Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why Bahrain Matters

The latest developments in Bahrain are as painful to me as the Iraqi Invasion, and quite frankly, everyone else in Kuwait, but not for the same reasons. Many back the legitimate government of Bahrain, and many others support the Rioters-again for various reasons. I'll be explaining my position in this post, and it will be a long one.

Let me begin by first mentioning that had it been any other GCC country (besides Kuwait) these riots wouldn't even exist, since they're mostly managed by predominantly Shiite and/or Old School Baathist Bahrainis. I'm not just referring to the recent events, I'm also referring to the events that preceded Bahrain's conversion into a Monarchy back in the late 1990's and 1980's. What many don't remember (or fail to admit) is that only in Bahrain did we see a head of state visit with the opposition figures any chance he gets, or travels to the UK in order to meet with them and invite them to participate in Bahrain's Democratic process.

The rioters of recent development, at the onset, were on a very true and noble path; repressed civilians shouting out for reforms peacefully. Calls for employment opportunities, social security, economic reforms and so one were high and loud among the demands of the demonstrators. Many of them won the hearts and minds of nearly all the Human Rights organizations and media outlets, and when they decided to occupy a main artery of Bahrain's economy-the GCC roundabout, many felt compelled to support them openly.

The wonderful thing about them was that, in their early stages, they were surprisingly sectarian, devoid of any ethnic or religious rift, just like Egypt, and that caught everyone by surprise. Bahrainis from all backgrounds and all walks of life gathered up and made their case to the world, and their case was as valid as the Sun was bright. The demonstrations included people from Shiite, Sunni, Arab, Persian, they were all there, and they were all asking for the same things.

Ibrahim Sharif with Sh. Ali Salman
The Bahraini Government, weary of it's history with the opposition, and the events that had passed ever since Bahrain became an independant state, saw this as just another religiously-inspired uprising, and called in the Riot Police. No sooner had the first casualties got reported did the scene become clearer; It was a peaceful demonstration, with legitimate demands, and not monopolized by the Shiites alone. People like Ibrahim Sharif of the Leftist 'Wa'ad' Party were ardent supporters of the demonstrations. Many Bahrainis were supportive of the demonstrations, because they had essence. But that changed quickly.

Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, went on live TV  later in February (and here on CNN) and openly invited all the opposition parties to come in and open up discussions with the government, and with no restrictions; Everything, as he was quoted as saying, was on the table for discussion. But by then, Bahrainis used the 14th February shooting incidend to prove to the world that the Bahraini Government was as tyrannical as the Israelis.

H.E. Salman Bin Hamad
Al Khalifa
For over a month, the Crown Prince and the Bahraini Government were using official and back channels, pleading with the rioters and demonstrators to come in an talk with them. They even allowed one of their main opposition figures, Hasan Mushaima, to return and participate in the demonstrations. Their response was that, before any discussions take place, a set of conditions must be met by the government, which include the dissolution of the Government and the disposal of the Constitution.

So now the demands turned from social and economic reforms (which everyone was asking for, Sunni and Shiite) to political demands for the overthrow of the Monarchy, going so far as to name their place of demonstration as the cornerstone of the new Islamic Republic of Bahrain. Let me stop here by making an assurance, I am NOT against Shiites in any way, shape or form. I'm against what some of their leaders, who happen to be Shiite, are calling for, and that's the downfall of existing governments in order to become satellites of the greater Iranian Islamic Republic.

Which brings me to what I wrote about earlier, the fear that the events of 1981 would repeat themselves. And it is a valid 'fear', despite Iran's continuous assurances that it's of peace. And to understand why, one needs to look at Iran's history.

Calls to Overthrown
The Umayyad Caliphate, like the pre-Persian era Safavid Dynasty, span the Earth from Morocco to the West all the way to the Indian continent and beyond. It's quite likely that Iran is, today, trying to revive it's lost dynasty, for reasons that may be controversial, and may even sound biased and polarized. Having said that, however, I think it's logical to surmise that, with the Clergy ruling everything in Iran, the geopolitical mindset and execution of Iran's internal and external politics may very well be religiously-inspired.

No one wants to live in a country where stoning is a way of life, or where natural disasters are blamed on unveiled women, or even be arrested for not wearing the Hijab properly, or where watching TV is forbidden, or where secret police grab you out of your home in the middle of the night just to question you about a stolen car or something. That's what a Clerical-ruled political system does, and that's what the GCC countries are trying to avoid ever since the Iranian Revolution happened. Even Saudi Arabia, the most closed and intolerant country in the area (probably the world) is making strides to open up, with the Kingdom's first Co-ed University, more social freedom for women, less religious police on the streets, etc. Baby steps, to be sure, but all in the right direction, definitely.

Back to Iran's goals, one might argue that what was said about Iran's intolerance and designs in the region can also be used when referring to Saudi Arabic, the custodian of two the Islamic World's three Holy mosques and an ardent supporter of Wahhabist Sunni Islam.

Hasan Mushaima
Actually, one may well be right, especially since Al Qaeda's leaders and supporters all stem from Saudi Arabia. There are a few major difference, though; Saudi Arabia does not intend to export it's brand of Islam beyond it's borders, nor does it support any satellite state of similar politics, nor is it a state-sponsor of terrorism, nor is it defying world powers in accumulating dual-use technologies, nor does it possess weapons of mass destruction. More to the point, Saudi Arabia does not have a history of animosity towards any of it's neighbors. Well, at least nothing that can be construed as a generational conflict!

Consider this; The Iran-backed Mahdi Army in Iraq wields more power than the Iraqi Government, Iranian-backed Hezbollah's been unbowed ever since it's conflict with Israel in 2006, the Iranian-backed Houthi's of Yemen are still armed and operational, Lebanon's Government has been brought down by Hezbollah-backed Parliamentarians. All of these factions are Iranian-backed and financed, as proven by Wikileaks and other sources. Syria, North Korea and China all provide Iran with weapons and equipment and logistics and intelligence to the point where the UN-imposed sanctions are as effective as a mouse guarding a lioness in heat!

Women marching in Iran
With an international support network keeping Western powers in check, and with the US, UK and NATO forces entrenched in Afghanistan, Iran can now focus on expanding it's influence locally. Iranian-inspired uprisings begin in Bahrain, Gaza and Saudi Arabia. All these uprisings and activities have Iranian fingerprints on them, either in the form of weapons, ideologies or simply PR support, by way of Satellite TV channels  like Al Manar and Al Alam and Press TV. Thus begins Iran's regional expansion program, and with Nuclear capabilities, there's not much that the Western powers can do to prevent them from flexing their muscles as they please.

So why now and why these particular places? Simply put, Iran has become a Nuclear Power, and is self-sufficient in it's weapons programs, so now it has all the factors it needs to export it's Islamic revolution to the rest of the World; the Ideology, the support network, the means to defend itself, and now, gradually, popular support of the masses, and it will do that by way of  undermining the dominant-but-weak-Sunni governments in it's backyard; By throwing it's support to the one thing that would surely support it in any endeavor it may choose to embark upon, the Shiite minorities in the Gulf. By raising awareness that the Shiites are second-class citizens who have been stripped of their rights and privileges Iran has attempted to steer the Shiite population in the Gulf towards confronting it's Sunni 'oppressors' in very subtle ways, until the Bahrain riots erupted.

However, to the uninitiated and inexperienced, simple facts and realities seem to dissolve from the argument.

Kuwait, for example, has maintained its history and tradition of upholding such rights as well as encouraging religious tolerance. Just one look at the Kuwaiti political establishment, and the number of seats held by Shiites in both the Government and the Parliament, one can surmise that the Shiite Kuwaitis have enjoyed the same basic rights as any other citizen in Kuwait. No Shiite Kuwaiti can deny that the Kuwaiti Government favors Sunnis over Shiites when some of His Highness the Emir's Advisers, for example, are themselves Shiite!
MP Sayed Hussein
Al Qallaf

The Sunnii-Shiite divide story sputters into vapor when confronted with these facts alone, let alone the family ties and age-old business relationships enjoyed by both sects in Kuwait. Coupled with a formal Constitution that safeguards the rights of all citizens-regardless of religious affiliation-and free and independent courts, no one can accuse Kuwait of being religiously biased. That doesn't mean that more can be done, or that improvements can be made, but that's the job of the Parliament, not the Government, and even in that avenue, the Shiite MP's are making great strides towards securing some Shiite-specific requirements, legally, constitutionally, properly, not through revolutions and terrorism.

Kuwait isn't unique in this at all. In other parts of the Gulf, it's more or less the same; Shiite and Sunnis live side by side, and have been so for ages and ages. Oman is a prime example of religious tolerance among the sects, so is Qatar, so is the UAE. Only Bahrain stands alone because of it's demographic infrastructure. Being mostly Shiites, the Baharna (Not the Persians, mind you) of Bahrain have been vilified as second-class citizens ever since the attempted coupe in 1981, and relations between them and their Government never got better since. As a result, many in Bahrain see things through this lens: the Baharna tried and failed to overthrow the Government, and any attempt at asking for any rights will be construed as a repeat of that attempt.

Reciprocally, the Hardliners in Iran used the recent Wikileaks scandal to prove their point; the Sunni Governments all seek the destruction of the Shiites in the Area. From the secret Saudi proposals to bomb the Bushehr Nuclear Plant to Kuwait and Bahrain's struggle with the Shiite population in their respective countries. Now that the Uprising in Bahrain has been diffused, the issue of Bahrain has become a War of journalism, of PR and of popular support and clandestine sedition.

If Iran is allowed to continue flexing it's muscles unabated, the region will spiral into a war that will eventually not end favorably for the GCC, and you've just read this and still feel calm about it, you're either not in agreement or simply not my target audience, and in both cases, time will tell, since one can only assume this current period to be the calm before the storm, and the next battle will determine who's right.

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