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The West’s Blind Spot in Bahrain

By Julia Hanne

Last month in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, the police, supported by armored vehicles and troops, fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters to ensure a Formula 1 race would be showcased as scheduled. Inside the stadium, spectators like BBC's Dan Roan described the atmosphere as “relaxed”—like any other F-1 race. But across the city, burning tires set ablaze by pro-democracy protesters sent clouds of black smoke into the horizon as part of the opposition's “three days of rage.” Now, the furor of the international media that surrounded the race has unfortunately already moved on, returning to ignoring the repression of the country's democracy movement.

Until the F-1 race, Bahrain’s uprisings had been largely passed over by the international media. It took a Grand Prix to swing the spotlight onto a crisis that’s been neglected and downplayed by the western media and politicians in the past year. The fact that much of the media focus fell on the “recklessness” of the F-1 organizers raises the question: Why did it take the media circus of a Grand Prix to shine light on the ongoing repression in Bahrain?

The world's silence reveals a double standard in the West's demand for a free Syria while applauding a ‘slowly reforming Bahrain.’ Although Syria has been isolated by western governments that eagerly point out its democratic deficits, equally undemocratic Bahrain rarely makes the headlines. But the demands of the Bahraini opposition haven't been met, flagrant human rights violations continue, and the protestors still take to the streets daily. This disregard has been facilitated by western PR companies hired by the Bahraini regime to make the international community believe “Bahrain is safer than London” and a “peaceful and quiet” place, says F-1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, bewildered by calls for an international boycott.

The Bahraini government uses PR-agencies that are almost exclusively based in the U.S. and the U.K, such as New Century Media, M&C Saatchi, the Good Governance Group and Qorvis, to restore its image. In the first weeks after the regime's violent squelching of the protests, the country's Foreign Affairs Minister signed a contract with Washington's largest PR and lobbying firm, Qorvis, to cover public-relations services for $40,000 per month plus expenses. Qorvis employee Tom Squitieri, who previously had to resign from USA Today for plagiarism, wrote three articles about the uprisings in Bahrain—under the guise of raising media awareness—that appeared in the Huffington Post and the Foreign Policy Association without disclosing his affiliation with the PR company. Describing himself as an award-winning reporter, he labeled the objectives of Bahrain's pro-democracy protestors as having “anger without purpose” and described them as “foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda,” alluring to Iran's alleged influence. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found that Iran never played a role in Bahrain's uprisings.

In July 2011, when Bahraini security forces raided the Doctors Without Borders office, Qorvis was quick to release a statement refuting the argument that the regime intended to deny medical services to injured protestors. They stated that the NGO “was operating an unlicensed medical center in a residential apartment buildin ng.” John Yates who advises the Bahrain's regime on its security forces commented on the F-1 race for The Telegraph, arguing that the people in the Gulf state were bewildered that “so many in the UK, a long-standing friend and ally for two centuries, could so readily swallow everything opposition groups and activist were saying,” since the image he had during the F-1 race was “of thousands of people enjoying themselves at the post-event parties.”

In the case of Bahrain, American interests weigh in and prevail over democratic principles. The country hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and allows U.S. navy ships to use Bahrain as a port of call. Bahrain is a particularly important given its proximity to Iran. Former Middle East force commander and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe considers Bahrain “pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world.” Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore said in the Washington Times that “Bahrain has been there for us during good times and bad since the end of World War II” and that the 5th Fleet headquarters “has become the centerpiece of allied efforts to promote peace and stability in the Gulf.”

But the West’s active support for the regime through arms sales could easily backfire. While Western governments call on both parties for restraint, they provide the regime with arms and leave protesters to fend for themselves. The Guardian reports that the U.S. and the UK continue to sell arms to Bahrain, including crowd control equipment, artillery, and rifles, worth more than  £1 million in the months after the violent crackdowns in 2011. Britain also supplied similar equipment to Saudi Arabia, which sent forces in British military trucks to Bahrain to stamp out pro-democracy protests. Working against the protesters could radicalize the democracy movement, as they’ll have no one to turn to for help. That is, except for Iran.

Ranked as one of the world's top 10 most repressive countries by Reporters Without Borders, the small kingdom is not impoverished. The relationship between the Bahraini people and its regime is often described as an unwritten social contract—a model commonly found in the oil-rich Gulf states—in which a distribution of economic benefits buys the ruling families uncontested power. Their citizens often receive privileges such as free housing, health care, education, and government jobs in return for deferring “to a system of tribal autocracy that gives little or no political representation to the masses,” journalist Raymond Barrett argues.

Habiba Hamid, editorial writer at The National, identifies the problem as bad governance in light of increasingly scarce oil-resources in the indebted kingdom—ruled by the world's longest-serving unelected leader Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa. Among these issues is a rising youth population that faces high unemployment rates.

Head of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights' international operations Maryam al-Khawaja describes the protests as a conflict between “oppressor and oppressed.” Indeed civil unrest in Bahrain goes beyond “the sectarian prism of Sunni versus Shiite,” according to Barrett. Yet, labeling these protests as purely Shiite and Sunni plays into the hands of the Bahraini and Saudi regime, who can then justify a crackdown to Western governments by pointing to the alleged threat of interference from Shiite Iran. Al-Khawaja argues “Today in Bahrain, you can be Shia and you can be loyalist. And you can be a Sunni and be part of the opposition.”

Inspired by the pro-democracy movements in North Africa, Bahrain's opposition initially only called for dialogue and far-reaching political reforms. Instead, they were met with a brutal crackdown in March 2011 by the regimewith the help of Saudi Arabian troops. Since then, journalists have routinely been kept from entering the country, and 86 people have died as of March 2012, with more than a thousand people imprisoned, according to accounts of Bahraini activists.

The King promised constitutional amendments and a national dialogue, but his reforms were considered “far from the demands of the Bahraini people,” claims Wefaq, the largest legal opposition group. Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui argues the King only intended “to portray the country as being on the road to reform.” The human rights organization says it continues to hear constant reports of “torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests.”

Even though not much has changed in the troubled kingdom since the pro-democracy uprisings first made the headlines more than a year ago, the international press has paid scant attention to Bahrain in recent months. But the protests never ended—the international community just stopped talking about them, as Reporters Without Borders confirms. Al Jazeera aptly referred to Bahrain as “the story of the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world.”

When it comes to covering human rights violations in Bahrain, al-Khawaja says it’s a small number of human rights activists working against some of the world’s largest PR agencies. She describes the protestors as “cornered” by the international community, and argues that that “the western countries are doing exactly what they don't want to do. They are pushing the Bahraini people towards Iran.” She predicts the protests will turn violent and that if they can oust the current regime the “people will not look with a friendly face towards the west.”

Activists like al-Khawaja rightly argue that the systems in place to protect human rights are highly politicized and dependent on the near-term geopolitical interests of larger states. State sovereignty matters, but an adjusted foreign policy approach when it comes to especially non-democratic allies in which—at the very least—unimpeded arms sales are discontinued, needs to be employed.

Unfortunately, it is only thanks to such controversial events as the Grand Prix that human rights violations in places of geopolitical interest find their way back onto the international political agenda. The role of the media should be to keep critically reviewing the western interests in places like Bahrain. Both politicians and western media are guilty of applying an ignoble double-standard when they call for action in Syria while tuning out the plight of the Bahraini people.



Julia Hanne is an editorial assistant with World Policy Journal.

(Photo courtesy of malyousif)

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