Bahrain, the Black Sheep of the Gulf


Every family has an outcast. You know, the relative who you don't want to invite over for the holidays or the one you are embarrassed to talk about and introduce to your friends.

For the Gulf countries, Bahrain is their black sheep.

It wasn't always this way. Before last spring, the tiny Gulf island was the cool little brother-type; the outgoing and fun partier of the family. Most Arabs, especially Saudis, loved to go hang out with little brother Bahrain. He had all the toys (Formula One), the alcohol, the night clubs, even Michael Jackson!

Then something happened — protests to be exact. To outsiders, life seemed good in liberal modern Bahrain, and for the one-third Sunni majority it was. Yet, below the surface unrest fermented. Inspired by the advent and success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and disenfranchised by continued economic and political oppression, the anger of the majority Shi'a population boiled over.

Unnerved by the protests, King Al Khalifa lost his cool and cracked down hard on Bahraini protests.

At first, the GCC family rushed to protect their troubled relative and quash the protests. The Saudis sent troops, and the UAE police and even Jordanian and Pakistani special forces were said to have been sent to put down the revolution.

Sixty-five demonstrators were killed, hundreds were unlawfully detained (including the leading opposition member of parliament), and thousands more were beaten, sometimes pulled from their houses in the middle of the night. 

What the King didn't anticipate was that his brutal crackdown would only embolden protesters more. By using force instead of diplomacy, he lost any moral authority and chance for compromise in the minds of the opposition. 

The result has been a Kingdom racked by upheaval and protests (albeit on a smaller less organized scale) and a capital that seems perpetually blanketed by tear gas.

Eleven months after the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations, weekly (if not daily) scuffles still break out, which is why the Gulf Council must finally privately admonish and, if necessary, publicly disavow the Bahraini monarch until the Kingdom proves they are serious about reform and putting an end to protests with concessions not force. 

Cutting ties with a relative is never easy, but Bahrain has become a liability for the rest of the Gulf and it tarnishes the family name.

The Middle East enters 2012 engulfed by the deepest and most widespread unrest in modern times (which for the Middle East is saying something). Yemen and Syria are on the brink of civil war. Libya and to a lesser extent Tunisia are undergoing uneasy transitions under unknown and untested governments. Iraqi democracy is teetering post U.S. withdrawal, and Egypt like Bahrain is still plagued by turbulent discontent. 

The revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring is still potent and the longer protests continue in Bahrain, the more attention will be turned on the rest of the Gulf's own authoritarian regimes and practices. 

The GCC has a chance to turn chaos into an opportunity. If it can openly pressure King Al Khalifa into reaching real compromises with the opposition while at the same time even more publicly announcing its own sets of democratic reforms, it could nip possible internal (and external) enmity in the bud by coming across as reform-minded and forward-thinking. King Abdullah was able to pull off a similar feat in Jordan with immense success.

Blessed with strong economies, the Gulf countries have used the promise of a comfortable lifestyle to continue to stave off criticisms of their rule.

However, during such a tumultuous period in the Middle East, a higher standard of living may not leave the Kingdom impermeable to revolutionary zeal. The longer the Gulf condones Bahrain's violent repression of protests, the stronger the authoritarian association will become for the whole Gulf and the more at risk it will be to renewed criticism and protests.

The Gulf must act now or risk the black sheep leading the entire flock to greater uncertainty and peril.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons