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.”
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?