Editor’s Note: Caitlin Fitz Gerald writes about international affairs and civil-military relations at Gunpowder & Lead. She is currently turning Carl von Clausewitz's On War into an illustrated children's book. You can find her on Twitter at caidid.
By Caitlin Fitz Gerald – Special to CNN
When protests began in Bahrain last February, they were met with ruthless crackdowns and sectarian abuses, and more than a year later, the relationship between protest action and government response has not visibly changed. People are still taking to the streets in protest, and the regime is still responding with force, arrests, reported torture, and well-coordinated media propaganda. The most recent focal points have been the hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who was arrested in the early days of the protests, and Formula One's controversial decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix this past weekend.
Recently, there have been some excellent pieces exploring events in Bahrain, among them Gregg Carlstrom's evocatively titled "In the Kingdom of Tear Gas" which concludes that "the reality is that street protests, after simmering in outlying villages for months, have begun to heat up in the capital of Manama"; and "The Crackdown" in which Kelly McEvers explores the factors that may have doomed the protests from the outset, pronouncing that "If any Arab Spring revolt can be pronounced a failure thus far, this is it." With these excellent articles and the additional attention on Bahrain due to the Grand Prix, there has finally been a sharper focus on what has been perhaps the most neglected theater of the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half in terms of western media coverage.
The regime in Bahrain has developed a standard playbook in response to the ongoing troubles. On the domestic front, they put down protests wherever they arise. For this, they use regular security forces and the more irregular National Security Agency, intelligence agents empowered to make arrests and not subject to the same oversights as regular security forces. Common tactics include arrests, beatings, and clouds of tear gas, and reports of extreme torture and abuse are widespread.
Externally, the Bahraini government seeks to control the media message in any way possible. In addition to keeping major western public relations firms on their payroll, the al-Khalifas have declined visas to many news outlets - others, such as al Jazeera, were banned even before the current troubles - and tightly control the access of those journalists who are allowed in.
For example, those in the country to cover the F1 event this weekend were kept to strict paths of travel and required to mark cameras with fluorescent orange stickers to ensure that they didn't stray from the race in their coverage. Additionally, as anyone who has criticized Bahrain on Twitter or on a blog with an open comments section can attest, the regime uses social media aggressively, with an army of accounts seeking out and responding vociferously to any critiques, not just those related to the F1 event.
The regime wanted to use the Grand Prix to show that everything is 'normal' in Bahrain, and put all its efforts into making sure that it happened, that it was not disrupted, and that the focus of the world was on the race itself and not the ongoing problems in the country. The opposition responded with the largest, most widespread protests of recent months, staging mass demonstrations and lighting tire fires that could be seen from the track to serve as visual reminders to race-watchers that all is not calm in Bahrain. Reports from this weekend indicate a number of violent clashes between protesters and security forces, a number of arrests and injuries, and one death.
The race itself finished without incident, albeit with many empty seats, waffling from corporate sponsors, and the occasional plume of smoke visible in the distance. While the government is declaring the event a success, it is doubtful that they are entirely pleased with the amount of attention - not to mention renewed energy - it has brought to the opposition.
The regime in Bahrain has frequently blamed unrest on foreign interlopers, by which they mean Shia-ruled Iran, but the only foreign intervention in Bahrain's internal affairs actually in evidence is that of Saudi Arabia, and that involvement came at the behest of Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifas. This relationship bears looking at, as there have been reports in recent months of a potential merger between the countries, whose ruling families share dovetailing interests and parallel concerns, and there is little doubt that this relationship impacts U.S. policy toward Bahrain.
Bahrain is a Shia-majority country ruled by a Sunni dynasty. In recent years, there have been small steps toward reforms that would allow more popular power, mixed with other steps designed to decrease the Shia majority – for example, granting citizenship to large numbers of Sunni workers brought in from abroad. This blending of approaches is due to differences of opinion within the ruling family itself as well as simple fear of being overthrown (often conveniently masked as caution against Iranian designs).
Ironically, while there has been no evidence of an Iranian hand behind the protests of Bahrain's Shia population - even the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, commissioned last fall by the regime itself and presented publicly as a way of moving forward, could find not one scrap of evidence - the crackdowns have provided Iran with the opportunity to loudly pledge solidarity with their oppressed co-religionists, rhetorically through their state-run media if not materially.
Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, but with a large Eastern Province, which houses both the country's oil deposits and a large Shia population, and which neighbors Bahrain. The Saudi regime has historically given little respect to the concerns of the Shia of the Eastern Province and responded forcefully to any sign of unrest. Madawi al-Rasheed, in her recent Boston Review piece on why there has been no popular uprising in Saudi Arabia, provides an excellent nutshell encapsulation of this dynamic: "using its classic strategies—anti-Shia religious rhetoric, a powerful and Western-trained security force, and economic handouts—the regime crushed any signs of an uprising."
The al-Khalifas fear the majority they rule. The Saudis fear that the uprising in Bahrain could spread to their own Shia community. While the two regimes are friendly, the Saudi intercession in Bahrain was more about sending a message to and preventing possible unrest among their own citizenry – and doing what they felt would minimize potential benefits to their rival Iran – than about support for the Bahraini monarchy, as would be any closer political allegiances into which they might enter.
They either have not considered that aiding in the oppression of Bahrain's Shia could actually serve as a spur to more action from their own dissatisfied residents or, more likely, are simply relying on their historical preference for swift, ruthless suppression and gambling that quelling the uprising in Bahrain will have more of a quieting effect in the Eastern Province, and the quicker the better.
In addition to a religious sect and an Iranian bogeyman, these two monarchies share an elevated position in United States foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has long been an anchor in the region for the U.S., and Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. U.S. interests in the two countries heavily favor stability, often at the cost of freedoms. While U.S. diplomacy encourages reforms and peaceful resolutions, it is not yet clear how far public protests or the subsequent suppression would have to go before the U.S. would take the sort of steps it did in Libya, or the sort of less stringent steps it has taken in Syria, or even Egypt.
The U.S. approach could prove to be dangerously short-sighted. As long as the opposition continues to protest, and the regime continues to crack down, that cornerstone stability is nowhere to be found and the U.S. is in an awkward position regarding oft lauded ideals of democracy promotion and human rights. This does not even take into account possible repercussions were the opposition ever to actually overthrow the al-Khalifas.
With the U.S. having made no movement to counter the impunity of the current regime, a new regime is unlikely to have friendly feelings toward the U.S., which would create a range of strategic problems, first and foremost among them potentially having to either clear the Fifth Fleet out in a hurry or go to war with the new government. In the U.S. reliance on Bahrain as a strategic foothold in the Gulf, depending on the eternal survival of a status quo built on majority disenfranchisement and widespread abuse is foolish.
The U.S. position is also questionable as it relates to Iran. While Iran is not behind the movement in Bahrain, it can benefit from instability plaguing its rivals and would surely seize on any opportunity that might arise from it to increase its influence in the region, something the U.S. purports to oppose. An opposition movement that started out as a peaceful voice for democratic reforms is increasingly radicalizing, creating an opening for Iran to potentially start providing material support. In the event of an overthrow of the current government, Iran would also be well-positioned to receive favorable treatment from the new government. The Bahraini protest movement did not need to be a sectarian battleground, but the government response has ensured that it has become an increasingly contentious one.
The protests in Bahrain continue, despite often brutal suppression, and have even picked up steam under the spotlight drawn to the country by the Grand Prix. The intersecting interests of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Iran are highlighted by the state of affairs there, as are the potential pitfalls of current policies: U.S. and Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence could well enhance it; Saudi repression in Bahrain could inspire unrest at home; and the al-Khalifas' efforts to cling to power have already long since turned peaceful demonstrations for reform into widespread – if not yet universal – calls for their overthrow. Thus far the U.S. policy has amounted to 'let's cross our fingers and hope the al-Khalifas and the Saudis can make this all go away soon.' But it is not going away. Even if we are willing to admit that U.S. interests don't necessarily include democratic reform and human rights for the people of Bahrain, it would behoove us to start seriously considering alternatives before all parties are hopelessly trapped by the tangle of interests at play.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Caitlin Fitz Gerald.