By Finian Cunningham
Bahrain’s despotic Al Khalifa rulers have gone into a huff over US President Barack Obama’s comparison of the Persian Gulf island state with Syria.
In his address to the UN General Assembly last week, Obama made vague mention of sectarianism in Syria and Bahrain in the same sentence.
The funny thing is that the Bahraini dictatorship is right in a way, but for all the wrong reasons. Bahrain is nothing like Syria.
That’s because Bahrain represents a genuine case of a peaceful pro-democracy movement being crushed by a despised tyrant. That’s the narrative that the Western governments and their propaganda mainstream media apply erroneously to Syria; but when it comes to Bahrain, where the narrative is truly applicable, the West turns a blind eye and develops a curious speech impediment.
Obama probably felt obliged to make some mention of Bahrain in his UN address only because the human rights situation there is so dire, for him not to throw a few token words of concern would have left him open to derision, especially since the US Navy Fifth Fleet is stationed there and Washington plies the regime with millions of dollars worth of weaponry and commerce.
Nevertheless, the US president’s contemptibly few words on Bahrain, betray a disgraceful complicity of silence by Washington and the West generally towards the Khalifa regime’s crimes against its long-suffering people.
Yet, such is the arrogance of the buffoonish Bahraini autocrats they went into a huff over Obama’s pathetic paucity of criticism.
This week, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa tried to go on the offensive, telling the UN assembly that the so-called kingdom is a society “based on cooperation, not confrontation.” Sheikh Khalid deserved a standing ovation for brazenness.
As his name indicates, the Bahraini diplomat is a royal member of the Khalifa monarchy. This family has ruled over Bahrain ever since the island gained nominal independence from Britain in 1971. The Khalifa appointed itself as a monarchy and assigned grandiose titles, such as “king” and “crown prince,” “prime minister” and “foreign minister.”
And they have held on to these baubles through hereditary cronyism, becoming super rich in the process, without any form of democratic accountability.
Bahrain is an oil-producing minnow when compared with the natural endowments of Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran. But the modest oil and gas wealth of Bahrain has been enough to make the Khalifa family and its hangers-on incredibly enriched. For example, the unelected prime minister since 1971, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, also known as “Mister Fifty-Fifty” because of his notorious penchant for bribes and backhanders, is reckoned to be one of the wealthiest individuals in the world.
That is something of an achievement for a clan of imposters that the majority of indigenous Bahrainis have time and again repudiated. The Khalifas originally invaded Bahrain 230 years ago as a marauding tribe of sea pirates. They subjugated the Bahraini population and its proud Persian culture under the sword and with the brute help of the British Empire.
The despotic Khalifa rulers with their fancy titles have only managed to maintain their unnatural position of privilege through a system of persecution and state terrorism against the majority of Bahrainis. The Khalifa self-appointed suzerains have been able to do that by fuelling sectarian conflict between the indigenous Shia and Sunni. The Sunni rulers are close to their regional patron, the Wahhabi House of Saud, in their extremist profession, while the majority of Bahrain is Shia.
Contrary to what Bahrain’s foreign minister fantasized at the UN this week, Bahrain is the exact opposite of his fairytale-kingdom depiction. It is a social order based on ruthless and rapacious “confrontation, not cooperation” which allows an unelected family clan to impose privilege, exploitation, corruption and elite indolence on the impoverished majority. Bahrain is the very antithesis of democracy.
But unlike the more overt despotism of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has benefited from the tutelage of British deception and, in more recent years, that of Washington too. Bahrain has thus embraced – very superficially – the trappings of constitutional government and rule of law. In reality, the government and courts are appointed arms of the Khalifa clan. Scratch the surface and the same abominable despotism reigns as in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
This despotism was on display this week within hours of the Bahraini foreign minister lying through his teeth on the podium at the UN assembly about his country’s “societal cooperation.”
A Bahrain court, headed by three Khalifa judges, sentenced 50 Shia men, women and children to jail for a total of 430 years. Some of the accused were given imprisonment of 15 years. They included clerics, human right defenders, protesters and ordinary citizens who over the past several months were scooped up by the regime’s paramilitary police, detained without legal counsel or habeas corpus rights in dungeons, systematically tortured, and finally forced to confess to “crimes of terrorism.”
All of the defendants were accused of belonging to the 14th February Coalition and labeled as conspirators to overthrow the regime. There is in fact such a coalition of pro-democracy campaigners in Bahrain that has existed since the upsurge in peaceful protests against the regime on 14 February 2011. But what the regime has done through its paranoia and perversion is to traduce a legitimate political protest movement into a terrorist plot.
One of those sentenced in this feudalistic farce is the internationally acknowledged human rights defender, Naji Fateel. He was given 15 years. His real “offence” was that he compiled the litany of violations and crimes committed by the regime against peaceful protesters. Another sentenced is Rihanna al Musawi, a mother of three children, who was arrested simply because she protested against the unlawful imprisonment of other human rights defenders and journalists, including Nabeel Rajab, Zainab Al Khawaja and Ahmed Humaiden.
When defendants were brought before the judges during previous hearings it was obvious that they had been physically and mentally traumatized during their interrogations, yet the judges refused to hear any complaints, and police officers bundled away the defendants as they were crying out about torture.
The real verdict from this week’s court travesty in Bahrain is that the regime is running an island of persecution and sectarianism in a ruthless attempt to kill democracy.
Meanwhile, the regime’s foreign minister is indulged at the UN to tell lies and sanitize the repugnant image of Bahrain. And the Bahraini regime is allowed to get away with this criminality because of the cynical silence and blindness afforded to it by its patrons in Washington and London.
Washington and London could bring the Bahraini regime to heel immediately by canceling diplomatic links and commercial contracts. America and Britain could slap on sanctions like they have done so blithely and blatantly against Iran and Syria for entirely spurious reasons.
Hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain, including the 50 sent down this week, could be freed overnight from their nightmarish world. But the Washington and London regimes won’t do that without massive Western public protest; because the autocrats in Western capitals are not interested in democracy or human rights. The US and Britain only wield those ideological terms for propaganda purposes to try to undermine governments that they oppose for selfish strategic reasons, such as in Syria or Iran, where they want regime change to install pliant puppets.
The despicable indifference to the harrowing plight of Bahrain’s people shows that Western governments have not a single fiber of principle or morality. They only know cynicism, self-interest and deception in service of their own crony capitalist elite.
Finian Cunningham, originally from Belfast, Ireland, was born in 1963. He is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is now based in East Africa where he is writing a book on Bahrain and the Arab Spring.He co-hosts a weekly current affairs programme, Sunday at 3pm GMT on Bandung Radio.