Bahrain keeps simmering, but nobody cares

(The German version was originally published under a pseudonym in WOZ Die Wochenzeitung. The interviews were carried out in July 2015).

(Manama, BAHRAIN) A taxi ride in the capital Manama is enough to notice the difference between Bahrain and the other richer Gulf countries. All taxi drivers are Bahrainis, they tend to talk politics and complain about the Al Khalifa Sunni ruling family, a surprising habit for anyone coming from the UAE or Qatar, where the tiny minority of mostly wealthy locals would never drive a taxi or dare to criticize their respective regimes.

“Bahrain is made up of numerous inhabited reclaimed islands, but I cannot visit them, they’re the property of the Al Khalifa family,” a middle-aged taxi driver told WOZ, contemptuously hinting at the scandals surrounding the monarchy’s acquisition of State properties. In 2011, when the country was shaken by large Shi’a-led protests, the demonstrators carried copies of the 1 BD banknote, the price paid by the Bahraini PM Shaykh Khalifa to purchase the Financial Harbour via a private firm, according to a document published by the al-Wefaq Islamic Association, the main Bahraini opposition group.

The skyline in Manama is less ostentatious than in other Gulf countries, as the oil revenues are less conspicuous here, but the blatant contrast between the capital and the Shi’a countryside goes hardly unnoticed: villages like Bani Jamra in the north-west or Shahrakan in the west have in common dusty alleys and anti-government graffiti roughly crossed out by security forces. In Egypt they would be considered middle-income neighborhoods, but in the affluent Gulf they are social peripheries. Democratization and a fairer distribution of the national wealth among the Shi’a majority have always been at the core of the popular demands since Bahrain’s independence from Britain (1971), the 2011 upheaval was only the last one in a long string.

The attitude of some Western powers towards the Gulf kingdom remains at best ambiguous. In July 2014 Tom Malinowski, a senior US diplomat, was expelled from Bahrain for meeting with the opposition, but in June 2015 Washington decided to resume military aid to the regime after a temporary suspension, citing “meaningful progress” on human rights. The US still maintains its navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain. In December 2014, the UK announced the edification of a permanent military base in the Gulf kingdom, whereas in July 2015 the European Union passed a motion calling for a resolution against the detainment of political dissidents. In particular, the US and the UK have never ceased providing security assistance to Manama: the former assistant commissioner of the British Metropolitan Police John Yates and John Timoney- once labeled one of the most infamous American cops – are just two examples out of the envoys sent to “reform” the Bahraini police over the last four years.

The fruits of these alleged reforms are nothing more than a mirage at the moment. Even a licensed association representing the “moderate” fringe of the opposition calling for a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the above-mentioned al-Wefaq, is currently banned from politics due to its boycott of the last parliamentary elections (November 2014). The secretary general of al-Wefaq, Shaykh ‘Ali Salman, has been arrested in December

“None of the dialogue sessions we had with the Government after 2011 was seriously aimed at opening a dialogue,” Sayyid Hadi al-Musawi, a former Wefaq MP, told WOZ. “All our unmet demands were listed in the Manama Document in 2011,” said al-Musawi in reference to the reasons of the 2014 boycott, “these included among others an elected government, an independent judiciary and a lower parliamentary house (majlis an-nuwwab) with the same powers of the upper house (majlis ash-shura).” According to the Constitution, the deputies of the upper house are appointed by the king, just like the ministers, and they can veto the laws approved by the elected lower house.

Following the publication of the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in November 2011, an investigative body established by the king which confirmed the abuses committed during the crackdown, the regime set up a number of institutions to polish its image in the eyes of human rights advocates, such as the Ombudsman.

The credibility of these bodies is disputed by those who should benefit from their services. Ali[1] is a 20-year-old inmate at Jaw Central Prison, who has been sentenced to more than 3 years for illegal gathering (tajamhur) and rioting (shaghab). According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), there are currently 1126 political detainees, including 142 minors and 28 women. In February he lost his sight due to an eye infection. Because of a riot occurred inside the overcrowded prison on March 10, he was punished being denied proper medical assistance for more than three months. “We visited the Ombudsman and they promised to follow up on Ali’s situation,” his mother Umm ‘Ali told WOZ in a feeble tone of voice, while covering her face out of shame, “but after 10 minutes they called us back saying the Jaw direction confirmed Ali’s eye was in good health.” On June 23, Umm ‘Ali visited his son again and found him “without medicines, wearing a black dirty gauze on his eye turned upside down.” Ali underwent surgery only on July 7.

The future looks even gloomier for Bahrain when looking at its economic situation, since the erosion of State subsides is likely to provide a fertile ground for further political turmoil. The government expenses are not covered by the already meager oil revenues in the current context of depreciated fossil fuels. To limit the budget deficit, the authorities have already opted for new austerity measures: starting from August the meat subsidies will be lifted with the exception of low-income families.

“Meat subsidies count for 10% of the State subsidies, but the Government is currently discussing the revision of energy subsidies, which represent the majority of subventions,” noted Ibrahim Sharif, the general secretary of the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’d). Although licensed, the group has always failed to gather enough votes to enter the Parliament, but Sharif is one of the country’s most influential political veterans. In the ’70s he was a member of the marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. “These austerity measures will affect those who are already struggling to secure an accommodation and ignite further political and sectarian tensions: in 2001 you had 32.000 people on the waiting list to receive a house, now they are 54.000,” explained Sharif.

WOZ met with the leader of Wa’d a couple of days before his arrest on the 12th of July, less than one month after his latest release. In Jaw prison, he was part of the so-called “Bahrain Thirteen”, the main opposition figures who are kept segregated from the other inmates. Even though the Bahraini regime’s propaganda is that of a country at war with Iranian-funded Shi’a Islamists, it is clearly not willing to spare Sunni secular opponents like Sharif.

The poorer rural hotbeds of dissent will be heavily affected by the austerity measures in absence of social security cushions. Fatima Harun is a social worker from Bani Jamra, her 16-year-old son Ahmad al-Arab is a hero there, his smile is displayed on posters next to his detained uncle ‘Ali. He was arrested in April. After one month of intensive torture, Ahmad’s smile was the only feature his mother was able to recognize when she visited him in prison. He is now sentenced to 32 years for having been trained in Iran to carry out a series of bombing attacks when he was 13 years old. Ahmad and 55 of his alleged accomplices were all stripped of their nationality. Mohammad al-Tajer , a lawyer and a human rights defender who has followed personally the case, dismissed the accusations saying they were all “extorted under torture and based on unnamed sources.”

“They’re giving the Bahraini nationality to Pakistanis, while they take it away from us…who are they to do this? My family was here much before the Al Khalifa family!” commented indignantly Mrs. Harun. Sunnis from Pakistan, Syria, Jordan and other countries are known to be naturalized and enlisted in the Bahraini security and military forces. The Shi’a majority sees this as an attempt to alter the demographic balance and make sure Sunnis remain in charge of the repression.

Loaded with xenophobic resentment, Mrs. Harun feels like a foreigner in her own country. “This was my father’s house, we’re 6 families in here…Me and my husband Abdullah have been together for 17 years and we cannot afford buying our own property,” she told WOZ.

For the moment, no one cares about the Al Khalifa’s despotic rule on a regional and international level, but the economic crisis might broaden quickly the popular base of the opposition. Until today the major political forces have prevented the militarization of their efforts, but it’s not clear how long they will manage to refrain from violence in light of the continuous attacks on basic rights. If the flow of Iranian weapons will ever be available to Bahrainis, their struggle could be easily hijacked and turned into a regional threat for Saudi Arabia, whose Shi’a minority lives in similar marginalized conditions in the Eastern provinces. The BICI’s findings have ruled out an Iranian involvement in the Bahraini uprising, even though some opposition parties have historically been influenced by Iranian Shi’a Islamist ideologues. In light of the recent nuclear deal between Tehran and the Western powers and the reluctance of the US administration to intervene in defense of its Gulf allies to counter what Obama called “their internal threats”, the Islamic Republic might feel  galvanized enough to back proxy parties in Bahrain (as it did in Yemen). The only way for the Bahraini regime “to keep it local” in the long run is to carry out significant reforms.

[1]     A pseudonym as been used for security reasons

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