Monday, April 04, 2011

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Goose-Step to the Brink of the Abyss

Update: Justin Gengler, a University of Michigan graduate student, did demographic work in Bahrain and is blogging on his findings at Religion and Politics in Bahrain.  According to Gengler, the government of Bahrain has been engaged in stealth naturalization of Sunni immigrants (and, if I read the article correctly, naturalization of Sunnis resident in the Saudi city of Dammam) in order to dilute the Shi'a majority.  He takes issue with the commonly reported 70/30 Shi'a/Sunni split that I used in this post.  According to his research, conducted in 2009, the population of Bahrain is now on the order of 58% Shi'a and 42% Sunni. CH, 4/5/11

While we are diverted by the opera-bouffe spectacle of the civil war in Libya’s desert, a genuine tragedy—and potential geopolitical trainwreck—is unfolding in Bahrain.

Those plucky demonstrators we saw occupying the Pearl Square roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, have been swept away by government security forces—together with the 300 foot monument at the roundabout, which came to symbolize the aspirations of the protesters and was therefore demolished by the government in a representative display of heavy-handedness.

The Bahraini government received an important assist from Saudi Arabia, which dispatched troops and tanks under a mutual security pact of the Gulf Co-Operation Council called Peninsula Shield.

The government has gone to great and dangerous lengths to paint the democratic aspirations of the peaceful, largely Shi’a demonstrators for democracy as a sectarian assault on the emirate backed by that Gulf boogeyman, Iran.

The repression has turned into an operation of conspicuous bigotry, brutality, and mendacity that does not bode well for the future of the emirate, political liberalization inside Saudi Arabia, or peaceful coexistence between Iran and the Gulf states.

In recent days, Bahrain has used live ammunition—shotguns—against demonstrators and blanketed Manama with checkpoints, some manned by personnel masked with sinister black balaclavas. After a group of Shia legislators resigned in protest, the government officially accepted their resignations—so they could strip the legislators of their immunity and render them liable to criminal charges. Main opposition newspaper—shut down. Only hospital in Manama—occupied by security forces so that wounded demonstrators can be apprehended, abused, and/or disappeared.

In classic Orwellian doublespeak, the government declared that the hospital had been “liberated”. “Liberating” the hospital apparently involved beating at least one male nurse senseless in the parking lot.

Beneath it all, a dangerous undercurrent of government fear and rage.

It looks like the Bahrain and Saudi security forces are utterly out of their depth. Their state of reference is pursuing and suppressing terrorists. By treating these peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrators as sectarian terrorists, they seem to be sowing the seeds of the emirate’s eventual destruction.

The expected outcome of systematic government-directed hatred would be ethnic cleansing, but there’s one problem with that. Shi’a are not a marginalized and easily purged minority; they are the majority, accounting for about 70% of the native population. The Sunni—who dominate the island in cooperation with their Saudi allies—are the minority. If one counts the large army of foreign workers in the emirate, the Sunni bosses account for less than 10% of the population.

No wonder the Sunni emir felt he needed some Saudi muscle.

The prognosis seems to be embittered Shi’a majority and paranoid Sunni rulers in Bahrain. Even under ordinary circumstances, Shi’a are inclined to a lively sense of grievance concerning historical and current Sunni persecution, raising the prospect of security problems for Saudi Arabia in handling its own Shi’a minority (about 15%) even after the stompings and beatings quiet things in Manama.

The big story in the Gulf appears to be that many of the governments, with weak to non-existent popular bases, vulnerability to democratic agitation, an inability to accommodate dissent (unless “accommodation” means bouncing a nightstick off somebody’s head and hauling them away), and an uncertain sense of where the Obama administration stands on the whole "democratic values vs. strategic interests" conundrum, are panicking and in need of a scapegoat to justify heavy-handed security measures that will otherwise alienate significant (ironically, significant moderate) sections of their populace.

The spooked regimes are justifying their disproportionate reaction by claiming the demonstrations are part of a seditious scheme sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah. A war of words has already broken out between Iran and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the issue. Turning the Gulf states’ rhetoric against them, Iran declared that Bahrain has forfeited its legitimacy, implying that Iran can do an R2P intervention on behalf of the embattled Shi’a of Bahrain like the humanitarian intervention the Gulf Co-operation Council incited in Libya.

The clownish nature of reporting on Bahrain was revealed when a leader declared he wanted the emirate to solve its problems without outside interference, Iranian or Saudi. This was of course headlined in the Saudi-owned al Arabiya as Bahrain’s Shiite opposition asks Iran not to meddle.

The seemingly suicidal line of framing the issue as Iran-fueled sectarian jealousy instead of legitimate democratic agitation was carried on in the article by a Bahraini official:

"We want to affirm to the world that we don't have a problem between the government and the opposition ... There is a clear sectarian problem in Bahrain. There is division within society," Sheikh Khaled said.

Don’t forget Kuwait, which is about to execute two Iranians and a Kuwaiti for spying, is expelling three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait, and has withdrawn its ambassador from Tehran.

An informative article on the Kuwait affair in Arab Times quotes an analyst in Dubai as saying that “the Kuwaiti government was ‘under huge pressure from Sunni MPs ... and the media to take action, not to let this go without proving their displeasure.’”

An April 3 article in Arab Times, Persian Conspiracy seen to target GCC countries, gives another hint of where things are going, along the line of runaway paranoia, scaremongering, and propaganda overreach, courtesy of that ubiquitous government mouthpiece, "Sources say":

KUWAIT CITY, April 3: The Iranian plan includes dangerous plots against the Gulf nations, not just Bahrain. Kuwait, in particular, is one of the targets and the spy network is only a tip of the iceberg, because the main objective is for the Iranian Naval Forces to invade some islands in the country and other Gulf nations under the pretext of protecting Shiites in Bahrain, say security sources in the Gulf.

Sources disclosed the Bahraini and Kuwaiti foreign ministers revealed the conspiracy uncovered by the security departments in both countries in the recently-concluded meeting of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. After hearing the report, the GCC foreign ministers presented recommendations, which will be implemented soon, because the GCC nations are keen on revealing the truth to the international community.

Sources said the implementation of the Iranian plan started several months ago, claiming the chaos and conflicts in Bahrain are just the beginning of an attempt to disrupt peace in the Kingdom. Sources revealed the initial plan was for the unrest to continue for two to three weeks in order to give the Iranian, other Arab and international satellite stations enough time to extensively cover the massacre of Shiites in the country.  

Consider that plot to have the international media to "extensively cover the massacre of Shiites" pretty much foiled.

One doesn’t hear much about the brutal suppression of dissent in Bahrain in the Western media.

Ssome say the Libyan adventure was part of a plan to distract the West with a lovely little war against a crazy dictator so the journos wouldn’t be out covering the over-the-top suppression of a bona fide democracy movement by Saudi Arabia’s BFF (and host to Commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command (COMUSNAVCENT) / United States Fifth Fleet and 1500 US personnel) Bahrain.

Credit where credit is due: Newsmax, which often traffics in eye-rolling right-wing paranoia, had a good article on Bahrain by Ken Timmerman. When Newsmax has to carry the load for American news organizations, you know the situation is pretty grim.

Iran’s PressTV has tried to make Bahrain their CNN/Al Jazeera moment.

There is a sizable void to fill, since CNN has reported very little on Bahrain (four of their correspondents were detained and released only after signing "an undertaking not to exceed the limits of their mission"--they ostensibly entered Bahrain to report on "social media" but instead tried to report on the disturbances).

I didn't find any signs that the U.S. State Department stood up for America's press freedom agenda in this particular case.

Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, has no interest in airing the dirty and/or bloody linen of the emir next door.

Bahraini hospitality toward news-gatherers of the Persian menace obviously has its limits.

Press TV's most recent report featured its Bahrain correspondent, Aris Roussinos, pushing a luggage cart through Heathrow Airport while giving an informative and thoughtful interview on the kinds of things that the Bahrain government was apparently not at all keen on him seeing as he spent a week in Bahrain evading the authorities and observing the crackdown.

If freedom-loving consumers of global media find Iranian reporting intolerable, however, here’s a 17-minute clip from an Australian investigative show called Dateline. It features nervy reporting by reporter Yaara Bou Melhem from inside Bahrain, and a stark picture of the hidden war that we’re not supposed to see.

The report can be viewed in its entirety at Dateline's website.

The reporting is deliberately low-key, a welcome contrast to the hyperventilating outrage needed to keep the humanitarian intervention balloon inflated in Libya (or the anti-Iranian jihad barreling along in the Gulf states, for that matter).

In one sequence, a Human Rights Watch representative directs the reporter’s attention to a crime scene that has come to symbolize the worst excesses of Bahrain’s riot police: the place where a young man, Hani Jumah, was beaten. Apparently, he was not a demonstrator; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as riot police swept the area. The camera pans on the bloodstained floor of a deserted construction site as the HRW staffer relates with forensic detachment: “We found fragments of his kneecap...we also found one of his teeth.” And you’re left to wonder: how does someone get beaten so severely a piece of his kneecap is dislodged from his body? The young man was taken to the hospital for treatment, then got disappeared from the hospital. His family was summoned to retrieve his body four days later.

I originally found the Dateline clip on the Facebook page of Bahrain’s leading human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab. He’s featured in the report, describing how 25 masked security personnel paid him a night visit to object to his activities with a three-hour session of interrogation and verbal and physical abuse.

A consistent theme is the persistent efforts of the regime and its personnel to characterize opposition as “sectarian”. One wounded protester described being beaten in the hospital (before he was transported to a police station for further beatings) and being told that he had ruined the country and would be “sent back to Iran.”

Nabeel’s site is mostly in Arabic. But if you open Google translator in a separate tab, you can cut and paste the text and a surprisingly good English translation floats onto the screen like a message from another world—which, if you think in terms of the media blackout in Bahrain, is exactly where it’s coming from.

Before and after pictures of the Pearl Monument from the Happy Arab blog.


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