A tiny (only 3.5 times the size of Washington DC) island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain lies in the heart of the Persian Gulf. Although it was the first state to strike oil in the region, it has a relatively small amount remaining. Within the American context, it is probably best known for hosting the massively important Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy.
It is widely understood that the Arab Spring resulted in large-scale revolt in nations like Tunisia and Egypt. The toppling of those governments was well documented by the mainstream media and frequently mentioned by President Barack Obama and his colleagues. But what happened in Bahrain from 2011 onwards did not receive the airtime it deserved. While the Bahraini regime is still firmly in power, the protests that took place there, as well as the troubling government response, created dramatic and graphic moments that the American public should consider more thoroughly.
Bahrain is a unique case in the Arab Spring. Just like its fellow GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) members, it is a monarchy with authoritarian tendencies and significant restrictions on freedom of speech. A former British protectorate, it has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for centuries. However, the demographics of Bahrain make the relationship between the government and the people difficult. Proportionally, Bahrain has the largest Shia population of any GCC state. It is, in fact, a majority Shia population. For many years, Bahraini Shia have objected to their treatment by the Al Khalifa, who practice Sunni Islam. Shia are systematically discriminated against in social, political and economic terms. These tensions hit a new high after the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, and people took to the streets.
While pro-regime loyalists blame the protests that occurred on Shia extremism and Iranian meddling, this scenario cannot be viewed in a purely sectarian fashion. A sizable percentage of the Bahraini population, not only Shia but Sunni as well, campaigned for more popular representation and greater government accountability. There were violent outbursts, but for the most part, this was a peaceful initiative with objectives that most Americans would deem very reasonable. Pearl Roundabout, in the heart of the capital city of Manama, was chosen as the focal point of the rallies. It became the main symbol of the movement.
Unfortunately, King Hamad and his government reacted to the uprising with brute force. Protesters were imprisoned, tortured and in some cases even killed. The army employed tactics, such as using rubber bullets and tear gas, and opened fire on innocent civilians. Opposition figures and thousands of normal citizens, including medics trying to manage the enormous influx of injured people, were arrested. Amidst the myriad and blatant human rights violations, perhaps most discomforting is the way that the regime managed the situation at the country’s largest hospital. The government restricted access to the Salmaniya Medical Complex at a time when battered demonstrators were in need of emergency care. Authorities blocked ambulances from entering the site, and some doctors performing critical surgery were thrown into jail.
After several weeks of huge marches and lethal showdowns, the government crackdown intensified further. On March 14, a Saudi-led GCC force entered Bahrain to help crush the protests. Saudi tanks drove down the King Fahd Causeway, which connects Bahrain to the Gulf mainland, in an unprecedented move of GCC intervention. Shortly after, King Hamad declared a state of emergency. Then, on March 17, Pearl Roundabout was demolished. The Tahrir Square of Manama was reduced to a pile of rubble which the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa referred to as a “bad memory.”
It is unclear how many Bahrainis have been killed since the protests began. A handful of policemen and security forces members have died, alongside as many as 80 civilians (some opposition sources say more). What is clear is that this was an incredibly unsettling episode. There is an uneasy peace today, but the fundamental issues that endanger the Bahraini status quo remain the same. This is a government that used notably aggressive measures to suppress a largely non-violent movement, and it is a staunch ally of Washington DC. President George W. Bush named Bahrain a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., and Obama stayed quiet when the hopes of marginalized Bahrainis and Pearl Roundabout were deconstructed.
When Americans wonder why Arabs harbor a sense of animosity towards U.S. policy, Bahrain is a case study worth contemplating. Before the Qatari media outlet Al Jazeera was basically expelled from Bahrain, it produced a documentary titled Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark. This piece of work has been called biased by some, but it illustrates the upsetting nature of what went on and sheds light on the character of this strategic American partner.
Bayly, a senior political science major from Princeton, N.J., is an Opinions Staff Writer.