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General News    H3'ed 3/20/11

Understanding Bahrain: How Bahrain Shines a Light on Imperial Policies

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Benjamin Winegard
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If one were asked to write a list of nations strategically important to the United States, it is doubtful that Bahrain would make an appearance. In fact, before the "Great Arab Revolt' of 2010-11, most Americans probably lacked the ability to locate Bahrain on a map, much less understand the vital strategic importance of this small island nation. However, Bahrain is a crucial hub in America's regional imperial strategy. In what follows, we offer a primer on Bahrain focusing specifically on US interests in the region and the recent upheaval that has caught much of the world off guard. Our purpose is to educate concerned citizens desiring knowledge about America's role in world affairs.

What is Bahrain?

Bahrain is a tiny nation consisting of 33 islands with a territory of about 717 square miles (to put that into context, it is about 3.5 times the size of Washington, DC).1 The country is located in the Persian Gulf midway between the Qatar peninsula and Saudi Arabia. In 1986, Bahrain opened the 16 mile King Fahd causeway which links it directly to Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf contains the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's vital oil choke points. The importance of this choke point gives Bahrain a strategic location. Further, as Bahrain is positioned between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is perceived as essential in checking Iran's regional influence.

Bahrain became a British Protectorate in 1866 and retained its protectorate status until gaining formal independence on August 5, 1971. Some media outlets have asserted, with little evidence, that Iran considers Bahrain to be its "fourteenth province." These allegations perhaps stem from a statement attributed to Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, an Iranian government official. As will be explained in more detail below, the reasons for exaggerating Iranian influence in Bahrain are readily explicable. For now, it is worth noting that Iran formally accepts United Nations Security Council Resolution 278 which explicitly endorses Bahrain's independence asserting that, as a "sovereign state," Bahrain should be "free to decide for itself its relations with other states."2 Consistent with this, the Bahraini leadership, according to classified cables released by wikileaks, does not take Iran's alleged comments seriously.3

Although Bahrain is considered one of the more liberal Gulf States, competitors includes such bastions of liberty as Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar. The country has been ruled by the "soft' fist of the Khalifa family since 1783. Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the current king, took power when his father died in 1999. Like many US designated "moderates" in the region, Hamad is friendly to American interests and received his formal education in Western institutions (Cambridge, the US Army Command and Staff College). On February 15, 2002, Bahrain became a nominal constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislation. However, the King appoints the 40 member upper house (Majlis al-Shura); the commanders of the armed forces; all judges and governors; and is legally able to amend the constitution and write law.4 His uncle, Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, is currently the longest serving Prime Minister in the world. The twenty-five member cabinet Salman Al Khalifa presides over contains 20 members from the royal family. The lower house (Majlis Al-Nuwab), which is directly elected, has little power in shaping the affairs of the nation.

Bahrain has experienced rapid population growth over the last 10 years. Most of this growth can be attributed to the ever increasing presence of guest workers, who now comprise 54% of the Bahraini population (most guest workers are from Southwest India).5 Undoubtedly the largest demographic issue in Bahrain is the majority Shia population. Approximately 70% of native Bahrainis are Shi'ites, while the ruling family and most elites are Sunnis. This state of affairs has led to a quasi-apartheid mentality among the Sunni ruling family. Currently, Shi'ites are not allowed to work in the army, the intelligence service, or the police force, nor are they fairly represented in top-level governmental positions6. Indeed, as Nicholas Kristof wrote of the Khalifa's attitude toward Shi'ites in his New York Times Blog: "the language of the ruling party sounds a lot to me like the language of white South Africans -- or even like the language of white southerners in Jim Crow America, or the language of militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There's a fear of the rabble, a distrust of full democracy, a sense of entitlement."7

The Protests

While myriad variables contributed to the Bahraini uprising, there are systematic factors which allow for greater understanding of the protestors' grievances. Certainly the uprising in Tunisia, which led President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee on January 14th, and the later uprising in Egypt, which led to the eventual overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, played a large role in emboldening those individuals already infuriated with the Khalifa regime. However, the protests are not simply the result of "contagion." Aside from sectarian tensions, Bahrain is home to a swelling youth population (median age is 30.1 years, see reference 1), many of whom have watched the Sunni elite appropriate land to construct luxurious buildings and mega-malls: an attempt to attract tourists from the region and rich investors from Europe and the United States. At the same time, inner-city and village conditions have deteriorated and environmental degradation is rampant.8 Finance comprises 25% of Bahrain's GDP, making the nation a "regional financial hub" according to the Heritage Foundation, which lauds the Kingdom's "commitment to structural reforms" and "openness to global commerce."9 Bahrain has followed what geographer David Harvey calls "accumulation by dispossession."10This form of neoliberal accumulation entails financialization, commodification, privatization, and state redistribution to elite sectors. For too long, the human costs of these policies have fallen on the majority Shia population while the Sunni elite have reaped the benefits. Unlike other nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain lacks the Croesusesque petroleum wealth to satiate its population through the provision of free housing, education, healthcare, food subsidies and jobs for life. This lack of provisioning has led some commentators to assert that the nation's issues lie in the perceived breach of a tribal social contract that entails the tit of acquiescence to tyranny for the tat of guaranteed social welfare.11  

While neoliberalism goes some way toward explaining recent protests, the oppression of Shi'ites, as partially documented above, is an important factor. The Shia majority has protested on and off for decades with nothing yet to show for their efforts. In 2006, Dr. Salah Al Bandar allegedly uncovered a conspiracy headed by government officials who wished to foment sectarian strife and keep the majority population oppressed. The conspiracy included spying on Shi'ites and subsidizing new Sunni converts.12 Many Shi'ites believe that the government fast-tracks Sunni naturalization in order to alter the demographic balance. This widespread belief is supported both by demographic statistics and by Dr. Bandar's report. Through 2008 and 2009, there were increasing reports of Shi'ites suffering oppression and humiliation at the hands of the Sunni elite. Poor Shia villages around the capital, Manama, reported unemployment rates up to 50%. This while foreign nationals, who are willing to work for a lower wage, were entering the country at alarming rates. Shi'ites also complained that they faced discriminatory hiring in the public sector.13 In 2009, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights documented continuing religious discrimination against Shi'ites, including the ridicule of their beliefs on state-sponsored television.14 As tensions between Shi'ites and the government mounted, protests in Shia villages were organized nightly. The Khalifa regime sent Sunnis to bring order to the villages, leading to even more discontent and anger.

The grievances documented above are selective. It is possible to fill a large volume documenting the Khalifa clique's many abuses of Shi'ites. This combination of neoliberal dispossession, overt oppression, and contagion from the Arab Revolt proved to be more than enough to spark an uprising. The current protests began on February 14, 2011, which marked the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter.15 On February 14-15, two protesters were reportedly killed. Subsequently, protesters moved to Pearl Roundabout in central Manama where, on the 17th and18th, riot police attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, live rounds, and metallic pellets. Many of the protesters who suffered injuries were moved to Salmaniya hospital which reported being filled with injured protesters, some of whom were arriving "with their brains blown out."16 There have been at least seven confirmed deaths and over 200 injuries since the protests began.17 After the government crackdown, Washington, no doubt embarrassed by the actions of its ally, strongly urged restraint. The White House issued a statement which read in part: "As a long-standing partner of Bahrain, the President said that the United States believes that the stability of Bahrain depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis."18 The tone is now one of reconciliation and national dialogue between the government of Bahrain and the protesters. Although the protests have continued, the government, restrained by Washington, has been much more circumspect in its response (see below on the "Bahrain model").

 US Interests in Bahrain

The US has obvious interests in the Middle East which involve possessing unfettered control of the oil resources of the region. Such control has long been understood to give the possessor tremendous international leverage. This desired control has led the US to pursue a policy which involves supporting rulers who obey its orders and opposing any signs of independence in the region, especially the scourge of independent nationalism.19 Dictators who follow Washington's orders, even if rulers of theocratic and patriarchic states, are often given the label "moderate' by commentators and pundits. As Stephen Zunes puts it:

            "The term [moderate] is used primarily in reference to governments that have been friendly to the United States and its foreign policy goals in the Middle East; it has also been used in reference to governments that have been relatively less hostile towards Israel and U.S.-led peace initiatives. In either case, there is virtually no correlation between this label and a given government's record on democracy and human rights."20

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Ben Winegard is a graduate student studying evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri. He has published peer reviewed articles on sports fandom, body dissatisfaction, and evolutionary psychology. He is a voracious (more...)
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