Is Bahrain the oddball of the Arab Spring?
Formula 1, Bahrainis Crown Prince with Bernie Ecclestone, 2012
Of all the Arab uprisings that have seen citizens challenge or change their government, and forced foreign governments to navigate the delicate path of possible intervention into a sovereign state’s affairs, the situation in Bahrain has always struck me as the most complex. That is probably why it is not discussed very much in global media, or possibly in the corridors of power also.
The facts in Bahrain are relatively clear. A majority of citizens feels it is not treated equally by the minority that rules the kingdom, where power is exercised mostly by the royal family and various security and military services. The ruling minority makes some concessions to the majority, but not enough to quieten things down. The fact that the majority that feels mistreated and shortchanged is Shiite and that the ruling minority is Sunni is relevant in some ways – it makes Bahrain a proxy battle in the larger Saudi Arabian-Iranian confrontation, for example. However, it is irrelevant in others, because in most Arab countries a minority of some sort has wielded disproportionate power over the majority of citizens.
It is easy and convenient to speak of Bahrain as a Sunni-Shiite conflict, or of Syria as a problem of a the ruling Alawite minority. For me, such explanations miss the main point, which is that the common Arab governance problem is not ethnicity, or sect-specific; it is more about the fact that the rights of all citizens have been curtailed or denied, whether this takes place in Syria, Bahrain, Sudan, Iraq under the Baathists, or in any other modern Arab state.
This is why I tend to downplay the Sunni-Shiite dichotomy that is so commonly invoked, and instead see it as a classic case of abuse of power by an Arab ruling elite that is not credibly held accountable to a majority of its citizens. Bahrain strikes me as the most complex of the Arab uprisings in terms of how to resolve the increasingly polarized domestic conflict, and how to deal with foreign intervention – in this case, Arab intervention.
Bahrain is important, therefore, not only for the sake of its own citizens and their rights, and for stability in the midst of an energy-producing region that is vital for the entire world. It is also the major example that is invoked when people accuse foreign countries of double-standards in responding to the Arab uprisings.
The charge is often made that foreign governments that support the citizen revolts across the Arab world by their inaction support the government in Bahrain rather than the equal rights of its citizens. Bahrain is also the clearest case of external military and political intervention, in this case through the military force sent into the kingdom last year by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries – legitimately, according to GCC agreements.
Bahrain also highlights the awkwardness among other Arab parties, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, which supports the uprising in Bahrain but also supports the Syrian government as it tries to put down a similar uprising in Syria. So, if you are interested in double-standards and hypocrisy in the conduct of foreign policy, Bahrain is the great litmus test that causes so many Arabs and foreign powers to stutter or avert direct eye contact.
In the 14 months since protests erupted in Bahrain, initial demands for reasonable constitutional reform have become more strident, with a few protesters even calling for the fall of the monarchy. This repeats a similar pattern elsewhere, where initial demands for more citizen rights were met with heavy-handed government security responses, which in turn hardened the resolve of demonstrators and expanded the pool of angry citizens. As street protests have turned into recurring small battles with government security forces, and political dialogue opportunities continue to dwindle, the Saudi-led military intervention has effectively turned Bahrain into a semiofficial province, or at least a political protectorate, of Saudi Arabia.
Not many people around the world seem to complain about Bahrain’s altered sovereignty, mainly because nobody wants to risk greater instability in the heart of this global energy source – a short-sighted and mistaken view, in my mind, as current government responses are likely to harden protester attitudes and stoke greater instability in future, if current trends persist. Bahrain is the most dramatic example of citizens in an Arab Gulf energy-producing state agitating for greater political rights, in a much more robust manner than has been the case in Oman, Kuwait and some corners of Saudi Arabia.
How this issue is resolved will have an enormous impact on developments in other GCC countries, though for now there seems to be no other strategy than cementing Bahrain’s altered status as a ward of Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Among other things, this clarifies in a dramatic manner just how brittle sovereignty really is around the Arab world.
By Rami G. Khouri