11 July 2011 — Guardian Comment
While the west averts its eyes, Bahrain’s people are subjected to brutal suppression
Pity the poor people of Bahrain. They have been shot, beaten, tear-gassed – and patronised. On 7 March, at the height of the pro-democracy protests in the tiny Gulf island kingdom, a crowd gathered outside the US embassy in Manama, the capital, carrying signs that read “Stop supporting dictators” and “Give me liberty or give me death”. A US embassy official emerged from the building with a box of doughnuts for the protesters, prompting a cleric in the crowd to remark: “These sweets are a good gesture, but we hope it is translated into practical actions.”
It hasn’t been. Syria was subjected to sanctions and Libya to air strikes; Bahrain, however, was rewarded with visits from the Pentagon’s two most senior officials – the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, and the then defence secretary, Robert Gates. Disgracefully, at the same time as peaceful protesters were being rounded up and imprisoned, both men offered full-throated endorsements of King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa’s brutal regime.
The Sunni Khalifas have ruled Shia-majority Bahrain – officially a constitutional monarchy – since 1783. Bahrain’s prime minister since 1971, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – the king’s uncle – has the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world. Unemployment stands at 15% – the highest in the Gulf – and Shias have long complained of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
The Arab spring reached Bahrain on Valentine’s Day; protesters – both Sunni and Shia – arrived in Manama’s Pearl Square on 14 February to demand political freedoms, democratic reforms and greater equality for the Shia majority. They were met with rubber bullets and teargas; three days later security forces switched to live ammunition. Within a few weeks some 2,000 Sunni soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had arrived in Bahrain, at the invitation of the Khalifas, to impose martial law – and, in doing so, poured oil on the fire of sectarian tensions.
Since February at least 30 protesters have been killed and more than 500 people detained, four of whom died in suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile, up to 2,000 people across the country have been dismissed or suspended from work – almost all of them Shia. According to an investigation by al-Jazeera, 28 Shia mosques and religious institutions have been destroyed by the authorities.
Few have been spared the wrath of the Khalifas. Last week friends and relatives of the Bahraini football stars A’ala Hubail and his brother Mohammed claim they were beaten and threatened in custody after being arrested in March for their participation in the protests. “You are British: imagine David Beckham gets arrested and tortured. It’s unthinkable,” a friend of Hubail told the Times.
The Orwellian regime in Manama continues to round up people for the most minor of “offences”. Last month, for example, the 20-year-old university student Ayat al-Qarmezi was arrested, assaulted and sentenced to a year in prison – by a military court – for reading out a poem criticising the king at a rally.
Yet western leaders and journalists continue to callously avert their eyes. Those who itched to drop bombs on Libya have little to say about Bahrain – Misrata, yes; Manama, no. Bahrain is “complicated”, say our leaders. It isn’t. A king has turned his security forces on his own subjects. And the reason the US hasn’t come out against him is as cynical as it is simple: Sunni-led Bahrain is a strategic ally of the US, a counterweight to Shia-led Iran, and home to the US navy’s fifth fleet. Syria isn’t. Neither is Libya.
Since September 2001 Bahrain has been a key Middle East collaborator in America’s so-called war on terror; in 2002 it was designated a major non-Nato ally by George Bush. And, on a visit to Manama last December – two months before the Khalifas began killing their people – Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called Bahrain a “model partner” and said she was “very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts – economically, politically, socially”.
Since February, the failure of western governments to do anything more than go through the motions of “condemning” the violence by Bahrain’s rulers has been a dismal vindication for those of us who have long maintained that in the clash between our interests and our values, the former almost always trump the latter. Nonetheless, the sheer brazenness with which our elected leaders have continued to cosy up to, and apologise for, Bahrain’s tyrants, is startling. Referring to the Obama administration’s decision to emphasise “stability over majority rule”, a US official was quoted in March as saying: “Everybody realised that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”
Meanwhile, our queen invited King Hamad to the royal wedding in April, and our prime minister, David Cameron, welcomed Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to London in May, greeting him on the doorstep of No 10 with a firm handshake and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “blood on our hands”.
The blood, however, is on all our hands. Successive British governments have supplied the Khalifas with submachineguns, sniper rifles, smoke canisters, stun grenades, tear gas and riot shields. These have been deployed, with murderous effect, against unarmed civilians in Pearl Square and Shia villages across Bahrain.
Defenders of the Khalifas say it is wrong to compare countries in the Middle East; Bahrain is not Syria, they argue, and the Khalifas are not the Assads. Yet as Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at Oklahoma University, says: “Bahrain has killed twice as many of its citizens as Syria has, if one adjusts for population size.”
But Bahrain’s crimes are ignored and forgotten; in recent days, the US and UK governments have heaped praise on the government-sponsored “national dialogue” between the royal family and opposition. It is, however, a cruel charade. “How can there be real dialogue when most [of the opposition] is in jail?” says Kristin Diwan, a Gulf specialist at American University in Washington DC. In fact, of 300 invited participants, just five are from the main Shia opposition party, al-Wefaq, which gained 60% of the vote in last year’s parliamentary election. The government, meanwhile, has involved a huge number of diverse organisations to try to dilute opposition voices. What contribution, for instance, will the Bahrain Astronomical Society make to discussions on democratic reform? “It is a joke,” Said Shehabi, a London-based member of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, tells me. “It makes a mockery of dialogue.”
It is bad enough that we helped arm and equip the brutes of Bahrain and then turned a blind eye to their violence and torture; we must not now allow our leaders to endorse this farcical “national dialogue” or further patronise the country’s bloodied and battered opposition. Bahrainis need democracy, not doughnuts.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011