Over the course of the past year, peoples throughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have risen up against repressive regimes to fight for democracy. In each of the countries in which this “Arab Spring” has taken hold there has been widespread government crackdown. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, this has led to revolution and the removal of their respective governments. In Syria, protest against the Assad regime has led to over a year of violence and disunity throughout the country. The United States, its western allies, and the Arab League have been quick to condemn the violence and repression reported in these nations during their struggles, issuing harsh rebukes, imposing sanctions, and threatening military force in defense of human rights abuses. However, the small country of Bahrain, whose people rose up en masse last February for more democratic rights, has received no such support.
Bahrain’s Shia dominated population rose up in protest of their repressive and Sunni-dominated government on February 14, 2011. More than 300,000 Bahrainis gathered the first days of the protest, demanding democratic reforms. In stark contrast to the other countries of the “Arab Spring”, the Bahraini demonstrations remained relatively peaceful, the people not demanding an overthrow of the ruling party, but for changes to be made to create a more democratic process and allow for a more representative government. Talks were begun between the Bahraini opposition and the Khalifa government in March of 2011, but were abruptly ended March 14, 2011, as Saudi Arabian troops were called in to assist the government with cracking down on the dissent. A three month period of martial law was enforced, effectively silencing the Bahrain Arab Spring.
Both the Saudi Arabian government and the Khalifa government claim that the Shia dominated Iran is partially responsible for fomenting the protest movement, and have used that as one of the reasons for the violent crackdown. While Iran is a Shia ruled nation, it is unlikely they would actively support a democratic movement in such close proximity of their country. In addition to that, Iran has no record of being any kinder or more supportive of its Shia people in comparison to other sects.
Throughout this period of time, the United States and their allies were for all intensive purposes silent to the Bahraini struggle for more freedoms, while conversely speaking out against human rights abuses occuring in Egypt and Syria, and lending military aid to Libya.
Bahrain is home to the U.S Navy’s 5th fleet, located near the Strait of Hormuz. Although the population of the base is relatively low, it is a key strategic position in both combating Somali pirates and in patrolling the Strait. Recent threats from Iran of blocking the strait, effectively removing 40% of oil from the markets, have significantly elevated the importance of the base. In 2010, the US began $580M construction to double the base’s size, which is slated for completion in 2015.
The United States is also one of the main providers of arms and military equipment to Bahrain. The Bahrain government purchased $26.2M in defense equipment from the U.S. in 2011, and was scheduled to receive another $53M earlier this year. The shipment was postponed due to members of the U.S. congress stating concerns about American arms being used against Bahraini civilians. Those concerns have not prevented several small orders from being completed, due to a loophole which allows arms deals under $1M to be made, with no disclosure to congress or the public necessary.
The Bahraini government has come under scrutiny over the past year from various human rights groups and the UN. The Khalifa government has boasted lately of the great strides it is making towards reforms, “We want our people to feel and see the differences these changes have on their lives,” said King Hamad at a government ceremony in february. “The challenge of the coming months will be to translate these into tangible, cultural changes.” These changes have included bringing in former Miami police chief John Timoney, best known for his departments violent response to the protests of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting in Miami in 2003, and John Yates from the UK, whose name is held in connection with the UK wiretapping scandal and the disappearance of thousands of documents.
It remains to be seen whether any real reform will take place in Bahrain, as it stands now Bahrain has only served as an example of how to stifle an Arab Spring.