The Middle East is the most contentious region in the world in this day and age. Power vacuums, radicalism, and wars have evolved at a dangerous pace since the Arab Spring of 2011. Most people have heard of the events in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen. However, not many recognize that the Kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny island in the Arabian Gulf has also battled with internal opposition to its monarchy during the Arab Spring and continued to face challenges to its stability ever since. The international community has repeatedly expressed “deep concern” over the mounting human rights violations by authorities and the violent crackdown on opposition. Unfortunately, it would seem that their “concern” has gone to waste. Allegations of torture, oppression of speech, sectarianism, excess violence, unfair trials, and stigmatization fail to be addressed.
Although small and to many insignificant, the island is critical to its allies and neighbors. The geopolitical elements influencing Bahrain are a key reason for the lack of intervention on human rights issues. The Gulf monarchies find it in their best interest to support the Bahraini royal family to ensure their own power grip on their citizens. In fact, during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, Gulf neighbors sent military reinforcement in the form of tanks and soldiers to put down the uprising.
Especially for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a central piece in warding off Iranian influence in the region. Unlike other Gulf states, Bahrain’s population is majority Shia yet ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Iran, which is also a majority Shia country, is very well connected with the Shia population in Bahrain and Iranian officials have often expressed their dismay at the political situation on the island. Their statements have put the Gulf monarchies on the defensive, accusing Iran of interfering with their internal politics and plotting to disturb the region’s stability. Iran’s attention to Bahrain has also caused some distress to Western powers. Bahrain hosts the United States’ fifth naval fleet and is a strong importer of American arms. Bahrain continues to enjoy a strong relationship with its former colonizer, the UK, and a Royal Naval base is currently under construction to support that relationship. The U.S and UK bases are seen as important for the stability and security of the region. Considering that Iran is right across the Arabian Gulf from Bahrain, neither of these powers would appreciate a face off between Iran and the Gulf States, not that it is likely to happen. Although the U.S has expressed frustration over Bahraini’s situation and called for reform and reconciliation with the opposition party, those calls went unanswered.
Bahraini protests against the ruling Al Khalifa family
However, international human rights organizations have been more adamant in their mission to expose violations. Human Rights Watch in their 2016 World Report mention some violations pertaining to torture and imprisonment, fair trial, freedom of expression, and use of excessive force. Amnesty international in their 2015/2016 Report pointed out similar violations as well as impunity of authorities. Reports Sans Borders ranks Bahrain at a low 162nd in their Press Freedom Index. Moreover, the United States Embassy in Bahrain published its own Human Rights Report on its website. In a very lengthy report that includes numbers and dates, the embassy admits to acknowledging many of these violations. It would seem very unlikely, to me at least, that all of these organization are fabricating facts and accusing the authorities with illegitimate claims.
In 2015 alone, the opposition party AlWifaq, which has been shut down recently by authorities in attempts to stifle dissent, documented almost 1,765 arbitrary arrests, the highest per capita in the Middle East as reported by Index Censorship. Some prisoners have died under detention. Many are detained without warrants or clear criminal charges. Prisoners as well as protestors provided evidence of physical abuse and torture, much of which can be found with a simple Google search on the topic. Those responsible for torture are often not prosecuted or acquitted without punishment. Even children between the ages of 10-15 were not spared from arrest. Rather than prosecuting them through juvenile trials, they were treated to the same unfair courts other detainees faced.
Moreover, there is no room for activism in Bahrain, whether through social media or organizations. Many activists fled the country in an attempt to escape arrest and those who choose to speak out against authorities do so cautiously. Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s prominent human rights activists and the president of Bahrain’s Centre for Human Rights has been in and out of prison for Twitter posts that are considered offensive to national institutions. The former president and founder of the organization Abdulhadi al Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison in 2011, has gone through a hunger strike, and sent an open letter to the High Commissioner for Human Rights describing physical and sexual abuse he has received during his time in prison.
The plain scenario of Bahrain is as follows: if you are a citizen, especially Shia and poor, you already have a target on your back and your rights to protest are minimal. You are not allowed to voice criticism against the government, the royal family, or national authorities. You should watch what you say on any form of social media or news outlet lest the secret intelligence get a whiff of it. If you are a civil or political leader, your speeches about demanding more rights and reform will be turned into criminal charges of inciting violence and conspiracy to topple down the government. If you are caught doing any of these, you will most probably face an unfair trial, a biased judicial system, and, if you’re lucky, abuse on top of it all. All of this is clear as day to anyone who bothers to do a little bit of research on Bahrain, yet when you are an ally of the Bahraini government, you are pressured by Saudi Arabia to not interfere and you are scared of Iran’s influence, you are most likely going to overlook their atrocities to keep the greater good of a stable Gulf. My final question is then, until when?