Who is Really Meddling in Bahrain’s Internal Affairs?
On the morning of March 14, 2011, Saudi troops began rolling across the 16-mile causeway connecting Bahrain with neighboring Saudi Arabia.
By midday, about 2,000 troops - 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates - entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Their objective was to quell a popular uprising against Bahrain's 200-year-old Al-Khalifa dynasty.
Twenty-four hours later, a large-scale assault against hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying a landmark square in Bahrain's capital Manama was unleashed.
As the heavily armed troops overran Manama's Pearl roundabout, they fired live rounds at the unarmed protesters.
Over 100 people were killed in the ensuing violence and nearly 3,000 injured.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), later tasked with looking into the unrest, concluded that many more Bahrainis were arbitrarily detained and tortured.
Almost seven years to the day, Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received the red carpet treatment at both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street during his first official visit to the UK.
Although the prince's visit was also greeted with fury from international rights groups, it was nevertheless another demonstration of a "long-term partnership" between Riyadh and London.
Aside from the multi-billion-dollar defense contracts, the Saudi king-in-waiting and Britain's Premier Theresa May also inked an aid deal that critics say whitewashes Saudi Arabia's role in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.
The UK has played a similar role in Bahrain, where a pot of ‘aid' money was injected into Manama's security and justice system.
Under the banner of "reform assistance", Britain has provided over £3.52 million to Manama in recent years.
The funds were allocated for teaching Bahrain's security forces how to "command and control" protesters, financing Bahrain's parliament, as well as the ombudsman of the kingdom's prison system.
All of these institutions have been instrumental in the bloody, seven-year-long clampdown on dissent in Bahrain, which also happens to be home to both British and American naval installations that are essential components of the western military infrastructure in the region.
According to US-based writer and political commentator Naseer al-Omari, the West's role in Bahrain is merely a "continuation of colonialism in the Middle East."
In the 1999 animated film South Park, a group of angry parents decide to blame Canada for the trouble their children have been getting into. The song, 'Blame Canada', which satirizes scapegoating, marks the formation of an organization that ultimately sparks the American-Canadian War in the film.
In much the same way, the continuing unrest in Bahrain is almost exclusively being blamed on Iran.
This month alone, Bahrain's Ministry of Interior has already announced the arrest of 116 people that it accuses of being part of a ‘terrorist' network overseen by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
In recent years dozens of Bahrainis have been slapped with death sentences, and hundreds of others are serving lengthy prison terms over their alleged links to Tehran.
Coupled with a serious lack of evidence, countless international reports, including one from the US State Department, concluded that such prosecutions are "politically-motivated actions against the mainstream, nonviolent opposition and the Shiite community."
Meanwhile, classified US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks revealed that the American Embassy in Manama found no "convincing evidence of Iranian involvement" in Bahrain.
"Shiite discontent stems chiefly from their lower standard of living, unofficial exclusion from sensitive government positions, and Sunni domination of parliament," the embassy reported in one of its transmissions to the State Department.
The transmission also noted that only one third of Bahrain's Shiite majority looks to Iran's Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei for spiritual guidance. The rest follow Iraq's Sayyed Ali al-Sistani and clerics in Lebanon.
Last month, exiled Bahraini activist Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei told Reuters that authorities in Manama are scapegoating Iran in an effort to make the crisis in Bahrain appear "more of a sectarian problem rather than democracy versus dictatorship."
Saudi Arabia's meddling in Bahrain's internal affairs, on the other hand, is far easier to document.
Aside from the ongoing de-facto occupation of Bahrain by Saudi forces, Riyadh has a long history of interfering in the affairs of its tiny neighbor.
A cable from the US embassy in Manama dated 2006 recaps a conversation between the American ambassador at the time, William T. Monroe, and Bahrain's monarch, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
"The [Bahraini] King mentioned... that the Saudis watch with concern the democratic reform steps that Bahrain has taken," the cable reads. "The King offered no concrete examples, but pointed to regular attacks and criticisms of Bahrain's democratic reform efforts."
Naseer al-Omari believes that the crisis in Bahrain can be solved simply with Manama "divorcing itself from its obligations to Saudi Arabia."
"Bahraini people are peaceful people. They don't have a history of violence against the regime. They only strive for representation. So there have been so many missed opportunities for the Bahraini regime to reform itself," al-Omari added.
Former Bahraini opposition lawmaker Jalal Fairooz echoed that sentiment, explaining that the regime in Manama is a "slave" to the Saudis.
"The Saudi mindset is that they have to control not only Bahrain but the entire Persian Gulf. They denied Qatar its own independence. When it comes to Bahrain, they treat it as part of Saudi Arabia. They will not allow democratic reforms in Bahrain because they are afraid that the people in Saudi would have the same demands," Fairooz opined.
It's the economy, stupid
Compared to its wealthier GCC neighbors, Bahrain has a small, largely undiversified economy and is listed as one of the worst-affected countries by the global plunge in oil prices.
In 2017, the kingdom's revenues amounted to a total of USD 5.8 billion, while its expenditures were nearly double that amount, reaching just over USD 9 billion.
The country's public debt, which is rising at an annual rate of 13%, gulped up no less than 75% of its GDP last year, and that figure is expected to increase to nearly 100% after Manama decided to raise the debt ceiling.
These economic difficulties are further exacerbated by a serious housing crisis. Bahrain has a shortage of roughly 75,000 houses, which resulted in the creation of 2,000 slum areas and approximately 10,000 citizens living in poverty. That is a significant number for a population of just over 1.4 million.
Meanwhile, the kingdom's banks have also taken a hit as a result of the ongoing political turmoil, with investors continuing to withdraw their capital. Last year, US-based ratings agency Standard & Poor reported that Bahrain's banking system has been in constant decline since 2008, shedding up to a quarter of its size.
The more obvious consequences of Bahrain's economic decline have been the expansion of taxation, the cutting of subsidies, and with that, rising discontent among the local population. But the crisis has also led to more interference from neighbors like Saudi Arabia.
In November 2017, Bloomberg reported that Manama sought renewed financial assistance from the Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis to help "replenish its foreign-exchange reserves and avert a currency devaluation."
In return, Manama will not only have to submit to further external control of its finances, but, at the behest of its patrons in Riyadh, the regime will most certainly be expected to step up repression against Bahrain's Shiite majority, and undoubtedly blame Iran for everything that goes wrong.