If the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen was known as “the forgotten war”, the 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain soon became “the forgotten uprising”. Forgotten in the sense that following the so-called Arab Spring, to which both events were linked, most of the world’s attention had shifted to the Syrian conflict, as it descended into further chaos and violence with a plethora of external powers becoming involved. In addition to this were several non-state actors, including Daesh and Al-Qaeda affiliates.
In Syria, the disputed case of chemical weapons usage and who was responsible, as well as the securitisation of refugees and migrants on Europe’s borders, also helped ensure that the war in Yemen and the budding revolutionary movement in Bahrain were relatively overlooked. Interest in pushing for the promotion of democracy in Bahrain was also neglected by the West, unsurprisingly, given that Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command, and as of 2018, a “permanent” British military base. The British, who have long-established ties to the Al-Khalifas, recognise them as the “legitimate” rulers since 1820. To this day, they have been instrumental in maintaining the status quo in Bahrain.
Needless to say, Bahrain’s uprising was short-lived due to the military intervention of Saudi forces, who assisted the Bahraini government in brutally cracking down on the popular and peaceful protests.
The mass demonstrations by the largely Shia majority population against the iron rule of the Al-Khalifa family (who are from the archipelago’s Sunni minority and have been ruling since the 18th century, with origins said to be from what is today’s central Saudi Arabia) were inspired by the events in the region nine years ago. However, they are rooted in the country’s referendum ten years prior, whereby citizens voted in favour of the National Action Charter which was supposed to usher in democratic reforms, and did not materialise into any lasting reconciliation between the state and the people.
Instead, human rights abuses and state repression intensified as many dissidents and opposition leaders were imprisoned, executed or faced exile under stringent counterterrorism measures. Blame was directed at Iran for being behind the civil unrest, a charge which Tehran and the local opposition denied. Furthermore, the country’s main oppositionist party Al-Wefaq was dissolved in 2016, considered to be one of the biggest setbacks for Bahraini civil society. Alarmingly, hundreds of Bahraini nationals have had their citizenship revoked by the state, rendering most of them stateless.
Many of these measures were overseen by Manama’s veteran Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the world’s longest-serving to be precise, who passed away earlier this month.
Nevertheless, the crackdown on dissent continues unabated as Bahrain announced, as recently as 3 November, that it had convicted 51 people – most of them abroad on charges of belonging to an unnamed militant group allegedly backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Yet, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which spoke to a relative of one of the accused: “The trial was marred by due process violations and the use of evidence obtained under torture.”
It is quite a task in keeping up to date on human rights and Bahraini civil society, especially when a typical cursory online news search on Bahrain tends to yield Formula 1-related news stories. This sort of manifestation is an indication of a highly-successful sportswashing campaign, which Saudi Arabia is keen on emulating as it is set to host its debut F1 race next year. That said, there is a gradual moral awakening to the realities of Bahrain’s abysmal human rights record against the backdrop of F1, which in fairness has previously been hosted in other countries with similar human rights issues. For example, 16 rights groups sent a joint letter to F1 bosses to take action on upcoming races in Bahrain, while also accusing the country of using the event to sportswash its abuses. Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has also been the latest high-profile person to highlight and speak out against the human rights violations in Bahrain, which is an encouraging sign.
However, the elephant in the room is of course Bahrain, following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in its controversial normalising of relations with Israel in September. Amid F1-related stories, occasionally one now comes across Bahrain’s ties with Israel amid a recent high-level state visit by a Bahraini delegation led by Foreign Minister Abdullatif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani, who confirmed that both countries agreed to open embassies as soon as possible. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly postponed his visit to Manama next week so that he can include a stop in the UAE as part of a Gulf tour next month.
While this shift in policy was made in the name of peace and prosperity, minus the justice, and one which was seemingly welcomed by loyal Emirati subjects, the move was firmly rejected and denounced by the Bahraini people who risked their own freedom to protest. Iran-based Bahraini cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, who has ties to the dissolved opposition group Al-Wefaq, stated: “There is a great divergence between the rulers and the ruled in thought, mind, aims, and interests.” He added that whatever is achieved by normalisation will not enjoy popular support: “In line with what generations of Bahrainis have been brought up on in terms of adherence to the Palestinian cause.”
Another prominent Bahraini activist, Sayyid Abbas Shubar Al-Mousawi, echoed similar sentiments by arguing that the people of Bahrain have always been supporters of the Palestinian cause and expressed doubt that Al-Khalifa’s normalisation with Tel Aviv can succeed on a large scale.
The fact is that a more representative, democratic Bahrain would likely be politically closer to Iran, and hence, a different outlook on the notion of normalising ties with Israel, as I have previously argued, that only Arab states aligned with Iran oppose Zionism. Of course, the regional and international powers have not, and will not, let that happen any time soon.
This leaves us with the current situation – that is, a monarchy which is unwilling to extend an adequate and acceptable social contract to the Bahraini people. It has instead opted to bypass them and prioritise establishing relations with Israel, all done in their name. It is incredible to think that the ruling family can achieve peace with its neighbours when there is no justice for its people. The Al-Khalifas may have normalised ties with Israel, but they are yet to do the same with the Bahraini people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.