The tiny kingdom of Bahrain seldom makes headlines. The island-state bordering Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar has been ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family for more than two hundred years. The Al-Khalifa family has, until now, failed to produce a zealous ruler eager to make international headlines. However, the uprising which erupted on Valentine’s Day 2011 and resultedin more than 40 deaths drew more international attention to the country. Unable to offer a convincing response to the mass display of grievances, the Al Khalifa family has relied on repression to preserve its rule, maintaining an untenable political situation.
Demonstrations encouraged by Arab Spring
Encouraged by uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, demonstrators gathered around Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, to demand political reform on 14 February 2011. Although demonstrations were not a new phenomenon in Bahrain, the sheer size of the Valentine’s Day demonstration was unprecedented. Frightened by the fate of other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Bahraini regime responded with a heavy hand. Riot police employed deadly force to disperse demonstrators, which resulted in even more street protests. While both Sunnis and Shi’a participated in the protests, the Shi’a formed the majority of demonstrators. The Shi’a community constitutes approximately 70% of Bahrain’s total population. A large part of the Shi’a community in Bahrain has been marginalised, predominantly living in poor economic conditions and facing difficulties obtaining jobs and government housing.
When the security situation in Bahrain deteriorated further because of the uprising, the Bahraini government called in the assistance of military forces from neighbouring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar). These forces arrived on 14 March 2011. A state of emergency was declared a day later. Following the announcement of the state of emergency, a massive crackdown was initiated. Excessive force was used to clear protestors, checkpoints were quickly erected and Bahraini security forces raided houses in order to arrest more than 1600 people they suspected of involvement in the uprising.
Back to business
The state of emergency in Bahrain was lifted on 1 June 2011. Since then, the Bahraini authorities have tried to pretend that the situation in Bahrain has been normalised. Multi-million dollar contracts have been awarded to Western PR-agencies such as Washington DC-based Qorvis Communications and London-based Bell Pottinger to shore up the international reputation of Bahrain. An independent commission was set up by the Bahraini King Hamad on 29 June 2011 to investigate the incidents that happened during the uprising in February and March 2011. This independent commission released a critical report, accusing the authorities in Bahrain of illegal arrests, forced confessions, unfair trials, and the systematic use of torture by the police and security agencies. Following the release of the report, King Hamad promised reforms and to sack those officials who had abused their power.
Spiral of protests and repression continues
But the King failed to deliver. The judicial system in Bahrain has yet to hold any senior official responsible for serious human rights violations since 2011. Meanwhile, protests continued in 2014 in Bahrain. There are almost daily protests and clashes in poor Shi’i-dominated villages outside of Manama, which are being dispersed by security forces who make excessive use of tear gas. In its World Report 2014, Human Rights Watch stated that authorities in Bahrain “continue to arrest and prosecute dissidents, including human rights defenders, on security-related charges” and “many detainees complained of ill-treatment in detention, sometimes rising to the level of torture.”
Prospects for a peaceful resolution of the political crisis
To find a peaceful solution to the political crisis, a National Dialogue has been initiated by the ruling family, which brings together elements of the Bahraini opposition and the government. But the prospects for this National Dialogue remain bleak, as it has been suspended several times over the last years. According to Ahmed al-Haddad, a Bahraini activist who works for the European Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights, the main obstacle to a peaceful resolution to the political crisis is the failure of the government of Bahrain and the ruling family “to accept power sharing with the people of Bahrain.” In Al-Haddad’s view, “the government should engage in a solution, through building trust with the people by taking concrete measures such as releasing prisoners, decreasing the security grip and holding those responsible accountable.” Meanwhile, the situation in Bahrain is almost reaching a boiling point. At the beginning of this year, two car bombings caused five deaths and a handful injured people. These bombings highlight the importance of finding a peaceful resolution to the political crisis in Bahrain in order to avoid the situation spiralling out of control.
Written by Ax and published on 26-August-2014