Whither Bahrain?

Libya is not the only Arabic revolution where outside forces have intervened; there are also foreign troops in Bahrain. Occupying forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are helping the monarchy put down a rebellion with only a few hypocritical murmurs from the West and no sign of UN-sponsored intervention in the rebels’ favour. With martial law in place after two months of protests, Bahrain has today brushed off a Kuwaiti offer to mediate with the rebels saying it wasn’t necessary. The al-Khalifa regime is set on a path of destroying the opposition while the rest of the world is too distracted by events in Libya to do anything about it.
The Sunni Al Khalifa tribe has ruled Bahrain for almost 200 years, a rule cemented by British overlords and trade-based wealth in the 1800s. The majority Shia remained second class citizens despite the implicit and sometimes explicit support of Iran. The discovery of oil ensured British meddling would continue for much of the 20th century. Britain and Iran’s struggle for supremacy continued until Bahrain gained full independence in 1971. A 1973 constitution promised free elections (for men only) but this was thrown out two years later by emir Salman al Khalifa. In the 1990s opposition forces demanded reforms from the ageing emir and a return to the 1973 constitution. For six years the streets were plagued with riots which were suppressed by the regime. The intifada did not end until the death of Salman in March 1999. Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father and promised to carry out political reforms.
On 14 February 2001 a referendum to carry out the National Action Charter to return the country to constitutional rule was overwhelming supported by 98.4 percent of the voters. The 2000s saw the enfranchisement of women and parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2010. However, key problems remain including discrimination against the Shia and the all pervasive power of the al Khalifa caste. Power sharing was thrown firmly into the spotlight after pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt hit the headlines in January. Bahrain’s opposition was mobilised to demonstrate on the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter on 14 February. Manama’s Pearl Square became the epicentre of resistance with protesters calling for political reform and equalisation of the economic benefits of Bahrain’s oil-rich economy. The reaction from the alarmed administration was swift. On 17 February a pre-dawn tank raid on the square killed five and injured 230 others. Soldiers placed roadblocks and barbed wire around the centre of town and leaders banned public gatherings.Talk of reform was replaced by talk of overthrow of the hated al Khalifas. The funerals of the dead turned into shrines of martyrdom with 100,000 people on the streets – one eighth of the country’s population. Opposition unity was marred by sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia. The panicky leadership made concessions by sacking extremist ministers while still authorising a shoot to kill policy on the streets.

On 14 March, the Emir called for help from Sunni allies. Led by Saudi Arabia they answered the call. A thousand Saudi troops and 500 UAE police officers crossed the bridge to Manama. They were part of a deployment by the Gulf Co-operation Council, a six-nation regional grouping of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE. The force protected the oil and gas plants and financial institutions. According to al-Khalifa, the troops were there “to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension in Bahrain.” But this was an occupation force to crush the revolution.

Hillary Clinton said Bahrain and its GCC allies were “on the wrong track” but mentioned nothing about the 5th fleet in its Bahrain base protecting US oil wealth in the region. The Khalifas may not be loved by their subjects but the White House knows a Shia government in Manama would not want 4500 US military personnel in the city. The Fifth Fleet is not there to create disorder but to preserve it. When the regime does fall, as it inevitably will, the American can have no complaints when they are kicked out.


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