Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Bahrain Heads for Disaster

by Elliott Abrams
April 22, 2011

Defenders of the crack-down in Bahrain have a story line. The government had to act to stop a down-hill slide into chaos and extremism fostered by Iran. The king’s goal was simply to freeze matters, and once that is done the time for compromise and concessions will have arrived.

It is not a bad story, but every action the Government of Bahrain has taken in the last month contradicts it. Instead of reaching out to the responsible Shia political leadership and middle class, the king and his government are jailing and harassing them. The Washington Post summed it up in a troubling story today: “The targeting of more educated and prosperous members of the Shiite community is particularly worrisome, say local analysts, who fear it could remove a moderating element in political life….Like their Sunni neighbors, many wealthier Shiites have enjoyed lives of relative ease in this land of high-end shopping malls, restaurants and luxury homes. But after joining in the February protests with poorer Shiites, who have generally borne the brunt of discrimination and government disfavor, even middle-class Shiites are now subject to the full force of the government’s ire, according to opposition leaders.”

This is the opposite of seeking compromise. As the Post reports, the crack-down “is reaching deep into Bahrain’s middle-class professions…potentially threatening the country’s long-term stability.” The government is now “targeting Shiites indiscriminately.”

It is difficult to understand why the king believes this path leads anywhere but exile in London for him and his family. Bahrain has a Shia majority (once estimated at 70 percent, but probably lower than that now due to a campaign of naturalization of foreign-born Sunnis, especially those who serve in the army and police). The current actions against the Shia community will embitter all its members and decapitate its moderate political, economic, religious, and moral leadership. Future compromises will be far more difficult, and are perhaps already impossible.

Why has the king taken this disastrous path? Clearly he has been urged and pressured to do so by his Sunni neighbors in the UAE and especially Saudi Arabia. The contempt for Shia and Shiism in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a key factor here, and the Saudis were concerned that an uprising by Bahraini Shia could spread across to the Shia in their own oil-rich Eastern Province. But the actions being taken in Bahrain now make it far more likely that this will be the outcome: Saudi Shia who see the Saudi government repressing Shia in Bahrain will become more, not less, embittered toward their own government. The Saudis also worried about opportunities for Iran to meddle in Bahrain and ultimately in Saudi Arabia itself.  But here again, the policy being followed will only create new chances for Iran by assuring enmity and political volatility in Bahrain.

So the path being followed is disastrous. Perhaps it is not too late for outside figures to try to open a dialogue between the Government of Bahrain and the Shia community, but for that to work the king and the royal family must stop the persecution of the Shia leadership. As of now, they seem intent on crushing the Shia and eliminating all hope of a constitutional monarchy where the majority of Bahrain’s people share with the king a role in building the country’s future. If the king does not change course, he is guaranteeing a future of instability for Bahrain and may be dooming any chance that his son the crown prince will ever sit on the throne.

Post a Comment 23 Comments

  • Posted by Waleed AlHamdan

    An article that describes the situation this small country. An illegitimate monarchy spreading hate in the region. He is more of a so called king without a kingdom. I hope that Bahrain turns up to be another city in Saudi.

  • Posted by S. Riley

    It is tragic to see the US quiet about systematic government terror in a country in which the local population have welcomed the US fifth fleet for decades…

  • Posted by Jiff

    Thanks Elliott. I hope the blood-thirsty king in Bahrain would read your article and take heed before the whole country is doomed. Some locals say the kind is ready to role on ‘graveyard’ in reference to the brutal killings of protesters by Baraini-backed (or rather Saudi-backed Bahrain forces), which has taken over 30 lives so far (in a half-million population).

  • Posted by ali

    thanks for addressing Bahrain uprising.

  • Posted by Dave

    The Saudis will never leave.
    Farewell to the country of my birth.
    The Khalifas had a chance and blew it.
    They will forever live in their brothers tent.


  • Posted by Bahraini Youth

    i totally agree with every word the author mentioned , what Bahraini government does supported by the Saudi and UAE troops is beyond any persons ability to imagine , it will create more and more hatred against it and eventually the street might explode again but this time much more voilent and the protestors might shift from peaceful protests into agreesive protests

  • Posted by ahmedradhi

    i do agree 100%, coming from a shia village under a continuos government thugs 24 hours attacks graduated from london university looking for a better and stable future for my coming generation in more democratic and free enviroment based on democratically elected accountable government that guarantees basic human rights to everybody as equal, based in my back ground and many others in arab world who have and accepted the liberal way of life and hoping the democratic free world will always encourage the voice of democracy. what we see right now is totally the opposite that the british and the US adminstration are openly supporting the dictators in area enjoying daily business meeting blocking all the news and media from reporting in bahrain and keeping blind eye that gives the saudi forces in bahrain to carry all the killing and distruction of any civilized means of living taking us back to dark ages dictators systems.
    if i refuse to die and to stand and fight peacefully for my rights and my people rights and the west think that is the right strategy is support the killing of our people and society then we have no other alternative other than taken the support from some where else and fight back, that is the only way out from our daily fear and terror, hoping the west will come immediately before its too late and make the right choice by siding with the right side the people and decide once and for all the side of the dictators may be looks in the past good side for their interest, we will not die and we will win and therefore they must take us serious and if they want have us as freinds then only immediate recogition of our absolute right to live in peace without putting any pressure on us to accept tp live under dictators with less rights as human being.

  • Posted by S,ALi

    the crime and sin committed by Bahraini People that they claimed for democatic and elected gvernment to monitor the corruption and create accountability and eliminate the one voice of governing. this claim resulted in killing all elderly, youth, child, arresting all professional Doctor, teacher, lawyer, engineers and hiding them in the underground prisons and not being allowed and one to defend apart from to be seen by their families. what is more sad and disasterous than this that America has supported this forest policy

  • Posted by David G. Lermit

    Whilst in broad agreement with most of this article I would defend Hamad (sort of). I would contend that the real obstacle to progress is the PM. Who clearly is the guiding hand behind all this. But he too is under the thumb of the House of Saud and that is and entirely different and more difficult obstacle to progress.

    The radicalisation of the disaffected is all but assured…

    Dave April 22, 2011 at 11:19 am
    Superb comment!

  • Posted by annon

    I urge everybody to pull their money out of AlBaraka bank . and that way collapse the Bahrain economy

  • Posted by zah88

    Bahrain regime is about to fall. Al- khalifa family want to take and not to give. they have been in Bahrain for 200 years, but now every body can realize that they are not understand their nation.
    thank you Elliott, and keep speaking about BAhrain.

  • Posted by Nabeel

    I am very surprised that western writers are coming to the support of the Shia’s. It is very disappointing that they ignor the actions that led to the crackdown and concentrate on the reaction. First of all,the 70% Shia’s is a myth, we are split down the middle. second, the Sunni’s have lived in fear and terror for an entire month. Roads were blocked, public squares taken, hospitals occupied, citizens and ex-pats attacked and several were killed just to list few of the horrors we had to endure. Had the government did not act in time, Sunni’s were just about to take matters into their own hands. For a full month Shia’s took the country hostage and committed documented atrocities- where were you to report them. The Crown Prince asked for calm and dialogue, but that only made them more aggressive and violent. Today, the entire Sunni population reject any dialogue with the terrorists, it is pay time. The King is still handling them very softly and this is not pleasing us.
    Are you aware that the terrorists declared Bahrain an Islamic republic modeled after their masters in Iran? Would the west allow such a thing? We sure as hell won’t.
    By the way, had this so called revolution successed you would have seen the Sunni’s blood run like rivers in the streets of bahrain. please be real.
    They may have put on an act for the west with crocodile tears, and poor victims us , and maybe you and some rights group have fallen into it, we know them, We know their beliefs and we know where their loyalties lay. They will not tell you- If they did, no one in the world would support a blood thirsty Shia’s – You might as well support the Iranian regime now.
    I will be very glad to support every word I said with documentations if you would like to contact me , at least get a second opinion ! I am not a government employee, am just your average everyday interior designer.

  • Posted by Zeko

    Thank you very much Elliott for shedding some light on Bahrain crisis. and thanks to everyone supporting the rights of bahraini people.
    Unfortunately I don’t perceive that GOB is wise enough to listen to such rational advise as they are full of hate.

    Also special thanks to S. Riley who touched on our great disappointment in those who always brags about democracy (US, etc…), what a shame!! No wonder; USA is very good in creating own enemies than friends.

  • Posted by Taha

    The people of Bahrain will always remember that it was Iran that stood by them while the West looked the other way

  • Posted by Andrew P

    Bahrain is now a Saudi province, ruled by a puppet King. The next step is to expel the Shia, by forcing them onto a flotilla of rafts across the strait to Iran. This is the ultimate way for the Saudis to solve their Shia problem. Anyone who thinks that the House of Saud will fall as easily as Egypt fell is deluding himself.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I agree completely with Elliott . Moreover we shouldn’t expect to see any constructive engagement from the U.S. The current administration has squandered whatever credibility it may have had coming into office two years ago .

    I can’t help but be pessimistic regarding the outcome .

  • Posted by Nick

    I am an European expat living in Bahrain and 100% agree with the article & its conclusions.I see and observe first-hand the daily petty cruelties and punishment of the Shias at the hand of the govt. Instead of reaching out and resolving the issues politically the govt is playing the sectarian card – which is playing with fire. It’s a nasty nasty place now, and the pressure cooker will explode one day.
    One last comment. I’m deeply ashamed about the silence of the democratic West who look the other way.

  • Posted by Mohamed Ali

    I would like to thank the author because managed to reveal the dark truth that all the world happened to decide to hide it!
    and what is happening is much more. Imagine that any loyal person to regime can be a full court by him self; he could accuse you, call for arrest and give you any charge! its unbeleivable but that what is happenening. The gov. are empowring anyone loyal person to them with unlimited credibality where others having zero!

    All Standards are upside down, its never happened to destroy Mousques and shoot and burn Qurans delibertly!

    Guys, it’s cleanzing and elimination of sheeties what we have now in Bahrain and Goverment want to say that no more RED LINES that could not be crossed.

  • Posted by Ibrahim Ismail

    The current American Administration, who promised change and emphasized it through the famous slogan “yes we can”, which brought hope and optimism to the oppressed Arabs, is now losing credibility by means of supporting ruthless dictators in the Arab countries at the time when the peoples’ uprisings are at their climax! Yet, Americans continue to ask why Arabs hate us!
    You harvest what you grow my friend: putting “selfish interests” ahead of “great values”!
    Read my lips: walk the talk.

  • Posted by Ahmed Bahraini

    Thank you Elliot for your spot on analysis. Sadly the US only looks at its interest through a narrow tunnel. We in Bahrain have no problem with others and its serves the US well to back human rights and voice its intolerance against such wanton abuses. In the long run we will remember who stood by us and who denied us our rights. For sure cruelty is not going to help the ruling family and if the most powerful leader of the Arab world (Mubarak)is brought down then Al-Khalifah is small fry. They can not kill all of the 400,000 of us. Please air your views honestly as you have done here. We need honest writers. Thank you.

  • Posted by Ambassador Houda Nonoo

    In your blog entry, you fail to note that the Kingdom of Bahrain is working to bring all ethnicities and religious groups to the table to achieve lasting political reconciliation. As a government, we respect and protect all religions and ethnic groups. But, unlike the United States , we are a constitutional monarchy. Within our Kingdom, we are aggressively working to ensure the unique components of our society are preserved for the betterment of all.

    Bahrain is a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, and the political unrest exhibited was characterized by violent sectarianism. The protesters did not use peaceful tactics and during the height of unrest, protesters overran our main thoroughfare and threatened our infrastructure. Bahrain was under siege and any sense of normal life was brought to a halt. Schools, businesses and ministries could not operate. Our financial harbor was temporarily shut down due to road blocks and the main hospital was transformed into an opposition political command center.

    Bahrain ’s protests had turned violent and the government was forced to respond. In order to bolster security at our critical infrastructure and to maintain national stability, Bahrain called on our regional neighbors and we invited in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force. This was not an act of external force or a foreign invasion. This was a necessary step to ensure Bahrain returns to a state of normalcy. Since then, our hospitals, schools, banks and shopping centers have opened for the public and we continue to make strides to resume normal life.

    We are a progressive Arab nation and we are committed to ensuring human rights for all Bahrainis. Historically, Bahrain has been at the forefront of ensuring civil liberties and democratic reforms in the Middle East and we are proud of our tradition of upholding human rights. Bahrain ’s Crown Prince proposed a national dialogue in order to make progress on meaningful democratic reforms for all Bahraini people. The national dialogue had no ceiling to the change and reforms it could have yielded. That offer went unanswered for well over one month. Opposition groups refused to engage in talks and demanded that the government meet preconditions before a national dialogue began. We are committed to a long lasting national unity between all Bahraini people and we will continue our work to find peace.

    The government of Bahrain regrets the loss of any life, regardless of religious sect or ethnicity. We have a long road ahead of us and we look forward to working with all Bahrainis at striking a balance in peace and democracy. We are a young democracy. We have much to learn but working towards a stronger democratic process can be an inspiring time in our history, not a time of duress.

    Houda Nonoo

    The Kingdom of Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    I am grateful to Ambassador Nonoo for responding to my blog post and setting forth carefully and at some length the Bahraini government’s position.

    In two important ways, I disagree with her views. First, I do not believe that “Bahrain’s protests had turned violent and the government was forced to respond.” On the contrary, it was the Bahraini government that first used violence, firing at the proresters at the Pearl Roundabout and killing approximately six. The real violence in Bahrain can be traced to that disastrous decision. Second, it does not seem to me that recent events suggest the Government of Bahrain is “committed to ensuring human rights for all Bahrainis.” Many human rights groups–such as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and Amnesty International– continue to report on severe violations of human rights on a daily basis.

    I am glad to see the Ambassador state that the Government is committed to a democratic process and a national dialogue, as proposed especially by the Crown Prince. My impression is that, in the debates within the royal family, he and other cooler heads were defeated by those like the Prime Minister who sought confrontation. Any chance of avoiding disaster will require first that the ongoing human rights violations stop. If that is possible, perhaps dialogue can begin—though at this point it may, as I wrote, be too late. Why after all would the Shia community trust the good faith of a Government that has treated it so badly in the last two months—and is still led by the same Prime Minister?

    I share with the Ambassador the hope that a democratic Bahrain, a real constitutional monarchy, can emerge. Sadly, I do not share her optimism.

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