America and Bahrain’s Arab Winter

By Nicholas Nehamas

After initially hesitating, the United States has largely supported the uprisings of the Arab Spring. But not in Bahrain, where hundreds have been killed and wounded in anti-government protests. Recently, President Obama authorized a small, million-dollar arms sale to this Gulf city-state, though Congress killed a $53 million deal last September. Geopolitics would seem to trump civil rights, as Bahrain is an important U.S. ally against Iran, and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. During a briefing on Iran several days ago in Manama, U.S. Vice Adm. Mark I. Fox called Bahrain “a long-term partner and a very important piece of our ability to do our mission.”

An oversized presence? A security guard stands in front of a portrait of Bahrain’s King Hamad. (Reuters/Hamad I. Mohammed)

A year ago today angry Bahrainis flooded the streets of Manama, demanding democratic reforms and political equality for the country’s Shi’a majority. The government of King Hamad bin Eisa al Khalifa responded with tear gas and shotguns, and called in foreign troops from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The movement went dormant until last night, when thousands of demonstrators tried to retake their old base, Pearl Square. Police dispersed them with rubber bullets and stun grenades.

Today, Manama is empty, though activists promised a huge march in honor of the uprising’s one-year anniversary. But government forces appear to have cut off the capital from the villages where many Shi’a protestors live. “They used similar tactics in November,” reports Al-Jazeera’s live-blog. “The villages were full of tear gas and violent clashes, and the capital remained oddly quiet.”

Yesterday, King Hamad gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he denied that a legitimate opposition exists in Bahrain. He said his jails hold no political prisoners. He seemed puzzled that his citizens are angry, given the material comforts he has provided them:

Bahrainis are better off than many other Arabs. We have a welfare state, everybody gets a salary whether they have a job or not. Electricity and food are subsidized; school and health-care are free. And we don’t differentiate between Bahrainis and foreigners.

But Bahrain does differentiate between Sunni and Shi’a. Bahrain basically practices “apartheid,” Mansoor Al-Jamri, a newspaper editor and son of Bahrain’s main Shi’a religious leader, told the LA Times.

Before the protests, King Hamad had a reputation in the Gulf as a moderate. Since his accession in 1999, he has expanded the rights of women, created a parliament, and attracted foreign investment. But he has played up fears that the Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain is backed by Iran, and banned human-rights activists and most journalists from entering the country. “Thugs set fire to electric transmitter . . . and attack [firefighters],” tweeted the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior (@moi_bahrain) on today’s small protests. Here’s more from Al-Jazeera on the government’s attempts to control the PR narrative.

America has strongly criticized Russia for its self-interested and obstructionist stance on Syria. How would you characterize U.S. behavior?  Does the threat from Iran necessitate such realpolitik?

Straight to the Source

  • Liberty16

    Another angle to this is that women have played a major role in the recent protests. This could be a factor in a US decision to support them or not, because bolstering the protests could have the auxiliary goal of being good for civil rights and the empowerment of women. (Which will then, hopefully, spread to the rest of the Middle East. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/world/middleeast/bahrain-women-take-pride-in-vital-protest-role.html

    • Anonymous

      yes wouldn’t that be nice! but it appears for the moment that our strategic interest in bahrain will trump any human rights issues. The navy believes that without our base in Manama, Iran would control the Persian Gulf. I wonder….are there any politically liberal or moderate nations in the Gulf which could host a large American fleet?

  • M.A.

    As a Bahraini on the ground I have to object to the charge of apartheid. Mansoor Al Jamri is a respected man but that comment was made last year at a time of great duress and is completely unfair. Let us describe what we really have: There is discrimination in the police force and military, yes, and after last year’s protests were quelled there was a systematic anti-Shia media campaign and many arrests were made on a sectarian basis. There was also an effort in the late 2000s to alter the demographic by naturalizing large amounts of Arab Sunnis to decrease the Shia majority. Call these unfair practices what you may, but they are not apartheid.
    Also, the protest movement has been anything but dormant — they’ve kept at it for a whole year. It’s just that the international media picked the Feb 14 anniversary to send their cameras back here :) The reporting this year has generally been of far better quality and much better balanced than last year, I have to say.

    • Anonymous

      thank you for the comments and info. It is so good to hear voices speaking from inside bahrain. information is very hard to come by.

      there are not many foreign journalists in bahrain right now thanks to the gov.’s ban (one exception is the bbc’s bill law…you can watch his video piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17037225)

      that’s why twitter, fb, and youtube are so important. as a bahraini on the ground, can you give us some sense of what’s been going on there today? have there been more protests? how is the government responding to the unrest? do you see the country as destined for long-term deadlock?

      also, have you heard anything about John Timoney (King Hamad’s new police adviser). He’s a controversial figure in America for what his critics describe as an over-zealous approach to dealing with protestors at the republican convention in philadelphia in 2000 and at a free trade summit in miami in 2003. has he made any public appearances? have the police become less brutal since he arrived in the country?

      looking forward to hearing from you,

      Nick

    • Nick_Nehamas

      thank you for the comment and the info. It is so great to hear voices speaking from inside bahrain. information is very hard to come by.

      there are not many foreign journalists in bahrain right now thanks to the gov.’s ban (one exception is the bbc’s bill law…you can watch his video piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17037225)

      that’s why twitter, fb and youtube are so important. as a bahraini on the ground, can you= give us some sense of what’s been going on there this week? have there been more protests? how is the government responding to the unrest? do you see the country as destined for long-term deadlock?

      also, have you heard anything about John Timoney (King Hamad’s new police adviser). He’s a controversial figure in America for what his critics describe as an over-zealous approach to dealing with protestors at the republican convention in philadelphia in 2000 and at a free trade summit in miami in 2003. has he made any public appearances? have the police become less violent since he arrived in the country?

      looking forward to hearing from you,

      Nick