Bahrain: Between rebellion and reform

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Graffiti on a Shia mosque in 2011Image source, FRANK GARDNER
Image caption,
Graffiti on a Shia mosque in 2011

What exactly is going on in Bahrain these days?

In early 2011 this tiny island state looked poised to become the first Gulf state to experience dramatic regime change at the hands of the so-called Arab Spring.

Crowds of thousands poured onto the streets, demanding first reform and then the downfall of the ruling family.

There were clashes with the security forces, deaths, funerals, human rights abuses and then a comprehensive investigation by an international commission headed by respected lawyers from outside Bahrain.

But today, only partly due to the conflicts elsewhere in the Arab world, Bahrain is rarely in the news. It is largely peaceful.

Image source, FRANK GARDNER
Image caption,
A 2011 poster calling for no pardon for rioters which was later removed by the government

So what has happened to that uprising and the hopes for reform?

It depends, of course, on who you talk to.

"Street violence is at its lowest level in years," says a western diplomat. "It reflects a fatigue in the villages."

Iron-fist victory?

But Human Rights Watch describes the rights situation as "dismal", saying it continues to deteriorate.

Image source, FRANK GARDNER
Image caption,
A checkpoint in 2011

"Today the iron-fisted policy has won out," says a critic of the government who asked not to be named.

"A lot of people have been jailed, both rioters and bloggers. The police are easily able to put down riots and seal off Shia areas within 30 minutes.

"There is no dialogue about democracy, no positive outlook."

By contrast, the secretary-general of the Bahrain Federation of Expatriates, Betsy Mathieson, from Scotland, takes an upbeat view.

"The economy is really flourishing," she says. "Hotel occupancy is sharply up, the government is investing heavily in tourism.

"But anyone who wants change should push for it through democratic means and not rioting. Bahrain needs a strong credible opposition and that opportunity has been missed."

Voting for change

She is referring to the recent parliamentary elections which were boycotted by the main opposition party al-Wefaq, a move criticised by some international observers.

"When al-Wefaq boycott parliament," says a diplomat, "Shia women get elected as independents which is a positive step."

On 28 December, al-Wefaq's leader Ali Salman was jailed and now there are fears that a verdict on his case, due on 16 June, could once again inflame protests on the streets.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Protesters took to the streets when Ali Salman was arrested

"Politically there is no dialogue now between the opposition and the government," says al-Wefaq's spokesman, Ali al-Aswad.

"Everything is on hold and our leaders are in jail. Now Bahrain is unstable and there is a crisis in the economy."

Another prominent opposition activist, Nabeel Rajab, has also been jailed, causing mild international protestations.

I say "mild" because Bahrain's allies like the UK and US are treading a delicate path when it comes to reform.

They have been gently pushing the ruling Sunni monarchy, the al-Khalifas, to give more jobs, opportunities and political freedom to the Shias who form the majority of the Bahraini population.

Diplomats call it "constructive and critical engagement".

But they are wary of pushing too hard as Bahrain gives both countries a vital base in a strategically important region.

Mina Salman, the naval base, is home to the US Navy's massive 5th Fleet. Next door, Britain's first permanent overseas base in the Middle East since 1971 is under construction.

Bahrain sends its princes (called sheikhs) to Sandhurst to get their military training. Britain's Royal Military Academy even has a King Hamad Hall named after a benefactor, Bahrain's ruler, who trained there.

The previous British ambassador, Jamie Bowden, was seen as a little too friendly to the opposition and too critical of the government and he was eventually frozen out by the ruling family.

But his period in Manama, the capital, saw the worst of the violence which has since subsided dramatically.

Image source, FRANK GARDNER
Image caption,
Interviewing an injured police officer in 2011

When I visited back then, in April 2011, Bahrain was effectively under martial law.

There were armoured cars on the streets, a dawn-to-dusk- curfew, policemen in balaclavas with pump-action shotguns manning roadblocks and intimidating Shia drivers.

I attended a press conference given by the then human rights minister Fatima al-Balushi where she dismissed allegations that protesters had been tortured in police custody.

This I challenged, on camera, as that morning I had witnessed a tense funeral in the Shia suburb of Sahla al-Shimaliya where a body, released by the police, was briefly unwrapped.

Shocking scars

His back was like a zebra's, lashed and lacerated where he had been beaten to death by his jailers.

It was human rights abuses like this that prompted King Hamad to commission a surprisingly frank and critical report - the BICI Report - that called for wide-reaching reforms, especially in the police service.

I met him briefly around the time of its publication in late 2011 and found a man apparently bemused by the turn of events in his country.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
King Hamad says he is reforming the country

"Why are people calling me a dictator?" he asked me. "I am not like President Assad of Syria. I am listening and I am choosing reform."

The jury is still very much out on whether those reforms have gone far enough.

Abuses in police custody have certainly been reduced - officers now have to attend mandatory human rights courses in Europe and CCTV cameras are installed in interrogation centres - but there has been too little accountability for senior figures.

Bahrain is a news story that is often misrepresented by the media.


Image source, FRANK GARDNER
  • King: Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
  • Name: Means two seas
  • Capital: Manama
  • Population estimate 2014: 1,343,000
  • Area: 257 sq miles (665 sq km)
  • Currency: Bahraini dinar

Inevitably, visiting reporters have sought out the most dramatic images as the generally tranquil streets of central Manama will hardly fight their way onto a packed news bulletin.

That means venturing into certain restive Shia villages on a weekend evening to witness clashes between youths in bandanas hurling homemade Molotov cocktail petrol bombs at the police, who then respond with volleys of tear gas and baton charges.

Hungry for reform

For balance, reporters will turn to the government who usually field some dull official in an air-conditioned office, pretending that everything is fine in Bahrain.

Lost in the middle without a voice are the thousands of ordinary people - shopkeepers, business men and women, both Sunni and Shia, Asian store owners - who have simply wanted Bahrain to get back to business, and perhaps be better ruled with less corruption at the top.

This sizeable middle chunk of Bahrain's residents is sandwiched between violent Shia extremists, allegedly encouraged by Iran, who want to overthrow the whole system, and the Sunni hardliners who want to crush them without mercy.

From all my visits to Bahrain I would say there is no appetite for revolution amongst this large, silent majority, but there is a need for reform.

The more equitably this country can be ruled, the better its chances of staving off a repeat of the dark days of 2011.