The small Gulf Arab state of Bahrain is using digital-era tools of surveillance, deception and repression to quell popular dissent. But a group of well-meaning tech-savvy geeks are mobilizing new digitally enhanced methods to expose who is behind this repression and how it operates today.
I sometimes refer to my college years in Saudi Arabia as “doing time.” But early in those years I did some time that almost did me in—and my mother, too.
I had spent high school in Bahrain as a boarder. My father pressured me to attend university near our house in Dhahran, where he worked as a contractor on the US military base.
For a moment, four years ago, it seemed that dictators in the Middle East would soon be a thing of the past.
Back then, it looked like the United States would have to make good on its declared support for democracy, as millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and others rose up to reject their repressive leaders. Many of these autocrats enjoyed support from Washington in return for providing “stability.”
Yet even the collapse of multiple governments failed to upend the decades-long U.S. policy of backing friendly dictators. Washington has doubled down on maintaining a steady supply of weapons and funding to governments willing to support U.S. strategic interests, regardless of how they treat their citizens.
I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.
In the run-up to the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising on February 14, 2011, mass protests with tens of thousands of participants again engulfed the small kingdom. At the same time, a number of contacts between the opposition and the royal family sparked hopes of renewed high-level negotiations leading to the resolution of the long-standing conflict.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was full of tough talk when he visited the island kingdom of Bahrain in early December.
The United States, he vowed, will continue to guard “the free flow of energy and commerce” from the Persian Gulf and keep Iran nuclear-free, through the presence of 35,000 US military personnel or the (as yet unproven) regional missile defense system.
Hagel also trumpeted the American commitment to “political reform” in the Gulf region. But the Pentagon chief uttered not a word about the hundreds of Bahrainis languishing in prison — many without adequate medical care — for demanding the very rights he says they deserve.
All claims to the contrary, the Persian Gulf monarchies have been deeply affected by the Arab revolutionary ferment of 2011-2012. Bahrain may be the only country to experience its own sustained upheaval, but the impact has also been felt elsewhere. Demands for a more participatory politics are on the rise, as are calls for the protection of rights and formations of various types of civic and political organization. Although these demands are not new, they are louder than before, including where the price of dissent is highest in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the usually hushed United Arab Emirates. The resilience of a broad range of activists in denouncing autocracy and discomfiting autocrats is inspirational.
The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.
The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.
The talk of Bahrain at present is talk — the possible renewal of dialogue between the government and the opposition — but the reality is that street protests, after simmering in outlying villages for months, have begun to heat up in the capital of Manama.
Bahrain’s bout with political unrest is nearing its one-year anniversary. Though there are multiple parties to the protracted conflict, analysts continue to focus almost exclusively on a single dyad, Sunni vs. Shi‘i. To some, the ongoing mobilization of Bahraini Shi‘a since February 14, 2011 is a continuation of a decades-long struggle for basic social reform. To others, it is an opportunistic attempt at wholesale takeover of the country, supported in spirit if not in deed by foreign sympathizers. By either of these readings, the heart of the matter in Bahrain is the standoff between the Sunni state and the Shi‘i-led opposition. Many see the revolt on this small island as but a microcosm of the competition for regional dominance between the Arab Gulf monarchies and Iran, as well as their respective great power patrons.
At about 11 pm on May 2, Bahrain’s criminal investigations directorate summoned Nedhal al-Khalifa, a 42-year-old dermatologist. Her father dropped her off at their headquarters at the ministry of interior at about midnight. Her family, including her four young children, didn’t hear anything from her until she was released two days later. Her husband, Sadiq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon, also 42, was detained in the same fashion on April 14. His whereabouts and condition remains unknown, as does the reason for his detention.
An uncertain calm has settled over the small island kingdom of Bahrain. The wave of peaceful pro-democracy protests from February 14-17 culminated in bloodshed, including the brutal murder of seven activists, some of whom were asleep in tents, by the armed forces. On orders from above, the army withdrew from the roundabout on the outskirts of the capital of Manama where the protests have been centered, and since shortly after the seven deaths it has observed calls for restraint. Thousands of jubilant protesters seized the moment to reoccupy the roundabout, the now infamous Pearl Circle. In commemoration of the dead, the demonstrators have renamed it Martyrs’ Circle.
On November 9, 2005, over 100,000 protesters—approximately one seventh of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s population—flooded the streets of the capital, Manama. Most of the protesters were Shi‘a demonstrating their resistance to the government’s campaign to implement a codified family law, announced a month earlier. The measure, which is ready to be presented to Bahrain’s parliament newly elected in 2006, would remove adjudication of matters having to do with women and the family from Muslim religious (shari‘a) courts, whose rulings are at the judge’s discretion. Instead, family courts would follow an agreed-upon body of black-letter law and legal precedent.
At the end of May, the government of Bahrain summoned the international press to Manama for what it promised would be a major policy statement on Monday, June 3. I was in Bahrain at the time, conducting interviews for a report on human rights conditions there. Bahraini opponents of the regime in exile abroad, and critics inside the country with whom I spoke were predicting that the amir, Sheikh ‘Isa Al Khalifa, would announce an expansion of the four-year old handpicked Consultative Council, or Shura Council, from 30 to 40 men, perhaps even allowing some civic or religious groups a role in nominating candidates.
Iran’s revolution had a profound impact on the regional balance of forces in the Gulf. Until 1979, the two most powerful and ambitious states in the region, Iran and Iraq, were sufficiently constrained by each other, and by the presence of United States forces and Washington’s friendly relations with most of the Gulf states, that neither seriously attempted to overturn the status quo.
Torture in Bahrain
Fu’ad Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Fu’ad Khuri has provided us with a sensitive analysis of the recent history of Bahrain. He captures the broad sweep of socioeconomic and political change brought about by the colonial bureaucracy and the discovery of oil, and he comprehends the multiplicity of peoples, religious sects and classes in Bahrain and their responses to these changes.
Labor activism has been a major feature of political life in Bahrain, going back to early industrial activities following the discovery of oil in 1928-1932.  These early efforts absorbed many destitute pearl divers, peasants and freed slaves, and paved the way for a new stratum of middlemen from among the pearl merchant families. The new economic activities gave additional impetus to British efforts to build the skeleton of a local government administration capable of coping with the social and economic transformation of the island.