The brutal face of Bahrain’s monarchy

May 11, 2011

Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen reports on the struggle of the people of Bahrain to oust a monarchy backed by the West. This article is accompanied by photos being distributed by solidarity activists to expose the regime's barbaric torture of children.

UNTIL FEBRUARY of this year, Bahrain appeared in Western media as a "romantic" island nation in the Middle East, whose king was a great ally of the West.

In case you underestimate the depth of friendship between the Bahraini royal family and its Western friends, consider these facts: The king of Bahrain was an honored guest at the (second) royal wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla; the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is harbored there; nd Britain and the U.S. are the leading suppliers of arms to this "friendly" government.

During her visit to Bahrain in December 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boldly proclaimed: "I am very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts--economically, politically, socially. There is a very comprehensive vision of where the people and the government of Bahrain are headed."

Contrary to Clinton's hopes, the people and the government of Bahrain were not headed in the same direction. Inspired by the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, ordinary people took to the streets of Bahrain in February 2011, demanding democracy and an end to centuries of authoritarian rule.

Child victims of the barbaric crackdown in Bahrain
Child victims of the barbaric crackdown in Bahrain

Bahrain is the smallest of the oil-rich Gulf states. The al-Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain as an absolute monarchy since 1783. The family was installed by the British as part of an effort to stabilize its empire in the region. Britain has continued to intervene in Bahrain and support its brutal ruling class.

Not to be outdone, as the leading purveyor of "Western democracy," the U.S. has played a significant role in bolstering this completely undemocratic regime, especially since the 1970s, when Bahraini oil became a major commodity on the world market.

Thanks to high oil prices, vast wealth has been pouring into the coffers of the Bahraini ruling class. The king of Bahrain, Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, is reputed to be one of the leading collectors of sports cars on the planet. Bahrain is also the only country in the Gulf region to have signed a free-trade agreement with the U.S.

The result of giving free reign to market forces has been an unprecedented rise in poverty and hardship for the majority. Very little of the elite's wealth reaches the inner-city slums, where thousands crowd together under unsanitary conditions. More than 50,000 Bahraini families are estimated to be on waiting lists for homes. Some of these families have been waiting for over 20 years to be allocated housing.

The majority of Bahrain's population of 1 million are Shiite Muslims, while the ruling al-Khalifa family and most of the ruling class is Sunni. Shiites in Bahrain have been historically discriminated against in employment and other means of social development. For instance, under the Citizenship Act of 1963, some Shiites have been refused full citizenship. Although residents of the nation for over three generations, they are legally prohibited from obtaining a passport and from owning land. The rulers have maintained sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis to divide the people.

THINGS, IT seemed, would remain nice and safe for Bahrain's rulers as they continued to be fed by Western support and oil money. But as revolutions spread across the Arab world, following the brilliant successes in Egypt and Tunisia, the people of Bahrain decided they had had enough of these parasites.

Protests for democratic reform first began on February 14, as thousands--a vast majority of them women and youth--took to the streets of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Soon, the protests grew in size and confidence, demanding the end to the monarchy.

The regime's response to the protests has been brutal repression. Bullets, supplied by the Western "democracies," have killed and injured thousands. According to a former British ambassador:

Live rounds by security forces were used in a massive dawn attack on the protest camp at Pearl roundabout. The hundreds of injured have been denied access to the hospital, which is surrounded by military including Saudi military. Doctors are not allowed to leave to treat the wounded outside...

Both CNN and Al Jazeera have numerous eyewitnesses to these events. CNN reports that some doctors and patients have been beaten. Yet Hillary Clinton has...been shown calling for "restraint by all sides" and calling for an end to "sectarian violence from all groups." This is the standard U.S. response to an atrocity by one of its close allies...

People who wanted democracy are dying from gunshot wounds which could be treated if they were not denied medical attention, actually within sight of the ships of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. I do hope U.S. citizens reading this are feeling proud and patriotic today.

It is convenient for the Bahraini ruling class and its Western allies to paint these protests for genuine freedom as sectarian violence. By doing so, the rulers can deny that there are any real needs in society. It also allows them to use the common reactionary argument that all Muslims are fundamentally sectarian, violent and irrational.

The truth is that these protests are fuelled by decades of want and misery for the vast majority, while a minority basks in prosperity. People in Bahrain, like their brothers and sisters across the Arab world, want to end these brutal regimes that have talked about "tradition" and wielded the most modern of weapons on their people. They are refusing to be divided by petty sectarianism. Eyewitnesses say that demonstrators are chanting: "Shia and Sunni are united, down with tyranny down with the regime.

The House of Saud from across the border has sent heavy security forces to help the monarchy. Both rulers are terrified of the protests. The Bahraini regime has used every form of naked force to stop the protests.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported on March 16:

In Bahrain in recent weeks, I've seen corpses of protesters who were shot at close range, seen a teenage girl writhing in pain after being clubbed, seen ambulance workers beaten for trying to rescue protesters--and in the last few days, it has gotten much worse. Saudi Arabia, in a slap at American efforts to defuse the crisis, dispatched troops to Bahrain to help crush the protesters. The result is five more deaths, by the count of the Associated Press.

Some chilling pictures of how the regime is torturing children have managed to leak out of the country--some are being published with this story.

Western governments, in the meanwhile, are busy with their "humanitarian" bombing of Libya, presumably to restore democracy, while the bullets that they supplied are being used on people trying to fight a 200-year-old authoritarian regime.

The Bahraini people are continuing to show their courage and determination in the face of brutal repression. It is our job in the U.S. to force our regime to stop funding their massacre.

Further Reading

From the archives