The A-Z of World Politics: #B: Bahrain

by Jackie_South on September 27, 2013

File:Flag of Bahrain.svgFor the second entry in our globe-trotting series, we’re off to the Gulf state of Bahrain – just across the Gulf of Bahrain from Qatar

In some ways, Bahrain is a fairly liberal corner of the Middle East. Homosexuality is legal (within limits: whilst it is legal to be gay, cross-dressing is illegal and openly gay tourists are turned away at the airport. ) whilst it carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia at the other end of the King Fahd Causeway. It has appointed both Jews and Christians to diplomatic posts. There is a democracy, albeit a far from perfect one. Women can stand in those elections (though none have been elected) and have been appointed to the Upper House.

But 2011 was a wake up call to anyone who thought this might be a progressive paragon. 90 were killed in the crackdown, torture was widely used (it is estimated that 64% of the 2,929 people arrested were tortured), 2,710 people have been summarily been sacked from their jobs, 1,500 have been arrested arbitrarily, 500 imprisoned on matters of conscience, another 500 forced into exile and over forty places of worship have been destroyed (see the full report here).

Medical staff at the hospital near the Pearl roundabout who treated protesters injured in the Bahrain-Saudi crackdown were imprisoned for 5 to 15 years just for doing their job.

Bahrain is a pressure cooker. Other than city states like Singapore, this is the most densely populated nation on Earth: 1.2 million people crammed into an island and its satellites covering an area the size of Anglesey (or twice that of the Isle of Wight), almost doubling in size in the first decade of this century. Immigrant workers, principally from South Asia, have been brought in to help build up the service industries that are replacing oil in the economy as the kingdom’s reserves peter out. By 2007, those immigrant workers outnumbered native Bahrainis, and their numbers are growing at three times the latter’s rate. Almost three-quarters of those immigrants are male, creating a massive gender imbalance. These immigrants have no access to citizenship or the rights that entails.

What is more, for the native Bahrainis the system is massively skewed. The majority, around 70%,  of the kingdom’s acknowledged citizens are Shia, a legacy of the island’s long connections with Iran across the Gulf. But the political system is rigged to ensure that even the ‘democratic’ parts of government are kept in Sunni hands, aligned to the ruling Al Khalifa family, with widespread gerrymandering of constituencies.

So whilst Sunni Bahrainis account for only 14% of the population, they exert almost total domination over the state. Just to make sure things don’t get out of line, the king’s uncle is Prime Minister, and has been since independence 42 years ago. No wonder Bahrainis sought change in the uprising.

The crackdown was brutal, so much so it created international uproar that saw the regime become a pariah in 2011. But now, it seems to have been largely forgotten. Why?

Two reasons. First and foremost, because it suits the western world to turn a blind eye: a strategically placed friendly regime, however reprehensible, suits them far more than one that should naturally be more pally with Iran. One that buys their exports and provides oil is even better.

The second has been a great PR exercise. 16 different sets of consultants have sold their PR services to the regime, including Bell Pottinger and M&S Saatchi. They held an independent review into the allegations of torture, which did in fairness identify much of the government abuse of its people. But the government disputed the findings and no reform has been put in place.

The regime’s control of Bahrain is now more complete than it was before the uprising and Shiites and immigrant workers are further still from political influence.

In 2011, Britain’s government was embarrassed into revoking arms export licences, but now no-one can find out what 2012 and 2013 licences have been granted.

Nothing has changed. But the message from Hague and the rest of the western world is move on, nothing to see here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Charlie_East_West September 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Jackie – did you bump into Tony Blair on your trip to Bahrain?

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