In an interview with Muslim Press, political commentator Robert Carter said, “The Saudis see Bahrain as a front line defence against Iran and regional Shia Muslim political revivalism, they will not allow the demand of the Shi’i majority peoples to change a Saudi-friendly regime into a new, possibly hostile, Iranian-friendly democracy.”
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
Muslim Press: How has the human rights situation in Bahrain changed since the beginning of the anti-regime protests?
Robert Carter: Human rights in Bahrain has been an issue for many years, however, since the anti-regime protests began as part of the greater ‘Arab spring’ back in 2011, we have seen a noticeable escalation in a number of examples and sheer brutality of human right abuses being perpetrated by the ruling king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and his loyal forces.
At the beginning of the Arab spring many Arabs, including the Bahrainis, were demanding justice and political reform only, but now, following the horrific events since the Arab spring, the demands have changed to include a complete removal of the old one-man dictatorships and complete regime change from the top down. History has shown us that authoritarian dictatorships panic when met with massive public opposition and inevitably resort to violence. Crushing all dissidents as early as possible has proven to be the easiest way to restore peace and silence troublemakers. The Bahraini regime's response was typical, but the Bahraini people's response was not.
Despite a massive crackdown on public unrest in response to the 2011 uprising, the Bahraini opposition has remained largely peaceful, refusing the temptation to call for a violent armed struggle against what can only be described as an oppressive regime. Their lack of violence has not succeeded in softening the brutal response by the authorities, how have continued to escalate its tactics of suppression. Numerous human rights groups have provided evidence accompanied by mounds of condemnation at the measures the regime's forces have taken to silence public opinion. Mass arrests forced confessions using torture techniques, violence against unarmed peaceful protesters, destruction of Shia mosques and places of worship, outlawing peaceful opposition political parties, and the premeditated attempts to silence leading human rights activists such as Nabeel Rajab, Ayatollah Isa-Qassim, or Bahraini MP in exile, Matar Ebrahim Matar.
The regime continues to seek new methods to devalue the opposition. As straight forward violence has only encouraged deeper resistance from the populace, the regime has begun targeting the leadership. Outlawing the largest political opposition party, Al-Wefaq, imprisoning its leader Sheikh Ali Salman, and removing the citizenship of other non-political opposition leaders such as Ayatollah Isa-Qassim, who is the highest ranking religious authority of the majority Shia Muslim community that resides on the island.
The latest addition to regime imposed tactics used to feeble the uprising is the announcement that the military will be given the freedom to trial civilians. Under a new amendment, the regimes ‘military courts’ have the power to try any civilian accused of threatening the security of the state. Military courts are synonymous with handing out execution sentences and many of the accusations pigeonholed to activists are their apparent links to Iran. It would become much easier under this new introduction to brand any activists, politicians or anti-regime troublemakers with a broad general accusation with little evidence but inflict major punishment. Just talking out loud could, in principle, earn you a death sentence, if you are classed as a ‘threat to state security’.
Bahrain has the highest prison population rate in the Middle East, despite the Bahraini opposition being synonymous with peaceful methods. This will unlikely change as Bahrain remains too deeply protected by its long list of powerful allies which includes world powers such as the UK, USA & Saudi Arabia. The regime is not immortal, anything can change but as things stand there will not be much relief from a west which prioritises money over human rights.
MP: Since Bahraini authorities stripped Sheikh Isa Qassim of his citizenship, citizens of the Arab country have pledged solidarity with him. How would this affect the regime’s behaviour?
Robert Carter: The regime of Bahrain shares some similarities with its current predicament as to that of which the Saddam regime had in Iraq. They are an authoritarian minority Sunni leadership ruling a Shia majority population. The regime is untrusting of its Shia compatriots and prefers to politically marginalise the majority Shi’i sect, handing over power to close family and friends, basing the countries administrations on religious affiliation and tribal loyalty as opposed to merit. The Saddam regime did the same in Iraq, however, due to the overwhelming public popularity of the Iraqi Shia religious leadership Saddam attempted, at certain times, to manipulate the Shi’i leadership into supporting his regime but this largely failed. Murdering the Shi’i opposition including Shi’i clerical leadership was a preferred tactic but such a decision to violently remove the highest ranking Shi’i religious authorities proved to have major consequences which Saddam always feared – a mass, armed Shi’i uprising led by the oppositionist Islamist scholars.
Similar in Bahrain, the population is mostly religious Shi’i Muslims who hold a deep reverence to their clerical class. Ayatollah Isa-Qassim is the highest ranking Shi’i scholar on the island, his words hold weight among the people which the regime will naturally fear, just as Saddam feared. The regime could just kill him, but the backlash would be huge. In Iraq, the regime’s targeted killing of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr led to the second Shi’i uprising in 1999. Although the uprising didn’t achieve any success in ousting Saddam it was one of a number of moments which put the regime under sizeable threat of expulsion. Any attempt by the Bahraini royal family to execute or even imprison the religious leadership would be a step too far, despite claims he is ‘backed by Iran’ which is usually enough to have anyone on the Island imprisoned as a terrorist. Leaving Ayatollah Qassim untouched is also problematic due to his passionate vocal opposition to the regime and his support for the protests.
The regime will continue to tread carefully, the reaction to Saudi’s decision to execute their own religious freedom activist, sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, will also play on the Bahraini king's mind. I can see the authorities prioritising his house arrest and continued trial delays as the best option, for the time being at least. Banned from speaking or travelling and his citizenship removed, the Ayatollah’s options have become limited but his status among the Shi’i population alone is an obstacle which forces the regime into a deadlock. Too important to arrest, but too influential to simply ignore, Ayatollah Isa-Qassim is not a typical political leader but a spiritual leader, how to police the Bahraini people's spirits is much more arduous than policing the Bahraini streets.
MP: Some political commentators say Al-Khalifah’s crackdown of Bahraini people is due to support from US and UK. What’s your take on their role in the Bahraini conflict?
Robert Carter: Both the USA and my own country, the United Kingdom, are deeply involved in the situation in Bahrain. The UK, for example, is currently building a brand new naval base on the island which will be the HQ for British military power in the Persian Gulf. Theresa May has already made inflammatory remarks towards Iran when she visited Bahrain in December 2016 which is likely to match the royal navy’s strategy once the navy base is up and running. Both the USA & UK see the Gulf Arab states, which includes Bahrain, as both valuable regional partners and wealthy buyers of their weapons industry. Britain in specific has little home grown industries left in which to power the British economy but we Brits do still have one multi-billion pound industry - weapons, lots of British-made weapons up for grabs to the highest bidder.
Britain has sold not just military weapons to the Gulf States but also tear gas and rubber bullets which have been overly used in Bahrain on unarmed civilians to life-threatening degrees. The British also offer training and professional advice to the Bahraini authorities which suggests a deeply connected administrative co-operation which could include advice on how to better suppress a popular rebellion. A US-based human rights group, Physicians for Human Rights, said as far back as 2012 that the authorities in Bahrain are indiscriminately using tear gas as a weapon against protesters, yet the British government has continued to sell to Bahrain similar equipment despite the overwhelming reports coming out from Bahrain over the past few years proving unarmed civilians in Bahrain are being killed due to disproportionate use of British tear gas and other such equipment. The fact that dozens of Bahraini civilians are dying from tear gas when tear gas is designed to be a non-fatal form of crowd suppression shows the sheer brutality of the authorities of the regime. The situation on the ground in Bahrain is seen by both media & public opinion alike as of minor importance. This makes it harder for genuine activists from Bahrain to be heard abroad or garner new support.
Not too far from Bahrain is the Gulf Arab nation of Yemen, which has seen its own brutal invasion at the hands of the Saudis. The Yemen war, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties and the threat of a nationwide famine, has been labelled the ‘forgotten war’. If the dreadful situation in Yemen is seen as little cause for attention, what hope does the smaller island of Bahrain, sitting indiscreetly off the coast of Saudi Arabia have of seeing widespread condemnation and forced political change?
The US & UK both have new leadership. Trump, a man with no prior political experience has taken over the most powerful nation on earth and gifted the top positions to war hawks and anti-Iran neocons. May, thrown into the political deep end following her rise to power after the Brexit bombshell has already proven she will do whatever it takes to keep her wealthy Saudi weapons buyers and right-wing American allies in good terms ahead of what will be an economically difficult 2-year Brexit negotiation with the EU. Minimising Iran’s regional influence in the Middle East is a big target of both the Saudis and the new Trump administration. With the UK desperately trying to remain relevant in the most hostile region in the world, it is inevitable that the UK will continue to poodle along behind America’s foreign policy while continuing to seek economy saving arms sales to the Gulf states. The Saudis see Bahrain as a front line defence against Iran and regional Shia Muslim political revivalism, they will not allow the demand of the Shi’i majority peoples to change a Saudi-friendly regime into a new, possibly hostile, Iranian-friendly democracy. While the Saudis remain so important to both the UK & US, little can be expected to change for Bahrain in the near future. Unless we see massive regional change or a handover of power away from the current status quo in the Gulf, Bahrain may have to continue to persist in patients. One thing we can all learn is that things in the Middle East can change in the blink of an eye. We have seen it happen in Iraq, Iran and Egypt, so anything is possible.
Robert Carter is an English journalist and political commentator based in London, UK. Robert, who also goes by his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali Carter, specialises on Middle Eastern culture, politics and history as well as the current affairs of the global Muslim world. Robert has visited the region many times with a focus on Lebanon, Iran, Bahrain & Yemen. Robert currently works with Ahlulbayt TV as a TV news presenter but has also contributed for Iraq Insider, Veterans Today, Shafaqna, & Press TV.