Bahrain’s contested politics transcends almost everything to do with national identity, historical narrative, and popular discourse. The uprising that began in 2011 is an attempt to subvert all that is state imposed, everything from road names to “national” days of celebration. The opposition has long called for August 14, when the British officially withdrew from Bahrain, to be the official national day. The ruling family however has designated the day that the king first took the throne on December 17 to be the official national day. It is no surprise, therefore, that August 14 has been chosen for Bahrain’s Egyptian inspired “Tamarod” (Rebellion campaign). Analyzing the uprisings from a different perspective, we can ask ourselves are the so-called Arab Spring uprisings a quest for full sovereignty? And what do various foreign interventions in Arab countries in response to uprisings say about sovereignty of states?
To say that the regime is afraid of planned protests is an understatement. A raft of royal decrees sanctioning repressive measure have been passed, from $1,000 fines for those not carrying ID cards or 6 month jail terms, to prosecuting the parents of juvenile protesters, to automatic revocation of citizenship for those convicted of terrorist-related charges (of which hundreds of political prisoners are accused of committing), and the list goes on. But more dangerously, there has been a formalized move toward military rule. The Supreme Defense Council, made up of 100 percent Al-Khalifa members including the king, now oversees all of state security and the national guard. It is above the law and continues to use violence.
Celebration of the country’s independence (or hopes of it) is constitutionally outlawed. The king, earlier this year, jokingly told a British audience “Who asked you to leave?” and then announced that he was to award 240 British citizens with Bahraini nationality. To many this was not a funny dinner table joke given the history of British involvement in Bahrain’s internal security. Bahrain’s perennial sovereignty crisis is at the core of the current conflict and is coming to head on August 14. This contested narrative of history raises important questions about Bahrain’s sovereignty: where does it lie and to whom does Bahrain belong?
“Sovereignty” is a concept widely seen as key to understanding international conflicts. In conventional thought, national sovereignty is where every nation is supposedly supreme inside its own borders and acknowledges no master outside them. Bahrain’s sovereignty has been especially contested since the empire officially left in 1971. This clip from a popular nationalist magazine at the time states, “After the English and the Americans: the Bahraini people will not allow Saudi military presence.”
In a 2005 Wikileaks cable, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa alluded to the sovereignty crisis, “Bahrain has worked hard not to become a vassal of Saudi Arabia, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves become a vassal of Iran.” But on March 14, 2011 a Saudi Arabian-led army entered Bahrain across the causeway without prior announcement. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Peninsula shield remains in Bahrain today. The counter-revolution had taken stealth hold in a brute show of force and peaceful protesters occupying the Pearl Roundabout were removed and the landmark monument at the center dramatically destroyed.
Initially, a joint statement by several of the opposition societies described the entry of Saudi-led troops as an “occupation” and an unofficial declaration of war against the people. In a television interview, Ibrahim Sharif, the president of Waad, a liberal leftist society, stated that if the troops had come to Bahrain to suppress the protests, then Bahrainis should consider this an invading army. A few days later, he was arrested, the society’s headquarters was burned down, and the society was forced to publish an apology. Sharif was later sentenced to five years imprisonment in a military court for crimes against the state. Major General Mutlaq bin Salem Al Azaima’a, commander of the GCCPSF, said “it was illegal and illegitimate to ask about the entry of the peninsula shield force into Bahrain” and that whoever considers the peninsula shield troops in Bahrain as an invasion, is probably “someone with an agenda and hostile tendencies.” The officially recognized opposition societies avoid this very sensitive topic. But on the streets, chants of “Bahrain hurra hurra, dur’u Aljazeera barra” (Bahrain is free, Jazeera Shield out) are heard in the near-daily protests around the island.
Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent, “Bahrain didn’t invite the Saudis to send their troops; the Saudis invaded and received a post-dated invitation” and the “Al-Khalifa dynasty has become a confederated province of Saudi Arabia“ echoing the fears of the crown prince six years earlier.
The Bahraini regime went further and led calls for a GCC Union which didn’t gain much support amongst the tribal monarchies, and was later reduced to calls for a Saudi-Bahraini confederation and a GCC security pact to formalize Bahrain’s shared sovereignty arrangement. Economic support came in the form of a $10 billion Marshall plan to fund projects in the less resource-endowed states of Bahrain and Oman. Its limited resources, minority rule status, and weak, centralized, and rigid structures of power forced the ruling family to become, in the crown prince’s own words, a “vassal state” of Saudi Arabia.
The ruling family’s ties with the British establishment have never been stronger. Prime Minister David Cameron almost secured the sale of $1 billion contract for British Typhoon jets, and announced the following year plans to celebrate 200 years of bilateral relations. A former British ambassador tweeted quite brazenly that British jobs are more important than Bahraini human rights, creating an angry response on Twitter, and helping British popularity in the country to no end. Domestic policing in Bahrain has always been the long arm of the British whilst external security is guaranteed by the United States (the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain). The United States guarantees security of these states in return for access to oil resources, which explains the presence of many military bases. This was first articulated by former President Jimmy Carter in 1980 in what has become known as the Carter Doctrine, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Under this “strategic alliance” military, security, and logistical support is sold to the Bahraini regime in exchange for external sovereignty; the legitimacy conferred through the recognition of the “sovereign” by other states. International silence on Bahrain was taken as quid pro quo for GCC support for resolution 1973 for military intervention in Libya in 2011. These contradictions (Gulf states interfering but not allowing others to do the same) are some of the by-products of the Arab revolutions that exposed the weaknesses and fears of Arab rulers. Bali and Rana (2012) suggest that there is a vision of Arab political sovereignty as provisional and dependent on the state’s position in existing regional alliances. This provisional sovereignty is a wider feature of the current global order, and speaks to pervasive substantive limitations on the capacity of weak states to shape domestic decision-making.
The sovereignty crisis thus is summarized as the ruling family’s inability to establish internal sovereignty in the traditional sense (authority through domestic legitimacy achieves a state of domestic sovereignty that lies beyond the power of the ruling elite and locates ultimate sovereignty in the people) or to defend against encroachment on its external sovereignty by global powers, the United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia. Over the course of half a century, there have been four key opportunities to solve the sovereignty crisis and to avert the current situation by introducing a popular constitution in 1956, 1973, 2002, 2011; all opportunities were lost in favor of tribal and colonial self-interest. Bahrain has yet to arrive at a sovereignty settlement with itself or its own people and therefore cyclical unrest will continue. Bahrain’s uprising is about liberation, social justice, and democracy through the complete and unquestioned sovereignty to the people. This means that future regimes must be accountable domestically, as well as internationally, establishing their countries’ ties with the West on equal footing.
The Arab uprisings overall highlight several key questions on sovereignty: the propensity of weak states, such as Bahrain, with limited resources to invite occupation, and the appetite of strong states to intervene in resource-rich countries where their interests are at stake such as Libya. The Arab uprisings are being seen by many as an end to the post-colonial period if they succeed in establishing truly independent sovereign states. In addition the uprisings are re-conceptualizing the meaning of popular and internal sovereignty. However, as things have panned out across the Arab world, Krasner’s (1999) conception of sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy” — the paradox that though there is an informal understanding that states are sovereign, they can still be subject to constant intervention — continues to be the reality. From the militarized struggles in Libya and Syria, to the non-militarized struggles in Bahrain, the so-called Arab Spring has offered gleaning examples of Krasner’s “organized hypocrisy” but none more so than the Saudi intervention and continued presence in Bahrain to fight the will of the people. It is within this nuanced context that Bahrain’s Tamarod on its Independence Day needs to be understood.
Dr. Ala’a Shehabi is a Bahraini researcher and founding member of Bahrain Watch www.bahrainwatch.org. She has a PhD in economics from Imperial College London and previously worked as a lecturer at the Bahrain Institute for Banking & Finance and as a social policy analyst at RAND Europe. Follow her on Twitter @alaashehabi. The research for this article was done during a fellowship for the New Paradigms Factory by the Arab Council for Social Science.