- By Toby C. JonesToby C. Jones is assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is author of the forthcoming Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain is burning. Confronted earlier this week by a wave of peaceful public protests and calls for democratic reform, Bahrain’s rulers and their mercenaries have laid siege to their own country. Police and security forces have brutalized crowds of demonstrators in recent days. In a pre-dawn assault on sleeping activists on February 17th in Manama, police went on a murderous rampage and killed at least five people.
Those who survived the assault reported that at least one of those killed was executed at close range with a bullet to the head. Police went out of their way to mete out cruelty. One doctor who attempted to treat the wounded immediately after the attack was singled out and savagely beaten. Activists on the scene observed authorities loading unidentified dead bodies into refrigerated trucks and whisking them away. Photographs and video from the scene are horrifying. With regard to Bahrain’s police, the only thing that remains unclear is the real depth of their depravity. Reports are pouring out of Manama this morning that Bahraini forces are intensifying their savagery, opening with live fire on those mourning the dead from Thursday. Bahrain is turning into a war-zone. And the number of dead is quickly rising.
Bahrain’s activists are consumed with grief and anger. But they remain defiant and hopeful. Many continue to believe that their deliverance is still possible through peaceful means. There is an earnest sense that by emulating the example of their fellow democracy activists elsewhere in the Middle East, they may achieve long-held dreams of true political reform. So far, and remarkably considering the regime’s actions, the vast majority of Bahrainis remain committed to a project of peaceful political transformation.
Their demands and the terms of that transformation are less certain today than earlier in the week, however. On Monday, they hoped for political reform, the creation of a genuine constitutional monarchy. By the end of the week the mood had understandably soured with many demanding nothing short of the fall of the regime. Minor reforms are now viewed as too little, too late. It is entirely possible that their anger may lead to confrontation, but it is a farce to suggest that it is the country’s opposition that needs to show restraint. That burden is entirely on the regime.
Bahrain’s protesters were not the only ones watching events in Egypt and Tunisia closely. So too were Bahrain’s rulers. They learned their own lessons from the fall of their fellow tyrants. The resort to police brutality on February 17th was just one of those lessons. Their view seems to be that Egypt’s police and pro-Mubarak thugs did not go far enough. Bahraini authorities have moved quickly to crush the demonstrations before the crowds swelled beyond the regime’s control, to prevent a possible replay of what happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Since the attack the country’s small mercenary army has joined the police in the streets, establishing a sprawling security cordon throughout Manama and surrounding areas that aims to keep crowds from gathering in meaningful numbers in the capitol. The violence also sent a clear message: public dissent will not be tolerated, and those who turn out in the streets will be destroyed.
Amidst the furor, bloodshed, and anguish of Thursday, it also became evident that what happens in Bahrain is of considerable concern for its neighbors. There are fears in Riyadh and elsewhere that what happens in Bahrain may not stay in Bahrain. The clearest indication that anxieties are sweeping through the Arab capitals of the Gulf came Thursday afternoon when the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council convened an emergency meeting in Manama. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa remarked afterward that the meaning was meant to serve as a demonstration of solidarity, remarking that "the GCC ministerial council declared its total support to Bahrain because GCC’s security and stability is indivisible."
It is true that the meeting was meant to make demonstrate that Bahrain’s crackdown enjoys the seal of approval from its closest neighbors and allies. But there very well may be more at play.
Unconfirmed rumors swirled throughout the day on the 17th that Saudi riot police had taken part in the early morning attack. It is hard to determine the veracity of these reports, but at the very least it is likely that Riyadh has been instrumental in encouraging Bahrain’s rulers to take quick and violent actions to preempt an escalation. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most concerned of the other Gulf countries with any potential demonstration effect. With its massive oil reserves located just a few miles from the drama gripping Manama, the Saudis no doubt want to see it put down immediately. But the Saudis are not alone in their fears. Worry about potentially restive populations is becoming increasingly acute throughout the Gulf. For Bahrain’s neighbors, the small island country is serving as a test-case for authoritarian resiliency. And the autocrats appear willing to coordinate to ensure a favorable outcome.
The demonstration effect is not their only concern. So too is what many of them claim to be the protests’ sectarian character and agenda. The Sunni Arab leaders of the Gulf have long insisted that the Shia who constitute the majority of Bahrain’s native population, and the majority of the country’s pro-democracy protesters, take their marching orders from Iran. The specter of sectarianism troubles Riyadh in particular. In addition to concerns about the proximity of the unrest to the kingdom’s oil reserves, they also fear that Bahrain’s example and Iranian influence might ignite their own sizeable Shia community.
The Gulf states’ turn to a sectarian explanation is predictable, but it does not make their claims true. The connections between Shia in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are based not on politics, but on spiritual matters. The rulers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain know this, of course. The truth is that their pseudo-concerns about Iranian influence and Shia revolutionary politics are thinly disguised excuses to continue to justify their autocratic ways and frame the blood-vetting that is taking place in the streets of Manama.
For Bahrainis and for other citizens in the Gulf, this moment is not about sectarian politics, score settling against Sunnis, or advancing Iran’s interests. It is about justice, democracy and political rights. It is precisely about overturning the authoritarian systems that the region’s rulers are desperately and violently struggling to keep in place.
Toby C. Jones is assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia" (Harvard University Press, 2010) and an editor of Middle East Report.