Friday, April 8, 2011

Dangerous change rattles Bahrain
By Derek Henry Flood

MANAMA - Arriving at Bahrain's small, formerly passive, international airport, two undesirable types of travelers are being singled out: those appearing to be journalists and those believed to be of Lebanese origin, irrespective of current nationality. Asia Times Online was detained for two-and-a-half hours after an immigration officer took particular notice of a bevy of Afghanistan visas.

The Kingdom of Bahrain's new greeting procedures at its sole airport give the Sunni-run state an air of being bent on self-destruction, albeit perhaps unwittingly. The harassment of international journalists because of the "situation" is hardly a well thought out bullet point in a comprehensive public relations

campaign to tidy up the kingdom's sullied image.

Following bellicose statements by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah in support of Bahrain's majority Shi'ites against Sunni rulers, the overnight intimidation of all manner of Lebanese from wealthy Christians who've helped to build Bahrain's economy from nearly scratch to Lebanese-American and Lebanese-French tourists to anyone who looks remotely Lebanese is a policy of an inherently immature political system suddenly unaware of the entire Persian Gulf region's dependence on the business acumen of the Lebanese diaspora.

Lebanese who fled their country's 1975-1990 civil war helped greatly to modernize the Persian Gulf's then nascent oil and gas boom economies that created an environment where everyone from Britons to Bangladeshis works in the region today.

The infamous Pearl Roundabout, often termed Pearl Square during the uprising, is now a closed military zone fenced in by barbed wire and acres of red and white traffic barriers at the edge of Manama's Central Market area.

Asia Times Online posed as a customer with a small camera looking to buy raw fish to get as close a look possible to the area where Bahrain's pro-democracy movement rose and fell.

Quietly approaching the ring of defensive fencing surrounding a dead space, a Nepali migrant worker described in halting English witnessing the pathetic destruction of the Pearl Monument on March 18. In a horrifying accident, a Pakistani crane operator was crushed to death after being ordered to destroy the monument.

The regime's raison d'etre for the monument's removal was that it had been tainted by the protester's presence. It was now a "bad memory".

In an attempt to bring harmony to the island's now completely polarized Sunni and Shi'ite communities, the central bank "canceled" the 500 fils coin (about US$1.3) that for years proudly displayed this symbol of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pre-oil boom past when the region was a British protectorate known mostly for harvesting pearls.

A cashier at Carrefour, the French hypermarket ubiquitous in the Gulf, said she was instructed to make the pearl coins disappear by simply tossing them in the rubbish bin after receiving them as payment from customers, ensuring the erasure of the bad memory plaguing the kingdom.

In another poorly calculated move to stem the creation of further bad memories, on April 2 the government closed al-Wasat, the opposition newspaper, claiming that its reporting was "fabricated, inauthentic and misleading, directly targeting Bahrain's stability and security", according the state-run Gulf Daily News.

Following the ban on al-Wasat, two of its resident reporters, who according to the Associated Press were both Iraqi nationals, were summarily deported. The government repackaged the ban as a blip in the paper's production as the opposition-minded editor Mansour al-Jamri was forced out and Abidli al-Abidli, a much more palatable figure, was installed as the paper's new editor-in-chief.

A Shi'ite taxi driver, whom I'll call Syed, stated that he initially supported the protesters and their agenda of transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy but that they lost his support when the unrest reached a tipping point where his children could no longer attend primary school.

"My priority is my children, above all else" Syed recounted. "One strike [protest], two strikes, okay. But not so many strikes that my children cannot go to school."

We toured by row after row of nearly empty hotels whose occupancy by Saudi and Kuwaiti weekend alcohol and sex tourists is a staple of Bahrain's now fragile economy. "Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we have too many people [men] from Saudi and Kuwait who come here to enjoy themselves. Now as you can see, there are none."

The 25-kilometer long King Fahd Causeway that connects the Bahraini archipelago to the Arabian Peninsula mainland has acted as a release valve for the dry, ultra-conservative kingdoms to Bahrain's north and west.

The only visitors from Saudi Arabia who have come recently are the 2,000 or so soldiers who have come to restore "stability" to Bahrain under the guise of the GCC's Joint Peninsula Shield Force (JPSF).

The JPSF troops pitched camp behind Manama's hulking, virtually customer-less City Center Mall They man a checkpoint with heavy armor. Attempting to walk from the fish market to the mall, Asia Times Online was stopped a second time in under two hours.

A pair of Saudi soldiers in a Humvee along the shore worriedly insisted that this correspondent had breached their perimeter and should go no further until their captain was summoned. Feigning no knowledge of Arabic and hedging that these JPSF troops would not fire on a foreign reporter in broad daylight, it was time to simply walk away shouting things like "tourist, hotel, airport" and pointing to a wristwatch.

After exiting the country, Asia Times Online spoke with Nabeel Rajab, the outspoken director of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights. Rajab candidly outlined the outbreak of gross human rights violations directed against the island state's Shi'ite majority population in recent weeks.

"It is intimidation ... every Shi'ite [Muslim] is a target," Rajab said of the overall climate of fear gripping the kingdom. Rajab described in detail a campaign of a fear being waged not only in villages in the shadow of the once glittering capital but now in downtown Manama itself.

He said the appearance of graffiti supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, desecration of traditional food offerings left outsidehusseiniyas (Shi'ite religious halls), and a plethora of humiliating checkpoints where being caught with any imagery related to the uprising or bans on photography can lead to a severe beating coupled with interrogation.

During a recent visit to a local hospital, Rajab noticed posters of King Hamad and other leading members of the al-Khalifa dynasty that low-level hospital workers of suspect allegiance were apparently urged to kiss in a display of coerced allegiance. Inside the hospital, there were posts for members of Bahrain's security apparatus, intelligence service, and regular army to question arriving patients who they believe of suspect affiliation.

Many in the security forces are immigrant ex-soldiers recruited from friendly Sunni states like Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan. According to a Western diplomat who spoke to Asia Times Online, the active placement of foreign Sunni soldiers in Bahrain's military was an effort to firmly consolidate the kingdom's place as a Sunni power, however minor.

Rajab describes these foreign recruits filling out the ranks of his country's special forces as "mercenaries". The presence of Sunni shock troops has increased hostility immensely and fuels Shi'ite resentment about a purposefully changing sectarian demographic.
Rajab, who was detained on March 20 in a night raid that terrified his family, depicts what amounts to a policy of collective punishment being deployed against the monarchy's now possibly irreconcilable subjects along with an economic implosion that is shaking the nation to its core. It is a bleak picture of mostly unseen repression that quickly dropped off the international media's radar.

"They [the regime] try to humiliate the enemy," he said. Asked about the strange disappearance of the Pearl Monument-bearing 500 fils coin normally given as change in transactions with the Bahraini dinar, Rajab responded: "Seeing the 500 fils coin is dangerous. People are now afraid to carry it."

Hundreds of workers are now being sacked from their jobs for having any affiliation with the uprising that began formally on February 14. The al-Khalifa monarchy has effectively marketed the notion of Iran as the Shi'ite specter across the Persian Gulf and Rajab stated that the American media's silent treatment of the Bahrain crisis and its accompanying human rights deficit was "hypocritical" in light of its coverage of the simultaneous tumult in Libya, Yemen and now Syria.

In giving credence to the Bahraini (and Saudi) regime's insistence that Mahmud Ahmadinejad's Islamic Republic of Iran is persistently interfering and stoking sectarian strife in Bahrain, Rajab said it was a way for the outside world to "justify their silence" on Bahrain's brutal crackdown. The GCC's Iran hysteria fits into a both Saudi and Israeli pre-fabricated narrative featuring Iran as a deviant bogey man constantly keeping the security balance of their respective regions on a knife's edge.

The myth of the Iranian pariah imperiling all manner of interests in the Persian Gulf's littoral states has helped the United States, France and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gain GCC acquiescence in the Libyan war, another new Arab awakening-turned-conflict with no apparent end in sight.

A Western diplomat stationed in Manama stated that the majority of Bahrain's Shi'ites populace holds a fervent distaste for Iran and that this sentiment is well known throughout much of the diplomatic corps there.

Officialdom in Washington and other Western capitals appear to be behind the curve if that is indeed the case. Any sense of guilt in the West can be washed away by giving credibility to the Iran claims promoted by Manama, Riyadh and unscrupulous public relations firms in Washington which create kneejerk double-take among lawmakers about an actual degree of Iranian involvement in Bahrain's troubles. Skepticism has given way to the status quo when it comes to Bahrain.

Bahrain's place in the Persian Gulf as a financial hub is currently being decimated and rapid capital flight may make the kingdom an economic as well as military dependency of Saudi Arabia. According to Rajab, the Bahraini economy "will be frozen" so long as a "state of war" exists with Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) occupation forces (who do not appear to be wearing any insignias denoting them as Saudi) trampling over Manama's urban core.

Many Asian migrant workers and Western expatriates have fled and may return to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha if at all. Bahrain has already facilitated a somewhat orderly exodus of a percentage of its traditionally indentured South Asian and Filipino workforce in order to quickly cut costs in its nearly vacant hotels, restaurants, and now stalled vanity construction projects.

Though local customers, having been prisoners in their own homes for weeks on end, may indeed be trickling back into gaudy malls guarded by tanks, it will take much more substantial revenue to save the local economy from regime-guided self-destruction. The Saudis have promised to provide the island with a rather substantial financial assistance package though Bahrain may become dominated by a suzerain in the process.

The question for Bahrainis of any stripe, along with foreign investors and migrant workers depending on the Bahraini economy to send remittances home, is precisely when the Saudi military, along with the UAE police force, plan their exit. No one seems to know precisely if or when.

Those who stand to gain from the momentary perception of "stability" say they welcome the Saudi forces. The indigenous Shi'ites on the other hand, view the armed interlopers as a sort of Shi'ite containment mechanism designed to stem the transformation of Bahrain into an inclusive, representative society that would not neatly fit into Saudi foreign policy.

In Rajab's words, "It does not look like the Saudis are going to leave soon." Though the streets of Bahrain's capital remain free of protests and visible violence, the core issues of majority rights, democratization, and for some, toppling the monarchy itself, will remain bottled up to burst into rage another day.

So as King Hamad, his uncle Prime Minister Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah and company try to erase the Shi'ite uprising with its calls for democratic reformation in Bahrain from memory, the kingdom's Sunnis look to the monarchy to ensure their place in Bahrain's traumatized society while former Shi'ite protesters along with ordinary villagers wait in fear of the next punitive night raid.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia. 

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)