One year after the Bahraini people began their democracy uprising this week, their aspirations still haven’t been fulfilled. Many players are responsible for this, including the United States.
In mid-February of 2011, Bahrainis started a series of demonstrations in the capital city of Manama. The protests so unnerved the monarchy that it called upon the Saudis to invade its own country.
The Saudi adventure happened with the complicity of the United States. The day before the mission, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supped with the Bahraini ruling family in a show of support, neglecting to meet with pro-democracy protesters who had been demonstrating by the thousands.
Members of the regime “probably bugged [Gates] that they need to use force to suppress this,” Husain Abdulla, director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, told Democracy Now! “And next day, immediately after he left, the Saudi troops came to Bahrain. This is no coincidence. This is all planned.”
Apparently, a mix of security considerations, Iranophobia, and that omnipresent element in Middle East policymaking—oil—compelled the Obama team to abandon any notions of being on the side of democracy.
First, oil. Bahraini oil is not that vital to the United States, but Saudi crude is. The Saudis had been annoyed that the United States backed away from Hosni Mubarak at the last moment. Plus, they’re always very nervous about the contagion of democracy spreading to their kingdom (their meddling in Yemen is also a result of their horror of the concept). The Obama Administration bowed to the Saudis.
Then, geostrategy. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. The American military presence is so disproportionately large that the United States controls an astounding one-fifth of the main island the country is situated on. So, of course, the United States has long considered the Bahraini ruling family to be a real close friend.
Finally, Iran. The Bahraini monarchy seems to have spooked the United States by linking its restive population to its Persian neighbor. The complicating factor here is that the majority population is Shiite (as in Iran), while the ruling family is Sunni. The governing clique has long discriminated against the Shiites in everything from jobs to housing, and the grievances are longstanding and genuine. But the idea that the protesters are puppets of the Iranian government is absurd.
“Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, [the Bahraini Shiites] cherish their independence and reject calls by some Persian ultranationalists to reincorporate Bahrain into Iran,” writes Professor Stephen Zunes.
Bahraini propaganda seems to have found willing ears in Washington, however. “There is clear evidence that as the process is protracted—particularly in Bahrain—that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems," Gates claimed last year.
Over the past year, the situation in Bahrain has been far from pretty. Many Shiite mosques have been destroyed. Protesters have been brutalized, with dozens killed at the hands of the security forces. Hundreds have been thrown into prison (including doctors sentenced to long terms for tending to injured demonstrators). And thousands have been fired from their jobs.
“Since the crackdown on the protests, authorities have violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations and silenced dissident voices through arrests, torture, and job dismissals,” states Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But people in Bahrain, and throughout the region, have made it clear that violent suppression isn’t going to make the issues go away. People want their rights.”
The Obama administration’s response? Lame beyond belief. On the first anniversary of the uprising, as protesters were being tear-gassed and hauled off to prison, “the U.S. urged the government and people of Bahrain to work together and refrain from violence,” reports Businessweek. At the same time, the United States is pushing ahead with a $1 million arms sale to the Bahraini monarchy. (A previous $53 million proposed deal was stymied due to an uproar by human rights groups and their congressional allies.)
No wonder the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, had the audacity recently to lecture Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to “listen to his people,” Der Spiegel reports.
While he was mouthing such platitudes, the Bahraini government was “storming houses suspected of harboring demonstrators, using tear gas, closing roads and arresting people,” Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, told Businessweek.
Instead of arming the folks responsible for such outrages, the Obama Administration should be giving ordinary Bahraini citizens its complete support.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Turmoil in Island Nation Concerns All of Us."