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“I saw them chasing Shiites like they were hunting.”
– Rania Ali, Bahraini Sunni resident of Sitra, describing how police went after civilians seeking shelter, 16 March 2011.
The media spotlight in the Middle East is almost exclusively focused on Libya’s (apparently failed) revolution. But the region’s most consequential uprising—now sure to become a revolution itself—is in the smallest Arab country: Bahrain.
Who would have thought a tiny island nation of no more than 1.2 million people and only 530,000 citizens (at least 70 percent of whom are Shia, but ruled by a Sunni dynasty for more than 200 years) could pose such a threat to the Persian Gulf monarchies?
Separated by a mere 16-mile stretch along the King Fahd causeway from Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich, Shia-populated Eastern Province (EP), the freedom contagion sparked by Bahrainis’ demand for sweeping political and socioeconomic reforms might spread like wildfire throughout the Arabian Peninsula and jeopardize the rule of all the royal families.
Of course, those paying close attention to developments in the Gulf know that residents of Qatif and others in the EP have already held protests calling for an end to sectarian discrimination and the release of political prisoners.
Indeed, one demonstrable success usually propels another, as Tunisia’s revolution did for Egypt, and Egypt’s almost did for Libya. When it does, a disgruntled yet quiescent citizenry becomes emboldened enough to ask for what their neighbors were successful in achieving. Such behavior is not tolerated in absolute monarchies, where money is thrown at problems rather than the root causes of discontent investigated and tackled.
After a month of peaceful, non-violent sit-ins and protests largely confined to Manama’s Pearl Roundabout by unarmed Bahrainis—the very same ones who witnessed the regime’s imported security force tear through the roundabout on Feb. 17 killing seven and injuring hundreds—Saudi Arabia had had enough.
Yes, Saudi Arabia.
Reports may say that Bahrain asked Saudi troops to intervene as part of the so-called “Peninsula Shield” forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That request, though, likely came after Saudi Arabia already said it was headed there.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates had just paid a visit to Manama on Saturday, urging the royal family to take more than just “baby steps” toward reform. Gates, however, stood firmly behind al-Khalifa rule and tellingly did not meet with opposition representatives. Instead, he chided them for their reticence to take up the Crown Prince’s offer for dialogue (which came the day after his henchmen were set loose upon those sleeping in Pearl Roundabout in February).
Despite Gates’ duplicity, he did manage to say this:
“I expressed the view that we had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region.”
When the al-Khalifa regime offered little in the way of concessions, Bahrainis started to move beyond Pearl Roundabout and head toward the royal palace. They were beaten back by pro-government thugs carrying clubs, sticks and swords.
Thousands then paralyzed the financial district Sunday with demonstrations and roadblocks. The lucky ones were met with tear gas. Others were shot point blank.
On Monday, 1,000 Saudi troops in armored vehicles, followed by 500 hundred soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, drove into Bahrain.
“We consider that any military force or military equipment crossing the boundaries of Bahrain—from air, sea or land—an occupation and a conspiracy against the people of Bahrain … and threatens them with an undeclared war by armed troops” read the statement from a coalition of Bahrain’ seven main opposition groups.
The next day, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared a state of emergency and effectively put Bahrain under martial law.
It did not take long for clashes to erupt throughout Manama and the outlying Shia villages. Hundreds of wounded inundated Salmaniya and other hospitals in the capital. Ambulances ferrying the injured toward them were shot at, as were nurses and physicians working inside. The printing facilities of Bahrain’s main opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, were ransacked by pro-government mobs, who smashed presses with pipes and axes.
The greatest violence was reserved for Wednesday. Bolstered by the presence of yet more foreign faces, Bahrain’s security forces (90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini Sunnis) cleared Pearl Square. Tanks and bulldozers rolled in, riot police shot at the encamped and helicopters hovered overhead and fired at homes. Casualties again quickly soared into the hundreds with three confirmed dead at the time of this writing—a figure sure to rise. Shia villages were completely cut off from the capital, preventing desperately needed access to medical care. Phone service was disrupted. Two hundred were reported shot in just Sitra, a village south of Manama.
Hospitals were again blocked and doctors beaten as they tended to the wounded.
Treating neurosurgeon Dr. Nabeel Hameed said, “They were all shot from close range. Yes, they do shoot to kill.”
Meanwhile, President Obama feebly pleaded for “maximum restraint.”
The protestors’ early and modest demand was for the country’s prime minister, who has been in power for 40 years, to resign. Then it was for Bahrain to transform itself into a constitutional monarchy with a freely-elected executive branch, an independent judiciary, and a representative parliament that could not be overruled by the king or his hand-picked Shura Council. A not insignificant number called for the whole monarchy to be abolished. With the presence of Saudi troops and a vicious crackdown underway, most will undoubtedly gravitate toward the latter.
One of Saudi Arabia’s pretexts for entering Bahrain was to prevent the proverbial foreign elements (re: Iran) from meddling in its internal affairs. This was dismissed by Gates and WikiLeaks cables reveal alleged Iranian interference to be an unsubstantiated claim. Indeed, the only interference has come from the GCC in general and Saudi Arabia in particular in a last-ditch effort to preserve dynastic rule.
It comes too late, for the genie is out of the bottle and it will not return. Many will continue to pay with their lives, but the days of monarchy are numbered. In the Persian Gulf, it will start with Bahrain, making it the most important revolution of all.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.