Tag Archives: Bahrain

The F1 Event in Bahrain: A Lost Chance For The Opposition

How did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces.

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Bahrain-Unrest

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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch to the chagrin of organisations like Amnesty International the F1 event in Bahrain went ahead and was earmarked to make around £26million for Bernie Ecclestone, let alone the huge amount of money generated by Grand-Prix-tourism and advertising for the Bahraini government. Even as some news agencies reported that the Grand Prix would be less eventful than last year, claims were being made that the government had arrested suspected pro-democracy supporters and had ejected an ITV news crew. In fact, even last week when I was in Manama, the tense mood was still apparent as I was stopped by the police on three separate occasions and asked which newspaper I worked for. Flattered though I was, I had to work hard to convince them of the truth that I was just a tourist. It is standard Bahraini government behaviour but still an opportunity for the opposition to attract more media attention.

So would it have been better if the Grand Prix had been cancelled, or if the event had continued with some reports of disturbances? A cancellation would certainly have caught the attention of the F1 fans, which had been waiting a whole week to see the continuation of the competition; how many of those fans are active human rights activists is unclear but probably not high given the level of spectation. However, the fact that the F1 continued gave the pro-democracy supporters an interesting opportunity to broadcast their grievances to the world. The mere fact that the majority of newspapers last week referred to the event as the ‘controversial Grand Prix’ is inadvertent propaganda for the revolutionaries. Interestingly, after his earlier dismissive reaction to calls for the F1 to be cancelled, Mr Ecclestone actually criticised the government for giving the opposition “a platform” to protest. He also told news reporters he would be meeting the opposition leader after the qualifying stage, for what purpose he did not say.

So how did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces. Before the F1 events began such a situation seemed highly unlikely given the large security force, long-running crackdowns and pre-emptive arrests, but it seems the protesters realised this too as demonstrations were stepped up the night before and the early-morning of the race. Tyre burnings in Manama also drew some attention, but the tactics were too mild or poorly timed to encourage the kind of attention that would bring their situation forward in the news.

Obviously the Bahraini government and the F1 organisers also had their own press strategies which were extremely harmful to the pro-democracy campaign. This included F1 legend Jackie Stewart weighing in on the side of the Bahraini government. His statement that the anti-government clashes are “no different to the Glasgow Rangers and the Glasgow Celtics [clashes]” is in my opinion a disgustingly naive (or purposefully destructive) assessment of the situation. The fact that this may have been taken as gospel by F1 fans threatens to undermine any pro-democracy efforts to get their word across to the very influential audience of the motorsport. It’s hardly surprising that Jackie supports the Bahraini regime though, seeing as he had a hand in the promotion of Bahrain as a location for F1 races.

The question of violence and destruction of property in Bahraini protests is also an interesting point to address. The branding of the pro-democracy protesters as ‘terrorists’ because the protesters burned tyres and clashed with police seem highly sensationalist to an opposition supporter. But strangely it seems to have worked in turning (at least the British) F1 spectators against the opposition efforts. A very heated and exhausting conversation with my warehouse colleagues showed that they were angry that the “selfish” and “irresponsible” opposition wanted to spoil a beloved international event; although they understood there was excessive and extreme police violence. It would seem that the Bahraini government’s attempt at alienating the opposition argument from F1 spectators has been, in this specific case, successful. Given the lack of international support though I would guess that has been the occurrence across the wider F1 spectator community as well.

The overall effectiveness of the opposition’s campaign to push their story into the global or western spheres seems to have been quite unsuccessful, at least in the long term. The news outlets are no longer running large stories on Bahraini affairs because the tournament has moved on and the Syrian situation has progressed very far in recent weeks. It seems that the only ways to really globalise this situation effectively are to either heavily disrupt a future F1 event to the point of cancellation or relocation (like 2011), or for the opposition movement to turn to much more violent means of resistance. The latter may gain intense media coverage, but is it worth the cost of human life?

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Photo Credit: Shabbirhtz

Will Bahrain’s Revolution Ever Get Attention Again?

The media seems to be drawn to Syria rather than more subtle political situations and Bahrain’s revolution has been going on for over a year and a half now, with few tangible victories against the monarchy.

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bahrain's revolution

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The situation certainly is an interesting one. Bahrain’s cultural situation stands at a dangerous point; the Sunni elite have been challenged by the more numerous Shi’ite population (who make up 70% of the Bahraini population) in an attempt to gain more control of their own politics in true ‘Arab Spring’ style. Most people might be in agreement that this is a positive step towards democracy in the Middle East, but other outcomes are possible.

If the Shi’ites are successful it would potentially leave the door open for different foreign influence over an island right on the Saudi coast for Iran in particular. Since its deployment in the region the US Fleet has been and still is a thorn in the side of Iranian naval dominance in the Persian Gulf, but with a friendly Shi’ite government on the island the base could be removed.

However, a Shi’ite government doesn’t necessarily mean an Iran-friendly government. A revolution in Bahrain could also bring motivation for similar actions on the Saudi mainland (as has been seen from the Shi’ites in the Eastern Saudi oil provinces recently). If such a revolution in Saudi Arabia was successful and the monarchy was removed, politics in the entire Middle East could face a complete overhaul.

This is indeed a very intriguing political, cultural and strategic story, but why so little coverage?

The fact that the Bahraini situation is not particularly explosive, especially in comparison to Syria, is a major factor; one has only to read any news article on Syria to see this. The media seems to be drawn to Syria rather than more subtle political situations and the Bahraini uprising has been going on for over a year and a half now, with few tangible victories against the monarchy. As for a military option, as was seen in Libya, such a decision would be disastrous for diplomatic missions between the West and the Persian Gulf, removing the US naval base from Bahrain and creating an opening for Iranian naval dominance in the Gulf. It has probably become boring to British news networks, and therefore not mainstream news-worthy.

The likelihood of Bahraini Shi’ite success could also be a factor, as before the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were deployed on the island the revolution was looking promising. With the massacre at the Pearl Roundabout, the revolution’s resolve was strengthened, and the relatively small Bahraini military would have been hard-pressed to prevent a large and well motivated revolution. The GCC Peninsula Shield forces not only secured Bahrain’s population-control forces but also added to the already foreign-dominated military forces available to the Bahraini monarchy. The ‘foreign’ members of the Bahraini military would not likely be morally challenged by harming Bahraini citizens, useful in extreme law and order situations.

The Bahraini control of the media must also influence its lack of press coverage, preventing many western journalists from getting out as much visual information on this as has been seen in Syria even a year after the revolution started. It would also be very difficult for the Bahraini protesters to gain and utilise international support for their cause, leading to morale or funding issues.

Against these odds then, it would seem the revolution’s victory is insurmountable, unsupportable and uninteresting. Bahrain’s only hope is if the Saud family’s reign is ended by a similar movement in Saudi Arabia, which at this point does not look likely given the lack of success in the Eastern provinces.

Assad’s character would also appeal to the mainstream news companies rather than the Bahraini situation. As consumers, the British especially are intrigued by such a man who defends a completely immoral position with see-through lies and trying to avoid the issue; such extreme actions even contributed to Kofi Annan’s surprise resignation last week. Bahrain’s relatively uneventful history adds to this. Syria’s parts in the many Arab-Israeli conflicts, its influential position in Lebanon, ties with Hezbollah and Hafez al-Assad’s own repressive nature have built Syria into a ‘Middle Eastern country to watch’. Bahrain, on the other hand, only experienced a revolution in 1981 allegedly backed by Iran and has since only seen significant newsprint in the West during F1 competition protests.

There is an argument that Syria’s appeal is down to the fact that its present result has gone against that of most other Arab revolutions. The Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions had ended with victory for the revolting populations, whereas in Syria they are still left with the majority of the Syrian military to deal with before Assad is wrenched from power, creating an interesting and ongoing situation on which to report. But Bahrain’s revolution is in the same position, albeit against more difficult odds. Whilst the Syrian revolutionary movements have received defecting Syrian forces (most recently now including Assad’s Prime Minister), no such thing has happened in Bahrain, at least not on a large enough scale. The Bahrainis still face a well-equipped and experienced (not to mention foreign) civilian-pacification force.

There are various reasons for this lack of news coverage, but it is a combination of the facts that the Bahrainis likely face an unwinnable fight and that there is little foreign news access, whilst the Syrian revolution provides the news corporations with an exciting war (both in terms of footage and because the rebels have a good chance of winning) with the ridiculous character provided by Assad. Once the Syrian crisis is over or the Bahraini revolutionaries begin to get a good military footing, we may see a change in front-page Middle East stories.

#4: Bahrain Protests

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“I chose this photo because the continued protests and struggles in Bahrain still get such little press attention and this picture is particularly striking for its combination of serious content with dramatic lighting and colour.”
Torie Rose DeGhett (@trdeghett)

#4: A protester holds a molotov cocktail bomb during clashes with riot police in the village of Sitra, south of Manama, Bahrain, on July 30, 2012.
Credit: Mohammed Al-Shaikh / AFP – Getty Images via NBC.

Turmoil In Bahrain

The protests that occurred during the Grand Prix shows there is still fire in the protests and significant opposition to the Khalifa monarchy

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[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ontroversy arose last month over the Formula 1 Grand Prix held in Bahrain. Some western observers argued that Formula 1 shouldn’t be holding such a major sporting event in a country that brutally put down an uprising last year by holding the event, F1 was implicitly supporting the status quo, that is the ruling Khalifa dynasty. F1 officials replied that as a sporting event the race had nothing to do with politics and that “there are idiots everywhere

So what actually happened in Bahrain last year? Amid uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the long oppressed Shia majority started to protest against the Sunni minority that governs Bahrain. The protestors wanted equal rights and more representation in government. The government put down the uprising rather brutally. We have a good idea of what took place thanks to an independent commission set up by the King last spring. The commission found that 35 people had died, including five who were tortured to death. Security forces made use of torture rather freely. There were also mass arrests as Shia protestors were rounded up, and at least 700 are still in prison at the time of the reports publication last November. With Bahrain having a small population of 1.26m, this actually makes the deaths per capita one of the highest of the various uprisings.

Saudi Arabia eventually sent forces across the border to help their fellow Sunni monarchy quell the protests. Once things quieted down the government took its revenge, firing thousands of Shia employees.

Since the commission’s report was published at the end of last year, there has been little or no attempt to meet its recommendations. The Bahraini government had argued that the uprising was a result of Iranian influence, and was not an organic movement. But the independent commission found no evidence to support the monarchies claims.

While the fact that the King appointed an independent commission shows that Bahrain isn’t quite as bad as say Iran or Libya, it is not the reforming state that its supporters claim. Bahrain has been able to successfully muddy the waters of what happened last year thanks to a massive PR campaign by western firms. Recently a Middle Expert from the prestigious Council of Foreign Relations came under fire for statements he made in support of the Bahrani government.

The protests that occurred during the Grand Prix shows there is still fire in the protests and significant opposition to the Khalifa monarchy. Western governments have continued to stand by the monarchy since the uprising. The United States is in a particularly tricky position given that the tiny island state is home to the Fifth Fleet and while it is impractical to call for the fleet to be relocated, Washington should make clear its displeasure at how the government handled itself. This doesn’t appear likely, as the Obama administration has made it a priority to sell the country more arms to counter Iranian influence in the region. While originally a new arms package was supposed to be contingent on a positive result of the independent commission, the White House used loopholes to sell the weapons anyway. At a time when America supports reform movements in Syria and elsewhere, it is hypocritical to continue to stand by despots in Bahrain.

Playing The Great Game

Enmity becomes more entrenched in a Great Game and violence quickly becomes the sole language of political disagreement. If we must play, we had better be sure the prize is worth it.

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In the 21st century of human rights, international law and the United Nations, we have convinced ourselves that the era of the ‘Great Game’ exists only in history books. Many of us have told ourselves that the Arab Spring is different this time – that it will transform the Middle East for the better, where the common man (and woman) finally has the opportunity to achieve popular sovereignty and genuine political representation. Unfortunately, the unbiased lens of history suggests it is imperial business as usual for the Middle East.

No conflicts better highlights this unfortunate truth than those in Syria and Bahrain. Never before have two conflicts, each a different branch from the same tree, managed to so evidently embody the age-old idiom: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

The players? Principally the US, UK and Iran (with Saudi Arabia thrown into the mix). We all know that the tagline of both the US and UK foreign policies is the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide. Iran, having long considered itself to be the pioneer of the Islamic resurgence within the Middle East, is supposedly committed to the endeavors of Muslims that it sees are striving to end the remnants of Western colonialism in the region. Its support of such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah is guided by this principle.

I may offend your collective intelligence when I say that the Middle East is a demographically complex region. The states that comprise the Middle East today do little to reflect this complexity – the vast majority of them were brought into existence as a consequence of imperial rivalry between Britain and France after the First World War. It would not be far off to suggest that the Arab Spring has been cast out of Arab frustrations of their disenfranchisement resulting from this arbitrary state system. Of course, each Spring is unique based on its host country’s geography, demography, history and politics – but the feeling of disenfranchisement is common to them all.

In their simplest terms, the Syrian and Bahraini Springs have been born out of the same problem – an insular, detached demographic minority ruling over the majority. In Syria’s case, this is the Shi‘i Alawi al-Asad regime ruling over a Sunni majority (with Kurds and various other minorities thrown into the mix). In Bahrain, it is a Sunni monarchy ruling over a much larger Shi‘i minority. This relationship is absolutely abhorrent to democracy, where the concept of ‘majority rules’ forms the basis of our conceptions of popula participation. In theory, the US and UK should be supporting both movements. Regarding Iranian foreign policy ideals, it also should be opposed to despotism, injustice and tyranny – the evils that the Islamic Revolution sought to expel from its borders through ousting the Shah in 1979. But of course (and frankly, predictably), they do not.

Anyone who maintains at least a minimal level of awareness to international affairs will be acquainted with the situation in Syria. The al-Assad regime has literally been getting away with murder against anti-regime protesters, with politicians in the US, UK and France calling for action exasperatingly close to military intervention. Iran is reported to have provided the regime with support in the form of military advisors placed at the highest levels of Syria’s government. Even with the involvement of UN observers, the situation is far from resolution.

Don’t know much about the Bahraini Spring? I’m not surprised, it rarely makes the news – when it does, it is only because it has interrupted our enjoyment of international motorsport, slipping from view when it can no longer create an awkward nuisance. However, the Al Khalifa regime has sported the same disgusting techniques as the al-Asad family, however there has been nothing near the international condemnation as there has been toward Syria. Just like the protestors in Syria, Bahrainis protested peacefully for modest reforms – and were given a government response in the form of live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets. In particular, government forces have used the old ‘occupy hospitals and torture the wounded’ tactic against all those suspected to have been involved in the protests. Indeed, the Al Khalifas are certainly not playing cricket.

The most remarkable aspect of the ongoing situation in Bahrain is our complete silence on the matter. Even Tunisia, which has had the most peaceful and stable transition toward democratization, has had more coverage than Bahrain. Whilst we ignore the situation, the Iranian press has adopted a different approach. The Iranian news outlets (all state-owned, I might add) rather obviously refer to the Bahraini protestors as ‘martyrs’ whilst labeling the Syrians with the conspicuously vague ‘armed groups’. The West has acquiesced the Saudi military intervention to crush the Bahraini Spring whilst laying ample criticism on Iran for supporting one of the few allies it still has left.

It is not the intention to lament about the incompatibility between idealism and reality in foreign policy – states have interests, and it has been clear for a long time that states will compromise their ideals to secure those interests it perceives as strategically necessary. But let’s not fool ourselves – what we are witnessing in Syria and Bahrain today is yet another Great Game. However, unlike the Great Games of the 19th and 20th centuries, this Game can now bite us back and the information age has shifted the power of the Game towards the hands of the pawns. In 19th century Central Asia, the response of the local Khanates was constrained to using violence against foreign intruders to such an excessive extent that commanders would think twice before straying again into the Khans’ territory. In the 21st century, protestors in the Middle East can project influence much further than just their local areas.

The Middle East’s greatest tragedy has been its manipulation by the hands of outside powers. By constantly meddling in their affairs, we risk consigning many of these states to a fate similar to that of Afghanistan. The effect of these games of influence will ultimately cause deeper problems that become harder to solve as time progresses. Enmity becomes more entrenched and violence quickly becomes the sole language of political disagreement. If we must play, we had better be sure the prize is worth it.