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Bahrain: The Dragonfly's Eye

[One day's worth of used tear gas canisters in Buri, Bahrain, 14 October 2011. Image by Saeed Saif] [One day's worth of used tear gas canisters in Buri, Bahrain, 14 October 2011. Image by Saeed Saif]

I look in the dragonfly's eye, and I see the mountains over my shoulder--- Issa

Bahrain is a small country, and though the story of its own trials and troubles during the past year and a half is intrinsically valuable, it also tells a bigger story, about bigger countries. Small countries, distant provinces, and overlooked corners of empire—places on which metropolitan elites look with condescension, if they ever even bother to—often better reveal the truths of geopolitical power than is possible in the sheltered metropole. Take the example of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia—part of the Chagos Archipelago—and its indigenous inhabitants, the Chagossians. Diego Garcia is, like Bahrain, a place most Americans have never heard of. Labeled a “Strategic Island” by British and US Cold War planners, its population was expelled and transferred hundreds of miles away to Mauritius in the 1960s, with their home appropriated for an American military base. As the anthropologists David Vine and Laura Jeffery have shown, this was, and continues to be, justified in US national security discourses by representing these islands as conveniently “sparsely populated.” Expulsion of Chagossians was not of great concern both because of the fact that their island was “strategic” and their population “measured only in the hundreds.”[i] The expulsions, which resulted in “abject poverty” and marginalization on Mauritius, were further legitimized by constructing Chagossians as “transient contract workers with no connection to the islands.”[ii]

Today, unaccountable criminality is being visited on the people of another usually forgotten periphery of empire. In Bahrain, tyrannization of the people also depends on the two aforementioned factors, fictions told about the victims and the condescension and hypocrisy of great powers. Instead of fictions about “transient workers,” however, we are presented with myths about violent Shias seeking the overthrow of the state, of the potential chaos triggered by Iranian influence in the Sunni Arab countries, and of threats to vital oil supplies should democracy emerge on the borders of Saudi Arabia. And, ultimately, Bahrain is too small a fish to risk destabilizing a region of far more consequential Western allies. During and after the uprisings that began on 14 February 2011, the security forces of Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s royal family, began arresting doctors who were treating injured demonstrators. Treason and spreading lies about the monarchy were among pretexts for the arrests and the inevitable beatings and torture to which the doctors were subjected. Western countries have generally ignored this, because, as the Bahraini neurosurgeon Dr. Nabeel Hamid, one of the doctors arrested by the security forces, notes:

…what’s happening in Bahrain is so small compared to other countries, like Syria or Libya… I’m not denying that what happens in Syria is much, much worse, but also in Bahrain there is a situation which is really getting worse and worse. And if you don’t really stop it here, it may get really, really bad in the future. So you have the chance now to treat it and treat it quite nicely, and so you don’t have to wait until the violence just propagates [sic] out of control.

Since May of this year, thousands of people have been protesting in Manama for the release of prisoners such as the hunger striker Abdulhadi Khawaja and human rights activist Nabil Rajab, along with seven hundred other political prisoners who languish in Al Khalifa’s prisons: people arrested simply for things they have said, meetings they have attended, or for calling for peaceful demonstrations. Meanwhile, the Formula One Grand Prix, hosted by Al Khalifa as part of its makeover of Bahrain as a resort for Western expatriates, went on without delay or mention of the political situation. At around the same time, the Bahraini Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, met with Hillary Clinton in Washington to finalize a multimillion dollar weapons package for the Gulf monarchy. 

One of Bahrain’s proverbial mountains, the gray eminence that circumscribes its destiny, is clearly the United States, whose fifth naval fleet, crucial to the militarized “security” of the oil-rich Gulf, resides on the tiny Gulf island. But Saudi Arabia also rises mighty in the Bahraini “dragonfly’s eye.” Indeed, the interests of the Americans and Saudis, by which I mean American oil and military-corporate interests and Al Saud family, are nearly identical. This even translates into the metaphors by which the Saudis conceptualize their relationships with their satellites in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bahrain, as a Saudi diplomat recently put it, is Saudi Arabia’s Cuba. Like the United States’ jealous attempts to monopolize Cuba’s foreign and domestic conditions, Saudi Arabia will not tolerate any developments in Bahrain (or its other Gulf vassals) that it cannot control. 

As the historian and Saudi Arabia expert Toby Craig Jones put it in a recent essay, American officials have worked with Saudi Arabia in a particularly passionate attachment—as George Washington might ruefully say—for a number of reasons. Among these are the protection of the “political economy of oil,” in which high revenues are produced from the manufacturing of oil’s scarcity, and also the recycling of oil revenues through the US economy. American weapons and security corporations, writes Jones, have been special beneficiaries of this arrangement, with Saudi Arabia routinely spending about ten percent of its annual oil revenues, or ten billion dollars annually, on US-made weapons. These weapons, writes Jones, “have been used most effectively not in regional conflict, but rather in the oppression of domestic forces of opposition. Indeed, it has been the domestic security forces, the kingdom’s counterrevolutionary authorities, that have been most clearly served by the American-Saudi military relationship.”

This kind of military spending is also characteristic of the small Saudi satellites in the Gulf, none more so than Bahrain. Since 2001, the tiny emirate has increased its overall military spending by 117.5 percent, by far the highest figure among both Arab countries and Israel. Its average increase in military spending since 2001, 8.3 percent, is exceeded only by Qatar. Beginning around the same time, in the early 2000s, a selective naturalization policy favoring Sunnis was instituted, and electoral districts were redrawn to ensure that the Shia never achieve a majority in a reorganized Bahraini parliament. While the aforementioned figures on military spending do not paint too specific a picture about the purposes or objectives of such spending, it is difficult to imagine—given what we know from the Saudi case already discussed and the larger story of the security state in the Arab region—that Bahraini military spending is not intended primarily for internal control and domestic repression. As noted by the highly informative website Religion and Politics in Bahrain, the increase in military spending along with the naturalization and jerrymandering projects coincided with attempts by regime non-hardliners, such as King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, at modest (neo)liberal reforms and economic diversification—political and economic ways of addressing popular discontent. Hardliners viewed this as a threat. For them, the Shia cannot be incorporated into the political system for they seek to take over the state; reforms only encourage them. Thus, hardliners have pursued a two-pronged approach. First, marginalize the Shia: exclude them from substantive participation in the polity through, for example, the naturalization policies favoring Sunnis. Second, persuade Sunnis that relations with Shia are a zero-sum game and that monarchy is the best servant of Sunni interests. What “Bahrain's disproportionately high increases in military spending from 2001 to 2011 would seem to suggest,” then, is “that the country was hedging its bets against the possibility that King Hamad's reform initiative would fail to achieve the political peace that it promised, an interpretation supported by other preventive initiatives launched around the same time.”

This is a doubly hedged bet. When the state’s own repressive instruments fail, call in big brother Saudi Arabia. This happened on 14 March 2011, when a violent crackdown that resulted in the death of four protesters failed to quell unrest in Manama. As Madawi Al Rasheed relates in a powerful analysis of the Saudi counterrevolution, Saudi troops and security forces, accompanied by a “tactically insignificant but symbolically meaningful United Arab Emirates commitment,” (and, eventually, troops from Kuwait and Qatar) came to rescue the Al Khalifa. She elaborates, “Peninsula Shield, a GCC military force, would be used for the first time, not to defend the six founding member states from external enemies but to quash a rebellion against one of their ruling families.” The official US response to this has been silence. One unofficial statement, however, was at least unintentionally honest about the US view. As Al Rasheed reports, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, in a lecture to the Asia Business Forum in Riyadh in March 2011, referred to the Bahraini protesters as an “unruly mob” and praised the Saudis for so swiftly and courageously responding to the “Iranian threat.”

The struggles of Bahrainis—Shias in particular but also reform-minded Sunnis—have been, like those of the other Arab uprisings, courageous and inspiring. Activists such as Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, Nabil Rajab, and many others have risked their lives for fundamental principles of equal citizenship rights. Doctors such as Nabil Hamid have doggedly attempted to fulfill their medical and moral obligations to care for the injured and broken bodies of these protesters, reaping in the process a whirlwind of vengeance and repression by the Bahraini security services. These are the most important stories of the Bahraini uprising, and our focus should be on them.  But as an American social scientist, a Middle East and Gulf scholar—and in fact, simply as an American citizen—I feel obligated to ask what the responsibility of the United States is in what is happening in Bahrain. The path and the struggle for the Bahrainis is clear, urgent, and immediate, and the stakes in this struggle, I hope, are clarified here. But what is it for Americans? For ultimately, as citizens of the world’s militarily most powerful state, with a deep investment and thus complicity in propping up Al Saud and its satellites, Americans bear some of the responsibility for what is happening in Bahrain. Sadly, to say the least, the chances for a frank discussion of American foreign policy emerging from within the US political establishment are virtually nonexistent.

On 28 May, I—and, I am sure, the many other Americans repelled by Washington’s endless wars and the morally stunted culture they have spawned—endured another annual Memorial Day, in which the narratives and commemorations by our political class mentioned only Americans. As if further evidence were needed, “our dead” were the only ones, as Judith Butler would say, that were grievable. Not the millions of Iraqi dead and displaced, thanks to the previous two murderous decades that we have visited on their country, not the Afghani, Pakistani, and Yemeni dead, thanks to our courageous drones. President Obama invited the nation to renarrate the Vietnam War as a heroic episode in the epic of American martial valor. The millions of dead, napalmed, and displaced Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians? Not remotely grievable; not even mentionable. These are all far worse than what is occurring in Bahrain. What hope is there that we will ever take what is going on in Bahrain—let alone elsewhere—with any sense of responsibility, which implies imagination? None, unless the Occupy Movement or any other social movements to which it may give rise somehow manage to flower into a genuine and fundamental critique of the US state. In the meantime, and more feasibly, we could start by rethinking our “passionate attachments” in the Gulf, among other things, by educating ourselves about their human effects. This would, of course, necessitate a rethinking of the merits of the US military-industrial complex and its contributions, or lack thereof, to security, both “ours” and that of “others.” This means, in turn, exercising our imagination, seeing the interconnections between “us” and “them,” between our choices and lifestyles and others’ life chances. It also means asking who, specifically, benefits, and who does not, from particular political-economic arrangements such as the political economy of oil. Meanwhile, people of imagination and courage—such as the Bahrainis—continue to put their lives at risk to carve zones of human dignity from within the mountains of cynicism.             

[i] David Vine and Laura Jeffery, “‘Give Us Back Diego Garcia’: Unity and Division Among Activists in the Indian Ocean.” In Catherine Lutz, ed., The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts. 2009, New York: NYU Press, pp. 185 – 186.  

[ii] Ibid., pp. 189 – 191.

3 comments for "Bahrain: The Dragonfly's Eye"


Thank you for saying so well what I, as a fellow American, have felt and thought about the situation in Bahrain. You have put the issues in proper perspective and rose above all the specious arguments that include "Iran." Thanks for all the great links as well. Please continue to watch and report on Bahrain and the Gulf in relation to US involvement; More people, especially Americans, need to hear this kind of clear-eyed reporting of the facts.

Martha wrote on June 05, 2012 at 02:13 PM

Thanks for your kind words Martha. Much appreciated.

Ahmed Kanna wrote on June 07, 2012 at 02:49 AM

Thank you for your truth and integrity in giving this perspective. I hope Americans hear you because while the solution does not lie in their hands, ordinary Amricans should know the effects of the power they give to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes

JB wrote on June 12, 2012 at 04:53 AM

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