A decade after the Arab Spring, Bahrain's allies are still enabling its relentless crackdown

A decade after the Arab Spring, Bahrain's allies are still enabling its relentless crackdown
Comment: A decade after an unprecedented uprising, the obstacles to reform in Bahrain remain as insurmountable as they were a decade ago, writes Marc Owen Jones.
5 min read
15 Feb, 2021
This year marks a decade since protests at Manama's Pearl Roundabout were violently suppressed [Getty]
Bahrain's Arab Spring is sometimes called the forgotten uprising - ignored by the media and the world. It is perhaps fairer to say that what happened in Bahrain was swallowed up in the many other tragic events occurring in the Middle East at the time.

But the lack of attention does not undo the brutality or tragedy of Bahrain's uprising - or even the scale. Hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis took to the Pearl Roundabout to demand political reform on 14 February 2011. The turnout was proportionally one of the greatest shows of "people power" in modern history, and was brutally repressed by Bahraini authorities.

Despite hollow promises for political reform, most of the demands for greater democratic reform by protesters remain unmet 10 years on. If anything, repression has gotten worse. The election of Joe Biden brings some hope of a hiatus, rather than a substantive change, but Bahrain remains at the mercy of a ruthless government backed by allies willing to turn a blind eye.

Foreign affairs dictate repression

Repression in Bahrain is intimately tied to foreign policy. Bahrain has always been dependent on foreign powers for protection, whether Britain, Saudi Arabia or the US. British diplomat Roger Tomkys said in 1982, "Revolution in Bahrain will never be possible so long as the Kingdom of Saudi remains intact."

Britain, Bahrain's former imperial suzerain, has continued to support repression in Bahrain

In many ways, this was true, in 2011 the arrival across the Causeway of mostly Saudi troops from the Gulf Peninsula Shield force was the death knell for the Bahrain uprising. Dozens of Bahrainis were killed through torture or police violence, with hundreds put in prison following military trials.

But it's not just Saudi Arabia. Britain, Bahrain's former imperial suzerain, has continued to support repression in Bahrain under the pretext of reforming its police. Most recently, the University of Huddersfield came under fire after opposition activists complained they were tortured on its Bahrain premises by the very police being trained by the UK.

Meanwhile, the US administration determines who lives and who dies in Bahrain. Since 2011, the Bahrain authorities have issued several death sentences in court cases widely criticised for violations of due process and procedure. Under Obama, the Bahrain government paid lip service to human rights reforms and did not execute anyone sentenced to death, for fear of riling the Obama administration. But the election of Trump changed everything.

His administration's maximum pressure campaign on Iran meant Bahrain's government had the green light to do as they pleased with anyone they accused of acting in collusion with Iran - which was basically any opposition member.

Bahrain executed three men in January 2017, the month of Trump's inauguration. Another eight Bahrainis were shot and killed before June 2017, marking the deadliest year since 2011. A further three were executed in 2019.

Read more: Social media fuelled the Arab Spring, then helped dictators quash it

As well as brute force, the Al Khalifa ruling family has long played with and manipulated the social fabric of Bahrain. By aggravating sectarian tensions through rhetoric and the destruction of Shia religious structures, it has attempted to divide a broad based opposition coalition by fanning the flames of religious acrimony.

Legal and political avenues for participatory democracy have also narrowed in the past 10 years. The government has closed the country's largest political party Al Wefaq, and clamped down on independent media such as the newspaper Al Wasat.

Hundreds of political prisoners swept up under the broad pretext of national security languish in jail. The Ministry of the Interior even announced that following someone on social media deemed anti-government could result in a jail sentence.

A new hope?

The past year brought a false dawn. The world's longest serving and hawkish prime minister Khalifa bin Salman died in November 2020, prompting hope that his successor, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, would usher in a new era of reforms.

After all, it's not uncommon in Bahrain for the death of a key political figurehead to bring about change. The same happened in Bahrain in 1999, when Sheikh isa bin Salman Al Khalifa died. His son, Hamad, made himself King but also promised a new period of political liberalisation in the form of the national charter - when actually it was a constitutional coup.

The arrival of mostly Saudi troops was the death knell for the Bahrain uprising

While many expected an elected unilateral parliament, they got a bicameral system with an upper house appointed by the king. The Al Khalifa remained firmly in charge.

The brief period of political liberalisation that allowed the formation of political parties did not stop continued corruption, problems with housing allocation, and economic troubles. These problems, which underscored the 2011 uprising, have not gone away.

As it stands, the limits of political liberalisation have been reached in Bahrain. While the election of US President Joe Biden might put the brakes on the more egregious excesses of repression, the regime, ever deferential to its increasingly autocratic allies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has little incentive to enact top-down change.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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