How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.
For many countries in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has proved to be a long and inconclusive season. Popular insurrections in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and even Libya have yielded deeply ambiguous results. But there is one uprising whose outcome is fairly definitive at this point: Bahrain’s. After massive protests shook the tiny Gulf state last February and March, Bahraini authorities swept in with the backing of foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, clearing the streets of demonstrators and imposing martial law. Since then, government forces have engaged in a long and ruthless crackdown, effectively burying hopes of real reform. If any Arab Spring revolt can be pronounced a failure thus far, this is it.
Not coincidentally, Bahrain’s ill-fated uprising stands out in another way, too. The United States, which took a forceful stance on other Arab revolts, remained relatively passive in the face of the kingdom’s unrest and crackdown. To many who are familiar with the region, this came as no surprise: of all the Arab states that saw revolts last year, Bahrain is arguably the most closely tied to American strategic interests. The country hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, a key watchdog in some of the world’s busiest oil-shipping lanes, waters that also border Iran. In the past five years, the U.S. has sent close to $100 million in military aide to Bahrain—a hefty amount for such a small country—much of it earmarked for “stabilization operations” that include training and equipping police and paramilitary forces. And Bahrain’s leadership is intimately linked to that of Saudi Arabia, America’s greatest ally in the region.
Since beginning its crackdown, Bahrain’s leadership has been assiduous about molding perceptions of the uprising, retaining major public relations firms like Washington, D.C.’s Qorvis and London’s Bell Pottinger to help shape the narrative that reaches those in the West. On social-media sites like Twitter, pro-government voices have run steady interference, bordering on harassment, in debates about the kingdom. They have tried to sow doubt about the revolt’s status as a grassroots democratic movement, casting it instead as an Iranian-led coup attempt and a grave threat to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the biggest mark of this campaign’s success is that coverage of the crackdown, on the whole, has been slight. By and large, Bahrain has faded into the background of the Arab Spring.
What this silence conceals is the story of what really happened in the Gulf kingdom last year, and the full story of America’s halfhearted attempts to intervene, which ultimately went nowhere. What it also obscures is that last year’s events may mark an ominous turning point in the tiny country’s history. Bahrain’s uprising grew out of a long-running conflict between the country’s Sunni ruling class and its marginalized Shiite majority. But its aftermath has taken on the dimensions of something darker still—a vastly asymmetrical battle that, in the words of Marina Ottaway, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has assumed the “ugly overtones of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment.”
When I first traveled to Bahrain in 2009—some two years before the Arab Spring—it was to report on demonstrations that were, even then, riling the Gulf state. Shiite protesters were burning piles of tires nearly every night, demanding better jobs, better housing, better education, and the release of political prisoners.
I was living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the time, five hours from Bahrain by car. The last hour of the drive runs along a low causeway that crosses a shimmering blue finger of the Persian Gulf. On the island itself, Bahrain’s capital, Manama, cuts a sleek silhouette much like that of Doha or Abu Dhabi or the other Gulf capitals: skyscrapers, malls, SUVs.
My destination, however, was a run-down Shiite neighborhood in the capital called Jidhafs. In contrast to the hyper-modern parts of town, it had narrow, winding streets, neat white shop houses, and big old trees set in orderly courtyards, relics from the days when Bahrain was a British protectorate. A prominent Shiite writer in Saudi Arabia had arranged for me to meet two brothers named Sayed and Jaafar, underground Shiite activists who for decades had agitated against Bahrain’s government and had only recently returned to the country from exile. I was surprised to find two pudgy, affable men with salt-and-pepper hair and wide smiles. They immediately sat me down to an elaborate lunch of rice, roasted meat, crisp greens, and deep-fried cauliflower. While in exile, they’d run a restaurant.
The brothers were baharna—descendants of Arab tribes who have inhabited the islands of Bahrain and the eastern part of Saudi Arabia since what they call “the beginning,” when the prophet Mohammad’s emissaries came to convert them to Islam in the seventh century. The converts were partisans—in Arabic, shiat—of Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. In English, we call them Shiites.
At the end of the eighteenth century, a Sunni tribe called the Al Khalifa conquered the Bahraini islands. The baharna Shiites, who worked as pearl divers, fishermen, and date farmers, were relegated to peasant status. In 1820, to make matters worse for the baharna, the Al Khalifa signed a treaty with Britain—then the dominant military force in the Gulf—establishing the tribe as the rulers of Bahrain.
When Bahrain gained independence in 1971, the British departed, handing control of their military base to the U.S. Navy. The Al Khalifa moved to consolidate power further. The clan came to permeate every level of government and business, while the baharna were kept from positions of influence or authority. Shiites of Sayed and Jaafar’s father’s generation petitioned the Al Khalifa for better representation. The Al Khalifa responded by importing Sunnis from countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, as a way to engineer the country’s demography. These unskilled immigrants were given jobs as policemen and soldiers and granted full citizenship.
Sayed was soft-spoken and polite during lunch, constantly offering me seconds and thirds as his granddaughter ran around the table, giggling. After the meal, though, he dismissed the kids and began to raise his voice. He described how badly Shiites were being treated by the Al Khalifa. “If they have a problem with their own people, they should solve this problem—not bring other people to replace us,” he said. “Why bring the worst people from these countries? Why not bring the best, the most educated, to help develop Bahrain?”
We were drinking tea and eating fatiteh, a sweet paste of dates and sesame seeds indigenous to Bahrain and the predominantly Shiite regions of eastern Saudi Arabia. “We are the original people of Bahrain,” Sayed continued. “They should not treat us like minorities, like foreigners. What the regime doesn’t understand is that we simply want to be treated like equals. Be good to us, and we will be better than you.”
In Sayed’s lifetime, tensions between the baharna and the Al Khalifa escalated. After the 1979 Shiite-led Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Shiites of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also rose up. Bahraini authorities uncovered plans by an Iranian-backed group to overthrow the government. Thousands of Bahrainis were jailed. Sayed and Jaafar fled the country.
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