Bahrain’s sectarian tensions and America’s mysterious silence on the oppressive regime

For most people on earth, February 14th is important because of Valentines day. A day of giving and recieving love; couples exchange roses, Belgian chocolates and other gifts, aswell as watching uninteresting romantic ‘comedy’ films to meet the occasion.

However, for the people of the tiny Gulf kingdom called Bahrain the day has a completely different meaning. It is the day of the Bahrain uprising, the forgotten revolution of the Arab spring. A popular protest movement demanding democratic reform, government accountability, equal rights for Shia Muslims, an end to corruption and ultimately, a sense of justice. The regime responded like all autocratic states do when they face rebellion, by placing blame on foreign forces and reacting with brute force. In the case of Bahrain, the authorities labelled the protestors “agents of Iran” when in fact the Iranian theocracy had little to do with instigating the uprising. They then, with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia, foreign mercenaries, and US supplied weapons, brutally crushed the uprising in an act of counter revolution.

The regime is ruled by the Al-Khalifa clan which is derived from the country’s Sunni Muslim tribal minority. It rules over the Shia Muslim majority, mostly in an exclusivist,  discriminatory and sectarian manner. Or as Middle East expert Vali Nasr poignantly put it: “For Shi’ites, Sunni rule has been like living under apartheid”. Shia Muslims are not allowed to hold key government posts or serve in the police or military. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, in spite of the fact that Shiites are a majority of the population exceeding 70%, “they occupy less than 18% of total top jobs in government establishments. In several government ministries and corporations no Shiite is appointed in leading jobs“.

It claims to be a constitutional monarchy, but given its dictatorial tendency, the utter uselessness of the parliament and lack of an independent judiciary, it is fair to assert that Bahrain is an absolute monarchy. King Hamad Al-Khalifa enjoys a wide array of executive prerogative which include appointing the Prime Minister and his ministers, commanding the armed forces, chairing the Higher Judicial Council, appointing Parliaments upper half and dissolving its elected lower half. The Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa is the King’s uncle, who has served in this position since 1971 and around half the cabinet is composed of fellow family members also.

The US response to the blatant disregard for human rights by the Bahraini government during the uprising was mixed to say the least. On the one hand, the Obama administration wanted to still show strong support for its long standing Gulf ally. On the other hand, President Obama’s speech in May 2011 did criticise the Bahrani Government for its abuses towards the protestors saying. “Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail”.

Unfortunately those powerful words, remained just words. Arms sales to the reactionary kingdomresumed, and dropped further restrictions on military aid in 2015, while the regime continues to imprison the peaceful opposition that Obama referred to. This effectively signals to the world that the United States isn’t all that concerned about what the Bahraini regime does to its own citizens and it only cares about the protection of the Khalifa dynasty.

Despite the putrid, cosmetic reforms the regime put in place shortly after the uprising; foolishly thinking it would appease the opposition, the repression has continued. Censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, torturerevoking citizenships, intimidation of journalists, (including four Americans recently) and banning demonstrations are tactics used by the regime to suppress dissent and punish activism. Many prominent activists and politicians are still locked up in prison, and the aforementioned dialogue between the regime and opposition parties is non-existent.

Bahrain is a military ally of the United States in the Middle East. This is because of its strategic location, historical role during the Cold war as an ally against Communism, and its current anti-Iran tendencies. The US also has a naval base in the capital Manama where the Fifth Fleet is stationed. The US obviously feels is a useful asset and the regime like it because it helps their security, so the US will have a predisposition not to upset relations with its allies too much.

Nevertheless, I believe the United States should not stand idly by on this issue. Just because Bahrain is a military ally of the United States doesn’t mean it has a free hand to repress their own people when they demand democratic reform. The US should use the leverage they have to make Bahrain implement real and serious democratic reforms. For example, strengthening the independence of the judiciary, limiting the King’s far reaching powers in government, diversifying the public sector, including the security forces, so that it is more inclusive of Shia Muslims. Moreover, the regime should enter into dialogue with opposition groups to work out a political solution to this crisis.

In addition, here are a list of more recommendations given by Human Rights First:

  • Senior U.S. government officials should publicly reaffirm President Obama’s call to Bahrain in May 2011 that “The only way forward is for the government and the opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. 
  • The White House should convene all relevant agency officials to conduct a thorough review of the bilateral relationship with Bahrain, in consultation with international and Bahraini civil society organizations. This review should examine the full range of U.S. engagement with and influence on Bahrain—including bilateral military cooperation and arms sales, security assistance and training, as well as the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, and the presidential memorandum on support for civil society, and targeted sanctions.
  • The U.S. ambassador should publicly state whether or not trials of political opponents and human rights activists observed by U.S. government officials meet international standards.
  • The State Department should promote its March 2013 guidelines, “U.S. Support for Human Rights Defenders,” and all relevant agencies should promote the September 2014 presidential directive on supporting civil society. They should be featured in Arabic  and English on the U.S. Embassy website in Bahrain.
  • The White House and Defense Department should withhold further arms sales and transfers to the police and military, contingent on human rights progress, starting with a request for the current representation levels of Shi’as in the police and military to be made publicly available along with recruitment and promotion targets for under-represented groups. 
  • Members of Congress should support S.2009 and H.R.3445, a bipartisan bill that would ban the sale of small arms and ammunition to Bahrain until the government fully implements all 26 recommendations made by the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). 

Failure to reform could have the dangerous effect of intensifying the sectarian dimension in Bahrain. The Shia Muslims of Bahrain could be more prone to adopting an extreme form of Shia Islamism- like the one the Iranian theocracy preaches- as the answer to their plight. This in turn, will make the Sunni regime in Manama even more intense in its repression that will be returned with even more defiance that could, if we are not careful, morph into a sectarian bloodbath in a similar vein to Syria. Reform is not only good for its own sake, but it will improve American credibility in a time when it is shattered and hopefully it can turn Bahrain into an ally that better reflects the democratic values of the United States in a region where those aspirations seem hopeless.

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