My friend and occasional co-blogger, Suresh Naidu, is a professor at Columbia. He is also an activist for human rights, as is his wife, Radhika Sainath, along with her colleague Huwaida Arraf. Radhika and Huwaida travelled to Bahrain in order to place American observers inside the demonstrations scheduled for the February 14th anniversary of the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations. The Bahraini government detained both of them and then had them forcibly deported. In a gratuitous move, the government kept their hands tied behind their backs for the entire flight to London.
On the exact same date that the Bahraini government detained Radhika and Huwaida, I was told that the Bahraini government was disinviting me from giving a talk next month due to this piece on an HBS blog.
Demonstrations in the Shia townships and villages are regularly met with violence from the government, as have spontaneous protests. (The embassy publishes demonstration notices, which are useful for those who like the smell of tear gas.) There are continual rumors of violence aimed at foreigners, but the horrifying incident in which a Briton lost two fingers to a “sword” attack turned out to be a mugging gone wrong. The fellow had fallen asleep in his car when a group of kids tried to rob him. When he resisted, they slashed his hands. It is not clear that the blade was a sword, or that they cut off his fingers as opposed to slashing them badly. Given my background, my standards are probably low, but the story could have happened in the United States.
What is going on in Bahrain? Justin Gengler has a useful roundup. The basic split, as discussed here earlier, is between the Sunni monarchy and poorer Shia citizens. There were demonstrations in February, and the government resorted to repression, with help from Saudi troops. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry reported in June of last year that the government had tortured detainees, but it did not name any names. On September 24th, the government held new elections to replace the Shia parliamentarians who resigned in the wake of the crackdown. Violence surrounded the elections. Turnout, unsurprisingly, was low.
According to Gengler, five important trends have emerged over the year since the crackdown:
- The Sunnis are unhappy. Some of it is anger at corruption, which is probably good. But some of it is that they think the government has been too soft of Shia, which is probably not;
- The Bahraini government has thrown a lot of money at the population to head of dissatisfaction (much of which has come from the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ... and it has not helped. People are still angry;
- Sectarianism is dangerous. That makes sense, but I am unclear as to why this is something that we didn’t know in February 2011;
- The GCC is split. All the GCC governments united around support for the Bahraini monarchy, putatively out of fear of Iranian influence, but since then it has become clear that some are more worried than others. The Qatari government hosted Muqtada Al-Sadr, which did not the Bahraini happy. The Omani government went further and “denied Tehran’s interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs.” These splits could widen;
- This is gonna take a hella long time to sort out.
Here is an interview with Radhika and Huwaida. I am much more sympathetic to the American consular officials who helped them while in detention. They might not have gotten back their equipment, but the American embassy in Manama is not a viceregal office. (We have an empire, and Bahrain is part of it, but it is a particularly incoherent and weak empire.) More broadly, I am sympathetic to the American dilemma. We need the Fifth Fleet to keep the sea lines open and constrain Iran. Perhaps Qatar would offer a more peaceable home (and I should note that Dubai already allows our vessels to use its facilities) but in practical terms that would change nothing in Bahrain. Much as I would like to get worked up about the way we coddle the Bahraini government, I just can’t, not until somebody convinces me that we could accomplish something by yanking our support.
So, please, convince me! Why is the Obama administration wrong?