IT IS unlikely that there are too many Bahrainis who would look kindly on the intrusion into their internal affairs by the neighbouring Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. After the recent spate of demonstrations in the little island nation appeared to be getting out of control, the Saudis led a posse across the causeway and began a brutal crackdown.
The Saudis are aware that any flirtation with liberalisation will affect their own country, the most mysterious and shrouded on the Arabian Peninsula. And they have always had a paternalistic attitude towards Bahrain given that Iran, Riyadh’s main rival for power and influence in the region, takes a keen interest in the affairs of the little island which is said, by some, to be the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
If that is so, then there is certainly more than a single serpent roaming around. Dissatisfaction over the employment policies of the current ruler – King Hamad, the son of Shaikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, who elevated the country to a constitutional monarchy in 2002 from a mere emirate – boiled over and, drawing inspiration from protests in other regions of the Middle East, the Bahrainis started their own version of the French revolution.
Protests continue to this day and there now appears to be evidence of the brutality of the Saudi crackdown. Of course, the Saudis know only two methods of quelling opposition – either buy them off with bribes or else kill the whole lot. The first method would not have worked, so now they are taking recourse to the second.
A distance behind the Saudis, and standing tall in support, are our good friends, the men and women from the land of the brave and the free, the United States of America. Bahrain may be just a glob of sand when viewed from a plane, but it is home to the US Fifth Fleet. Hence, Uncle Sam is solidly behind a return to the status quo. After all, we cannot have a gentleman by the name of Mahmoud Ahmedinajed pulling the strings in Bahrain, now can we?
Bad memories are evoked in Bahrain when one talks of liberalisation. In 1973, Shaikh Isa, who had then been in power fo 12 years, decided to liberalise and a constitution was published, guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience and speech. A parliament was elected by 85 percent of the adult males who were eligible to vote.
Alas, it did not quite work out – the ruling family, the Khalifa clan, expected the right-wing lobby of merchants to gain a majority of seats. They did not; instead, reactionary religious leaders and left-wing elements were voted in in large numbers.
Over the next couple of years, this mob tried to spread their influence – one day their pet cause was preventing women from playing a role in public life, the next day they would try to suggest that the national oil company be taken over.
Finally, in 1975, when they began to oppose detetntion without trial, Shaikh Isa suspended the whole lot and returned to ruling by decree – with the added feature of having his own family in every post of any influence. The Prime Minister. Shaikh Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, has been holding that post since then.
Though Bahrain is an Arab country, a large number of its citizens are of Iranian origin. The balance of the Shia-Sunni is skewed towards the former – and these two Muslim factions, who owe their genesis to the battle over a successor to the Prophet Muhammad, are generally not the best of neighbours.
However, they are hardly at each others’ throats as painted by the Western media; rather, it is the ruling family which, fearful of agents of Iranian influence, has excluded Shias largely from public life and from public sector employment. This has led to a feeling of injustice and it is, thus, hardly surprising that the majority who are out there protesting are Shias.
The intervention by troops from what is called the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates – does not find favour with its own members, solely because a defence pact signed by the six was meant to defend against external aggression. Members of the defence forces in the AGCC are not exactly experts at combat – when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the AGCC forces did not exactly show a great deal of alacrity in rushing out to defend their northerly neighbour.
However, Saudi Arabia has always been the big brother of the region and, thus, despite their opposition to getting involved in the affairs of a “brotherly” state – even the AGCC agreement is against interference in each others’ domestic affairs – the others have maintained a stoic silence on this aspect of the troubles in Bahrain.
The island has no oil of its own and is a service centre, with a large number of banks operating in a free climate. There are handouts from the Saudis now and then, and the Americans are keen to see the place quiet. Moving the Fifth would be a massive logistics exercise and upset the economy of Bahrain – not to mention the owners of the better class of brothels on the island. The chances of any protest succeeding are, thus, much less than evens.