The 2011 protests in the capital of Bahrain, Manama, threatened to divide an already divisive nation. Questioning the state’s fragility and rule of law in Bahrain, the 2011 Bahraini uprising as many now call it, was a historic day in the nation of Bahrain. The majority of the Shia population in Bahrain initiated the protests that became so untenable for the kingdom that around 1,000 Saudi troops deployed in the nation at the ruling Al Khalifa family’s request.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators who protested all across Bahrain disputed the Al Khalifa family’s strong control of power and alleged discrimination against the nation’s majority Shia population. Clearly questioning the fragility and rule of law in Bahrain, the protesters appeared fed up with the continuing human rights crisis in the country and the lack of democratic reforms that the government promised back in the 2001 referendum for the National Action Charter.
A Propped-Up Government
A small archipelago, Bahrain has a small GDP of almost $39 billion in 2021 in comparison to its neighbors. The GDP of Saudi Arabia equaled $833 billion in 2021 whereas the UAE’s GDP sat at $415 billion in 2021.
The Middle East has a variety of governments varying in nature and function. However, unlike other areas of the world, nations such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait have royal families who still control most of the power in their respective nations, all of whom are Sunni Muslims. Bahrain is no different — the House of Khalifa is the ruling family of the Kingdom of Bahrain. The only major difference between Bahrain and the other kingdoms or emirates is that Bahrain has a majority Shia population.
For the Al Khalifa’s neighboring royal families, the main source of income is oil exportation. Nations such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia largely nationalized oil. Therefore, tax revenue is only a small percentage of the nations’ overall revenue. This allows for the ruling royal families to significantly lower the tax burden for their populations. Having income tax is not popular in the Gulf region. This largely explains how undemocratic regimes have held onto power for so long. The trade-off is that the population is able to prosper due to the low tax, keeping the population happy and the undemocratic royal family keeps power.
Unfortunately for the Bahraini royal family, Bahrain has been unable to diversify its economy. Bahrain’s dependence on selling oil has resulted in a shaky economy, meaning that when the oil prices dip, the Bahraini deficit grows at an alarming rate.
Unlike its neighbors, Bahrain has a significant deficit. The experts expected the Bahraini economy to contract in 2020 due to lower-than-expected oil prices. According to Reuters, Bahrain’s public debt climbed to 133% of its GDP in 2020.
The problem with this is, unlike other ruling royal families, the Al Khalifa family cannot continue to offer its population big benefits and low taxes to keep the population happy and keep themselves in power as Bahrain’s economy could eventually collapse. But, Bahrain has received significant financial backing from neighboring countries. Gulf nations such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent aid packages in the region of $10 billion to facilitate Bahrain’s growing expenses in 2018.
Without the support of Bahrain’s neighbors, both financially and militarily, the royal family of Bahrain may have been unable to cling to power for so long.
Human Rights in Bahrain
Desperate to keep power in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family has continued to commit many serious human rights violations in the nation. These violations include torture, suppression of expression and denying the right to assembly. According to Amnesty International, reports note many cases of torture in state detention centers. Authorities commonly use torture methods such as sleep deprivation, threats of execution and beatings.
Bahrain has allowed impunity. Though the Bahraini Special Investigation Unit has received reports of torture, it has failed to report on the number of incidents and did not fully report the outcomes of such cases. After the 2011 protests, authorities detained many peaceful protesters and tried and sentenced them to life in prison in some cases.
Health and hygiene conditions in Bahraini prisons have remained a serious cause for concern. Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that up to three detainees have died in Bahraini prisons amid claims of medical negligence.
Freedom of expression and assembly remain limited, authorities often arrest protesters and independent media and prominent opposition groups remain outlawed. Authorities arrested at least 58 people for online activities that go against Bahrain’s restricted online content laws.
As it stands, the backing from other Gulf countries means it is unlikely that the Al Khalifa Royal family will be leaving positions of power within the government despite large portions of the population questioning the fragility and rule of law in Bahrain. This becomes unfortunate for the Shia majority population who wish to see more equality in positions of power between Shia and Sunni groups. With the Bahraini royal family continuing to get support from its neighbors, the human rights crisis in the nation may take longer to reach a resolution.
Fortunately, a number of nonprofit organizations aim to make a difference in Bahrain. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) is a nonprofit focusing on advocacy, education and awareness for the calls for democracy and human rights in Bahrain. BIRD has worked “by engaging with victims of human rights abuse in Bahrain and providing them recourse to aid and justice.” The organization also “engages with key international actors and governments to advocate for policies that encourage human rights in Bahrain.” Its mission is to “promote human rights and effective accountability in Bahrain.”
The efforts of organizations ensure that human rights are upheld amid fragility in Bahrain.
– Josef Whitehead