for some time. Time and again, for example in connection with parliamentary elections in the fall of 2010, protests and riots have echoed demands for political influence for citizens, the transition to a constitutional monarchy, equal rights for Sunni and Shia Muslims, economic reform, fair housing policies and the assignment of public sector jobs to local Bahraini citizens – including Shias – rather than the preferential treatment of Sunnis and Asian foreigners. The opposition has been split between those who refuse to be a part of the political process, because they consider it a disingenuous diversion leading to no concrete results, and those who hope to gain influence by running for parliament: a parliament which has so far remained a forum for idle talk, while all important decisions have been made by the royal family.

Inspired by developments in Tunisia, and later also in Egypt, the opposition regained hope that protests could lead to change and it began on 14 February in a Shia-dominated village where young people took to the streets, echoing the chants heard in Cairo’s Tahrir (Freedom) Square. The security forces, as usual a massive presence in the capital’s Shia-dominated neighborhoods as well as in the villages, with check-points every few hundred meters, reacted brutally, attacking the protesters. Two died.

But the conduct on the part of the security forces did not stop the uprising; in fact, it had the opposite effect. The following day, people in the capital flocked to Pearl Roundabout, setting up tents and booths and issuing their demands. Again, the reaction of the Bahraini security forces was ruthless: at 3 a.m. on 17 February they arrived at Pearl Roundabout, where most people were asleep, and ordered that the square be cleared. Five minutes later they moved in. Many were wounded, chaos ensued at the hospital, and three lost their lives. At the media centre on Pearl Roundabout the gruesome events were documented in the numerous video recordings made by people using their cell phones. But the brutal clearing of the square did not quell the popular uprising. The next day, new groups of young protesters headed toward Pearl Roundabout, which had been secured by the Bahraini military. The people walked toward the square with their arms raised above their heads, showing that they were unarmed. Yet the military fired live rounds at them and two young people were thus shot down in the street. This episode, too, was documented using cell phones, and the recordings of course show images of panic and chaos, but they also show a group of young men removing their shirts and, stripped to the waist, walking on toward the soldiers.

Images of the brutal slaughter in the streets of peaceful protesters, and also of helicopters firing at a New York Times reporter, were posted on YouTube and seen worldwide. That may have been a factor in Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to call up the king of Bahrain, explaining that the US considers the use of violence against peaceful protesters unacceptable. This US intervention led to the withdrawal of the military and the disappearance of the security forces from Shia neighborhoods. Pearl Roundabout became the base for the protests and also the only place in the capital – apart, of course, from Friday prayer at the large mosques – where any activity could be found.

The people

Bahrain achieved independence in 1971, after the 1970 declaration by Iran that it no longer considered Bahrain an Iranian province and therefore gave up its claim to the area. The small Persian Gulf states had in fact never been part of Iran. Until 1971, they remained under the control of the British Empire, which at that time withdrew entirely from the Gulf, thereby creating the basis for the independent Gulf states. It fell to the small Khalifa royal family, with a membership of about 1,000, to head the country, since when it has basically run the state like its own private property. This has created immense wealth for the royal family, members of which probably rank among the world’s wealthiest individuals. But the state as such is not wealthy. Proceeds from the energy sector and, later on, the financial sector, in which Bahrain is in long-standing competition with Dubai for the status as the financial hub of the Middle East, have been channelled into the royal family. It has then, in the manner of bestowing gifts, invested some of the funds back into the Bahraini society via development of the country’s infrastructure, the construction of housing, and the funding of public sector employment.

The king and his people constitute its true power base, in spite of the new constitution with which he provided the country in 2001, reinstating the Bahraini parliament. The country has a population of about 1.2 million, of which about 560,000 are Bahrainis. The remaining 600,000 are migrant workers, predominantly from Pakistan, the Philippines and India. The army which numbers 20,000, the security forces which number 15,000 as well as the national guard which numbers 10,000 men are led by members of the royal family or men who are loyal to them, but consist largely of people imported from Pakistan.

Approximately 64% of the half million local inhabitants are Shias, according to the king’s figures. This number has fallen throughout the last decade, and the balance is changed in a conscious effort to nationalize immigrants from Yemen, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories and especially Syria. For those on the bottom rung of society, the Shias, it is a major provocation that Syrians shortly upon arrival are issued passports and citizenship and jump to the front of the line for public sector jobs and proper housing. This made passport and immigration offices a primary target for protests last March. An estimated 15% of local Bahrainis are made up so-called nationalized ‘Syrians’.

Change and conservatism

This nationalization policy, which is meant to shift the balance between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority, is a direct reflection of the king’s take on the political situation or, at least, how he wants to present the situation: the main security threat against Bahrain is posed by Iran, which, according to the king and the other Gulf state leaders, is working to mobilize Shias to rebel, opening the gates of the Gulf region to Iran.

In fairness, there is little doubt that some among practicing Shias hold a measure of veneration for Iran and the Iranian ayatollahs. As in large sections of Arab populations throughout the Gulf, ultra-conservative religious sentiment does exist. However, while the majority of religious conservatives in e.g. neighbouring Saudi Arabia, follow Muslim sects committed to Wahhabism and Salafism, serious fundamentalists among Bahraini Shias turn to Iran and the interpretation of Shia Islamism which is prevalent in that area as well as in Iraq and among the Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

The Shias must be factored into any Bahraini reform process, just as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah must take into account the fact that a majority among his population in fact do not want democratization, but find that he has already strayed too far from the true path of orthodox Islam. This, however, does not constitute an argument against reform and democratization, but rather it represents an almost universal challenge faced by any traditional society undergoing or attempting a process of modernization, as is so convincingly demonstrated by Samuel Huntington in his highly readable 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies.

There is no indication that fundamentalist and Iran-leaning forces in fact make up a majority in Bahrain – nor that they wish to turn the island kingdom into an Iranian vassal state. It is worth noting that protesters in Bahrain adopted the Bahraini flag as their main symbol. I personally noticed many women who had chosen to wrap themselves in the Bahraini flag on top of their traditional garb, the abaya. The protesters had a nationalist message: posters everywhere featured the slogan: “Sunni and Shia are brothers and our nation is not for sale” – meaning, the country is not available for domination by any external power, including Iran. During a protest a group of young men approached me, shouting: “We are not from Teheran, we are from Bahrain”. One night saw fighting in one of the Shia neighborhoods, which was then, by the government and later by foreign media, represented as “sectarian clashes”. What actually happened was that groups of so-called ‘Syrians’ had formed militias and, armed with clubs, gone to certain neighborhoods to instigate fighting, probably sent there by the security forces. The opposition urged the authorities to stop these militias; meanwhile, the following day, protesters reacted by calling for people to refrain from any use of violence, as well as by forming a human chain reaching the four kilometer distance between Pearl Roundabout and the major Sunni mosque, chanting “Sunni and Shia are brothers”.

The ‘Shia Crescent’

The fact that the king’s message about a Sunni-Shia conflict nevertheless resounds throughout the region as well as in the western media and with western politicians, is largely due to regional developments following the Iraq war. Here, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing conflict, which very much resembled a state of civil war, indeed opened the gates to Iran, which today wields great influence on the majority Shia population in Iraq as well as on the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

However one might otherwise view the war in Iraq, there is no doubt that it has strengthened Iran – both by removing its arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, and because the war led to an increase in Iran’s political influence inside Iraq. Democratization efforts elsewhere in the Middle East have also strengthened Iran – as in the Palestinian Territories, where the 2006 election led to victory for Iranian ally Hamas, and in the Lebanon, where the Hezbollah since the summer of war in 2006 are stronger than at any previous time. It was in fact in the aftermath of the war in the summer of 2006 that Arab leaders, led by Jordan’s King Abdullah, in earnest began to issue warnings regarding the so-called ‘Shia Crescent’: a Shia threat, dominated by Iran, reaching from Iran through Iraq, across the Persian Gulf into Libya and Syria, where the ruling regime’s Alawite position was included in the Shia Crescent. This was the context for the US decision to deprioritize the project of democratization in the Middle East, and instead focus on forming an alliance which was to mobilize against the Shia Crescent, whose main actors were Iran, Syria, the Hezbollah as well as their vassals Hamas  - and, also, somewhere in the margins, Al-Qaida. In this effort to counter the threat posed by a strengthened and increasingly defiant Iran, it was in fact these very conservative, Arab Sunni monarchies, along with Egypt, Israel and the US, who would represent stability and order – irrespective of their individual tendencies in terms of politics and forms of government – and so constitute a bulwark particularly against Iran.

It was also at this time that statements were issued by Bahrain’s King Hamad and his Arab colleagues in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states in which they describe the protests in Bahrain as a Shiite, sectarian insurgency, which will open the gate to Iran. These developments pose a threat to Saudi Arabia in particular, as the Saudis now fear the evolution of the Shia Crescent, with the Sunni-Shia conflict in northern Yemen and the developments in Bahrain, into a circle circumscribing the Sunni kingdom. This has made the Shia Crescent the official reason given by Saudi authorities for the ruthless quashing of any signs of protests among Shias within Saudi Arabia, and the adamant refusal to accept any concession on the part of King Hamad to the protesters in Pearl Roundabout.

Demands for reform

The message resounding from Pearl Roundabout was, however, neither Shiite nor in service to Iran. It was about political rights, economic reform, the right to jobs and housing; about ending corruption, and about the demand for the constitution, as promised by the king in 2001, to facilitate the transition to a constitutional monarchy. It was about access to the country’s beaches (95% of all beaches are owned by the royal family, and remain forbidden territory to the local population) and about a wish for the army and police to consist of Bahraini citizens rather than Pakistani mercenaries. Sunni politicians supported these demands and joined the protests, including the planning sessions in Pearl Roundabout. I was there, witnessing one such session on one warm March night. 

And, in those first weeks of March, some optimism could be gauged among the protesters that this time, there was a real possibility of opening up lines of dialogue with the government. Their conditions for this dialogue, and for ending protests, were simple: the hugely unpopular prime minister, in office since 1971, must resign, and the regime must enter into direct dialogue with the protesters. This model closely resembled that followed in Egypt, also not so much a revolution as the preamble to a process of reform which, through dialogue and constitutional amendments, was to lead to a liberal political system.

After the bloody incidents in Pearl Roundabout, the king relegated the responsibility for negotiations to the crown prince, who is seen as both open to reform and liberal as opposed to the prime minister, who is a conservative stalwart and sees brutality as the only option in dealing with opposition. The crown prince refused to fire the prime minister, but did invite dialogue; this was, however, seen by the protesters as a mere pretense at negotiations: the crown prince formed a Sunni group which was to negotiate with the protesters. It was thus clearly indicated that the protesters would represent the Shia side, which was obviously not true of all among them, while he would preside over the proceedings and, if necessary, arbitrate between the parties from his position of supposed elevated detachment. But the demonstrators had nothing they might discuss with this Sunni group, and in fact their demands were not a matter of Sunni versus Shia; they were about political and economic issues, which they rightly felt could only be dealt with in direct negotiations with the government.

They therefore turned down the invitation issued by the crown prince, and the protests continued. It was, however clear that an untenable situation had been reached: all activity had come to a halt and every day, from 3 p.m., the few thoroughfares through the capital were blocked by demonstrators, making lives difficult for people returning from work. At one point a female driver became so incensed that she ran her car straight into the crowd of protesters, severely injuring several of them. This happened by the entrance to the financial centre near the docks (which incidentally is owned by the prime minister, who purchased the entire compound for 1 dinar, approx. $ 2). In response to the incident, protesters put up tents, blocking the entrance to the sector. This brought the whole situation to a head. The king only had two options: either to engage in real dialogue with the protesters, or to forcibly remove them. As a matter of history, he went with the latter option.

Saudi Arabia the sovereign

As already implied, the royal family seems split on the issue of reform: a conservative wing representing hard-core Salafism and led by the prime minister; and the opposing wing, to which the king and his crown prince belong. Many had therefore hoped that the king would step up to the plate – fire the prime minister and invite real negotiations. As a high-profile, Sunni, liberal politician said to me, when it comes down to it, the king does hold absolute power – a thinly veiled riposte to the US political scholar Gregg Gauss, who in an article had emphasized the division and power struggles within the Persian Gulf monarchies. The point may well be true as far as Bahraini domestic issues are concerned, but it was wrong with regard to the wider perspective of politics in the Persian Gulf: the power of the king of Bahrain is limited by an outside force, namely that of Saudi Arabia. As a direct security political reaction to the Islamic revolution in Iran, the organization called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed in 1981. It comprises the six Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is the dominant partner in this cooperation. There have been instances in which states such as Qatar have, as it were, danced to their own tune, e.g. in joining a very small number of states in recognizing the Libyan rebels, but no member states of the GCC stray very far from the path laid down by Saudi Arabia.

Within Saudi Arabia, developments in Egypt caused grave concern. The ousting of the Tunisian dictator (which incidentally caused him to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia) was in Riyadh considered merely a minor setback, although these developments were seen as cause for rejoicing among its friends in the west. The thought of a parallel fate for Mubarak in Egypt, however, was entirely unacceptable to Saudi royals. Saudi Arabia therefore, quite soon after protests had commenced, in no uncertain terms advised the USA not to support the forces for reform in Cairo, and it represented a severe blow to the standing of King Abdullah when president Barack Obama in a televised report celebrated the ousting of Mubarak.

Saudi Arabia’s concerns were threefold: firstly, seeing how the US, in a matter of weeks, turned so entirely against one of its staunch allies greatly unsettled the king. If it could happen in Cairo, surely it could also happen in Riyadh? The fact that successful popular uprisings had come to pass in not just one but two countries, toppling well-established dictators, might inspire the Saudi population to follow suit. And what effects might the wave of uprisings have in terms of the alliance against Iran? Would the alliance crumble, leaving Saudi Arabia without its partnership with Egypt at a time when relations with Iran were at an all-time low?

Developments in Egypt and the US support for the ousting of Mubarak triggered intense levels of activity in the GCC and Saudi Arabia. In hindsight, it was from the outset very clear that Saudi Arabia under no circumstances would allow any change whatsoever in the small neighbouring state of Bahrain. It had to be stopped using any conceivable means – regardless of US objections to the use of violence against peaceful protesters. Such objections were simply ignored by Riyadh. A great deal of money was quickly distributed among the Saudi population, accompanied by reminders that protests are strictly forbidden and would be checked immediately – as indeed they were when Shia groups took to the streets in the eastern provinces. Also, pressure was exerted on the GCC to employ the organization’s shared military forces, ‘Peninsula Shield’, in Bahrain in aid of the royal family’s efforts to quell protests.

The steps taken by Saudi Arabia did not go unnoticed by Washington, which responded with a hyperactive display of diplomatic activity: both the national security advisor and the secretary of defense have been sent on missions to the Middle East, with Robert Gates visiting the region three times in the course of one month.

A Saudi stroke of genius 

When talking of Bahrain, it is often mentioned that the Fifth US Navy is based in the country and that the Americans are therefore hard pressed to criticize the regime. Of much greater import, however, are US relations with Saudi Arabia. This is in part due to the vast oil resources and reserves possessed by the kingdom and its attendant power to regulate the oil market. It is also due to the fact that Saudi Arabia dominates security policy in the Gulf region.  It is furthermore due to the central part played by the country in the war against Al-Qaida – a significant factor in this being its great influence on and within the unrest-ridden country of Yemen. Strategically speaking, the US simply cannot afford discord between itself and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is well aware of all these factors, and therefore displays its power quite freely, e.g. by deploying troops to Bahrain in order to suppress a popular uprising there.

Saudi Arabia, however, is also dependent on the USA – at least for the time being – and knows how awkward it is for the US to be allied with a state which is brutal in its authoritarian exercise of power, allowing for absolutely no concessions on the part of small, neighbouring states to demands for reforms which might weaken the ruling families.

Saudi Arabia’s brilliant move in the spring on 2001 was to push for the support of the Arab League for the UN resolution regarding Libya. Gaddafi has persisted in a state of isolation among the Arab countries for a long time, and Libya is of no importance to Saudi Arabia. The GCC has absolutely nothing to lose in supporting the effort to oust Gaddafi. At the same time, it was of vital importance to the western countries to secure an Arab alibi for the action in Libya, and so a mutual understanding was easily reached: “We support the action in Libya; you refrain from bringing up Bahrain”. The deployment of Arab Emirate and Qatari fighter aircraft to Libyan airspace has of course also been cleared with Riyadh.

The support of the Arab League for the military operations in Libya has, then, become the most effective diplomatic means for Saudi Arabia and the GCC to redirect interest in internal Arab states of affairs away from the Arabian Peninsula and onto North Africa. This leaves Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to brutally suppress peaceful protests without having to worry too much about undue attention on the part of foreign diplomats and media, while receiving international kudos for assuming responsibility with regards to the Libyan issue. The strategy seems to work nicely – as documented above, protesters in Bahrain have received very little press coverage. Even Al-Jazeera has been remiss here, and one gets the impression that the otherwise independent network is not in fact quite independent when it comes to issues internal to the GCC. The silence surrounding Bahrain has been deafening.

One might well claim that as concerns its involvement in Bahrain and its support for the action in Libya Saudi Arabia has done very well indeed. The problem remains, however, that the breathing of the royal family in Bahrain is becoming increasingly laboured with each passing day. Martial law, curfews, the military guarding financial centres: none of this will serve to induce a return of foreign investments. 

The deadlock with which popular protests have so far been met is even more suffocating. The majority of protesters who during those March nights in Pearl Square managed to convince the revolutionaries that peaceful protests can be effective have been proven wrong. The revolutionaries are justified in claiming that there are no political solutions to be sought through dialogue with the royal family. The Newspeak term for this is ‘radicalization’ – and it is taking place without any effort at all on the part of the Iranians across the Gulf: they may smilingly follow events unfolding, noting that the Gulf Arabs are doing a fine job of mobilizing the Shia Crescent with no help whatsoever from the ayatollahs in Teheran.    

While the west aimlessly launch themselves into a futile civil war in North Africa, the west’s Arab alibi suffocates any hope of democratic development in the Persian Gulf. 

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