March/ April 2012 The Crackdown

How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.

By Kelly McEvers

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.

Kelly McEvers is a former Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio. She is now a national correspondent based at NPR West.


  • Gulf guy on February 16, 2012 3:12 AM:

    I for one live in Bahrain and have been here since 2005. I first came to work in 1997 but I left to go to graduate school. Here is what nobody is saying. Let's examine the demand for a "government which reflects the will of the people", or a call for democracy in Bahrain. The same was made in Palestine when they grew tired of the PLO's antics. What happened? We supported their "democratic transition" and Hamas won which completely undermined our position.

    Bahrain is a country where the majority of the citizenry, particularly those in opposition, could be classified as minimally educated. The result is a people who are more beholden to Shia clerics than to the nation-state.

    In an environment such as this if people were given the vote, who would they vote for? It doesn't take a genius to see that Bahrain would quickly go into the Iranian fold much in the same way Iraq has.

    Look at Al Wefaq's record. They called for national strikes when women's rights were enhanced here in the kingdom. They fought for modesty laws (girls wearing abayas) at the university. They essentially tried to ban windows. This is a ISLAMIST party who would very much like to make the most progressive GCC country a whole hell of a lot less progressive.

    Ask yourself, if we knew the Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood would fill the political vacuum in Egypt created by Mubarak's demise, who we have supported his fall? If we knew Iraq would fall straight into Iran's hand would be have conducted our operation differently?

    In Bahrain we know EXACTLY who is waiting in the wing and where they take their orders from.

    I mean I am a US citizen and I believe firmly in democracy. But I also believe in protecting our country's interests. Allowing an opposition who is controlled from the outside to overthrow one of the most forward thinking regimes in the GCC would be a fool's move.

  • Anonymous on February 29, 2012 3:03 AM:

    On behalf of all free people of Bahrain, I'd like to thank you for your fair article on Bahrain. "Shukran Lakum" is the Bahraini way of saying "thank you".

  • Anonymous on February 29, 2012 3:04 AM:

    On behalf of all free people of Bahrain, I'd like to thank you for your fair article on Bahrain. "Shukran Lakum" is the Bahraini way of saying "thank you".

  • Lilly on February 29, 2012 5:58 AM:

    I was working in Bahrain last year and remember events just as you wrote about them.

    I am rather surprised by Gulf Guy's comments about this article . The support of Iran has been dismissed by both the US government and the Bahrain governments own commission due to the complete lack of evidence of any involvement.

    I taught at Bahrain Polytechnic on one of the University campuses and girls certainly didn't have to wear abayas and often didn't. Their choice. Having worked with, taught and socialised with many of the protestors, I can assure you they are not mindless or uneducated as "the guy" would have you believe. Go to #Bahrain on Twitter and have a look at the consistent unverified rubbish presented by a small section of the pro-regime camp and then compare. And I stress "a small section". In my experience, the majority of Bahrainis in both camps want some kind of reconciliation that the ruling family is just not prepareed to work towards, for whatever reason.

    I suspect that "the Guy" is more concerned about his own interests rather than the interests of any country. I suspect the Al Khalifas feel the same way.

  • linda on February 29, 2012 6:55 AM:

    BICI paragraph 1584. "The evidence presented to the Commission by the GoB on the involvement by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the internal affairs of Bahrain does not establish a discernable link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February and March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran."

    I've been talking on Twitter for 13 months to all kinds of people in Bahrain. The people I chat with want the UN Declaration of Human Rights to be the basis of law in Bahrain. They want self determination. They want freedom to vote for their own government. They do not want to be abused by a non elected repressive monarchy.
    The Human Rights Declaration is seen worldwide as a common standard of achievement for all peoples & all nations. Not "all nations except Bahrain."

    "Guy," you need to learn the history of Bahrain; learn what the Khalifa's did 200 years ago!

    Bahrain protestors want fair­ electoral districts guaranteeing political equality­ amongst ppl & meeting universal principle of one­ person one vote. These protestors are human beings,­ men, woman and 'children' of teenage years. The­ have varied beliefs; some are Sunni Muslim, some are­ Christian, some are Jews, some are Shia Muslim.
    Now,­ their beliefs are their own personal concerns and of no­ interest to me, but the Bahrain Gvt are intent on­ making this a sectarian issue. I have Bahrain­ friends of several faiths and of none, all who want­ self determination and democracy, something you have, "Guy"­ and don't seem to want others to enjoy. 
You should stop listening to the Bahrain Gvt who lie continually and talk to those living in the villages of Bahrain.
    Today as I write this comment the village BaniJamrah is suffering raids ongoing in 26 houses, 7 farms, kindergarten & 3 mosques; raided by mercenaries. They were looking for a man who, it turned out was already in Dry Dock prison. House Raids started at 9am in BaniJamrah & were still ongoing now 11:24am.

    "Guy", you need to realise that Bahrain pays many PR 'machines' to effectively lie for them to protect the Kingdom. The information war in Bahrain is insidious, inexorable and unpleasant. Qovis is one PR firm used, Bell Pottinger another.
    I find this outrageous: Large U.S. public relations firm hired to smear #Bahrain opposition http://bit.ly/xzlbdj
    The Government do not use truth. They use lies, threats, force and cruelty. They also pander to the greed and materialism of a favored few.  The King's recent speech shows this clearly; he indicates nothing can be wrong because Bahraini do not pay taxes & only 4% are without jobs. That is manipulative; the King is manipulated by the PM, who was the one to countermand the CP's reassurances about Lulu last year.