Last month, some 10,000 visitors funnelled through the Bahraini capital, Manama, for the country’s inaugural international arms fair, organized by the British company Clarion.
The event included US and Russian pavilions, with representatives from the UK Department of International Trade among its patrons.
Attended by simultaneous outcry from human rights campaigners, the fair seemed to emblematize the geostrategic role of the tiny Gulf kingdom that has throughout its history relied on the protection – and patronage – of international players.
There has been no real effort on the part of the regime to deliver greater equality
Bahrain, meaning ‘two seas’ in Arabic, is the only island nation in the Middle East, connected to Saudi Arabia by a 25-kilometre causeway to the west.
It was in 2011, when Saudi tanks ploughed across the bridge to put down peaceful mass demonstrations, that the country entered the international spotlight. But it has been on the radars of Western and regional powers for at least two centuries.
Bahrain came under Britain’s informal empire in 1820 when its Arab sheikh rulers were afforded status as a protectorate in exchange for co-operation in combating piracy. This bilateral dynamic has endured well beyond Britain’s imperial decline and Bahrain’s independence in 1971, though the UK navy bases were taken over by the US Fifth Fleet.
With its minority Sunni Muslim elite ruling over a Shia majority, the island has also been perceived as a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The entrenched rule of the Al Khalifah royal family has kept Bahrain firmly within Riyadh’s orbit, and pleasure-seeking Saudi sheiks may be found enjoying the greater liberty of Manama’s bars and resorts. However, persistent Shia dissent in Bahrain has continued to stoke anxiety among Saudi rulers aware of their own restive Shia population.
It is this narrative of sectarian rivalry that has been vigorously – and erroneously – employed by the Al Khalifahs to characterize popular opposition to their rule. The mass protest in 2011 brought forth well-worn regime claims of ‘Iranian-backed terror’, ‘sectarian violence’ and ‘Shia extremism’.
Yet the campaign did not initially call for regime change or revolution and it was rather the bloody and disproportionate counter-force with which the regime and its Gulf backers met these nonviolent, cross-sect protests that fuelled popular hostility. This outrage has been palpable ever since in Shia villages around the capital, where nightly rituals of tyre-burning and Molotov-throwing have persisted as local youths clash with the security forces.
The animosity is, however, driven by injustice and not ideology. Nor have such small-scale insurrections dented the monolith of Al Khalifah authority.
The country has the largest prison population in the Middle East and world’s highest per-capita use of teargas
Despite the official ‘reform’ programme unfolded in 2011 to much Western applause, there has been no real effort on the part of the regime to deliver greater equality – for example, through overturning rules excluding Shia from the security forces and parliament.
Instead, human rights in Bahrain have nose-dived. The country has the largest prison population in the Middle East and world’s highest per-capita use of teargas. Torture, arbitrary detention and killing in its notorious jails are well-documented and the death penalty was revived earlier this year to execute alleged terrorists in what have been deemed extrajudicial killings. Activists have been routinely stripped of their citizenship. Opposition political parties have meanwhile been banned and freedom of expression further stifled.
All this has taken place not only without sanction from the international community, but in many cases, with its active support. Some £1billion ($1.3 billion) of UK Foreign Office funds have, for example, been poured into ‘training’ Bahraini police and security forces since 2011, while Britain is estimated to have sold over $85 million worth of arms to the country between 2010 and 2016.
Small wonder then that, despite the atrocities, the West is finding much to celebrate about Bahrain.
At a glance
- King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah succeeded to the throne in 1999 after the death of his father Isa bin Salman, who had ruled Bahrain since 1961.
- GNI per capita $22,700 (Saudi $21,750, UK $42,390).
- Monetary unit
- Bahraini dinar.
- Main Exports
- 60% of Bahrain’s national income is from oil exports, with other primary industries including aluminium and textiles.
- 1.4 million. Population annual growth rate: 3.8%. People per square kilometre: 1,848 (UK 271).
- Infant mortality 5 per 1,000 live births (Saudi 13, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 3,000 UK 1 in 5,800). HIV prevalence rate: 0.1 per cent.
- Large areas of Bahrain are at risk of desertification from the degradation of its limited arable land and coastline, which is being destroyed by unbridled sand-dredging and oil-spills.
- Bahrain’s population is majority Arab (around 49%) with various South Asian (mostly Indian) immigrants constituting around 45% alongside African, European and other ethnicities.
- 71% Muslim, 10% Christian, 10% Hindu, 9% other. The Muslim population is estimated to be around 70% Shia.
- Arabic is the official language, though English is widely used, as well as South Asian languages.
- 0.824, 47th of 188 countries (Saudi 0.847, UK 0.909).