Introduction the north coast of Saudi Arabia and

Introduction

Bahrain
is an Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf located 14 miles away from the north
coast of Saudi Arabia and has been ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family since
1783. The current king of Bahrain is Hamas bin Isa al-Khalifa. Although Bahrain
may appear like a constitutional monarchy, by way of an elected parliament and
political parties, the al-Khalifa royal family “retains near-absolute power,
since the King appoints the Prime Minister and the legislation of the elected
lower 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 majority
Shia muslims in Bahrain to be discriminated against. “The al-Khalifa dynasty,
which dominates all top government jobs and the islands finances, is Sunni, yet
60-70% of Bahrain’s population is Shia. In addition to their exclusion from the
halls of power, the Shia complain of discrimination when seeking government
jobs, particularly in the security forces” (Murphy 14). This heightened sectarian
divide led to a series of uprisings in Bahrain during February 2011. These
protests called for “greater political freedom and equality for all Bahrainis”
(Rosa et al. 10). Inspired by the wave of protests occurring throughout the
Middle East and Northern Africa at this time, “the local Arab Spring events
constituted an unprecedented wave of protests across the country.

Socio-economic discontent, a high level of unemployment, especially among the
youth, discrimination against the Shia majority, the slow pace of
democratization, and popular anger at perceived corruption have brought tens of
thousands of mostly young Bahrainis to camp in the center of Manama” (Rosa et
all. 10). Unfortunately, the al-Khalifa royal family responded quickly and
harshly to these uprisings, and were able to quell the uprisings.

Nothing
better illustrates the state of current Bahraini foreign policy than examining
the steps taken by its repressive “constitutional monarchy” during the Arab
Spring to suppress this uprising in 2011 and maintain power. The sectarian
divide, that is heightened by an alternative form of Rentirism utilized by the
ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, is at the center of civil unrest in Bahrain. By
looking at the repressive actions taken by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family,
along with examining Bahraini alliances with Gulf States and the West through
the lens of balance of power theory, one can conclude that these factors
contributed to the failure of the Arab Spring in Bahrain and are at the
forefront of Bahraini foreign policy today.

 

Understanding Rentierism in Bahrain

            Unlike states that depend on
taxation extracted directly from citizens, rentier states distribute rents
rather than extract taxes from citizens. These rents are defined as direct
payments to the government that may derive from natural recourses. Interestingly,
Bahrain “developed a different type of rentier state than in other Gulf
monarchies. Bahrain is an oil-dependent welfare state that does not possess
sufficient oil revenues to provide for the welfare of all its citizens, Sunni
and Shia, nor has a particular political or normative interest in doing so.

Rather than attempt to buy universal political support through financial
patronage, Bahrain has resorted instead to a more economical and politically
expedient ruling strategy: to extend a disproportionate share of state largesse
to a core Sunni tribal support base, whose members then have a direct
economic-cum political stake in defending against challenges to the system
(Gengler). This perverted form of rentierism used by the al-Khalifa royal
family unfairly discriminates against Shia muslims both politically and economically.

“Before and after the uprising, Bahraini Shiites are far less likely than
Sunnis to obtain jobs in the public sector, and they are almost entirely
disqualified from police and military service” (Gengler). Without a doubt, this
alternative form of rentierism in Bahrain contributes greatly to the sectarian
divide in Bahrain that eventually led to an uprising to overthrow the
al-Khalifa regime. Currently, the sectarian divide is still present, and Shia
muslims are still discriminated against and treated unfairly.

 

Bahraini Repression

            According to Gelpi, when a leader is
faced with domestic unrest, there are three options. Repress, find a solution,
or divert and make people focus on something else. When facing domestic unrest
during the Arab Spring and currently in Bahrain, the al-Khalifa family partook
in both repressive and diversionary tactics against its citizens to ensure
political power.

At
first, the uprisings occurring in Bahrain during the Arab Spring did not call
for regime change. After a few days of the protests, Bahraini forces wanted to
disperse the protests camping out at the Pearl Roundabout. “The panicked
reaction of the Al-Khalifa regime resulted in a brutal response, as government
forces opened fire on sleeping demonstrators in the middle of the night (Rozsa
et al. 10). At what became known as the “Peal Roundabout Massacre,” 300
protestors were injured and 4 killed. After this act of repression, the
uprisings began demanding the end of the al-Khalifa regime. In response to the
continuing unrest “King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called in Saudi troops,
declared emergency law and launched a fierce crackdown on pro-reform
protestors” (Mitchel). By the end of the uprising, “80 people have been killed
by security forces and pro-government mobs and more than 3,000 have been
arrested” (Zunes 149). The al-Khalifa royal family also utilized repressive
digital communication methods as technologies of repression during the Arab
Spring to present day. Protestors used social media to schedule rallies and
message other protest leaders in order to topple oppressive governments.

Bahrainis were able to post pictures of human rights violations occurring in
Bahrain under al-Khalifa rule on Twitter. Sadly, “autocrats have also upped
their game significantly in monitoring, constraining, and even shutting down
liberation technology” (Carothers). In fact, Bahrain has “one of the highest
level of Internet filtering and surveillance in the world” (enemies of
internet). Using technology like sending emails with malware or obtaining the
IP addresses for surveillance purposes and identifying anonymous internet users
aided the al-Khalifa regime in finding and imprisoning “21 defendants who were
given very long jail sentences in 2011, of charges belonging to terrorist
organizations and trying to overthrow the government” (enemies of internet).

            Along with utilizing repression, the
al-Khalifa regime also used a diversionary technique by stating that the
protests occurring in Bahrain were an undercover Iranian plot to overthrow the
current government and take over. “The government put out the word that mostly
Shia demonstrators were acting on behalf of Iran” (Fisher). By diverting
attention to Iran, the al-Khalifa regime was able to justify the occupation of
the Peninsula Shield Force. “The Iranian connection, however false or
exaggerated introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influence
and establish an Iranian-style theocracy” (Zunes 157). Ultimately, this was
just 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 track
IP addresses and track Bahraini citizens trying to organize protests.

 

Bahraini Alliance with Gulf States

            In 1981, Bahrain joined the Global
Cooperation Council (GCC). This alliance system was created between the
monarchies in the Persian Gulf to pursue unity in the Gulf. This membership, along
with their close relationship with Saudi Arabia are vital to current foreign
policy. The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the
United Arab Emirates. The GCC is “a political and economic association of the
conservative Arab monarchies that border the Persian Gulf. The group was
founded in 1981 as a response to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and aimed
to unite its members around their dedication to Islamic rule, monarchy, and
reciprocally open markets (Mitchel). The GCC also allowed for the creation of
the Peninsula Shield Force, a joint military with soldiers from each country in
the council with a majority of troops being Saudi. “in 1984, with Saudi funds
and military leadership, the GCC formed the Peninsula Shield Force, a
10,000-man military unit comprised of troops from each member state. The
Peninsula Shield Force became the core of the GCC’s mutual defense program”
(Pike). The occupation of Bahrain by the Peninsula Shield Force during the Arab
Spring was instrumental in defeating the uprisings. Saudi Arabia observed “the
Bahraini regime proved incapable of suppressing the uprising on its own” (Zunes
155). This incapability by the al-Khalifa regime triggered the deployment of
the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain at the urge of the Saudis. “Saudi Arabia
contacted the United States to explain that, at the request of the Bahraini
monarchy, it would be sending several thousand troops over the causeway
connecting it with Bahrain in order to quell the protests. Shortly thereafter,
a joint Saudi-Emirati force of two thousand soldiers, operating under the
auspices of the GCC, entered Bahrain” (Mitchel). Membership in the GCC “helped
countries against political challenges during the Arab Spring. One example is
how Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops to Bahrain to help security quell the
protests” (Carbonnier 16). At its origins, the Peninsula Shield Force was
created to ensure the security of the members in the GCC, and blaming the
protests in Bahrain on a country outside of the council allowed for the
justification of the Peninsula Shield Force occupation in Bahrain.

            Understanding balance of power
theory is vital to conceptualizing the actions taken by the strategic alliance
between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In balance of power theory, the primary goal
of the state is the avoidance of hegemony. Saudi Arabia knows that the current
regime in Bahrain provides a stable, strategic partnership more viable than
with 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 the
maintenance of an equilibrium of power by building up arms and forming
alliances to balance against the primary threats to their interests and
particularly against any state that threatens to secure a hegemonic position
over the system. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, their military and
economic alliance with Bahrain through the GCC is exactly that. The predictability
that comes with the al-Khalifa regime is more valuable to Saudi Arabia than
someone new. From the eyes of Bahrain, Iran is a potential threat of a
hegemonic position over the system, as they are Saudi Arabia’s chief rivals. This
cooperation between other members of the GCC and Bahrain was essential to the
al-Khalifa regime during the Arab Spring to maintain power.

Currently,
Bahrain remains a member of the GCC and strong ally of Saudi Arabia. Also, as
recently as this summer, Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with GCC member Qatar
on May 6th, 2017. From the statement released by the al-Khalifa
family, “The Kingdom of Bahrain announces the cessation of diplomatic relations
with 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 was
funding groups “associated with Iran to sabotage and spread chaos in Bahrain in
flagrant violation of all agreements and the principles of international law” (mofa.gov.bh).

Ultimately, the al-Khalifa regime believed that Qatar was funding terrorist
groups associated with Iran to “destabilize the security and stability of the
Kingdom of Bahrain” (mofa.gov.bh). Saudi Arabia also cut diplomatic ties with
Qatar. 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 Bahrain
took these measures. Additionally, on November 11th, 2017, there was
an explosion at a Bahraini oil pipeline that Bahrain blamed on terrorism by the
Iranians. From the Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa “Terrorist
acts witnessed by the country in the recent period are carried out through
direct contacts and instructions from Iran.” Today, tensions are still high
between Iran and Bahrain. Additionally, Iran may like to capitalize on the instability
in Saudi Arabia.

 

Relations with the West

            Bahrain has been allies with the
U.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This relationship with the U.S. proved
valuable to the al-Khalifa regime as the U.S. did not support the uprising
efforts because of the methodical importance of the US Navy Fifth Fleet and
predictability with the current regime. “For the 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 force ensuring that the Gulf’s oil
shipping 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 or
long-term unrest in Bahrain that adversely impacts the fleet’s operations would
be 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 the
al-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 an
invitation to the Bahraini military “to receive tips on crowd control in a
police training exercise called Urban Shield 2011” (Mullin). In actuality,
Bahraini forces used U.S. weaponry and crowd control methods to suppress the
uprisings during the Arab Spring. This cooperation with the U.S. proved vital
to the al-Khalifa regime.

            To the al-Khalifa regime, it is clear
that 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 in
the Middle East to spread democracy and take down oppressive regimes like in
Iraq and Afghanistan. While the al-Khalifa regime has committed multiple human
rights violations, the U.S. turned a cold shoulder to the uprisings during the
Arab Spring because of the strategic importance of the Fifth Fleet. It is clear
that Bahrain and the U.S are both utilizing balance of power theory. In the
eyes of the Bahrainis, Iran is an emerging hegemony looking to take advantage
of the instability in Saudi Arabia and cause chaos in Bahrain. The U.S. also
sees its alliance with Bahrain as vital to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf.

 

From
class readings, Mitchell talked about McJihad. Basically, McJihad is defined as
“mechanisms of capitalism appear to operate only by adopting social force and
moral authority of conservative Islamic Movements; an alliance between
Capitalism and Conservative Islamic Movements” (Mitchell). I’d like to take
this one step further, and add that in addition to capitalism, western
democracies also build strategic alliance with oppressive conservative Islamic movements.

For instance, on March 17th, 2011, the UN Security Council passed
Resolution 1973. This resolution organized by the Obama administration allowed
for military intervention in Libya because of the brutal takedown of protestors
by the Qaddafi regime. Ultimately, the U.S. and other NATO countries started
bombing Libya. Contrarily, despite the massacre of hundreds of Bahraini
protestors during the Arab Spring, the U.S. decided to stand by their ally and
turn a blind eye. “When authoritarian leaders are loyal allies, they are
supported for decades by the U.S., as it simultaneously claims to stand for all
that is free and democratic. It will sell arms to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and
choose to neglect its human rights violations when convenient” (Elkateb). The
U.S. also preferred the stability that came with the al-Khalifa regime. “For
the 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 force
ensuring that the Gulf’s oil shipping lanes are not compromised. The fleet also
reminds Iran that the United States is standing with its Arab Gulf allies. For
Washington, any political crisis or long-term unrest in Bahrain that adversely
impacts the fleet’s operations would be a threat to U.S. interests in the
region” (Murphy 14). This strategic alliance between the U.S. and Bahrain
provides legitimacy to the al-Khalifa family.

 

Future and Conclusion

            By examining the brutal takedown of
protestors during the Arab Spring in Bahrain by the Al-Khalifa royal family and
the 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 Arab
Spring was unsuccessful in Bahrain. When looking at why the Arab Spring was unsuccessful
in Bahrain, one is able to see how the current foreign policy of Bahrain was essential
to the al-Khalifa royal family staying in power. The Peninsula Shield Force was
able to occupy Bahrain and murder innocent protestors and suppress an uprising.

It is evident that balance of power theory, a twist on McJihad, and regional
alliances 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 taken
by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, along with examining Bahraini alliances
with Gulf States and the West through the lens of balance of power theory, one
can conclude that these factors contributed to the failure of the Arab Spring
in Bahrain and are at the forefront of Bahraini foreign policy today.

Looking
towards the future, the al-Khalifa family looks to remain in power and continue
to be a strategic ally of the U.S. and member of the GCC. One thing to monitor
is how the Iranians will react to the growing instability in Saudi Arabia and
how they will continue to foster their relationship with Qatar. If Iran can
take advantage of these circumstances, they will continue to grow as a threat
to 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 in
the near future. Furthermore, as long as the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet remains
stationed in Bahrain, there will continue to be a strategic alliance between
the U.S. and Bahrain.