The Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, is a perfect political stew, situated as it is at the confluence of political, religious, economic and international tensions simmering in the Persian Gulf. A majority Shi’a Muslim country ruled for hundreds of years by Sunni tribal chieftains with family ties to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a dictatorship whose people have regularly demanded political reform and seen their aspirations crushed.
Today, with strong support from the oil-rich Saudis, the Kingdom’s hard-line Al-Khalifa regime enjoys absolute powers, although the day-to-day political reality is often complex.
Bahrain is also the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols those volatile waters, largely to keep an eye on Iran. The U.S. considers the port a critical element of its military posture in the Gulf. This consideration drives U.S. policy toward Bahrain. The centuries-old Bahraini-Saudi connection has, predictably, deterred the U.S. and other democratic countries from applying significant pressure to the kingdoms’ rulers. Stability is the byword.
Despite these geopolitical realities, beginning in February, 2011, the “Arab Spring” movement inspired Bahrainis to demonstrate, yet again, for change in their country. Bahrain’s rulers pushed back ruthlessly and murderously, killing, imprisoning and torturing democracy advocates, including doctors and nurses who were treating injured demonstrators and many unionists (teachers among them). As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrainis also requested and received Saudi military assistance to quell the unrest. Despite much rhetoric and some symbolic actions, the Bahraini regime today continues its repression, with forced exile, torture, imprisonment and denial of due process representing business as usual.
Since the protests began, many Bahraini unionists have been arrested and held against their will, including leaders from the health care associations/unions and teachers’ unions. At least eight medical professionals – doctors, nurses and others -- are in jail, and there are reports that some have begun a hunger strike. Of the teacher unionists, at present, the leaders from the Bahraini Teachers’ Association, Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman, remain in custody, sentenced to prison for five years and six months, respectively. Mahdi and Jalila were arrested in 2011 after supporting calls for reform in Bahrain. In prison, they were tortured and forced to sign “confessions” (interestingly, in a move reflecting the political tensions in the country, the court accepted a Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report providing evidence that Abu Dheeb and others had indeed been tortured).
The international labor movement, the human rights movement and U.S. unions are collaborating in an effort to protect unionists as best they can, and to bring about democratic change in the Kingdom. The American Federation of Teachers, Education International, the AFL-CIO and others have joined hands with human rights groups such as Amnesty International to press for Abu Dheeb and al-Salman’s release. For Abu Dheeb, who is in ill-health, the plea is very urgent.
It is not surprising that the government’s brutal resistance to democratic change also has been aimed at the country’s small, but active, trade union movement. Dictatorships cannot abide independent, mass-based movements, and that includes unions, whose membership crosses ethnic, religious and gender lines. Unions and their leaders are natural targets for authoritarian rulers. In Bahrain, in addition to teachers, unionists under the umbrella of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) participated in least “two general strikes to protest excessive force by security forces." Moreover, “In an apparent retaliation by the government and employers, which occurred during March-May 2011, employers dismissed almost 2,500 workers from the private sector, and almost 2,000 from the public sector, including 25% of the country’s union leadership."
For the United States and other democracies, worries about Iran and Persian Gulf security apparently have trumped the commitment to democratic change. International response has been muted. Perhaps it is too much to ask the world’s democracies, preoccupied with critical economic problems and hair-trigger Middle East conflicts, to cash in some chips and take some risks on behalf of the democratic prospect in Bahrain. After, it is small, and its sponsor, Saudi Arabia, plays a major role in global and regional crisis points and has essentially warned off other nations. It’s an old and familiar pattern.
At the same time, experience also shows that unions, human rights groups and their allies in civil society can help to fill this gap. By flipping over the rock and shining a light on abuses, such groups can save lives and incrementally widen the democratic space. I invite you to visit the union and human rights links above, to get up to date, and to add your voice to the protest.
- Randall Garton