Repression in Bahrain has seriously escalated this autumn, with regime hardliners (the usual suspects) seeking to undermine –through leaks to the world media — hitherto behind-the-scenes attempts at dialogue involving moderate regime elements and the mainstream opposition:
Meanwhile, a series of small explosions, two in the village of Ekar in October, and five in the upmarket Adliyya area of Manama on 5th November 2012, allegedly involving ‘homemade’ improvised explosive devices, have been used as a pretext to justify the intensification of legal and paramilitary measures to suppress dissent.
This has included the deployment of the Bahrain National Guard to support the largely naturalised police force — the Guard a paramilitary force separate from the military loyal specifically to the royal family, and manned predominantly by Pakistani personnel recruited via the Fauji Foundation.
These led to a blanket ban on opposition protests, and 9th November blockades involving government forces using armoured cars, CS Gas, baton rounds and water cannon to prevent Shia worshipers to travel to their mosques to offer Friday prayers.
The prayer led by prominent opposition cleric Ayatolla Isa Qaasim seems to have been the target of particularly intense repression. The body of Samaheej resident 16-year old Ali Abbas Radhi was found at the side of the road following a confrontation between worshipers on their way to the mosque and government forces. Other images show the makeshift treatment of a worshiper suffering from a severely fractured skull sustained in the same incident:
The body of 16 year-old Ali Abbas Radhi at the side of the road and in the mortuary, Ali had been trying to reach the Friday prayers led by prominent opposition cleric Ayatollah Isa Ahmad Qaasim
A serious head injury sustained by a worshiper attempting to hear the 9th November sermon of Ayatollah Isa Qaasim — injured protesters are frequently treated in makeshift clinics in homes, as Ministry of Health medical centres have become extensions of the state’s repressive apparatus.
The death and injuries followed a Thursday night of intense repression by government forces, following an announcement by the 14th February Youth Movement that they intended to hold demonstrations on Friday in defiance of the government ban on protest. Repressive measures taken in the past month include:
- 22nd October: four men are arrested for criticizing King Hamad on Twitter
- 30th October: the Bahrain bans all protests in the country, including those of the moderate legal opposition parties
- 2nd November: another on-line activist is sentenced to 6 months for Twitter posts
- 3rd November: Human Rights Defender Said Yousif Almuhafdah detained
- 6th November: 31 opposition figures have their citizenship removed including two former Al Wefaq, MPs, Jawad and Jalal Fairouz
- 7th November: Jalila Al Salman is arrested in order to serve the remainder of her 6 month sentence
- 8th November: regime Foreign Minister Khaled Al Khalifa hints there could be more revoking of citizenships, a return to the regime tactics of the 1990s.
The regime’s hardliners — the cliques around the “prime minister” and the Khawaaled — seem to feel that they have the impunity to undermine attempts at conflict resolution involving the moderate opposition, while using legalistic fig-leaves to detain, imprison or exile dissident intellectuals and intensifying the confrontation with the ‘street’ opposition as if to move it to some sort of endgame, what ever the eventual blood price. Used to the world looking the other world, they are now going in for the kill, thinking they can deal a death-blow to the opposition.
Yet these should be seen as signs of desperation and weakness on the part of the hardliners rather than of strength. For the crisis of legitimacy through swept through the ‘republican’ dictatorships of the MENA region is beginning to take root in the wider GCC beyond Bahrain.
Simmering unrest continues in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province centred on Al Qateef. While certain tendencies in the Western media might be able to write this off as an extension of the “special situation” that is Bahrain (i.e. that the uprising can be sectarianised), the same cannot be said of mounting crisis in Kuwait, where a highly diverse opposition movement is locked into a stalemate with the government, which could yet lead to confrontations between protesters and the security forces of the Kuwaiti state. Both Oman and the UAE continue to descend deeper into state repression of dissent and authoritarianism.
Against the backdrop of a GCC-wide crisis of legitimacy and an irrevocable generational shift across the GCC in social attitudes away from the tolerance of the old Oil Age political settlement based on patronage and rentier relations towards a demand for active, empowered citizenship the old narrative that Bahrain is a special case — a tiny, pro-Western island kingdom stuck on the Sunni-Shia fault line — look unsustainable.
Blaming, as the Bahrain state media does, “external interference” — Iran and Hizbollah — for the existence of an opposition in Bahrain loses its effect when across the GCC Sunni and secular opposition movements with remarkably similar demands to Al Wefaq are beginning to challenge the old Oil Age settlements based around the region’s Amirs, Kings, Sheikhs and Sultans and their families.
Likewise, the Western narrative that events in Bahrain are fundamentally determined the regional power-struggle between “Sunni” Saudi Arabia and Iran begin to lose credibility when parallel events in Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, even within the KSA itself begin to illustrate the extent to which entirely domestic economic, political and social factors are driving Bahrain’s continuing and remarkably resilient.
Sooner or later, the significance of this is going to register en masse with Bahraini Sunnis whose loyalism to the regime is merely a reflection of fear of the opposition rather than any deep feeling of commonality of interest with the Khalifas. The sectarian narrative, which has served the regime so well over the past 19 months, has a definite sell-by date.
Thus, the intensification of the crackdown is the mark of men who are increasingly desperate. But how desperate? Regime spokespeople, notably the ex-Ba’athist Samera Rajab, were quick to blame the 5th November bombings on “Hizbollah”.
It’s interesting to compare the site of one of the alleged Bahrain bombings to the 20th October Beirut bomb blast, which the Syrian opposition and others have blamed on Hizbollah, and the 1983 US embassy bombing in Beirut, which killed 299 American and French servicemen, and certainly was the work of Hizbollah:
Bahrain, 5th November 2012
Beirut, 20th October 2012
The regime claims that the Manama bombs “bear all the hallmarks of Hizbollah”, as Rajab and others have claimed, is clearly absurd. Indeed, the headlights and windscreen of the vehicle in the Manama picture seem to be completely intact. Further suspicion arises from an image, reportedly of the body of one of the two Asian victims of the Manama bombings:
In these images, the deceased has a severe wound to the chest, and some abrasions to the face, but there is no evidence of the shredding of clothes, skin and flesh that is so typical of even small bomb blasts. This man’s trousers and t-shirt are completely intact. Perhaps this was a very small, fire-cracker sized blast, that projected a single piece of shrapnel into his chest. Or perhaps this is an image of somebody who died in an industrial accident.
I cannot say for certain whether the Manama bombs were the work of a small and unrepresentative fragment of the Bahrain opposition, or whether it was a provocateur action undertaken by one faction of the highly fragmented Khalifa regime or its “loyalists”. I cannot, with any degree of certainly say that the 5th November bombings actually happened, based only on information from a regime notorious for its lies, distortions, misinformation and — when it is not being supported by Western PR firms — for its presentational incompetence.
What I can say, it that such bombings would be of no benefit whatsoever to the Bahrain opposition, who continue to occupy the moral high ground in the Bahrain dispute in the eyes of the world outside of the GCC and Westminster, whereas the bombings would be of great benefit to the Khalifa regime — or factions within it — who are desperate to give substance to their long-standing yet to-date baseless allegations that the opposition are “terrorists” backed by Iran and Hizbolla, allegations that a designed to reinforce the government narrative that the uprising is all about “foreign interference” rather than inequality of opportunity, institutionalised sectarianism, and a crisis of legitimacy internal to Bahrain.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was in the UAE on 5th November — England’s “Fireworks Night” — on a mission to sell over 6bn GBP worth of British arms to the Gulf regimes, including Typhoon jets which can be used in ground-attack as well as fighter roles.
Bizarrely, (nobody was really listening because all this was done under the cover of the US election), Cameron warned of an “arms race in the Middle East”, while trying to out-bid the French and the Americans in multi-billion GBP arms deals with the Saudis.
Cameron’s mission was also to “smooth “ruffled feathers” — the Saudi regime was, apparently “insulted” by the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee’s review of UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and had hinted it might by its ground-attack aircraft from a rival.
Perhaps understandably assuming the UK to be a dictatorial kleptocracy like they are, the Saudi regime made a crude bid to arm-twist Cameron into reigning in the FAC, something he has no constitutional power to do:
Asked about the human rights dimensions of the arms sales — British made jets used by the Royal Saudi Air Force were used in 2009 in ground-attacks in Yemen that caused hundreds, possibly thousands of civilian deaths — Cameron began with a lengthy distraction about the number of British jobs tied up in the arms trade, before commenting that human rights issues were something that is “discussed”. Britain later announced a “defence agreement” with the UAE, similar to that agreed with Bahrain a month earlier.
Also in Firework Night, British Middle East Minister Alistair Burt (does anywhere in the Middle East have a “British Minister”?), “strongly condemned” the Manama bombings:
This is the first time EVER that the FCO has “strongly condemned” anything connected with Bahrain, but implicit within Burt’s condemnation is an acceptance of the Bahrain Ministry of the Interior’s line that the bombings (a) happened, and (b) were the work of the opposition. A hurried judgement if nothing else. In contrast, on 30th October Burt was merely “concerned” about the Bahrain regime’s banning of all protest:
Despite the obvious fact that in civil conflict situations throughout history, it is the banning of avenues for legitimate, peaceful opposition that has lead to violent, armed opposition. Thus, Burt “strongly condemns” the Manama bombings while merely expressing “concern” over government measures that make such attacks more likely; he condemns the effect while expressing mere concern about the cause — assuming (a) the Manama attacks actually took place, and (b) they were the work of rogue opposition elements.
Britain risks being seen in the eyes the wider Arab world as a facilitator of human rights abuses in Bahrain. It’s policy towards Bahrain and the wider GCC is seen as being selective and hypocritical when compared to its support for the revolutions that have toppled or are toppling republican dictators in the Arab world.
Not that British policy in the GCC has been all bad. Behind the scenes there has been an honest and sincere attempt to broker Conflict Resolution initiatives involving moderate regime elements and the moderate opposition using British negotiating expertise gained in facilitating the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland. Such efforts — and InterMediate is not the only one of them — are honourable and are to be lauded.
However, Britain has allowed itself to be out-maneuvered by the regime hardliners. Britain over-estimates its insights into Khalifa palace politics, the degree of leverage it has over the likes of the “prime minister” and the Khawaalid faction (who see Saudi Arabia, not Britain, as the ultimate guarantor of the Bahrain they want to see continue), and the capacity of the hardliners for good faith — which is practically non-existent.
It is sometimes said that it is important not to over-estimate the leverage it has with “Bahrain”. The leverage it has on the hardliners is an illusion. A better FCO would be to acknowledge this publicly, and withdraw all UK support for the Bahrain regime until they back off from their “crackdown” and admit the need for real dialogue with the opposition to take place.
In lieu of this, British policy in the GCC will remain short-termist in that it is driven primarily to boost arms sales and ensure the flow of cheap oil, and unimaginative in that it cannot see beyond the role of the GCC states as “allies” in a simmering and largely manufactured confrontation with Iran. Britain’s relationship with the Al Khalifa regime in particular is tainted by a nostalgia for the vanished days of Empire and a desire to continue to use a Khalifa Bahrain as a kind of entrepot for perceived British interests.
British policy in the region is mistaken. Instead of running the risk of being viewed as a facilitator or abuse in Bahrain, Britain needs to get on the right side of history, and formulate a new definition of British history that cuts ties with the past and emphasises that long-term British interest lies in helping, not hindering, the generational changes that are sweeping across the GCC and which are, indeed, inevitable. In that way, Britain will benefit by getting on the side of the rising and future generations in the region, in a C21st that promises to end with a distribution of economic and political power in the world that is radically different to that that existed when the century began.
Much of the bad news about the increasing repression was buried under the coverage of the US Presidential election — as was Cameron’s hush-hush Fireworks Night arms sales trip to the GCC.
Perhaps the re-election of Barak Obama may signal the implementation of a US foreign policy in the Middle East that is more radical and future-focused than the Obama administration could implement in its first term. Or it might not.
More certainly, it is the upheavals that are now beginning to take place in the wider GCC beyond Bahrain that will ensure that the Khalifa regime’s hardliners’ bid to force and endgame with the opposition will fail.