An estimated 100,000 people poured onto the streets of Bahrain’s capital in late March. It was the largest protest since the brutal crackdown on demonstrations at the start of last year. Former opposition MP Matar Matar, who was imprisoned and tortured after the 2011 protests, visited Australia recently to speak for the Bahrain Australia Youth Movement. “The movement in Bahrain was the widest movement of the Arab spring compared to its population”, he said. “But the excessive force against demonstrators is still ongoing, [as is] torture and using the judicial system to persecute those who want reform.”
Yet the regime in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain, where the population numbers only one million, continues to be backed by the West. Whilst Western governments bleat about supporting democracy in Libya and Syria, they continue to supply arms and public relations support to the dictatorship of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa in Bahrain.
The latest protests in Bahrain were triggered by the decision to proceed with the Bahrain Grand Prix in late April. Bahraini activists had been campaigning for its cancellation as a show of international support for the opposition movement. Instead, showing outrageous disregard for the 50 plus deaths and over 1000 arrests in Bahrain over the last 12 months, Formula One Chief Bernie Ecclestone claimed, “There’s nothing happening. I know people who live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.”
The King of Bahrain even received an invitation to the UK recently for Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee celebrations. He has proved a regular visitor to the British royals.
The King is more than just good company across the cucumber sandwiches. The British and US governments supply arms to Bahrain and the Bahraini government hosts the entire US Fifth Fleet. It is also widely believed that the US tacitly supported military intervention by its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council to crush last year’s protests. Bahrain also has significant oil and gas reserves that remain attractive to the West.
The British originally installed the Bahraini royal family. King Hamad made a series of promises of democratic reform in a 2001 constitution that he then retracted in 2002, when he stripped the power of parliament. The protest movement was revitalised in 2011, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Brave protesters defied the crackdown time and again. The regime even arrested, abused and dismissed doctors who treated wounded protesters.
Some portray the protests as sectarian violence between the Shiite majority and the Sunni ruling class. Despite the best efforts of the regime and the West, the protests chant, “Shia and Sunni are united, down with tyranny, down with the regime.”
The Bahraini regime has continued to crack down on activists with the full sanction of Western governments. The West’s approach to Bahrain makes a mockery of their alleged support for democracy movements in Libya and Syria. Their real concern is to install regimes that support Western dominance of the region. The brave activists facing bullets on the streets of the capital Manama know true change will come not from Western intervention, but from those brave enough to organise on the streets.