Bahrain’s Protests Taper Off

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

…with little public support from the west and Arab states.

By Ian Black

INTERNATIONAL-US-BAHRAIN-OPPOSITION

A protester waves a Bahraini flag from the top of a tree during a rally organized by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in front of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut March 16, 2011, in support of Bahraini protesters.

REUTERS/Cynthia Karam

History and geography explain why Bahrain’s peaceful uprising was the early exception to the “Arab spring”, which began with high hopes in Tunisia and Egypt but now faces bloody uncertainties in Libya and Syria.

Sitting astride the faultline between the Shia and Sunni worlds, the small Gulf island state lies at the heart of a strategically sensitive region that is dominated by bitter rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia – both very tough neighbors.

Bahrain was always going to be a prime candidate if unrest erupted in the Arabian peninsula. But it was not easy to predict that the Al-Khalifa dynasty, Sunnis who rule over a restive 70% Shia majority, would react so brutally when protests mushroomed in February. Still, the activists who streamed to Manama’s Pearl roundabout in a deliberate echo of Cairo’s Tahrir Square were demanding reform, not the overthrow of the regime.

By regional standards, King Hamad was not the most repressive of rulers. Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia, has a parliament and a legal opposition. Bahrain’s press operated within “red lines” but had a margin for maneuver. Expensive western PR companies were employed to promote the country’s image.

Prospects for political change looked reasonable until last summer when a sudden security crackdown began. The government was alarmed by joint Shia-Sunni demands to investigate the acquisition of prime real estate by the royals: Google Earth showed just how much of the island – where public beaches are rare – was already owned by the Al-Khalifa family.

Last October the mildly Islamist Shia opposition party al-Wefaq won a plurality of seats in the lower house of parliament – despite being smeared by the government as Hezbollah-type extremists. But progressives in Bahrain emphasize nationality, not religious sect – thus the catchy slogan “not Shias, not Sunnis, we are all Bahrainis”.

Bahrain’s politics are as local as any other country’s, though international pressures count for a lot, too. Projecting an image of stability also mattered hugely for a leading financial centre that has been struggling to compete with flashier and wealthier Dubai.

As the base for the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is important to Washington, which values Hamad’s bellicose attitude towards Tehran – revealed in WikiLeaks’ releases of state department cables. The king’s choice of a Bahraini Jewish woman as ambassador to the US was a savvy move.

Long-standing claims of Iranian meddling have not been substantiated.

But Saudi concerns about Bahrain quickly became apparent in the face of the unrest just across the causeway from the kingdom’s oil-producing Shia eastern province. What the Bahraini opposition calls an “occupation force” was deployed by agreement with the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council and portrayed as answering the call of a sister nation in need.

The Saudis were already unsettled by the way Barack Obama had washed his hands of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Thus their insistence on maintaining regional order – triggering the grim repression that has now become a permanent feature of Bahraini life.

Britain and France have announced reviews of arms sales and the European Union is speaking out. The US has expressed concern but its public comments have been muted. Washington’s tone, similar to that it uses with Israel, is of a candid friend. It has conspicuously failed to support the demands of the protesters. The contrast with Libya could hardly be greater.

Arab leaders back Bahrain to the hilt. Only Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has dared to criticize Hamad’s crackdown. Iran – ignoring its own appalling record of crushing peaceful protests – is warning gleefully that the Saudis are “playing with fire”.

For most observers, the lesson is clear: western and Arab governments alike badly need the Gulf region’s energy and financial resources.

That’s why Bahrain’s spring is already over.

Ian Black, Middle East editor guardian.co.uk

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Bahrain or Bust?

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Pakistan should think twice before meddling in the Middle East.

By Miranda Husain

Less than three weeks after Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, led by Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain to aid the anti-democracy crackdown there, dignitaries from both oil-rich kingdoms did their separate rounds in Pakistan. The royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are nervous, and they need Pakistan’s mercenaries, and—if necessary—military muscle to shore them up.

This is a remarkable turn of events for Asif Ali Zardari, who had been trying since he was elected president in 2008 to secure Saudi oil on sweetheart terms. He had been unsuccessful in his efforts because the Sunni Saudis view his leadership with some degree of skepticism. It also doesn’t help that Zardari, a Shia, is big on improving relations with Shia Tehran. Riyadh now appears inclined to export oil on terms that better suit cash-strapped Islamabad. Manama, too, wants to play ball. It wants increased defense cooperation and has pledged to prioritize Pakistan’s hopes for a free-trade agreement with the GCC in return. But Zardari and his Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, should fight the urge to get mired in the Middle East.

Pakistan already has a presence in Bahrain: a battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regiment was deployed there over a year ago to train local troops, and retired officers from our Navy and Army are part of their security forces. Media estimates put the number of Pakistanis serving in Bahrain’s security establishment at about 10,000. Their removal has been a key demand of protesters in the kingdom. Last month in Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly assured Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, that Pakistan would offer more retired manpower to help quell the uprising against Bahrain’s Sunni rulers by its Shia majority. Gilani’s spokesman was unable to confirm the pledge.
Islamabad’s support to the tottering regime in Manama is not ideal.

“It’s like our version of Blackwater,” says Talat Masood, a former Pakistan Army general, referring to Bahrain’s recruitment drive in Pakistan. “We’re doing [in Bahrain] exactly what we have been opposing here,” he says. Pakistan, he maintains, has no business in trying to suppress a democratic, people’s movement in another country. Short-term economic gains cannot be the only prism through which Pakistan views its national interests, he says.

Pakistan has a long history of military involvement and training in the Arab world. Its pilots flew warplanes in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and volunteered for the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Involvement in Bahrain’s current strife would not be the first time that Pakistan has used its military might to thwart an Arab uprising against an Arab regime. In 1970, future military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, then head of the Pakistani military training mission in Jordan, led his soldiers to intervene on the side of Amman to quash a Palestinian challenge to its rule.

Some Bahraini opposition groups have called on the U.S. to intervene to get the GCC troops out of their country, fearing it could become a battleground in a Saudi-Iranian battle for regional supremacy. They stress that they share no real affinity with the theocratic regime in Shia-majority Iran, while noting that a number of Bahraini Sunni Muslims have also come out in the streets to call for greater reforms.

Pakistani involvement, therefore, could result in it being embroiled in a proxy war, with serious implications for its own security interests.

The issue of Iran is important, but there’s a deeper issue, according to author Noam Chomsky. “By historical and geographical accident, the main concentration of global energy resources is in the northern Gulf region, which is predominantly Shia,” he told Newsweek Pakistan.

Bahrain, he points out, neighbors eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the latter’s oil is. “Western planners have long been concerned that a tacit Shia alliance might take shape with enormous control over the world’s energy resources, and perhaps not be reliably obedient to the U.S.”

Bahrain, which like Pakistan was designated a major non-NATO ally by the George W. Bush presidency, is home to the Fifth Fleet. It is the primary U.S. base in the region and allows Washington to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping checks on Iran.

Chomsky believes that Pakistani presence in Bahrain can be seen as part of a U.S.-backed alliance to safeguard Western access to the region’s oil.

“The U.S. has counted on Pakistan to help control the Arab world and safeguard Arab rulers from their own populations,” says Chomsky.

“Pakistan was one of the ‘cops on the beat’ that the Nixon administration had in mind when outlining their doctrine for controlling the Arab world,” he says. Pakistan has such “severe internal problems” that it may not be able to play this role even if asked to. But the real reason that Pakistan should avoid this role is so that it can stand on the right side of history, alongside those who are fighting for democracy.

Newsweek

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Bahrain Foreign Minister’s India Visit

April 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI: Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa was in India last month as a part of diplomatic drive to assure the Indian government about the security of Indians living there. He held detailed discussions with his Indian counterpart SM Krishna on issues of mutual interest, including recent developments in Bahrain and the region (March 30). Ahead of their talks, the two ministers laid stress on “traditionally friendly relations” between India and Bahrain, “which are based on historical and civilizational ties.” This “long standing relationship” is reflected by presence of a large Indian community in Bahrain.

During their meeting, over lunch hosted by India in his honor, Bahraini foreign minister gave “firm assurance” about “safety and security of Indian community” in Bahrain. He also appreciated their contribution to “progress and development of Bahrain.” There are around 350,000 Indians in Bahrain. Khalid drew Krishna’s attention to his having met more than 200 Indians in Manama on 26th March, 2011. On his part, Krishna thanked Khalid for his reassurance with regard to Indian community’s well being. The former also expressed confidence that “law-abiding Indian community would continue to be a partner in Bahrain’s growth story well into the future.”

Referring to recent developments in Bahrain, Krishna expressed the hope that “peaceful resolution of all issues through dialogue would pave the way for continued development and prosperity of friendly people of Bahrain.”

During an exclusive interview with this scribe, Khalid acknowledged: “There is no doubt a wave of transformation in the Arab world.” Accepting that winds of transformation were sweeping across the region, he pointed to the human development index in the six Gulf Coordination Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar – being much higher than that of other countries. In other parts of the region, the people on the lower end of the scale were vying for a change, he said. Referring specifically to Bahrain, he said that though sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias have prevailed for “around 1400 years,” they have taken such a major turn for first time, reaching the “stage of polarization.” “Sectarian turn is the biggest threat to whole region,” he said.

Laying stress that there was a need for “true transformation” in many parts of the area, Khalid expressed that this “movement” had been “hijacked and had taken a sectarian turn” between Sunnis and Shias. Expressing favor for a political dialogue to sort out the problem, he said: “Political dialogue would be way forward in future.” The priority at present was to maintain law and order, Khalid emphasized.

Refuting the impression generated about Bahrain taking help of Saudi forces to control protestors, Khalid said that these belonged to Peninsula Shield Force. “We take our security seriously,” he stated. The troops would stay as long as they were needed, he said. Khalid specified that their help was essential to prevent the tension from escalating into a civil strife. The situation was “under control,” he said.

A “very negligible” population had left Bahrain because of tension in the country, he said. Though certain elements’ aim was to scare the expat community, Indians were not targeted, he emphasized. “I am visiting India before Europe or America. This is more important. We are regional stakeholders. Without India, we do not have a solution. We need to reassure India about the Indian community in Bahrain,” the minister asserted.

Elaborating on security architecture in the region, Bahrain cannot envisage this without India, Khalid said. India’s Deputy National Security Advisor Vijaya Latha Reddy called on Khalid ahead of his meeting with Krishna. She discussed issues of bilateral interest with him.

Bahrain also favors a role for Pakistan as well as Iran. “We want Iran to be part of this security architecture. We want it to prosper and be as active as in the past as a responsible country in the region,” he said.

Without elaborating on diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran, Khalid categorically stated: “We are for good relations with Iran.” “The result of bad relations with a neighbor can be more lethal than that of a nuclear bomb,” he said.

Diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran has been marked by the former holding latter as responsible for provoking Shia-Sunni tension in the region. Bahrain has warned Iran to keep away from “meddling” in its internal affairs. On its part, Iran has strongly criticized the arrival of external troops in Bahrain.

Bahrain is also not pleased with external strikes supporting rebels in Libya. When asked to comment on this, Khalid said that Bahrain had no objection to maintaining a “no-fly zone” over Libya. He was, however, skeptical about role of external strikes. “We were a part of the GCC and Arab League resolutions supporting no-fly zone. But we feel there is no clarity whether external strikes can really help in protection of people and their security.”

This was Khalid’s second visit to India. His visit, according to official sources, “has strengthened the excellent relationship between the two countries.”

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