Police stand guard as demonstrators protesting the presence of the Saudi Arabian military in Bahrain gather in front of the Bahrain embassy in Tehran March 17, 2011. Photograph by: STRINGER/IRAN, REUTERS
by Harry Sterling
The unwillingness of many western countries to forcefully criticize the killing of anti-government protesters in Bahrain illustrates the hypocrisy of some western governments who selectively support pro-democracy uprisings only when it serves their own vested interest.
Their silence over atrocities and torture inflicted on Shiite protesters by Bahrain’s military and security forces -including systematic destruction of Shiite mosques and holy places -is shocking, especially given the West’s support for protesters fighting against other Middle East authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
In an ominous turn of events, Britain’s Independent newspaper reported April 21 that Bahrain security authorities have intimidated and arrested doctors and other medical staff in hospitals, denouncing them for treating individuals wounded during pro-democracy demonstrations. Some doctors have reportedly been held incommunicado or have been “disappeared”. All of this is in total violation of the Geneva Convention on treating people injured during conflicts.
Such reticence to condemn the systematic killing of civilians demonstrating against the ruling al-Khalifa family since the protest movement began peacefully Feb. 14 is, however, not unexpected.
While western countries, particularly the United States, were initially reluctant to come out too openly in favour of the pro-democracy movements in places like Tunisia H S and Egypt -some American officials even indicating then president Hosni Mubarak or Egypt could stay in power to maintain stability during a transition to democracy -criticism of Bahrain’s Sunni authorities was almost non-existent, limited to predictable exhortations for everyone to exercise restraint during such large-scale demonstrations calling for change.
There was a very compelling reason for the U.S.’s low-key response: Bahrain is the headquarters of the American Fifth Fleet. Given the crucial importance of that naval base, being openly critical of the al-Khalifa elite was to be avoided.
Nor was the Obama administration prepared to question the intervention of 5,000 Saudi military forces, along with 1,000 Gulf state troops, which crossed the causeway onto the island of Bahrain to assist in putting down the perceived threat posed to the Sunni minority al-Khalifa ruling regime led by King Hamad. (It’s
said Saudi Arabia originally helped finance the 25-kilometre-long causeway to ensure it could contain any threat represented by the Shiite majority to either Bahrain’s Sunni regime or Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Sunni rule.)
According to reports by the Independent newspaper, Saudi military personnel joined Bahraini forces in the deliberate demolition of Shiite mosques and shrines, Shiites regarded by Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabis as heretics.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch says countless people detained by Bahrain’s security forces were tortured including a reform-minded Shiite militant, Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who died while in custody, his body showing signs of being beaten.
The low-key response of Washington and London to human rights abuses against Bahrain’s Shiites has, as expected, been denounced by Iran.
However, some western governments predictably see Tehran somehow linked to the original demonstrations in the capital of Manama.
But those observing the initial demonstrations at Pearl Square, with even women and children present there in makeshift tents, say the protest movement was essentially homegrown and violence-free, Bahrain’s security forces unleashing the violence against demonstrators. On March 18, police totally demolished the encampment at Pearl Square resulting in seven or more protesters killed.
Although the al-Khalifa elite seemingly has opted to end the protest movement by force, they may rue the day they went so far as to actually demolish Shiite holy places. Such a move has the potential to inflame the entire Shiite world community with totally unpredictable consequences, not just for the al-Khalifa family but also for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as the always-volatile Middle East region -not to mention the strategic interests of the U.S. and other countries, including the European Union.
The implications for Washington have already become apparent. Because of its desire not to alienate Saudi Arabia and the other non-democratic Gulf states -and to ensure the continued use of Bahrain’s naval base -the Obama administration now stands accused of total hypocrisy when it comes to supporting democracy and respect for human rights in the Middle East.
In the mind of cynics, what counts for the United States is not democracy for oppressed societies, but rather pure unadulterated self-interest. Washington initially tried to mute criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak because of his anti-Islamist policies and peace treaty with Israel, only reversing position when he clearly had become a liability. Similarly, Washington was reluctant to call for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign because of his co-operation in fighting al-Qaeda.
Some believe U.S. reluctance to criticize Saudi Arabia for its actions was strongly influenced by the issue of petroleum supplies. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States sit on the world’s largest oil reserves. The U.S. and European countries, particularly Britain and France, have had strong economic interests in ensuring prowestern regimes remain in power to protect western petroleum interests there.
The West could afford to belatedly turn against then president Mubarak and now President Saleh in Yemen because their oil wealth was almost inconsequential.
But keeping King Abdullah and his brothers happy in Saudi Arabia is an unquestioned priority in the realpolitik world of American governments.
Whether the long oppressed Shiite majority in Bahrain is prepared to accept this “business-is-business” reality is yet to be determined.
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator who writes regularly on Middle East issues.
© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald
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