IntroductionBahrainis an Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf located 14 miles away from the northcoast of Saudi Arabia and has been ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family since1783. The current king of Bahrain is Hamas bin Isa al-Khalifa. Although Bahrainmay appear like a constitutional monarchy, by way of an elected parliament andpolitical parties, the al-Khalifa royal family “retains near-absolute power,since the King appoints the Prime Minister and the legislation of the electedlower house is subject to the veto of the royally-appointed upper house”(Mitchell). This power held by the al-Khalifa royal family allows for the majorityShia muslims in Bahrain to be discriminated against. “The al-Khalifa dynasty,which dominates all top government jobs and the islands finances, is Sunni, yet60-70% of Bahrain’s population is Shia. In addition to their exclusion from thehalls of power, the Shia complain of discrimination when seeking governmentjobs, particularly in the security forces” (Murphy 14).
This heightened sectariandivide led to a series of uprisings in Bahrain during February 2011. Theseprotests called for “greater political freedom and equality for all Bahrainis”(Rosa et al. 10). Inspired by the wave of protests occurring throughout theMiddle East and Northern Africa at this time, “the local Arab Spring eventsconstituted an unprecedented wave of protests across the country.Socio-economic discontent, a high level of unemployment, especially among theyouth, discrimination against the Shia majority, the slow pace ofdemocratization, and popular anger at perceived corruption have brought tens ofthousands of mostly young Bahrainis to camp in the center of Manama” (Rosa etall.
10). Unfortunately, the al-Khalifa royal family responded quickly andharshly to these uprisings, and were able to quell the uprisings. Nothingbetter illustrates the state of current Bahraini foreign policy than examiningthe steps taken by its repressive “constitutional monarchy” during the ArabSpring to suppress this uprising in 2011 and maintain power. The sectariandivide, that is heightened by an alternative form of Rentirism utilized by theruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, is at the center of civil unrest in Bahrain. Bylooking at the repressive actions taken by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family,along with examining Bahraini alliances with Gulf States and the West throughthe lens of balance of power theory, one can conclude that these factorscontributed to the failure of the Arab Spring in Bahrain and are at theforefront of Bahraini foreign policy today.
Understanding Rentierism in Bahrain Unlike states that depend ontaxation extracted directly from citizens, rentier states distribute rentsrather than extract taxes from citizens. These rents are defined as directpayments to the government that may derive from natural recourses. Interestingly,Bahrain “developed a different type of rentier state than in other Gulfmonarchies. Bahrain is an oil-dependent welfare state that does not possesssufficient oil revenues to provide for the welfare of all its citizens, Sunniand Shia, nor has a particular political or normative interest in doing so.Rather than attempt to buy universal political support through financialpatronage, Bahrain has resorted instead to a more economical and politicallyexpedient ruling strategy: to extend a disproportionate share of state largesseto a core Sunni tribal support base, whose members then have a directeconomic-cum political stake in defending against challenges to the system(Gengler). This perverted form of rentierism used by the al-Khalifa royalfamily unfairly discriminates against Shia muslims both politically and economically.”Before and after the uprising, Bahraini Shiites are far less likely thanSunnis to obtain jobs in the public sector, and they are almost entirelydisqualified from police and military service” (Gengler). Without a doubt, thisalternative form of rentierism in Bahrain contributes greatly to the sectariandivide in Bahrain that eventually led to an uprising to overthrow theal-Khalifa regime.
Currently, the sectarian divide is still present, and Shiamuslims are still discriminated against and treated unfairly. Bahraini Repression According to Gelpi, when a leader isfaced with domestic unrest, there are three options. Repress, find a solution,or divert and make people focus on something else. When facing domestic unrestduring the Arab Spring and currently in Bahrain, the al-Khalifa family partookin both repressive and diversionary tactics against its citizens to ensurepolitical power.
Atfirst, the uprisings occurring in Bahrain during the Arab Spring did not callfor regime change. After a few days of the protests, Bahraini forces wanted todisperse the protests camping out at the Pearl Roundabout. “The panickedreaction of the Al-Khalifa regime resulted in a brutal response, as governmentforces opened fire on sleeping demonstrators in the middle of the night (Rozsaet al.
10). At what became known as the “Peal Roundabout Massacre,” 300protestors were injured and 4 killed. After this act of repression, theuprisings began demanding the end of the al-Khalifa regime. In response to thecontinuing unrest “King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called in Saudi troops,declared emergency law and launched a fierce crackdown on pro-reformprotestors” (Mitchel). By the end of the uprising, “80 people have been killedby security forces and pro-government mobs and more than 3,000 have beenarrested” (Zunes 149). The al-Khalifa royal family also utilized repressivedigital communication methods as technologies of repression during the ArabSpring to present day. Protestors used social media to schedule rallies andmessage other protest leaders in order to topple oppressive governments.
Bahrainis were able to post pictures of human rights violations occurring inBahrain under al-Khalifa rule on Twitter. Sadly, “autocrats have also uppedtheir game significantly in monitoring, constraining, and even shutting downliberation technology” (Carothers). In fact, Bahrain has “one of the highestlevel of Internet filtering and surveillance in the world” (enemies ofinternet). Using technology like sending emails with malware or obtaining theIP addresses for surveillance purposes and identifying anonymous internet usersaided the al-Khalifa regime in finding and imprisoning “21 defendants who weregiven very long jail sentences in 2011, of charges belonging to terroristorganizations and trying to overthrow the government” (enemies of internet). Along with utilizing repression, theal-Khalifa regime also used a diversionary technique by stating that theprotests occurring in Bahrain were an undercover Iranian plot to overthrow thecurrent government and take over. “The government put out the word that mostlyShia demonstrators were acting on behalf of Iran” (Fisher).
By divertingattention to Iran, the al-Khalifa regime was able to justify the occupation ofthe Peninsula Shield Force. “The Iranian connection, however false orexaggerated introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influenceand establish an Iranian-style theocracy” (Zunes 157). Ultimately, this wasjust another tactic used by the al-Khalifa royal family to maintain power, as”they could provide no evidence to support this Iranian conspiracy” (Holmes). Currently,the al-Khalifa royal family still utilizes digital repression methods to trackIP addresses and track Bahraini citizens trying to organize protests.
Bahraini Alliance with Gulf States In 1981, Bahrain joined the GlobalCooperation Council (GCC). This alliance system was created between themonarchies in the Persian Gulf to pursue unity in the Gulf. This membership, alongwith their close relationship with Saudi Arabia are vital to current foreignpolicy. The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and theUnited Arab Emirates. The GCC is “a political and economic association of theconservative Arab monarchies that border the Persian Gulf. The group wasfounded in 1981 as a response to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and aimedto unite its members around their dedication to Islamic rule, monarchy, andreciprocally open markets (Mitchel). The GCC also allowed for the creation ofthe Peninsula Shield Force, a joint military with soldiers from each country inthe council with a majority of troops being Saudi. “in 1984, with Saudi fundsand military leadership, the GCC formed the Peninsula Shield Force, a10,000-man military unit comprised of troops from each member state.
ThePeninsula Shield Force became the core of the GCC’s mutual defense program”(Pike). The occupation of Bahrain by the Peninsula Shield Force during the ArabSpring was instrumental in defeating the uprisings. Saudi Arabia observed “theBahraini regime proved incapable of suppressing the uprising on its own” (Zunes155). This incapability by the al-Khalifa regime triggered the deployment ofthe Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain at the urge of the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabiacontacted the United States to explain that, at the request of the Bahrainimonarchy, it would be sending several thousand troops over the causewayconnecting it with Bahrain in order to quell the protests. Shortly thereafter,a joint Saudi-Emirati force of two thousand soldiers, operating under theauspices of the GCC, entered Bahrain” (Mitchel). Membership in the GCC “helpedcountries against political challenges during the Arab Spring.
One example ishow Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops to Bahrain to help security quell theprotests” (Carbonnier 16). At its origins, the Peninsula Shield Force wascreated to ensure the security of the members in the GCC, and blaming theprotests in Bahrain on a country outside of the council allowed for thejustification of the Peninsula Shield Force occupation in Bahrain. Understanding balance of powertheory is vital to conceptualizing the actions taken by the strategic alliancebetween Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In balance of power theory, the primary goalof the state is the avoidance of hegemony. Saudi Arabia knows that the currentregime in Bahrain provides a stable, strategic partnership more viable thanwith a pro-Shia newly installed regime with a great degree of unpredictability.The main instrumental goal of a state in balance of power theory is themaintenance of an equilibrium of power by building up arms and formingalliances to balance against the primary threats to their interests andparticularly against any state that threatens to secure a hegemonic positionover the system.
From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, their military andeconomic alliance with Bahrain through the GCC is exactly that. The predictabilitythat comes with the al-Khalifa regime is more valuable to Saudi Arabia thansomeone new. From the eyes of Bahrain, Iran is a potential threat of ahegemonic position over the system, as they are Saudi Arabia’s chief rivals. Thiscooperation between other members of the GCC and Bahrain was essential to theal-Khalifa regime during the Arab Spring to maintain power. Currently,Bahrain remains a member of the GCC and strong ally of Saudi Arabia. Also, asrecently as this summer, Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with GCC member Qataron May 6th, 2017. From the statement released by the al-Khalifafamily, “The Kingdom of Bahrain announces the cessation of diplomatic relationswith the State of Qatar in order to preserve its national security” (mofa.gov.
bh).At the heart of this decision was the Bahraini perception that Qatar wasfunding groups “associated with Iran to sabotage and spread chaos in Bahrain inflagrant violation of all agreements and the principles of international law” (mofa.gov.bh).
Ultimately, the al-Khalifa regime believed that Qatar was funding terroristgroups associated with Iran to “destabilize the security and stability of theKingdom of Bahrain” (mofa.gov.bh).
Saudi Arabia also cut diplomatic ties withQatar. The only GCC members keeping ties with Qatar are Yemen and Maldives.Additionally, flights to Doha were suspended by Emirates airline. Again,understanding balance of power theory is important in understanding why Bahraintook these measures.
Additionally, on November 11th, 2017, there wasan explosion at a Bahraini oil pipeline that Bahrain blamed on terrorism by theIranians. From the Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa “Terroristacts witnessed by the country in the recent period are carried out throughdirect contacts and instructions from Iran.” Today, tensions are still highbetween Iran and Bahrain. Additionally, Iran may like to capitalize on the instabilityin Saudi Arabia. Relations with the West Bahrain has been allies with theU.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This relationship with the U.S. provedvaluable to the al-Khalifa regime as the U.S.
did not support the uprisingefforts because of the methodical importance of the US Navy Fifth Fleet andpredictability with the current regime. “For the United States, Bahrain hasstrategic importance far beyond its tiny size. It is home to the headquartersof the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, a vital force ensuring that the Gulf’s oilshipping lanes are not compromised. The fleet also reminds Iran that the U.S.is standing with its Arab Gulf allies. For Washington, any political crisis orlong-term unrest in Bahrain that adversely impacts the fleet’s operations wouldbe a threat to US interests in the region” (Murphy 14). Not only did the U.
S.ignore the uprisings, they actually suppressed it by selling weaponry to theal-Khalifa regime. “In the months before the protests began in February 2011,the US sold more than $200 million in weapons and equipment to Bahrain,including $760,000 in firearms” (Mullin). Furthermore, the US sent aninvitation to the Bahraini military “to receive tips on crowd control in apolice training exercise called Urban Shield 2011” (Mullin).
In actuality,Bahraini forces used U.S. weaponry and crowd control methods to suppress theuprisings during the Arab Spring.
This cooperation with the U.S. proved vitalto the al-Khalifa regime. To the al-Khalifa regime, it is clearthat their alliance with the U.S. has been vital to remaining in power.Evidently, since 9/11, the U.
S. has entered into a preemptive foreign policy inthe Middle East to spread democracy and take down oppressive regimes like inIraq and Afghanistan. While the al-Khalifa regime has committed multiple humanrights violations, the U.S. turned a cold shoulder to the uprisings during theArab Spring because of the strategic importance of the Fifth Fleet. It is clearthat Bahrain and the U.S are both utilizing balance of power theory. In theeyes of the Bahrainis, Iran is an emerging hegemony looking to take advantageof the instability in Saudi Arabia and cause chaos in Bahrain.
The U.S. alsosees its alliance with Bahrain as vital to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf. Fromclass readings, Mitchell talked about McJihad. Basically, McJihad is defined as”mechanisms of capitalism appear to operate only by adopting social force andmoral authority of conservative Islamic Movements; an alliance betweenCapitalism and Conservative Islamic Movements” (Mitchell). I’d like to takethis one step further, and add that in addition to capitalism, westerndemocracies also build strategic alliance with oppressive conservative Islamic movements.For instance, on March 17th, 2011, the UN Security Council passedResolution 1973. This resolution organized by the Obama administration allowedfor military intervention in Libya because of the brutal takedown of protestorsby the Qaddafi regime.
Ultimately, the U.S. and other NATO countries startedbombing Libya. Contrarily, despite the massacre of hundreds of Bahrainiprotestors during the Arab Spring, the U.
S. decided to stand by their ally andturn a blind eye. “When authoritarian leaders are loyal allies, they aresupported for decades by the U.S., as it simultaneously claims to stand for allthat is free and democratic. It will sell arms to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain andchoose to neglect its human rights violations when convenient” (Elkateb). TheU.
S. also preferred the stability that came with the al-Khalifa regime. “Forthe United States, Bahrain has strategic importance far beyond its tiny size.It is home to the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, a vital forceensuring that the Gulf’s oil shipping lanes are not compromised. The fleet alsoreminds Iran that the United States is standing with its Arab Gulf allies. ForWashington, any political crisis or long-term unrest in Bahrain that adverselyimpacts the fleet’s operations would be a threat to U.
S. interests in theregion” (Murphy 14). This strategic alliance between the U.S. and Bahrainprovides legitimacy to the al-Khalifa family. Future and Conclusion By examining the brutal takedown ofprotestors during the Arab Spring in Bahrain by the Al-Khalifa royal family andthe Peninsula Shield Force, coupled with Bahrain’s vital importance to the U.S.
and their relationship with Saudi Arabia are key reasons as to why the ArabSpring was unsuccessful in Bahrain. When looking at why the Arab Spring was unsuccessfulin Bahrain, one is able to see how the current foreign policy of Bahrain was essentialto the al-Khalifa royal family staying in power. The Peninsula Shield Force wasable to occupy Bahrain and murder innocent protestors and suppress an uprising.It is evident that balance of power theory, a twist on McJihad, and regionalalliances are at the forefront of Bahraini foreign policy. To the Bahraini’s,the biggest threat to them is Iran. By looking at the repressive actions takenby the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, along with examining Bahraini allianceswith Gulf States and the West through the lens of balance of power theory, onecan conclude that these factors contributed to the failure of the Arab Springin Bahrain and are at the forefront of Bahraini foreign policy today. Lookingtowards the future, the al-Khalifa family looks to remain in power and continueto be a strategic ally of the U.
S. and member of the GCC. One thing to monitoris how the Iranians will react to the growing instability in Saudi Arabia andhow they will continue to foster their relationship with Qatar. If Iran cantake advantage of these circumstances, they will continue to grow as a threatto Bahrain. As Saudi Arabia and Iran is the main rivalry in the Middle East currently,it wouldn’t be shocking to see military conflict between the GCC and Iran inthe near future. Furthermore, as long as the U.S.
Navy’s Fifth Fleet remainsstationed in Bahrain, there will continue to be a strategic alliance betweenthe U.S. and Bahrain.