By Afro-Middle East Centre
Recent statements by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa criticising the Arab boycott of Israel and advocating Bahraini visits to Tel Aviv, point to the increasing normalisation of Gulf Arab states with Israel under the auspices of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Khalifa’s statement can be read as as a testing of the waters by Saudi Arabia, and partly as an attempt to gain favour with the US administration to form an alliance against Iran. It is also part of a bigger trend among Gulf Arab countries to normalise links with Israel, thus likely resulting in a decrease in the already-limited support for the Palestinians.
The statements, disclosed by Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Center, emerged following the participation of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa in an event of the centre, and his visit to the pro-Israel Museum of Tolerance, both in Los Angeles, USA. The Wiesenthal Centre event was funded by Bahrain, and, during it, Nasser, accompanied by over forty Bahraini officials, signed a declaration on religious tolerance, which was endorsed by Hamad. In an indication of his royal family’s attitude to Israel, Nasser agreed to the playing of the Israeli national anthem at the event, and respectfully stood for it. The king’s subsequent silence reinforces the veracity of the revelations, and illustrates his regime’s confidence that no reputational harm will result. Cooper and Hier also announced their intention to construct a ‘tolerance museum’ in Bahrain’s capital Manama. The Wiesenthal Centre built a similar museumover the Ma'man Allah Muslim cemetery in East Jerusalem, despite opposition from Palestinians.
Manama often touts its treatment of minorities as a regional exemplar, mainly in an effort to deflect from criticism of its suppression of the Shi'a majority, which has endured systematic marginalisation, and which regularly experiences state violence, including torture, including at the hands of Nasser. Incidences of such violence have increased since the 2011 Middle East uprisings that saw large protests in Bahrain and resulted in the deployment of Gulf (mainly Saudi) troops to Bahrain in March 2011.
Hamad’s statements point to a broader pattern of Gulf Arab normalisation with Israel, partly in an attempt to contain Iran. In recent years, visits between Israeli and Gulf officials have increased, and covert cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Gulf and Israel has intensified. In July, Britain’s The Times reported discussions between Saudi and Israeli officials aimed at fostering economic ties, while some reports claimed that bin Salman secretly visited Israel in August. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had previously invited the crown prince for an official visit, and Netanyahu has repeatedly recently bragged that Israeli-Arab ties were at their best levels. Saudi Arabia and Israel have common cause in their desire for a regional bloc to contain Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as threatening its regional aspirations. Bahrain fears the influence of the Islamic republic on its Shi'a population, which comprises two-thirds of the total. Bahrain often accuses Iran of meddling, and has instrumentalised this to crack down on dissent. These dynamics have been bolstered by the US president, Donald Trump, his vigorous support for Israel, and his focus on containing Iran at Tel Aviv’s request. Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati officials have enthusiastically supported Trump’s administration, leveraging their connections with Israeli sympathetic think tanks to garner favour.
It is thus likely that Hamad’s comment was issued with Saudi endorsement. This is especially since the Bahraini monarchy is dependent on Saudi largesse for its survival. Saudi troops remain in Bahrain, and, in 2012, Riyadh unsuccessfully sought GCC unification as a means to protect the Bahraini regime, and to consolidate Riyadh’s influence in the council. Moreover, Bahrain generates most of its revenue from the Saudi Aramco-controlled Abu Safah oilfield, and is disproportionately reliant on Saudi tourism. Bahraini foreign policy has thus been beholden to Saudi Arabia. Manama touted GCC unification in 2012, and Bahrain is a key supporter of both the 2014 Gulf ambassadorial recall from Qatar and the 2017 blockade on Qatar. Hamad has also defended the Saudi king, labelling twitter critics as Qatar proxies, and threatening Bahrainis sympathetic to Qatar with five-year imprisonment terms. This despite the fact that Bahrain-Qatar ties regarding oil exploration and trade had been increasing since 2014, and Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is supportive of its Muslim Brotherhood-styled party, Minbar Al-Islami.
Warming Gulf ties with Israel are likely to damage the already-debilitated Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The flawed 2002 Arab peace initiative, which proposed Arab governments normalise ties with Israel in return for Israeli relinquishing of territories occupied since 1967 and Tel Aviv’s partial endorsement of the Palestinian right of return, will be rendered more irrelevant as Israel will no longer see any need to make any concessions. Israel’s strategy of negotiating with individual Arab states has seen results, and this is likely to continue. Moreover, Gulf Arab regimes are increasingly forcing Palestinians to forego their aspirations in an attempt to speed up this process. Gulf and Egyptian support for Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Mahmoud Abbas can be partially understood in this light, especially since Dahlan maintains good ties with Israel, and is willing to consider land and population swaps as part of a ‘peace’ initiative.
By Afro-Middle East Cantre
On 5 March, the upper house of the Bahraini parliament passed a constitutional amendment which, critics say, will result in the country living under undeclared martial law. The amendment allows for civilians to be tried by military courts when the case involves the military. This was followed the next day by the justice ministry filing a lawsuit to ban the Wa'ad party, the second biggest opposition party after the now-banned Al-Wefaq party. The repression of dissent in Bahrain is clearly increasing.
The suspension of civil liberties implicit in this amendment as well as the removal of limitations in the constitution on who may be tried by a military court are both characteristics of martial law. When this amendment was initially passed by the lower house of parliament Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (based in London) accused Bahrain’s king of ‘effectively creating a police state’and of implementing ‘de facto martial law’. Bahrain is following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia which has also redefined its anti-terror laws to increase the power of security forces in the face of political dissent. The government is using counter-terrorism measures to clamp down on political opposition, and cases of opposition leaders will be passed on to military courts to adjudicate as per the instruction of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, who stated that judges of military courts should adjudicate cases concerning terror activities.
Anti-regime and pro-democracy protests have been occurring frequently in Bahrain since the 2011 uprisings. These have been led by members of the Shi'a majority against the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy, which is Sunni. High unemployment, systematic discrimination against Shi'as, a deteriorating human rights record and the increasing executive power of the Emir are grievances repeated by the opposition. Apart from Bahrain’s Bloody Thursday on 17 February 2011, where police raided sleeping protestors camping at Pearl Roundabout in Manama killing four and injuring about 300; protests have been largely peaceful but generally accompanied by a police response using excessive force.
On 14 March 2011 troops from both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain at the request of the al-Khalifa regime, and crushed the rebellion. Three months of martial law followed, and hundreds of civilians were tried in military courts; tortured prisoners were given lengthy jail terms on little to no evidence. Peaceful protestors and even medics who had treated injured protesters were jailed. Both an independent inquiry commissioned by Bahrain’s rulers and international human rights’ organisations condemned the military courts. After martial law was lifted on 1 June 2011, the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, led weekly demonstrations until protests were banned in October 2012. Despite the ban, protests have continued. The reintroduction of military courts to try civilians now is a disturbing development in the erosion of rights within Bahrain.
Government repression has included the stripping of citizenship from top cleric Shaykh Isa Qassim in June 2016, the banning of Al-Wefaq in July, and the execution of three men in January 2017. In contrast to the religious-based Al-Wefaq, Wa'ad (the National Democratic Action Society) – which has just been banned – is a leftist political party whose stated mission is to: ‘To strive towards achieving equal citizenship, safeguarding people’s sovereignty, protecting their rights and public freedoms, achieving equality and social justice for all and rejecting all forms of discrimination and sectarianism.’ As a secular bloc it has attempted to reach out to both Shi'a and Sunni opposition figures.
Wa'ad was previously banned in April 2011, but reinstated two months later. Its former secretary-general, Ibrahim Sharif, served four years in jail for his role in the 2011 protests, after being convicted by a military-led tribunal for plotting to overthrow the government. He was arrested again in July 2015 for a speech allegedly inciting hatred and spent a year in prison, and was again arrested and charged in November 2016 for ‘inciting hatred against the regime’ after an interview he gave to the Associated Press where he argued that a forthcoming visit by Britain’s Prince Charles would ‘whitewash’ human rights abuses. Wa'ad has been an unusual target for the government since the uprisings due to its moderate stance; this suggests that the government is unwilling to tolerate even mild dissent.
The international response to Bahrain’s increasing repression has been contradictory, with calls for condemnation ignored by both the USA and the UK. Various human rights NGOs, Amnesty International in particular, have been vocal in their concern for the deterioration of human rights. Amnesty claims that Bahrain is at ‘a tipping point’, and that the first weeks of 2017 saw ‘an alarming upsurge in arbitrary and abusive force by security forces’. The USA has announced its intention to approve an arms deal with Bahrain that was halted under the Obama administration. This would see the transfer of nineteen F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain. In December 2016 British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Bahrain and addressed the Gulf Co-operation Council, emphasising the fostering of stronger economic ties with Gulf countries on the eve of Brexit. There was no mention of human rights abuses.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
On 17 July, a Bahraini court banned the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, on charges of terrorism and inciting violence in the kingdom. Wefaq is the largest political party in Bahrain, largely supported by the majority Shi'a population, with the most legislators in the lower house of parliament. The parliamentary members were all recalled following a 2011 government crackdown. Two other opposition parties, al-Tawiya and al-Risala, were also banned.
The banning was not entirely unexpected. It comes within the context of a broader crackdown; after Wefaq’s suspension in June, top Shi'a cleric Shaykh Isa Qassim was stripped of his nationality, and five other senior Shi'a clerics were interrogated. The case concerning Wefaq had been postponed until 4 September, but was expedited due to a justice ministry request. The defence panel withdrew from the case before it ended in protest against their inability to access the Wefaq offices.
The June suspension was not the party’s first – it had previously been suspended in October 2014, a month before parliamentary elections; but the party will now be dissolved, and all its funds seized by the state. Wefaq’slawyers have forty-five days to appeal, or the judgement will become final. The court’s decision was given a day after the government decided to charge Isa Qassim with illegal fundraising and money laundering, causing him to face up to seven years in jail and a $2.6 million fine. In December 2014, Wefaq’s secretary-general, Ali Salman, was imprisoned on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and collaborating with foreign powers. He denied the charges, but was sentenced to four years in prison in June 2015. Last month the appeal court increased the sentence to nine years.
The authoritarian Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty rules Bahrain, a country where approximately seventy per cent of the population is Shi'a. After the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, including Bahrain, the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Bahrainis became more pronounced. Although the issue was originally a political rather than a religious or sectarian issue, the growing sectarian divide is partly due to government policies of repression against Shi'as, and partly because of the increasing sectarianism in the region over the past six years. The monarchy’s recent moves against Shi'as have met with international and domestic opposition. Within the country, the peaceful sit-in outside Isa Qassim’s house in Diraz against the stripping of his citizenship has been going on for a month and, after the banning of Wefaq was announced this week, protests broke out in the capital Manama with clashes between police and demonstrators.
Outside Bahrain, the UN and various human rights organisations condemned the government’s repressive actions as being in violation of international law. On Sunday 17 July, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, issued a statement of concern about recent steps taken by Bahrain to suppress non-violent opposition, asserting that it undermined security in Bahrain and stability in the region. As expected, Iran denounced Wefaq’s banning as ‘unconstructive’, and Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he was ‘alarmed’ and that ‘[u]rgent international attention is essential to avoid another catastrophe in our region’. The Bahraini regime hit back, calling such criticism unjustified and ‘unacceptable interference’ in Bahrain’s internal affairs. Such criticisms, the government argues, will encourage extremism and terrorism, using an argument that is regularly used by Middle Eastern autocrats.
The banning, however, does not spell the end of Wefaq. Although the party is out of parliament, it remains the largest opposition group, and commands considerable support. But it is also an indication of the regime’s determination to shut down all meaningful avenues for citizens to express opposition: from organising political groups to tweeting criticism of the government. The banning of Wefaq is a clear indication that the regime will not only be intolerant of critics on the streets, but in parliament as well. While previously the regime might have been more sensitive to foreign criticism, with its relationship and that of its patron, Saudi Arabia, with the United States having deteriorated, it is unlikely Bahrain will respond positively to American criticism. It is also unlikely that the USA will follow up its criticism with any censure of Bahrain and risk worsening its relations with Saudi Arabia.