The Bahrain Grand Prix is this weekend. Since 2011 the ruling elite, propped up by the best mercenaries that oil money can buy, have systematically hollowed out one of the Gulf’s most robust civil societies. In response to urgent calls for democracy and popular protests three years ago by tens of thousands of people, the al-Khalifa family and their backers in Riyadh have violently oppressed their way to survival.
Because the country’s disempowered Shiite minority is heavily represented in the political opposition, Bahrain’s rulers have tried to reframe the dispute as rooted in reactionary religiosity, claiming that calls for democracy are distractions from aspirations to an Iranian-style theocracy. Having marked the conflict as sectarian, the authorities in Manama have set about targeting Shiites, institutionalising torture and dispensing collective punishment. Bahrain is now an apartheid state, with roving bands of security forces curtailing Shiite movements, routinely cloaking villages in tear gas, and rounding up protesters. Police have detained hundreds of people, most of them young boys who pass their time with an eye toward every evening’s nine o’clock clash with the police.
During his trip to Riyadh last Friday, President Obama did not raise the matter of rights abuses in either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, where the al-Saud exert tremendous influence. British officials have also resisted calls to reflect more critically on their close ties to the al-Khalifa. The unwillingness to push Bahrain and its regional patrons too hard is typically explained by linked concerns around energy and regional stability. The regimes in Manama and Riyadh are said to be the least bad actors in a difficult neighborhood, the best partners the West can hope for, and too important to the global economy to challenge on their troubling domestic habits. These claims obscure more than they reveal, however.
Officials in Washington and London see Bahrain and its allies in the region as places flush with oil money that both public and private capital in the West hope to harness. Formula One drivers and organisers are fêted by Bahraini magnates who pour cash into the coffers of global sport in an effort that is partly about managing the regime’s public relations image and partly about ostentatious display. Formula One’s officials say the crackdown on dissent is none of their business, even though they not only help to prop up the tyranny, but profit from it.
Western arms merchants’ profits from the sale of weapons to Arab oil producing states are staggering: tens of billions of dollars are spent annually. The Americans are the biggest pedlars of weapons for petrodollars, but the British, Canadian and French authorities have also kept silent on the region’s political abuses in order to secure their access to the world’s most lucrative arms bazaar. Washington and London are not just looking away. Rather, they are complicit in and have helped build the political order that rests on oppression and the indefinite detention of hundreds of children.
Criticism of the West can lapse into a kind of security analysis itself, suggesting that Manama’s iron fist will lead to radicalisation and future threats to regional stability, or even future generations of terrorists. This may or may not be true. For the most part, Bahrain’s protest movement has not embraced widespread violence, though police have been killed by bombs, and there are threats of more to come.
There is a place for such analysis, though it tends to draw attention away from what’s happening in Bahrain now. Last week I received an email from the father of Abdallah Madan, a 17-year-old Bahraini-American citizen, who was arrested for protesting in early March. He has been beaten, his nose has been broken, and there is no sign of his being released any time soon. US embassy officials were made to wait three weeks before being allowed to see him, and have so far not made his case a priority. Meanwhile, Abdallah has asked his father to take up the cause of more than 450 other children languishing in Manama’s prisons for standing up to autocracy.
Reflecting on how all this came tabout, Madan wrote that they often told Abdallah that his support for democracy was because ‘he drank a lot of American water’ when he was a small child in Virginia. The US authorities would do well to drink some more of that water, too.