Friday, February 18, 2011

Bahrain: Short overview of the kingdom

Coat of arms of Bahrain.Image via Wikipedia//Bahrain coat of arms
The recent protests in Bahrain put this country on the media spot. And, as usual when we have to deal with countries outside the European space, we have many basic questions, I tried to answer for myself, as the protests are expected to continue over the week-end.

A Major Non-NATO Ally of the US

Bahrain is the smallest Arab state and an important ally of the US in the Persian Gulf, hosting the US Fifth Fleet - about 1500 United States and coalition military personnel. It enjoys the status of Major Non-NATO Ally, conferred in 2003 by George W. Bush, a status also enjoyed by Egypt, since 1989. This status confers several financial and military advantages, among which military purchases, anti-terrorist support or transfer of technology.

The recent protests took place 10 years after the referendum aiming to introduce the principles of constitutional monarchy. Following those changes, the country successfully conducted in 2002 the first democratic parliamentary election in the Arab Gulf. In the same year, in April, it made CNN when a Bahraini youth was killed trying to storm the US embassy in an anti-US riot. On the other hand, six people originary from Bahrain went fo Guantanamo Bay, among which one member of the ruling family. From the religious point of view, it is a country with shi’a majority, struggling a difficult economic condition and a Suni minority in power.

The Cabinet is appointed by the King, with half of the members coming from the royal family. The country's elected parliament is the only one in the Gulf Arab region besides Kuwait's assembly, but its bills still need to pass an upper house (Shura) that is appointed by the king. Al Wefaq bloc, with a strong religious stance, organized last year, in October, massive rallies, asking for the boycott of elections. Now, ahead of the latest protests, members of the bloc announced the intention of refusing to partipate to the works of the legislative.

Last year, the emirate was in the midst of a major crackdown on its opposition. Two dozen dissidents, including intellectuals, clerics and a prominent blogger, had been rounded up, charged under anti-terrorism laws and allegedly tortured. A human rights group that had received U.S. funding was taken over by the government. Human Rights Watch had concluded that "what we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism." But at the end of 2010, while in Bahrain, Hillary Clinton praised implicitly the ruling family: "I am very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts - economically, politically, socially". When asked by a member of Parliament to comment the fact that "many people are arrested, lawyers and human rights activists”, Clinton's condescending offered explicitly her support for the ruling family. "It's easy to be focused internally and see the glass as half empty. I see the glass as half full," she said. "Yes, I mean people are arrested and people should have due process . . . but on the other hand the election was widely validated. . . . So you have to look at the entire picture". Before this week protests, the authorities imposed several restrictions to the web, as in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran...After the last protests, the US Administration asked Bahrain to show restraint.

As many other countries from the region, Bahrain don’t recognize the state of Israel. But, in the same time, it designated the first Jewish ambassador of an Arab country: Ms. Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo the top-diplomat in the US who is in the same time the first female Bahraini ambassador. The members of the Jewish community, 36, are encouraged to express their identity, but they are not allowed to visit Israel, due to the lack of official diplomatic relations.

As in the other recent and very recent cases, it is not clear what will be the final outcome and this will not be able to see from a day to another. More to come, for sure.

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