Selected Articles on Bahrain
Bahraini Regime Stages Confessions, Rejects Compromise
Joe Stork From the Summer 1996 issue of Middle East Report 201
At the end of May, the government of Bahrain summoned the international press to Manama for what it promised would be a major policy statement on Monday, June 3. I was in Bahrain at the time, conducting interviews for a report on human rights conditions there. Bahraini opponents of the regime in exile abroad, and critics inside the country with whom I spoke were predicting that the Amir, Shaikh Isa Al Khalifa, would announce an expansion of the four-year-old hand-picked Consultative Council, or Shura Council, from 30 to 40 men, perhaps even allowing some civic or religious groups a role in nominating candidates. On May 31, three opposition groups_the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Popular Front and the National Liberation Front_issued a joint statement “reject[ing] outright” any such cosmetic concessions. “We will continue to press ahead with our call for the restoration of constitutional law to Bahrain,” their communique concluded.
For the last several years, public petitions and mass demonstrations have been alternately requesting and demanding that the ruling Al Khalifa family restore National Assembly that it had closed by decree in 1975, and hold new elections. The government has responded by cracking down hard on all demonstrations, by indiscriminate arrests and arbitrary detention of several thousand persons, by abuse and torture of prisoners, by deporting alleged ringleaders, and by tightening restrictions on all forms of meetings and public expression. Just before I arrived, the authorities had detained several Bahraini residents whom they held responsible for arranging meetings and interpreting for a BBC television reporter.
This June 3 press conference, as it turned out, had nothing to do with concessions. Journalists, instead, heard claims that Bahrain’s British-led security forces had extracted confessions from dozens of detained persons to the effect that they belonged to a heretofore unknown organization, Hizb Allah Bahrain-Military Wing. The Minister of Interior claimed to have in hand the cadres in charge of the security intelligence and financial committees of the group, who had conveniently confessed “that they had established this terrorist grouping on the instructions of the [Iranian] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and with its financing.” The next day, several of the accused were made to read parts of their confessions on Bahraini television. The past two years of political unrest and agitation on behalf of the abrogated constitution was again dismissed as part of a “scheme of sabotage and terrorism.”
The press conference and televised confessions produced the desired reporting in the Western press linking “Iran,” “Hizb Allah” and “Bahrain.” None of those accounts mentioned that these confessions had been extracted over a period of weeks during which the accused had no access to lawyers. Nor did they refer to Amnesty International’s September 1995 report documenting the systematic use of beatings and other forms of torture in the security service’s interrogation of political detainees, a pattern confirmed by lawyers and former detainees I spoke with.
The government’s charge that something called “Hizb Allah Bahrain” was behind the unrest is not new, although no Bahraini group uses this name. This, of course, does not prove that such an organization does not exist. Strangely, though, for such a well-armed and well-financed Iranian surrogate with more than three years of training in Qom and Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, Bahrain has not witnessed a single attack involving a weapon even as rudimentary as a pistol, and those explosions and arsons that have occurred, for the most part, have been noticeably crude and unsophisticated.
Inside Bahrain, the government used the confessions in a manner befitting the absolutist style of rule to which it has become accustomed. The country’s two newspapers, Al-Ayyam and Akhbar al-Khalij, carried pages of congratulatory “reporting” of the Interior Ministry’s unceasing vigilance. The same message appeared in advertisements by private companies and sports clubs.
On the day following the announcement of the confessions, upper-level civil servants and officials, heads of civic organizations, and religious leaders were “invited” to the palace to “discuss” the latest developments with the Amir and the Prime Minister (by all accounts the real power in the country). To not appear, Bahrainis told me, could well mean the loss of one’s job for a government employee and little likelihood of finding another. For a Shi’i cleric, a no-show would likely produce a rude wee-hours summons to Interior Ministry headquarters on the grounds of the old prison fort in central Manama. Last year, Shaikh Isa bin Rashid, the head of the General Organization for Youth and Sports, asked each club to sign a pledge of loyalty to the Amir, and to send a representative to the Amiri court to present it. “Even the sports clubs in Diraz and Sanabis,” one leading professional said, referring to Shi’i villages that have been prominent in the unrest, “just to humiliate them.” The Aruba Club, a literary-social club frequented by liberal businessmen and professionals, initially resisted the summons, but the Minister of Information called in the club president, a respected and prominent businessman, and put heavy pressure on the group to sign. “So we did. Later Shaikh Isa told someone, ‘You see, they came like dogs.'”
Bahrain, today the administrative headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, is the main island of a small archipelago in the Persian Gulf, some 25 kilometers by causeway from the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s original population, the Baharnah, are Arab Shi’a Muslims. The Al Khalifa conquest in 1783_part of a general movement of tribes out of the Najd region of Arabia that also brought the Al Sabah to Kuwait_ended nearly two hundred years of Persian rule and imposed a Sunni Arab tribal superstructure that dominates the country’s political system yet today.
With the shift of the British regional imperial apparatus from Bombay and Bushire to Bahrain after the 1920s, and later the development of the oil and service industries, expatriate labor from the Indian subcontinent and the Arab countries (as well as from Britain and later the US at the upper levels) became an entrenched part of the island’s population profile, even before the tremendous demands for foreign labor with the increase of oil revenues in the 1970s and early 1980s. Bahrain’s significant merchant, service and industrial sectors also led to the emergence of a fairly differentiated class structure, further complicating the social and political dynamics of the country.
Today the population numbers some 550,000; expatriate workers make up one-third of this total, but comprise two-thirds of the labor force. At least two-thirds of native Bahrainis are Shi’a. They are represented in the country’s commercial elite and in certain government departments, but the top ranks of the government, the security services and the armed forces are exclusively controlled by the Al Khalifa and families close to them, all Sunni.
The protracted political crisis in Bahrain is not, contrary to the usual characterizations, a conflict of Sunni versus Shi’a. Many Bahrainis I met insist that their primary identity is that of Bahraini citizen. “I hate being tagged as a Sunni,” one lawyer told me, explaining why he makes a point of taking the cases of Shi’i political detainees. A Shi’i colleague used similar words to explain his reluctance to be part of “Shi’i delegations” summoned to meet with the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, the crisis is taking on a confessional coloration, for a number of related reasons. One is the extent to which economic and class divisions in Bahraini society reinforce sectarian divides. Unemployment and poverty are concentrated among the Shi’a. A second is the jolt which the 1978-79 Iranian revolution gave to a self-consciously Shi’i political activism throughout the region, not least in Bahrain. Third, by the end of the 1970s, the regime had fairly decisively smashed the secular opposition forces_the Popular Front (tied to the Arab Nationalist Movement) and the National Liberation Front (the organization of Bahraini Communists). Activists were imprisoned and then sent into exile, where most of them remain today. This left the field of oppositionist politics open to forces with a distinctively Shi’a cast_the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, initially inspired by Khomeinist Iran, and the village-based traditional leadership of clerics such as Shaikh ‘Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, which evolved into the Bahrain Freedom Movement. The regime took advantage of developments in Iran to advance its own absolutist agenda. The revolution and its aftermath “gave the government reasons to follow its illiberal instincts,” one Bahraini defense lawyer told me.
The most relevant political divide remains that between the ruling family and its many allies, on the one hand, and the growing number of Bahrainis calling for restoration of the 1973 Constitution and the “contract” that it represented between the traditional rulers and expanding modern political and social forces. Most Bahrainis want to see a continued major role for the Al Khalifa, but a negotiated one. Underlying the widespread demand to restore the constitution and the partially elected parliament is the issue of control of resources, and access to national income. For impoverished Shi’a, this demand includes employment: of the 77,000 Bahrainis in the workforce, more than 60,000 are on the state payroll, but hiring has become increasingly discriminatory. For merchants and businessmen, corruption is a major issue: they want to see accountability and transparency in the state budget_an allocated annual sum for the expenses of the ruling family, for instance, and checks on the multi-sector business investments of the Prime Minister and his sons. “You can’t be both prime minister and the country’s premier businessman without there being a fantastic conflict of interest,” a bank official told me. “The others complain about how he leaves nothing for anybody else.”
In the aftermath of the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and encouraged by electoral and parliamentary developments in Kuwait, Bahraini liberals sensed an opportunity to raise again the issue of elections and their own parliament. Following informal discussions, a group consisting mainly of professionals and businessmen drew up a petition that was then signed by more than 300 prominent individuals. “We called for elections to a restored parliament, release of political prisoners, and permission for exiles to return,” one petition leader told me. “It was extremely polite, and included our fulsome respect for the Al Khalifa… We had known of the [Amir’s plan for a Shura Council] and were trying to pre-empt it…it could not be a substitute for the elected National Assembly.” The Amir promised to study the petition and reply to its organizers, but never did.
A version of this petition_one modification was a clause demanding political rights for women_was initiated publicly in late September 1994 and quickly gathered about 25,000 signatures. That July had seen several large demonstrations demanding jobs at the Ministry of Labor, which the government disrupted with tear gas and arrests of alleged ringleaders. “We were not involved in those demonstrations at all,” one petition organizer told me, “but they certainly added to the atmosphere of ripeness that we felt.”
With the first petition, the organizers made a point of gathering a more or less equal number of Sunni and Shi’i signatories, but the public petition was another story. “That’s why some of us argued against a popular petition,” one signer of the first, himself a Shi’a, told me. “The [Shi’i] shaikhs have the signers. They will overwhelm you. And that’s exactly what happened.” Although the demands were essentially the same, the public petition campaign frightened many Sunnis. The government was quick to exploit this Sunni hesitation by consistently refusing to meet with joint Sunni-Shi’i delegations. The thousands of recent arrests and detentions have almost exclusively involved Shi’i opponents and critics.
One of the organizers of the July demonstrations at the Labor Ministry, a young shaikh named ‘Ali Salman, also campaigned for the popular petition. He was arrested several times that summer and fall, the last time on December 5. “I played a role in this because my sermons were very popular,” he told me. After several weeks in prison, Shaikh ‘Ali was being interrogated by a leading official in the security services, Col. ‘Adil Flaifil. “‘If you withdraw the petition,’ he said, ‘this will all be finished.’ I refused.” Shaikh ‘Ali was forcibly expelled from Bahrain with two other young Shi’i leaders in early January, and now resides in London.
The government’s decision to expel Shaikh ‘Ali and the others_a tactic learned from the British textbook of colonial rule_was one key escalation of the crisis. His arrest had been a major cause of the demonstrations of December 1994, and his expulsion sent a clear signal that there would be no compromise or dialogue around the demands raised in the petition. A second escalation came in late 1995, when the government publicly reneged on an informal understanding it had reached with Shaikh al-Jamri and other Shi’i community leaders then in detention. This led to the revival of demonstrations and attacks against public property in late December and early January 1996, and the re-arrest of al-Jamri and many others.
The staged confessions of early June represent the ruling family’s latest signal that they will not concede on demands for constitutional limits to their power. The regime enjoys unstinting public support from other kings and autocrats. “We are against any other parliament in the Gulf,” Prince Nayif, the Saudi Interior Minister, reportedly said recently to a group of Saudi Shi’a who urged Saudi mediation of the conflict.
Just as predictable have been the unrestrained endorsements by Britain and the United States. A week prior to the public confessions, General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Manama. “We support Bahrain’s efforts to ensure its stability, and we continue to accuse Iran as a threat to the stability of the region,” he told an informal press conference. Following the confessions spectacle, Bahraini authorities released a statement from President Bill Clinton to the Amir which said that “the United States fully supports Your [sic] government and the sovereignty and safety of Bahrain’s territories.”
The regime can, in the short term, probably preserve its unfettered rule. And Washington can, in the short term, enlist regional support in the campaign to isolate Iran. The majority of Bahrainis are paying a heavy price for these dubious accomplishments, though, and the opportunities for a resolution that would preserve Bahrain’s legacy of social tolerance and liberality are fast vanishing.
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The Restive Sheikhdom
The coverage of the US press was less than that of the UK. An example od such coverage is the following article from the Wall Street Journal by Peter Waldman,
(The Wall Street Journal, Monday June 12, 1995, p A1)
MANAMA, Bahrain — On Friday, armored vehicles rolled through the streets of this offshore-banking capital, as thousands of troops staged a show of force to keep angry Bahrainis at bay.
The crowds were gathered for Ashura, an occasion when Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves in public to mourn the martyrdom of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. The day passed peacefully. But the transformation of downtown Manama into an armed camp was a grim reminder that this tiny island has recently been the site of the worst civil unrest to hit any of the Gulf Arab monarchies in years
In the past six months, Shiite youths have been rampaging through their villages, setting electricity substations on fire and igniting canisters of cooking gas in giant fireballs. On Saturday night, three cars were burned near Bahrain’s big U.S. military base, headquarters of U.S. naval operations in the Persian Gulf. The ruling family has responded by unleashing their foreign mercenaries, who have pulled young people off streets at random, beaten and jailed them.
For U.S. policy makers worried about security in the Persian Gulf, the strife in Bahrain could be a harbinger of turmoil to come. The island is connected to much larger and richer Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd causeway, and perhaps more. The same conditions that have spawned instability here — economic decline, uneven distribution of wealth, a hated monarchy — are also serious problems in Saudi Arabia, which has a large, disadvantaged Shiite population in its oil-rich Eastern Province.
The Bahraini riots show no sign yet of jumping to the Saudi mainland, but the unrest raises touchy questions about U.S. strategy in the region. At a time of expanding democracy in the world, is it prudent, Gulf experts ask, for the U.S. to maintain its unwavering support for the unpopular oil monarchies?
There are two worlds in Bahrain. One is home to the gated compounds of diplomats and Western bankers, who help make Bahrain, in terms of assets, one of the biggest banking centers in the world. Here are the beach resorts of wealthy Arabs, who come to drink alcohol, visit their money and be waited on by about 250,000 foreign workers.
But the other world, where a large share of the 350,000 native Bahrainis live, is a parched island of mud huts and poverty.
This year’s rioters have been mostly unemployed youth from Bahrain’s Shiite majority, who are demanding jobs and the restoration of Bahrain’s Parliament. The ruling family, the al-Khalifas, who follow the rival Sunni sect of Islam, aren’t budging.
Since December, their security forces, composed of British and Pakistani mercenaries, have killed about a dozen unarmed Shiite youths, detained thousands of islanders without charges and besieged the Shiite villages with light tanks. The Saudi government has sent helicopters and cash to Bahrain, which has only small oil reserves of its own.
Recently, as residents of the fishing village of Diraz protested during the mourning for a 17-year-old boy killed by government troops, soldiers blew off the head of an 18-year-old. ‘Dogs in the United States have more human rights than we do,’ says one young man in the village.
Last month, the 31-year-old daughter of Sheik Abdel-Amir al-Jamri, a leading Shiite preacher and member of the deposed Parliament, disappeared, only to turn up several weeks later. She had gone to visit her ailing father in prison, Amnesty International reported, and was abducted and beaten there by women officers.
In London, meanwhile, Bahraini and Saudi dissidents recently held their first joint public meeting — hosted by the House of Commons — to express their complaints. Last summer, about 25,000 Bahrainis — both Shiites and Sunnis — signed a petition calling for the restoration of Parliament and other rights. Bahrain’s emir, Sheik Isa Bin Salman al-Khalifa, refused to accept it.
The emir once gave democracy a chance. In 1973, he issued a constitution authorizing an elected legislature. But he abolished it two years later, when the body refused to approve some draconian security laws.
Today, the main grievance of Bahrainis echoes a rising complaint heard in other Gulf states: the gut feeling that local rulers have conspired with outsiders — whether American oil companies, arms makers and the Pentagon, or offshore bankers and Asian labor suppliers — to divvy up the spoils of oil for themselves.
This suspicion is particularly prevalent in Bahrain. It is fueled by the fact that the entire southern part of the island, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is off-limits to Bahrainis. For the past two decades, the emir and his brother, the prime minister, have ruled by decree, with a cabinet of hand-picked ministers. As the Khalifa family has grown, so have their assets — a source of bitter resentment.
The rulers developed many of the major hotels and office buildings, including the H-shaped Hessa complex, named for the emir’s wife. The family also has taken large tracts of beachfront property for their own use, blocking age-old routes to the shore for many inland villages.
‘You can’t get permission for any project now without giving a percentage to the Khalifas,’ contends Abdul Latif al-Mahmoud, a popular Sunni cleric whose passport and university post were revoked in 1991 after he spoke out in favor of democracy. ‘This is why all Sunnis and Shiites are angry. But what can we do?’
In an interview, Tariq Almoayed, Bahrain’s minister of information, says discontent on the island is isolated to ‘a small number of people’ who have ‘received instructions from outside.’ The unrest, he claims, ‘does not make sense to Bahrainis.’
As proof, he says, ‘there has not been a single hour of work lost in the government or private sectors; not a single person has been injured — Bahraini or non-Bahraini — who is not related to the rioters or the police. The world knows Bahrain is safe and secure.’
The man in charge of Bahrain’s security, a Briton named Ian Henderson, lives in the shadows: seldom seen, rarely photographed, widely feared. Last of a breed of British colonials who once ran the Gulf, Mr. Henderson, 67, is chief of internal security for the Khalifa regime. Before assuming the post in the mid-1960s, he earned a police medal for helping quell the Mau Mau rebellion in the jungles of colonial Kenya.
Bahrainis blame Mr. Henderson for devising the regime’s brutal response to the recent unrest. Dissidents also accuse him of persecuting democratic activists over the past 20 years and authoring Bahrain’s ‘Precautionary Law,’ which permits detention of political prisoners for three years without trial. Some Bahrainis who claim to have been tortured in Mr. Henderson’s jails say their Arab interrogators worked from questions written out in English.
Yet, others who knew him in prison say he is almost charming. ‘He tells you, `I’m only a policeman carrying out orders,” says Hassan Radi, a lawyer whom Mr. Henderson jailed in the 1970s for participating in pro-democracy activities.
Mr. Henderson declined to be interviewed. His secretary says, ‘Mr. Henderson doesn’t meet journalists.’
Nothing conjures up colonialism, however, like Sheik’s Beach, the emir’s partly public garden on the Gulf. At the entrance, Pakistani guards check cars for contraband. No cameras, no Arabs, no South Asians, a guard says: ‘White people and Japanese only.’
What about the Indian ambassador? someone asks.
‘Indian people — ambassador, minister — not allowed,’ the guard says. ‘Arab people, not allowed. Emir’s orders.’
Inside, dozens of white families lounge under soaring palm trees by the sea. An oil engineer from Texas tosses a football with his son. Sodas are free, and sometimes, Sheik Isa shows up with gold chains and other gifts for his guests. Once, when executives of Banque Indosuez of France were entertaining a potential new hire from London at the beach, the emir asked them where they were planning to dine that night, and sent a bottle of champagne.
Westerners, including the 3,000 or so Americans in Bahrain, have been unscathed by the riots so far. Unlike South Asian laborers, who tend to live near the poor Shiite villages and have become targets of attacks for allegedly taking locals’ jobs, other foreigners have remained outside the fray. Westerners’ main complaint is the dearth of official information about the unrest, which they know is out there from hearing explosions and helicopter noises in the night.
Bahrain’s media is barred from covering the conflicts, and Mr. Almoayed, the information minister, has ordered all Bahrainis not to speak to foreign journalists. According to Western bankers, investment activity has dropped, but Westerners aren’t fleeing.
Asian expatriates have fared much worse. Business in the Manama bazaar, dominated by Indians and Pakistanis, has fallen 80% in recent months, traders say. Some Asians, afraid for their lives, have left.
‘It has never been this bad; Bahrain was so peaceful,’ says one electronics merchant, whose family moved here from India in 1920. ‘I don’t know what to do. This island is my home.’
Opting for the iron hand, the Khalifas have refused dialogue. Instead, the regime has introduced cosmetic reforms, such as giving more publicity to Bahrain’s ‘consultive’ council, a group that is supposed to advise the government on matters concerning citizens, but is largely powerless.
The government is also renewing promises to replace low-wage Asian laborers with Bahrainis. But limiting foreign workers is proving difficult. Under Bahraini law, employers can only import laborers on specific contracts for limited jobs. But many companies simply bypass the law, by purchasing ‘free’ visas directly from members of the ruling family or their associates. Today’s going rate: $1,350 a head.
The quest for democracy in Bahrain has united the Muslim sects. This spring, prominent Sunnis and Shiites requested a joint meeting with the emir to discuss the unrest, but were rebuffed. Instead, rulers met separately with elders from each sect. The groups were given very different messages, according to participants in the meetings: Sunnis were reassured the Shiites were under control. Shiites were ordered, in unusually tough terms by the emir, to stop the violence at once, as a condition to discussing any concerns.
‘The regime has always pitted Sunnis and Shiites against each other,’ says Sheik Mahmoud, the Sunni cleric. ‘But it’s not working this time. The problem is between the people, who want democracy, and the government, which doesn’t.’
The U.S., which uses Bahrain’s strategic location to police the Persian Gulf, seems to have sided with the government. In March, as the riots were raging, Defense Secretary William Perry visited Bahrain’s rulers and made no public mention of the unrest, which locals interpreted as clear support for the regime. Earlier, when U.S. Ambassador David Ransom met a group of Bahrainis at the embassy, he told them the U.S. couldn’t interfere in Bahrain’s affairs,say people who attended the meeting. An embassy spokesman declines to comment.
In the villages, the outrage shows no sign of easing. In one home in the village of Diraz, four brothers — ages 13 to 21 — were recently taken by troops from their beds in the middle of the night; they were held for a month before being returned to their family. Says the youngest son: ‘We will fight until we get our rights.’
Craig Turner, “Clampdown Dents Bahrain’s Image as Stable Eden,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1995.
The lengthy article starts on page A1 and occupies a good portion of page A6. A picture of mosque with its walls filled with graffiti accompanies the report.
The author argues that the government and demonstrators are “entailed in a violent power struggle…” According to the report, as of mid June, at least a dozen demonstrators and three policemen have been killed. Also, hundreds of people have been imprisoned. Despite the brutality, both Washington and London , “discretely look the other way.” The American attitude may be attributed to the fact the US Army considers Bahrain as a vital part of its military activity in the region.
The government has ignored two petitions since 1992. The primary demand of the petitions centres on the restoration of the parliament, in turn dissolved since 1975. One of the petitions has been signed by more than 22,500 and continues to be circulated. The figure is astonishing given a native population of 400,000. For his part, the ruler or emir has made it clear of his intention not to cave in to popular demands. At stake is an “effort by a repressive oligarchy to maintain power against a popular democratic uprising.” The government’s response to the rallies in the form of a harsh crackdown and unwillingness to compromise, suggests a likely continuation of street protests.
The author declares that the “police response has escalated from tear gas to rubber bullets to live ammunition.” In a show of force and possibly anxiety, security forces at times carry machine guns on their shoulders.
The person behind the harsh crackdown on the demonstrators is a Briton. Mr. Ian Henderson, now 67, reportedly desires to retire in his countryside home in England. Of all the infamous laws in the country, none is condemned more than the scheme which allows the security organisation to put behind bars anyone for up to three years without charges. Midnight raids on houses of suspected dissidents are the new marks of the security forces. The author quotes a formal government official as saying that the telephones are basically bugged.
Thanks in part to the uprising, a government reshuffling occurred. Yet, the change on June 25. Yet , the change “leaves the ruling family-the Al Khalifa dynasty-and its policies intact.”
Fixing the blame on outside forces has not proven successful. The authorities indirectly accuse neighbouring Iran of instigating the civil unrest. However, an American official in Bahrain dampens the government’s assertion that Iran is behind the civil unrest. According to the official who is associated with the American Embassy in Manama, Iran only provides media coverage of the events. The economic mess partly explains rioting. In the village of Sanabis, at least 40% of those eligible are with no jobs.
Bahrain is a society of contradictions. On the one hand, government forces carry out repressive acts against people demanding the return of the constitution. On the other hand, hotels are filled with tourists who are entertained by bands.
Although the rioting is taking place mostly by Shiites, the goals are not sectarian in nature. Leaders of the uprising are calling for popular demands especially running Bahrain according to the rule of law. The authorities have ousted a leading figure in the opposition. Sheikh Ali Salman currently lives in London.
The article ends with a story of a young person named Mohammed who was taken by the security forces in February 1995. Mohammed was told that he should consider himself as a guest of the government. However, the youth ended up in a jail. During the interrogation, Mohammed noticed that questions were being translated from English into Arabic. Before being released, Mohammed signed a paper committing himself not to participate in a rally. The young Mohammed the commitment he has made under dures and participated in a rally calling for democracy.
The EIU article
EIU Country Report 2nd quarter 1995, The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, 1995.
The study addresses both political and economic issues of Bahrain. This review focuses on the political encounters. The policy of harsh crackdown on street protests is expected to continue.
At the same time, failure to solve the problem in a meaningful way may adversely affect the financial community. This is attributed to the government’s inability to address the root cause of the problem.
The more recent wave of protests was sparked by the arrest of Sheikh Abdel-Amir Al Jamri. One of the Sheikh’s daughters was abducted by women officers while on a visit to her father.
Contrary to the government’s claim, “leaders of both the Sunni and the Shia communities insist that there are no problems across the sectarian divide, and that the causes of the trouble are political and economic.” The most popular demand is restoration of the parliament.
Bahrain may end being used as “site for a proxy war between other regional powers.” On the one hand, the authorities fear strengthening Iranian influence over the country’s Shia population. On the other hand, giant Saudi Arabia has made it clear of its intolerance of the revival of the parliamentary experiment. One such reason is Saudi’s fear of a possible similar demand across the bridge in the Eastern Province. The Saudi “attitude will put Bahrain in a difficult position.” Saudi Arabia has been providing security forces to help quell the unrest. The Bahraini government now counts on this support. For the government, Saudi support is essential for economic reasons in particular.
The American Ambassador has started taken keen interest in the pro-democracy activity. Mr. David Ransom has met numerous figures from the opposition. Conversely, former British Foreign Secretary Mr. Douglas Hard raised eyebrows when declared his support to what he termed as “old friends” in Bahrain.
The Guardian ,11 April 1995, Kathy Evans in Bahrain. “Shia mosques smashed as police answer Bahrain unres”t. At The Mukbara mosque in the Bahraini village of Sannabis, Hussein swept the broken glass into neat piles.
“Two days ago, they came again. This time they wrecked our mosques. This one, and one down the road. We all saw it from our roofs,” he said. “They” are the Bahraini police, who Hussein said pay almost nightly visits to the Shia coastal village, terrorising its inhabitants. In the courtyard, small, round tablets used in Shia prayers, stones from the holy city of Kerbala, lay smashed into tiny fragments. “They hate us Shia,” Hussein said as he sorted through the broken prayer stones.
Elsewhere in the village, shops were closed, shutters firmly down and the streets empty of life. Sannabis is just one of a series of Shia villages which have seen the worst of the governments’s response to the five-month uprising by Bahrainis demanding jobs and parliamentary elections.
Shi’ites constitute some 65 per cent of this Gulf island’s population, but since the last century Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni family of sheikhs, the Al Khalifas. Five months ago, the island saw an unprecedented series of demonstrations about unemployment and the need for democracy, many of them joined by Shia Two months ago, Hussein’s two sons were taken away. Police broke into his house at 3am, smashing windows and holding a gun to his wife’s head. Hussein has not seen his sons since. “I’ve been round all the police stations in our area twice, but they say they don’t know where they are,” he said.
Bahraini government officials say foreign-trained Islamic fundamentalists are behind the protests that have left 10 people dead and banks, power stations and schools blackened and burnt out. “Foreign hands” are at work, they say, hinting obliquely at Iran.
Bahrain plays a key role in the Western protection of the oil-rich Gulf. The United States navy has a base in the southern part of the island, from which its ships mount continuous patrols of Gulf waters. Western embassies have remained silent. Bahrainis are convinced Western powers prefer the present regime to the alternative of a parliament dominated by fundamentalists. “This may happen, but democracy would cleanse it in time,” one leading secularist businessman said. “We do not want to overthrow our government or the emir, but we want democracy to return.”
Opposition spokesmen say the almost daily demonstrations are a symptom of popular frustration at the government’s refusal to discuss their demands. Two petitions, one signed by 20,000 Bahrainis, have been drawn up, but the island’s emir, Sheikh Issa, has refused even to accept them. Opposition figures deny their movement is dominated by Shia religious fanatics influenced by Iran. The demands for democracy and the release of prisoners are backed by both Shia and Sunni religious groups, as well as by secularists, they say.
The Bahraini government has responded to the demonstrations by cordoning off villages at sunset with squads of riot police. Shia villages have become no-go areas, which local taxis fear to enter. In the early hours of each morning, village residents say Bahraini police, many of them Pakistani mercenaries, burst into homes and take away young men and boys, some as young as 12.
Opposition activists and lawyers believe as many as 5,000 people may be in detention, but only 19 have been charged. In the village of Jidhafs, residents said 30 children from there alone had been arrested. Ali, aged 12, said two of his school friends were taken away from their classroom by police squads.
“That happened the week before last, and I haven’t seen them since. Then one policeman, a Yemeni, started to hit me as I was walking home from the mosque at 6pm,” Ali said in a whisper. “he told me that if he saw me out late, he would take me in, too.
Under Bahrain’s security laws, detainees can be held for three years without charge. Local newspapers rarely report demonstrations or arrests, and opposition statements are never published. Last week, Bahrain’s information minister, Tariq al Moayyed, banned citizens from speaking to the foreign press.
More than half of the 500,000 population are foreigners. In the 1970s, Bahrain attempted to carve out a role as a regional banking centre, and dozens of foreign offshore banks are now based on the island. One senior executive with a foreign trading company said foreigners were increasingly a target for Bahraini anger at the lack of jobs. Asian workers say they have been stoned by Bahraini women, and that labour camps for construction workers have been frequently attacked.
Unlike its rich neighbours, Bahrain has only small and rapidly depleting oil fields, and its annual budget requires bolstering by Saudi Arabia. This has not dampened expectations that Bahrainis should enjoy the same luxurious lifestyles as their richer Gulf neighbours.
“There is very little unemployment on this island,” the executive said. “The problem with these people is they are unskilled and lazy. These demonstrations are just organised by the fundamentalist.” The government, he added, gave companies many incentives to employ Bahrainis. Even government loyalists appear to back demands for the return of parliamentary rule, scrapped in 1975 after protests against the security laws. The emir appointed a powerless consultative council instead. The opposition also wants the release of prisoners and the return of exiles from abroad.
Bahrain is the only country in the world which exiles its citizens for political activity.
Impoverished Villages Are Tinder Box For Bahrain Unrest
By MARTIN MARRIS Associated Press Writer
March 27, 1996
SANABIS, Bahrain (AP) – For years, this small Persian Gulf emirate has cultivated the image of a peaceful haven to do business, away from the puritanical strictures of neighboring Saudi Arabia.
But a wave of anti-government unrest has tarnished that image, just as Bahrain begins to run out of oil – the first nation in the region to face that fate. Output already is down to a trickle, and the spigots are expected to run dry by 2000.
Bahrain’s street demonstrations are unique in the Gulf, where absolute monarchs generally keep a tight lid on unrest.
They are important not only because the island nation is a key financial center and home to a major U.S. Navy base, but because the unrest worries all the region’s leaders. They, too, eventually will have to plan for a post-oil future, and they are closely following the conflict between richer and poorer in Bahrain.
A five-minute drive from the gleaming bank buildings of Manama, the capital, but a world away in spirit, lies a belt of run-down villages that is the heartland of the protests.
Bahrain’s ruler, Sheik Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, has begun cracking down on unrest, and his government insists it has the situation under control.
But in Sanabis and other villages, spray-painted graffiti adorn almost every wall, demanding a restoration of a parliament dissolved two decades ago or more jobs for unemployed youths.
”Parliament is the solution,” reads one scrawl, almost illegible after riot police tried to paint it over. Another is blunter: ”Death to Al Khalifa.”
Police regularly round up village youths suspected of being rioters, arsonists and saboteurs and drive them away in buses for interrogation. Hundreds have been jailed.
”Nobody can protect us,” said one villager who, like all residents of the run-down suburbs, asked that his name not be used. ”We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Everyone’s very worried.”
Since the protests erupted 16 months ago, dissidents have reported 14 citizens killed in street clashes with police. The government lists five policemen killed.
On March 26, the government executed a militant convicted of killing an officer. It was Bahrain’s first execution in 20 years and triggered rioting by militants in several villages who denounced it as ”political murder.”
Militant leaders warned the execution could lead to more violence.
Earlier bombings at hotels and bank branches killed one person, wounded six and sent jitters through the business community as the violence spread from the villages and began to affect Bahrain’s financial industry and tourism……
The Economist: Will Britain Assist Democracy in Bahrain?
The Economist of 25-31 March 1995 (Volume 334, No. 7909) published an important article about Bahrain. The influential magazine questioned whether the UK government would use its influence in Bahrain to bring about political reforms in the same way as the US used their influence in Kuwait. It has already been noticed that the British Embassy in Bahrain treat the events differently from those of the US and France. While the latter provide generally accurate accounts, the British Embassy always plays down the uprising. The Economist wrote the following:
“For a few brief months, some 20 years ago, Bahrain’s elected parliament and liberal constitution shone a brave message across the murky waters of the Gulf. In 1975, the light went out: the regime dissolved parliament and suspended the bits of the constitution that enshrined civil liberties. Last October, a committee of 14 prominent Bahrainis politely petitioned for a return to the good old months. A defensive regime-the ruling al-Khalifa family-which has an even more defensive Saudi Arabia breathing down its neck, responded aggressively, cracking down on all dissent.
Three Bahraini clerics who advocated democratic reforms in their sermons were deported, and sought asylum in England> Their deportation sparked violent protests, leading to half-a-dozen deaths and several hundred arrests. Last week one of the original petitioners was arrested. More demonstrations and arrests followed. Bahrain linked by causeway to Saudi Arabia, matters more than its 400,000 citizens (plus 150,000 expatriates) and modest natural resources might suggest. America’s navy has facilities there; so does Britain’s air force. William Perry, America’s defence secretary, came visiting this week to press for continuing vigilance against Iraq and Iran. Iran has, at various times, cast territorial eye in Bahrain’s direction. The shah liked to think of it as Iranian property; the mullahs, in the early 1980s, caused considerable trouble when they tried to spread their revolutionary creed to the island.
Like the mullahs, nearly two-thirds of all Bahrainis are Shia Muslims. The al-Khalifas and other well-established families are Sunni. Unemployment is high and rising, especially among the Shias, who are barred from the security services and other jobs thought to be sensitive. Economic grievances make Shia voices louder than others in protest. But dissent cuts across sectarian and class divides. It is neither exclusively Shia nor hardline Islamist. The committee that drafted the petition for democracy and basic rights includes Sunni religious leaders and a Sunni feminist professor.
As a sop, the Bahrainis have been given an appointed advisory council on Saudi lines. They despise this, looking instead to Kuwait’s parliament, re-established after the Gulf war against strenuous opposition from the Saudis, who do not want anything smelling, however faintly, of democracy in their back yard. The Americans, uneasy at the thought that they had gone to war to rescue an unconstitutional monarchy, urged Kuwait’s rulers to hold an election. Britain carries weight in Bahrain. Will it help the reformers? They aren’t holding their breath.”
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