Bahrain’s Paranoia About Iran Is Self-Defeating

A new regional alliance is undermining Bahrain’s stability at home.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and Prime Minister of Bahrain, and Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, arriving at the pier at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain This handout image released by the US Naval Forces Central Command on Jan. 31, 2022.
Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and Prime Minister of Bahrain, and Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, arriving at the pier at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain This handout image released by the US Naval Forces Central Command on Jan. 31, 2022.
Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and Prime Minister of Bahrain, and Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, arriving at the pier at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain This handout image released by the US Naval Forces Central Command on Jan. 31, 2022. MARK THOMAS MAHMOD/AFP via Getty Images

Naftali Bennett made history in mid-February by becoming the first Israeli prime minister to ever make an official visit to Bahrain. Bennett is struggling at home as the leader of an ideologically divided ruling coalition, but on his visit to Bahrain he fulfilled the role of statesman, embracing the unprecedented regional alliance that has formed between Israel and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, against Iran. Bennett offered Israel’s assistance to Bahrain against Iran whenever called upon.

Bahrain plays a central role in this alliance, not least because it hosts the 5th Fleet of the U.S. Navy. (During Bennett’s visit, he discussed security cooperation in a meeting that included both Bahraini officials and Vice Adm. Brad Cooper of the 5th Fleet.) But taking on Iran has proved to be a particularly challenging task for Bahrain. In part that’s because of the simple fact of its small size in relation to its powerful competitor.

But Bahrain’s government is also suffering the effects of its own paranoia. Warding off Iran’s influence in its domestic affairs has turned the Al Khalifa monarchy into ruthless rulers and the kingdom into a brutal place to live for the majority of its population.

Naftali Bennett made history in mid-February by becoming the first Israeli prime minister to ever make an official visit to Bahrain. Bennett is struggling at home as the leader of an ideologically divided ruling coalition, but on his visit to Bahrain he fulfilled the role of statesman, embracing the unprecedented regional alliance that has formed between Israel and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, against Iran. Bennett offered Israel’s assistance to Bahrain against Iran whenever called upon.

Bahrain plays a central role in this alliance, not least because it hosts the 5th Fleet of the U.S. Navy. (During Bennett’s visit, he discussed security cooperation in a meeting that included both Bahraini officials and Vice Adm. Brad Cooper of the 5th Fleet.) But taking on Iran has proved to be a particularly challenging task for Bahrain. In part that’s because of the simple fact of its small size in relation to its powerful competitor.

But Bahrain’s government is also suffering the effects of its own paranoia. Warding off Iran’s influence in its domestic affairs has turned the Al Khalifa monarchy into ruthless rulers and the kingdom into a brutal place to live for the majority of its population.

Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy believes Iran wants to annex its majority-Shiite country or at the very least install a puppet regime. The past comments of Iran’s Shiite leaders asserting that Bahrain is the 14th province of Iran, together with Iran’s support to Bahrain’s Shiite opposition, have magnified Bahrain’s fears. It accuses Tehran of not only fomenting the uprising in 2011 but also plotting attacks against state security in successive years and providing militants with financial support and arms training through its militias in Iraq.

Partly in response to these fears, Bahrain has imposed repression at home. In the last decade, death sentences have risen by 600 percent, and the political opposition has been disbanded or thrown behind bars. Some 1,400 political prisoners are incarcerated in a single prison. The right of prisoners to weekly video calls with family members has been suspended in an arbitrary manner, and torture allegations are routine.

Last year Bahrain was accused of detaining 13 children related to protests and threatening some with rape and torture, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a nonprofit human rights organization based in London. And the alliance with Israel is further curbing people’s freedoms. Activists allege that state intelligence is crushing dissent by identifying critics through Pegasus spyware created by an Israeli firm.

Moosa Mohammed, a photojournalist and political activist, has been a vociferous opponent of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and for a number of years he highlighted oppression in the country. In August, it was revealed that Mohammed’s iPhone was hacked by Pegasus spyware. Members of a secular Bahraini political society and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, as well as one member of al-Wefaq, a Shiite political party, were also spied on using the Israeli technology.

“It has taken a devastating toll on me to discover that the Bahraini regime, from whom I fled torture and persecution, has spied on me, in obscene violation of my privacy,” Mohammed was quoted as saying in a BIRD news release. “It is imperative that the Bahrain regime faces consequences. Abusive Gulf states like Bahrain can only be stopped if they are made to answer for their crimes.”

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at BIRD, told Foreign Policy that there is increasing concern among Bahrain’s citizens about Israel’s role in helping crush Bahrain’s democratic movement. “We begin to see how damaging this relationship is to democratization in the country when the state begins to employ spyware against dissidents,” said Alwadaei. “A shocking recent revelation showed that not only does Bahrain employ Israeli spyware to surveil dissidents, but also its own officials, including high-level parliamentarians and members of the royal family,” he claimed.

Activists recount many internal causes of social unrest in Bahrain and say Iran’s threats are simply a convenient ruse for the monarchy to excuse its oppression and incompetence. They say Shiites feel marginalized in Bahrain and angered by the privileged status granted to Sunnis for jobs in the armed forces and other high positions. During the protests in 2011, the protesters—mostly Shiites—demanded a constitutional monarchy that keeps the royal family in power but allows people to elect a government. The monarchy instead saw it as an Iranian plot to steal its power and aggressively crushed the protests. Thousands of security personnel violently dispersed tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Some were killed and many injured and imprisoned. Over the last 11 years, that trend has gotten worse.

Bahrain ranked 168 out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, and it was 144 out of 167 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Freedom House gave Bahrain miserable rankings in 2020 in political rights and internet freedom.

Alwadaei, the BIRD advocacy director, said al-Wefaq’s leader Sheikh Ali Salman also remains imprisoned, serving a life sentence, as does Alwadaei’s own brother, who is being punished for Alwadaei’s activism. “Bahrain routinely attempts to deflect international criticism on its appalling human rights record and its own acts of internal repression by pointing towards external actors, namely Iran. It should be evident that detaining children as young as 11 years old and subjecting them to threats of electrocution and rape, as well as the continued suppression on freedom of expression, has nothing to do with Iran,” said Alwadaei. “This deflection is a tactic Bahrain employs to derail legitimate scrutiny and eschew its responsibility for violating its own citizens’ rights and international law.”

Israel is desperate to make Arab friends in a hostile region. But the careless distribution of its technology will earn it more anger among Arabs. Bennett’s visit overlapped with the commemoration of the failed Bahraini revolution and led to further resentment throughout that country. An alliance with Israel to counter Iran’s military may suit Bahrain’s national interests. But domestic unrest will continue erupting as long as the Al Khalifa clan ignores calls for reform and continues to reject the majority of Bahrain’s population as saboteurs.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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