Bahrain’s crackdown and US tutelage
The Donald Trump Administration can’t simply say no to Bahrain as it hosts the most important strategic American base in the heart of the West Asia. This will embolden the al-Khalifa family to crush any future unrest in the State
The sixth anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain witnessed a spate of violent protests across the tiny Gulf State last month. Wary of widespread outrage against the ruling elite, the Government announced a ban on the main Opposition party, Wa’ad or the National Democratic Action Society, a secular group. The Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the party on the charge that it is undermining the security of the nation. The Ministry release said that the Wa’ad perpetrated “serious violations targeting the principle of respecting the rule of law, supporting terrorism and sanctioning violence by glorifying people convicted for terrorism cases”. This is nothing but a repetition of what the Government did last year when it banned the then biggest Opposition party, al-Wefaq. The dissolution of al-Wefaq was a serious concern among the western allies and the human rights organisations as it was seen as a disturbing signal for the quietly grown symptoms of democratic dissent in the country for long. The Bahraini authorities accused the party of creating “a new generation that carries the spirit of hatred” and of maintaining links with “sectarian and extremist political parties that adopt terrorism”. In the same year, the Government also revoked the citizenship of top Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim for prompting protests by his followers. The declaration by the authorities says that Qassim is creating a sectarian atmosphere and forming groups that follow foreign religious ideologies and political entities. It was an apparent reference to the Shia power Iran and its growing interference in the country’s politics. Along with this, last week saw the Upper House of Bahrain Parliament approving a constitutional amendment which will allow the authorities to run the country under an undeclared state of martial law. This will simply empower the Government to force civilians to face the infamous military courts if the cases involve the military. It is highly likely that the Opposition protesters, human rights activists, and opinion makers would all be easily coming under the rubric of the new law. All these incidents show that the Bahrain Government is taking all possible steps to prevent elements which can disturb the ruling elite either on the pretext of spreading dissent, hatred and or on the acute charges of bringing home terrorism.
When the Tahrir Square in Egypt raised the banner of revolt in 2011, the human right activists and the majority of the Shias did the same in Bahrain. They all had given a call for a protest as their long-standing grievances and discriminatory treatment by the regime were waiting for an opportunity to burst out. And, the historic Arab Spring had offered the rare chance to the Kingdom’s much neglected Shias to speak their minds. Bahrain is a country with an indigenous Shia majority population, but the country has been ruled by a Sunni royal family, known as al-Khalifas.
Interestingly along with the Shias, the minority Sunnis too marched on the streets against the Government. All the protesters could rather identify them not as “Shias” or “Sunnis”, but as “Bahrainis”. It was an unusual feature of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. This highlighted the growing frustration of the people against the ruling dynasty. The current king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has been known for constantly curtailing fundamental human rights like rights of expression, association and peaceful Assembly in the country. Global human rights groups observe that torture and abuses are widely practiced in the notorious jails of Bahrain.
When the authorities put a ban on the Opposition party, it claimed that the security agencies have uncovered a terrorist cell operating from 50 or more locations across the country. These are reasons behind the Government decisions to steer clear of all organisations, groups and activists who could probably have the force or may garner external support to unseat the royalty.
Indeed the situation in Bahrain has become a cause of concern for its western allies and for the rest of the Gulf nations which are also encountering such conflicts in the past. When the al-Wefaq and Qassim saga unfolded, a bipartisan group of American Senators in July 2016 brought it to the notice of then Secretary of State John Kerry about the mounting repression of the Bahraini Government on civil society activists and peaceful political opponents. Further, all of them raised the point that if the events take turn in this fashion, it could possibly create regional unrest, spark more violence and increase meddling of Iran like countries in Bahrain. Even around the same time, a US State Department report sent to the Congress showed that Bahrain had failed to implement political and human rights reforms prescribed by an independent commission in the wake of the 2011 protests in the country.
Bahrain is home to American Navy’s Fifth Fleet. This provides the country an added advantage. However, the price of maintaining the American safety-valve is also a huge burden on Bahrain. Why the country needs to remain as an American protectorate? Just because its royal family wants to remain in power. Bahrain crushed the 2011 unrest with full assistance from its larger neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, Bahrain being a constitutional monarchy, its citizens have no right to change their Government or their existing political system. Whether its citizens can herald a new political system or not, it is very clear that the powerful and influential al-Khalifa royals are going to stay put at the helm. With the coming of Donald Trump, it seems his administration is going to maintain the status quo with Bahrain rather more effectively. Though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his Senate confirmation testimony professed that “our values are our interests when it comes to human rights”, in one of his crucial acts to deal with Bahrain, the strategic Persian Gulf State, he abandoned that stance. The international human rights community is all in doubt that Trump establishment may have already approved a massive multi-billion dollar sale of Lockheed Martin fighter planes to Bahrain, even without putting any conditions. Unfortunately this will reverse an Obama Administration’s demand that the Bahraini Government should initiate some basic reforms in exchange for the jets. In fact, Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman said last month: “This type of conditionality would be unprecedented and counterproductive to maintaining security cooperation and ultimately addressing human rights issues. There are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies.” Also, he rejected that the previous regime had attached human rights conditions on the sale of F-16s to Bahrain. This makes it very clear that Trump can’t simply say no to Bahrain as it hosts the most important strategic American base in the heart of the West Asia. This will embolden the al-Khalifa family to rein in on any future unrest in the State. But many lawmakers in the Congress and human rights activists feel that America has the obligation to ask its partners and allies to uphold human rights and rule of law. However, conventional military wisdom from most military experts and planners in the Defense Department is that “losing Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain is unlikely” and “the Saudis and the United States would never allow it”. In view of all these, the successive military planners in America have ensured that al-Khalifa regime remains intact, and the security scenario stays stable so that Washington can retain its prestigious geopolitically important fleet there. But many say that security situation may change in the tiny nation.
The lost in the middle are millions of ordinary people, sadly without any voice. They are hardly represented by any party or leadership. They include Shias, Sunnis and mostly migrant Asians. Their only desire is to see a Bahrain which can be more friendly and safe both for business and work. More importantly, all of them who are facing endless sufferings in their personal and public life simply want a corruption-free system. What really happening to them is that they are sandwiched between the too violent Shia hardliners, who are encouraged by Iran, and the Sunni radicals, who want to crush them mercilessly. What can be observed clearly is that there is no strong appetite for an all-out revolution among the majority Shias, but a strong call for reform movement is apparent across all sections of people. Delaying it may help create more tensions both in the political spectrum and in public space. The Bahraini royals should not put to test the patience of its populace.
The island nation may see much more than what is happening now. Its tiny Sunni ruling elite will find it extremely difficult to run the State. It has been possible so far because of the support from its long-time ally, the US and the other powerful Sunni-led Governments in the region. Simply accusing Iran for fomenting sectarian violence will not help the Bahraini Government to maintain the status quo any longer. The time has come to respect the basic human rights and allow political Opposition to have their say in the country. By targeting the Shia community and various other activists, the royal family is only exacerbating the tension in the region. It must remember that once people come on the roads, they will simply uncover the real face of the Government. So far many of the authoritarian rulers in the region have fallen in the line, like that of Hosni Mubarak, Gaddafi, Ben Ali, as a result of the massive force unleashed by the Arab Spring. No one knows when the time will come for the royalties of the region. But then, small nations, like Bahrain, must tread carefully while dealing with political activism and civil society groups.
(The writer is an expert on international affairs)
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