Thanks to oil wealth, Bahrain has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. This windfall is not distributed evenly, however, and unemployment and poverty rates are increasing sharply. A government decree allowing foreign investors to own land in Bahrain caused a spike in property prices after many Bahraini landowners were pressed in the 1990s to sell their lands at 20% of their value.
By 2010, $65 billion worth of prime real estate that had been public land somehow became royal property. Shia and Sunni MPs joined forces to investigate, and the revelations provoked widespread outrage and protest.
There were months of street protests in early 2010. The Sunni dynasty’s attempt to alter Bahrain’s demographic balance by granting non-resident Sunnis speedy citizenship has further angered Shias. The dynasty suspended the pan-Arab al-Jazeera network on May 18, after it broadcast a feature on Bahrain’s poverty.
The government launched a crackdown in the latter half of 2010, resulting in Twenty-five prominent opposition activists—most of whom are Shias—being accused of spreading false information, meeting with outside organizations and terrorism. When their trial began October 28, most informed the court that they had been tortured and lawyers said they observed marks and wounds consistent with torture.
Bahraini cyber-activists scheduled a “Day of Wrath” for February 14, 2011 — the 10th anniversary of a referendum approving a reform charter that the King scrapped. The royal family tried to stave off protests by offering a subsidy of $2650 per family. Despite that, protesters hit the streets, calling for constitutional changes, release of political prisoners and an end to torture. Facing an increasing crackdown, activists called for a democratically-elected government and an end to anti-Shia discrimination.
The Sunni al-Khalifa family has ruled for over two centuries, after coming to Bahrain from Saudi Arabia. Four-fifths of the 25-person cabinet are members of the royal family, and the Prime Minister has served for 40 years. King Hamad can appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers and discontinue parliament at will, and he appoints all members of the upper house.
Attacks on Unarmed Civilians at Protests
Police troops sheltered behind tanks were documented on video in February firing live ammunition on protesters trying to approach Pearl Square (also known as Lulu Roundabout). When ambulances arrived and the gunfire continued, the ambulances pulled ahead in between the tanks and the protesters to give protection to the unarmed victims. Attacks by riot police in Pearl Square on February 17 targeted sleeping families of unarmed protesters including their children who were camping overnight. Hospitals began receiving hundreds of injured. More than 10 ambulance paramedics told one reporter that they were attacked by police, and one stated that a Saudi army officer held a gun to his head and said he would kill him if he helped the injured.
By March 15, the day after Saudi-led Gulf troops entered Bahrain, the death toll had climbed to 20, including two military officers. Dozens of mourners gathered in Bahrain’s capital on March 22 to bury a Shia woman who witnesses say died at the hands of the country’s military shortly after emergency rule was imposed last week. The death certificate, issued by a military hospital listed the cause of death as severe brain injury.
It is important to note that only two groups of people in Bahrain have access to firearms: security personnel and members of tribal families allied with the ruling family.
Attacks on Hospitals and Hospital Personnel
Especially alarming has been the shootings at medical facilities as well as the harassment and detention of medical staff. A surgeon Dr. Sadiq al-Ekri was detained while treating protesters and searching for a patient’s child. His hands were bound, and he was beaten to unconsciousness after being threatened with rape. According to the Bahraini al-Wasat newspaper, the Salmaniya Medical Complex remained under siege for days. Several doctors including Dr. Nada Dhaif, who appeared on al-Jazeera, and Dr. Mohamed Saeed, a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and one of the twenty-five political detainees that were released earlier last month as a concessionary attempt by King Hamad.
According to the BBC, 60 people have been missing since Wednesday, whereas the Al Manama Voice puts the total number of those missing at 115, thirty-five of whom have been found while eighty remain unaccounted for. In Salmaniya, security forces surrounded the hospital and were not allowing ambulances to leave or get in to treat the casualties. A Kuwaiti medical convoy was blocked from entering Bahrain, turning away 53 medical personnel and 21 ambulances.
Police State in Shia Neighborhoods
Emotions remain raw and tensions are still high between the Shia majority, which make up the bulk of the opposition, and the kingdom’s Sunni rulers and their allies. Tanks have been stationed at the entrance of a number of Shia villages and people are questioned by soldiers whether they are Shia or Sunni when they try to go out. Bahraini officers are reportedly beating up and holding civilians at checkpoints based on their accent (which indicates their sect). Other Shia neighborhoods have been singled out for random police and military attacks.
Gulf Security Force and the State of Emergency
A Saudi-led Gulf military force composed on Saudi, Qatari and Emirati troops entered Bahrain on March 14 to aid the monarchy in quelling the opposition protests, and added five more casualties to the death toll the next day.
The King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa then declared a “state of national safety.” He was presumably referring to the safety of his oppressive regime, as troops of the Gulf Peninsula Shield began their work to “enforce law, promote security and stop anarchy before starting the national dialogue.”
While not an occupation, as Iran attempted to call it, the conditions convey a state of martial law for many. While the Gulf troops’ stated goal is to protect Bahraini government and oil facilities, the level of indiscriminate state violence against unarmed civilians in the last few days has been unprecedented. Firsthand accounts and video footage of Bahraini state security personnel using tear gas, rubber bullets, machine guns, tanks, and other weapons against unarmed civilians and journalists without warning have emerged from many villages, mainly Sitra and Qadham, and not just from Manama. Protesters have been shot at from helicopters belonging to the troops.
Suppression of Media and Free Expression
Bahrain TV, the state-run channel, has been accused by callers of inciting sectarianism and sectarian violence. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has revoked the license and disconnected all services of 2Connect, a company in which a secular Sunni liberal leader Ibrahim Sharif is a large shareholder.
Fanning the Flames of Sectarianism
The emphasis on sectarianism is on the rise. The Bahrain situation is exposing long simmering tensions and rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and carries the danger that it will trigger the next regional war. Iran called Bahrain’s crackdown “unjustifiable” and withdrew its ambassador from Bahrain. Worryingly, on Saturday, the Basij militia is reported to have attacked the Saudi consulate in the northern Iranian town of Mashhad. The result may be the transformation of the existing Saudi-Iranian “Cold War” to direct confrontations and the intensification of proxy conflicts already prevalent in the region. As the situation in Bahrain deteriorates, Iran may seek creative ways to interfere, perhaps by using its proxies in Lebanon or Iraq.
Poverty and women’s rights
The most pressing issue for many Bahraini women is the lack of a unified family law or Personal Status Law as it is known, leaving matters of divorce and child custody to the discretion of Sharia judges, who have been criticized for a lack of consistency in their judgments. In November 2005, the Supreme Council for Women in an alliance with other women’s rights activists began a campaign for change, organizing demonstrations, putting up posters across the island and carrying out a series of media interviews.
Possible Political Steps
A dialogue should serve as the basis for talks aimed at achieving the far-reaching goal of a “constitutional or parliamentary monarchy” in the country. It is a goal that King Hamad has previously set and which the mainstream opposition parties are demanding. Many remember the national charter agreed by a vote in 2001 as part of new reforms, only to scrapped.
Urgent action is therefore needed to de-escalate the situation in Bahrain and create the trust necessary for the government and opposition to start a much delayed national dialogue that charts the future of the country. There are also mounting concerns that these combined security forces are using disproportionate force and committing serious violations of international law and humanitarian law. The space for dialogue seems to be rapidly closing.