A Gulf Apart: Bahrain becomes an afterthought of the "Arab Spring"
With the Bahraini regime seemingly secure following its crackdown, the West has a difficult choice to make in the Gulf kingdom.
Journalists love a good revolution. Thousands of protesters streaming onto the streets always make excellent copy. News channels are filled with pictures of angry men and women, waving banners, forcing their way past riot police and taking on tanks.
Well coiffed news anchors, denim shirt sleeves rolled up, broadcast from the heart of the action – otherwise known as the hotel balcony. But when reporters move on to cover more important matters; the struggle against authoritarian governments carries on.
This, sadly, has become the fate of Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests, which shook the Gulf kingdom earlier this year. Whilst for a few weeks Bahrain took a top spot on news bulletins it was soon replaced with other global developments, and the ruling al-Khalifa family was able to crush the nascent uprising with little consideration for the concerns of the ‘international community’. Quite simply, Bahrain has become the Arab Spring’s afterthought.
Indeed, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has so far succeeded where Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali failed. The crackdown on the tiny Gulf island has been brutal. At its height, protesters – largely, yet not exclusively from Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority – were fired at with tear gas and live bullets.
Demonstrators suffered mass arrests, many suffering torture and abuse. NGOs such as Human Rights Watchhave condemned the Bahraini authorities for conducting what they called “a systematic and comprehensive crackdown to punish and intimidate government critics and to end dissent root and branch.”
However, whilst now oppression may be less visible – and whilst Bahrain’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar may have withdrawn the 1,500 or so troops they sent to help quell the uprising – the regime’s attempts to coerce, subdue and undermine any opposition continues.
Only last month, dozens of protesters were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the regime has even targeted doctors and nurses who treated injured activists during the protests. For now, it seems, Bahrain has put its pro-democracy protesters back in their box.
However, these developments are not isolated to Bahrain. The regime, as well as their Saudi backers, has attempted to frame their actions as pre-empting an Iranian takeover. As a majority-Shi’ite country with a minority Sunni monarchy, trapped between the two regional superpowers of Riyadh and Tehran, the geopolitical dimensions of the unrest are clear.
However, the truth of the matter is that opposition to the al-Khalifa dynasty isn’t monolithic, and never has been. Simply reducing the events in Bahrain to a geopolitical ‘Sunni-Shi’ite/Iran-Saudi Arabia’ paradigm isn’t just dangerous, but disregards the genuine desires amongst all sections of Bahrain’s population for legitimate political institutions, greater economic opportunities and open civil society.
Most observers agree that whilst Iran unsurprisingly attempted to exploit the unrest, they failed to do so and had no hand in its fomentation. Indeed, research by the International Crisis Groupin April concluded that “there is no credible indication of disloyalty or irredentism on the part of Bahrain’s Shiites.... Shiites have made clear they have no interest in establishing an Iranian-style regime, let alone incorporating the island into a greater Iran.”
By creating the false narrative that the unrest is sectarian in nature only further serves to create divisions across the Gulf – doing the Iranian’s job for them.
During times like this – when one of the West’s nominal allies goes far beyond the accepted levels of disrespect for their citizens’ rights – Western policymakers are faced with a stark choice: sweep their ally’s abuses under the carpet, or use that relationship to help move their ally in the direction of genuine reform.
It is imperative that the West utilise the latter approach, and avoid the former at all costs. To quietly ignore what happened – and is still happening – in Bahrain, simply to protect their interests or curry favour with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states would severely undermine Western credibility in a region whose younger generations are crying out to the democratic world for strong leadership.
This means acting as an arbiter between the government and the opposition, helping to broker a national dialogue that reduces regional tensions and fulfils the wishes of all Bahrainis.
Genuine political reforms need to be developed and approved, with a timetable for the transfer of significant powers from the ruling family to legitimate parliamentary institutions that encompass all of Bahrain’s communities, regardless of ethnic or religious background.
The stated end goal should be, and must be, the eventual establishment of a democratic parliamentary system with a constitutional monarchy. As a first step, the King should appoint an internationally-backed independent commission, whose composition should include representatives from Bahrain’s opposition parties, to look into the major issues affecting Bahraini national politics and society – most notably reducing chronic high unemployment, ending discrimination against Bahrain’s Shi’ite population, and tackling corruption and regime nepotism.
These changes will undoubtedly be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. There will be push-back, particularly from the regime’s ‘old guard’, such as Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman al-Khalifa.
However, these changes must be made, and they must visibly start straight away. For the West, following this path won’t be easy. It will upset Saudi Arabia, and complicate the already strained relations with Riyadh since the Arab Spring began.
If we want to avoid any further escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as push for the mutually beneficial results that greater political freedoms in the Middle East will have both regionally and globally, then we should insist that our ostensible allies maintain the high standards of human rights, democratisation and reform that we demand of our opponents like Muammar Gaddafi,Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei.
Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst. He tweets at @WMHJames
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