Bahrain: Life Goes On

This month, Bahrain is hosting a World Youth Conference with participants from thirty-five countries under the theme of “Youth Peace”.  Large multinational corporations are investing hundreds of millions of dinars for five new luxury hotels, which will boost the already thriving tourism industry. Bahrain’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry Tourism Committee Chairman said: “The events of February 2011, in the minds of many people, were just a small blip and although it did put visitors off at first, things are starting to get better now.”  How has this country seen so little political change or continued upheaval for the amount of unrest that occurred in 2011? The success of the Bahraini Monarchy in avoiding accommodating demands of protestors is partly due to their brutal crackdown on all facets of Bahraini life and partly to the total lack of assistance from the international community.

Image courtesy of LGEPR, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of LGEPR, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Bahrain is a country of 1.3 million inhabitants, 700,000 of whom are migrant workers from a wide range of nations and ethnicities.  Between 60-70% of the 600,000 native Bahranis are Shi’ite Muslim making them the clear majority among natives.  The island has been ruled by the Al Khalifa Royal Family since 1783, which is a very long reign compared to the regimes of the rest of the Middle East.   The protests of Tunisia and Egypt spread quickly through social media to Bahrain.  The goals of the uprising included: a desire to end discrimination against the Shi’ite majority, creation of a constitutional monarchy, establishment of a democracy, and halting human rights violations against citizens.

The wave of regime change across the Arab World seemed inevitable, concessions made by the Bahraini Monarchy did little to stem dissent among a large segment of the population.  The government crushed the protests with only 93 casualties recorded to date.  There have been large protests since 2011, but they have been more isolated and easily controlled by the government.

The government’s response to the initial protests of 2011 could be called comprehensive to put it mildly.  They did not hesitate to disperse initial protests immediately to avoid the creation of a permanent “Tahir Square”, a symbolic center of dissent.  They arrested and tortured members of the opposition indiscriminately.  The government detained and beat reporters who wrote unfavorably about the government, doctors who were tending to protestors, and opposition leaders.  The government demolished the original monument that protestors flocked to initially as well as several Shi’ite mosques.  They fired over 2,000 workers who had allegedly taken part in the protests and pressured private companies to fire 2,000 more.  The government created a mood of paranoia and fear throughout Bahrain.  Checkpoints were established all over the country where people were arrested or beat if they appeared to have anti-government sentiments.  Police raided opposition leaders’ homes at night and arrested them.  Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of the 2011 protests was when Saudi forces crossed into Bahrain to help maintain order and protect key facilities.  These tactics used by the government were very effective in controlling unrest and punishing anyone who sympathized with the opposition.

The opposition was unable to respond to the government crackdown because they were completely alone.  There was no credible flow of weapons or revenue from the outside to help them resist the crackdown and little concrete international pressure to force the government or military to let people protest relatively undisturbed.  Iran is a natural ally of the Shi’ite protestors since Shi’ite Islam is Iran’s state religion.  However, they were more occupied with supporting Assad in Syria and dealing with international pressure over their nuclear program.  They certainly supported the protests but offered little substantive help to the protesters.  Syrians managed to create an armed opposition to the government because of arms and funding flowing from the Persian Gulf and other sympathetic countries.  This was never an option for the opposition in Bahrain.

The United States has done little more than chastise the regime over human rights concerns.  There haven’t been any signs of substantial diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to help the opposition like those conducted in Egypt over Mubarak.  It is not clear that Americans want to see political change in Bahrain.  Anything that could strengthen Iran would be unpopular with a large portion of Americans.  Bahrain is also the base of The United States Fifth Naval Fleet and it is doubtful the US would jeopardize losing a base in an area of geopolitical importance.

Much of the rest of the Arab world is busily embroiled in their own domestic unrest. Many countries in the region are home to Sunni majorities who are not sympathetic towards a Shi’ite movement. This has not been helped by the patchy media reporting of the uprising.  Media coverage of the uprising was not as comprehensive as reporting on some of the other uprisings across the region.  Reporters and bloggers were treated very heavy-handedly.  There was a controversy over major media outlet Al Jazeera and their spotty coverage of Bahraini protests.  Their reporting was not nearly as extensive as protests in other countries, ignoring several major events in the early days of the uprising.  It is suspected that the government of Qatar, who provides much of the funding for the network, pressured Al Jazeera to control their reporting on the Arab Spring.

Despite sporadic protests, life goes on in Bahrain.  Without outside intervention, the government continues to imprison, torture, and revoke the citizenship of members of the opposition.  The opposition in Bahrain stands little chance on their own due to factors beyond their control.  The Bahraini Uprising was massively popular but was ultimately unable to change much within the country, proving that the winds of change from the Arab Spring are far from unstoppable.