Six years after the United States declared victory in Iraq, as locals were electing a transitional, democratic government, there was the belief that America's military excursion in the Arabian Gulf would usher in an "Arab Spring" - a period where copycat democratic movements would arise and democracy would flourish in the region. Well, predictably, spring is late and not quite as glamorous as we were expecting. Following impassioned uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, powder-keg revolutions that ignited the passions of young, disen- franchised Arabs across North Africa and the Arabian Gulf, we've heard criticism from citizens at the way the transition has been handled by the military in Egypt. Tunisia has been mostly ignored and Libya, largely outcast on the international stage, has rightfully borne the brunt of reprisals by the global community including the implementation of a "No-Fly Zone."
With all these important countries undergoing dramatic revolutions, it would be easy to overlook Bahrain, a small island located off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia that has been undergoing its own uprising. Despite its size, stability in Bahrain is incredibly important to the U.S. and to the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (also known as the GCC). Bahrain's alliance with Saudi Arabia and its strategic location in the Arabian Gulf has enabled it to host the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and liberal economic policies have helped it to become a financial banking hub for the region. In recent weeks, however, opposition Shia Muslim groups have called on the Al Khalifa monarchy, which rules the tiny kingdom, to step down to allow for democratic reforms, but these protests have been violently suppressed. Reports of violence against protesters, and the kidnapping of opposition leaders, have increased since military forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (part of the "Peninsula Shield Force") were called in, last week, to assist in suppressing protests. Troops also took over hospitals and stood guard while the government ordered the demolition of the Pearl Roundabout - a monument that represented Bahrain's membership in the GCC, but one that had been claimed by the opposition as a site for demonstrations. By destroying the landmark and blatantly murdering protesters, Bahrain's government has maneuvered itself into a position where it can negotiate with the opposition instead of surrendering.
The brutal crackdown has succeeded in dividing the opposition movement and, what began as a unified call for the Khalifa royal family to step down, has changed its goals to include lesser demands of legitimate political reform. The majority Shia Muslim population has voiced opposition to the rule of the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family in the past, but their grievances were never addressed and protests were quickly crushed and forgotten. Many Shias tend to live in ghettoized villages on the outskirts of gentrified suburbs, which are populated by foreigners. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain has a population so small (about 1 million) that almost any attempt to disrupt a revolt would have a big impact. When you consider that almost half of the residents are non-native guest workers (expatriates) who value stability, the odds become even more skewed in favor of the Sunni-dominated government.
In fact, expatriates are a major grievance for many native Bahrainis. Aside from persecution and a lack of representation, anti-government protesters are also opposed to the influx of guest workers who, they allege, are given preference over native Bahrainis. Many expatriates are skilled and work in the financial district or as teachers; others work in technical fields as engineers or doctors. Unskilled expatriates work in construction, as housemaids, maintenance workers or other minimum wage jobs. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a native Bahraini working a minimum wage job because these are usually filled by Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and other expats from less developed countries.
As a result, many Bahraini natives feel as if they're being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and they've voiced their concerns in the past. The last major uprising began in the mid-1990s, but lacked the benefit of social media and the government crackdown was more effective. By the end of the 1990s, however, the government took action and the newly crowned Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa enacted reforms under the National Action Charter, which promised equality, freedom of belief and other rights for residents under a new constitution.
Of course, these "rights" were essentially symbolic and gave the government free reign to crush the opposition in the most recent protests. Frankly, I think we could see a similar outcome if the Al Khalifa family is allowed to remain. Whatever happens in Bahrain, one thing is clear: the opposition must persevere if it wishes for any hope of reform. If opponents demand anything less than the surrender of the Al Khalifa family, you can bet they won't be seeing spring for a long time.
Obaid Khawaja is a former Messenger staff writer who now lives in the Chicago area. He lived for a number of years in Bahrain.