Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Fear and Loathing in Bahrain

by Steven A. Cook
April 28, 2011

An anti-government protester flees after riot police fire rounds of tear gas to disperse them in the mainly Shi'ite village of Diraz (Hamad Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters)

After being completely unplugged and out-of-touch for the better part of last week, I have returned to find that among a number of interesting (really, horrifying) developments in the Middle East, a Bahraini military court has sentenced four protesters to death for the alleged murder of two policemen. The fact that all four are Shia is only going to aggravate already rather tense relations between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority.  I traveled to Bahrain a bunch of times in the mid-2000s  and while it had a reputation for being a more open and generally laid back place than either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the ruling Khalifa family have long ensured the island’s security with an iron fist.  Although the protests in Bahrain have coincided with uprisings around the region, they are nothing new.  The Bahraini authorities have often resorted to the use of force to keep the streets quiet.

King Hamad made a good show of undertaking political reform in 2001, promulgating a new constitution in 2002, and also in 2002, reinstating a parliament that had been suspended for 27 years.  It did not amount to much.  Parties were banned, though something called “political societies” were permitted.  Human rights activists who highlighted the shortcoming of the Bahraini system were often harassed and arrested.  The whole window dressing quality to Hamad’s reform was brought into sharp relief for me in 2005 when I visited members of the Shura Council—the upper house of the parliament.  They didn’t seem to know exactly what they were supposed to do and broke into an argument about it among each other as I munched on sweets and watched the back and forth .

At around the same time, Bahrain’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Salman (The American University in Washington  class of 1991), sought to ameliorate the sectarian tensions on the island with a program of “Bahrainization” of the workforce.  The goal was to create more employment opportunities for the Shia majority in order to give them a “stake in the system” thereby reducing political tensions.  Salman asked the consulting firm McKinsey to help out, but the Crown Prince’s efforts did not have the desired effect. This was mostly because, Bahraini employers have become hooked on cheap labor from South Asia and were reluctant to pay the higher wages—Bahrain’s overvalued dinar makes Manama the London of the Middle East in terms of cost of living and doing business— that citizens demand.

Although Salman deserves credit for trying to address Shia economic dislocation, he made the fundamental mistake that Middle Eastern leaders have long made by emphasizing economic solution to political problems.   These guys are either the last Marxists—they believe every political development has some underlying economic explanation—or they are manifestly unable to confront reality.  To be sure, Bahrain’s Shia have economic grievances as do many people all over the Middle East, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of ideas in this season of Arab unrest.  Bahrain’s protests like those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are about politics—people are demanding their freedom and basic human rights.  If it was anything else, Bahrain’s military tribunal would not be sentencing protesters to death.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by ali

    thank you for your support; America is siding with our oppressors. At least some Americans are speaking for us, please talk to people in your government, the situation in Bahrain is horrible, we are helpless, they are torturing people to death…

  • Posted by Rod

    Shi’ites are NOT a majority in Bahrain. In fact, Bahrainis are not a majority in Bahrain. According to the 2010 census, 56% of the population is made up of expats, virtually all of whom support the government and not the “peaceful” (murdering!) opposition. Of the remaining 46%, 60% are Shi’ite and 40% are Sunni. So an overall majority of the total population support the government. Not even all Shi’ites support the opposition.

    The Bahraini government recently cancelled the scholarships of students and pilots in the UK who are calling for the overthrow of the government (and no doubt want to replace it with a Shi’ite theocracy like in Iran and Iraq!). Scholarships running into millions of dollars is hardly Shi’ites being repressed. More like being well treated.

    P.S. Watch the videos on YouTube of the unarmed Bahraini policeman being repeatedly run over by a large 4-wheel drive vehicle. These animals deserve nothing less than the death penalty.

  • Posted by ROBERTO

    I’ve been to Bahrain many time while serving in the USN…

    The conditions there are rosy on the surface and in the population centers, but get off the beaten path and there is abject poverty and a government that cares only about the upper ruling caste.

    The security forces are all non Bahraini and could care less about firing on the citizens that want freedoms and to share in the prosperity…

    Its a shame that the US Government only cares about their small piece of real estate in Juffair.

    The silence of the US is a crime against all every day workingclass citizens of Bahrain.

  • Posted by Muhammad NaIya

    With the Courts sentencing protesters to DEATH can anyone sincerely talk of changes in Bahrain? The fact remains that the “national interest” of the U.S. is far too important for any abstract value about Human Rights and an Accountable government to matter to the U.S. The Naval base and Saudi oil is more strategic to an elected American Politician,- the consequence is almost immediate- so the Bahraini citizens asking for “rights” had better seek a better approach to this “turn the other cheek” strategy.

  • Posted by mohamed

    Robeto, you are one of those foreigners who have no clue of whats happening.I am in agreement with Rods comments above. I have lived in the country for years now, the government have tried for the development of the Shias in the country, some of them trained by the Gov. in the best Universities around the world and the are still listenning tio Iran. In that case they can move to Iran. Even during the protesting in the early March those shias are protesting and driving around in Lexus,BMW etc Watch the videos on YouTube of the unarmed Bahraini policeman being repeatedly run over by a large 4-wheel drive vehicle. These animals deserve nothing less than the death penalty.If you look at Bahrain of 20 years ago and Bahrain of now the Government have modernised the country. I pray to God to continue to bless the rulers of Bahrain. Mohamed

  • Posted by Noora

    “Bahrain’s protests like those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are about politics—people are demanding their freedom and basic human rights. If it was anything else, Bahrain’s military tribunal would not be sentencing protesters to death.”

    The fact that you are comparing the situation in Bahrain, to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia just shows how ignorant you are about the Middle East. I mean have u even been to Egypt? Have you seen how people live? Have you seen their public hospitals, their public schools? i lived in Egypt for 10 years i know how people live there, 50% are under poverty line. There are people that live in cemetery’s and in trash cities. There are towns with one faucet of water (if they are lucky) for everyone to share. i mean how can you be that blind. the same goes with Libya and Tunisia. The people have had enough of living like slaves. these were true and honorable revolutions, to ask for their basic human rights, they didn’t care about politics, they just wanted to live. Where as in Bahrain, it wasn’t about basic human rights, because they have all these rights. Everyone in Bahrain has free health care (even USA the richest country in the world doesn’t have that), free education, zero taxes, there are no homeless people in Bahrain, I mean where in the world do you find that, nowhere. This “revolution” was about taking over the country and declaring an Islamic republic. no one can argue that because even them “the protestors” have declared it when they were in the round about. Therefore, as a Bahraini, I will fight till the death before i see my beautiful country turn into another Iran. If that had happened in your country, Wouldn’t you?

  • Posted by maro

    The situation is unsustainable and both sides have figured out ways to completely polarize the masses. Bahrain TV aired “confessions” of those who were sentenced last week for the killing of two policemen.

    Although expats do make up a large part of the population, the Shi’a are the majority of native Bahrainis-it is disputed by how much since the government does not have an option for sunni versus shi’a on its census form, for obvious reasons.

    Perhaps there were those who wished to “overthrow the government” but the fact of the matter is Shi’a face institutionalized discrimination and initially called for reforms that gave them more rights.

    The situation is unsustainable and I agree with you Steven that it will only fester more hatred by the grieving Shi’a.

  • Posted by Noora

    Reform: to change to a better state, form, etc.; improve by alteration, substitution, abolition, etc.

    By substituting the current government to an Islamic republic (be it like Iran or Saudi), will Bahrain change to a better state? Will they get their rights then? i think we all know the answer to that.

    Not all Shias want this, however their movement was lead by their religious leader while they stood quietly on the sides without disagreeing with anything that their leaders declared or did (block roads, force people to not go to work or schools, attack colleges, take over a hospital, etc). When an Islamic republic was declared, no one from the other side opposed it or uttered a single word. When the crown prince and the other sectors of the people of Bahrain held out their hands to join in a national dialogue that would transform Bahrain, they all arrogantly refused and laughed at the idea. We the people of Bahrain were waiting for any reaction, instead got nothing but a smirk.

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