Can you guess the country?
For decades, the people of this Middle Eastern state have lived under what is effectively a hereditary dictatorship. In spring last year, however, it looked like things might finally change. A long-repressed people began to feel emboldened. Protests gathered momentum. At last, it seemed, a more democratic, more open future beckoned. And then, the crackdown. The troops moved in, the shooting (and killing) started, and the summary arrest, detention and torture commenced in earnest.
Now, you could be forgiven for guessing Syria. But you’d be wrong. The place I’m describing here is the small Gulf state of Bahrain, just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Still, given the brutal repression, given the popular unrest, you would expect the West to have responded to events in Bahrain much as it responded to events elsewhere in the region. After all, Bahraini troops effectively began firing on their own people; and a disenfranchised majority struggling for some degree of political sovereignty, long withheld by Bahrain’s decidedly unconstitutional monarchy, is still being repressed.
So did Western leaders issue strongly worded condemnations? Did US secretary of state Hillary Clinton call, as she has done with Syria’s chinless tyrant Bashar al-Assad, for Bahrain’s King Hamad to step down? Did British foreign secretary William Hague talk of some form of NATO intervention? Not exactly.
In fact, both the UK and the US have consistently adopted a conciliatory position. Yes, ran official Western sentiment, some parts of the Bahraini state may have responded a little heavy-handedly to the protests, but it was nothing that some soft-focus reform couldn’t put right. So last March, as protesters were being shot at, White House spokesmen were simply urging the ruling Al Khalifa family to ‘show restraint’. Hague showed similar reserve in September, following the news that the Bahraini government had imprisoned any Bahraini medics found to have treated injured opposition activists. ‘This could undermine the Bahraini government’s moves towards dialogue and the reform needed for long-term stability’, he mithered. The fact that Bahrain’s Sunni autocracy, by its very persistence, is antithetical to the democratic aspiration of Bahrain’s thoroughly disenfranchised Shia majority is conveniently sidestepped. You can’t reform a contradiction.
More striking still was UK prime minster David Cameron’s decision in December to welcome King Hamad into Downing Street. According to reports, Hamad wanted ‘advice on implementing reforms’. And Cameron duly advised. According to a British government spokesman: ‘He urged the king to… drive forward reform and reconciliation in the country, engaging with the opposition as part of that process.’ Well, that’s all right then.
As I have written before, Bahrain is the point at which the hypocrisy of the West’s attitude to the Arab uprisings is writ large. While America, the UK and France were happy to pose, posture and bomb when it came to a pantomime villain like Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, the far more problematic state of Bahrain offers no such easy moral capital.
or a start, as opposed to the Libya of Mad Dog Gaddafi or Syria, positioned firmly on the Axis of Evil, Bahrain is a key strategic ally of the West. Indeed, for most of its modern existence, up until the 1960s, it was a British imperial outpost, a protectorate with the Al Khalifa family in cosy situ. As Bahrain was for Britain, so it is now for America, even to the extent that Britain’s old naval base is now occupied by its US equivalent. A Wikileaked cablefrom 2006 shows just how behoved the Al Khalifa family is to the US. ‘We feel we are protected by [America’s] presence’, King Hamad told an Americna diplomat: ‘Without you, we would be squashed.’ To intervene as abrasively as the UK and the US have done elsewhere in the region would be very difficult in a state that has proved so valuable to both countries.
But the hypocrisy-rich case of Bahrain doesn’t just puncture the moral authority of the West. The Arab League is also exposed for the assortment of self-interested autocracies that it is. For while the league impressed the UN with its moral bluster over Syria, expelling it one week and sending in monitors the next, its silence on the repression in Bahrain speaks volumes. And little wonder it remained silent. One of the league’s principal members, Saudi Arabia, played a direct role in the repression of the Bahraini uprising. Following the imposition of martial law in March last year, King Hamad ‘invited’ over 1,000 Saudi troops, plus tanks, to ‘police’ the Bahraini capital of Manama.
I say ‘invited’, but given the numerous reports, ‘invaded’ might be a better description. As one journalist noted: ‘A source close to Prince Nayef told [a BBC reporter] two weeks before the troops arrived that the Bahrainis were on notice that if they did not deal with the demonstrations, the Saudis would do it for them.’ And deal with it the Saudis did. Within 24 hours the protests had been ‘cleared away’.
Direct Saudi intervention is understandable. The prospect of democracy in Bahrain, a majority Shia state right on its doorstep, must be a worry for Saudi Arabia’s Sunni autocrats - not least because their own Shia population is tiring of the Saudi state’s policy of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
So there has been overseas intervention in Bahrain all right. But it has been to shore up the Al Khalifa regime, not to change it. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Western leaders want to see the Al Khalifa dynasty fall. They want to see it survive – which goes some way to explaining the considerable, externally impelled, pro-Al Khafila PR drive that is currently underway. This PR drive presents the Al Khalifa regime as reformist, as understanding; the events of the past year are depicted as things that should be ‘reckoned with’, not effaced. Hence the appearance in November of a report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in which killing and torture were acknowledged ‘as a deliberate practice by some [in the Bahraini security forces]’. King Hamad, who just months earlier had enjoyed the military largesse of the Saudis, said: ‘We are dismayed to find that [torture] has occurred… We must reform our laws to bring them in line with international standards.’
To this end, he has since appointed former Miami police chief John Timoney and ex-London Met assistant commissioner John Yates to oversee the ‘reform’ of the Bahraini police force. Admittedly, these appointments could be seen to follow in the venerable tradition of overseas involvement in Bahraini officialdom established by Ian Henderson, the British army colonel who for 30 years ran Bahrain’s security forces with such brutal aplomb that he gained the epithet, ‘the butcher of Bahrain’. Yates, more brown noser than butcher, is certainly doing a good job of presenting the nice side of Bahrain’s body of armed men. ‘The government has made excellent progress here’, he said in January: ‘Human rights training for 20,000 police officers is an immense undertaking.’ Incredibly, Yates not only excused the violent suppression of last year’s protests on the grounds that the police (and army) ‘faced extraordinary provocation’, he also advocated ‘kettling’ as a way of dealing with future unrest – ‘that would work really well round here’, he said.
So what of the situation now? With ‘human rights-trained’ police out on the beat, it must be hunky dory, right? Well, given that around 200,000 people (about a third of Bahrain’s population) gathered to protest in a suburb of Manama a few weeks ago, and given the near nightly explosions of tear-gassed violence in the villages and districts around the capital, it all seems far from hunky dory. As one activist put it last week, ‘This is a war’. And it is a war which officials from Saudi Arabia, America and Britain are fighting in – on the anti-democratic, liberty-crushing side.