During February 2011, more than 200,000 Bahraini citizens set up camp at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama to call for substantive government reform. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis from all walks of life withstood government raids and political arrests during their month-long occupation of the iconic site. As a result of the movement’s resilience and popular following, it appeared that change would come to Bahrain.
However, in March 2011, the Saudi Arabian military rolled across the causeway to assist the Bahraini government in its brutal crackdown of peaceful dissent. These troops formed the core of the Peninsula Shield, the Gulf coalition force which King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa invited into Bahrain to turn the tide as his security forces lost control of the streets.
The Saudi-led coalition committed to staying until the protest movement was quelled. One Saudi official went on record as saying: “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs. It’s open-ended”. This “assistance” meant aiding in Bahraini government violence. With Saudi forces securing strategic positions around the country, the government was able to fire rubber bullets, tear gas, and live ammunition at protesters at point-blank range. Bahraini police forces also imprisoned doctors, teachers, students, and defense lawyers— some indefinitely and without legitimate legal charges. During this period of Saudi interference, many Bahrainis were abducted and tortured, and more than 40 people were killed.
Officially, Saudi authorities warned that Iran, a long-time regional rival, held influence over the protesters, the majority of whom were Shia. This could not be farther from the truth. As was well documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was established by King Hamad to investigate human rights abuses in 2011, Iran had no involvement in Bahrain’s uprising. In fact, the protest movement transcended sectarian divisions, uniting Sunni and Shia citizens in their demand for reform and an end to authoritarian rule.
Why then did the Saudi government assist in Bahrain’s suppression of a domestic uprising? The answer is simple: to ensure that a similar type of uprising would never happen within their borders. The intervention of the Peninsula Shield brought an end to the Pearl Roundabout protest movement and demolished what little democratic activity Bahrain previously enjoyed. Saudi intervention allowed Bahrain’s security forces to regroup so they could began a sustained campaign of targeting human rights activists and members of political opposition in an effort to restore the status quo. Activists like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, and politicians like Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waad), received harsh jail sentences for speaking against the ruling government. Through the arrests and persecution of all forms of dissent, the Bahraini government has drastically reduced the possibility for democratic reform in the country.
Even as it trumpets the values of democracy, religious freedom and human rights, the West continues to supply weaponry and funding to the very governments that bear responsibility for the atrocities committed in Bahrain. Both the United States and members of the European Union are guilty of this facilitation. It is no secret that Bahrain hosts the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, while the governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain purchase billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. and U.K. weaponry every year. What is less well-known is the training that both the U.S. and U.K. provide to the Saudi National Guard — the elite troops which aided the violent suppression of Bahrain’s protest movement. The U.S. military has led a Saudi Arabian National Guard modernization program for over 40 years, providing Saudi forces with the latest training and advanced weaponry. The U.K. has gone further, training National Guard members in “public order enforcement measures,” which no doubt served them well in Manama.
As British Parliamentary member Jonathan Edwards said: “This is the shocking face of our democracy to many people in the world, as we prop up regimes of this sort… it is intensely hypocritical of our leadership in the United Kingdom.” It is high time for the West to assess whether the blind support of a government that so violently suppresses any form of dissent, within its borders or not, is in line with the values western governments so vehemently hold to.
Sarah Hacker is a Saudi Intern with ADHRB