Fresh wave of revolt hits Gulf countries

Mourners wave Bahrain's flag during the funeral for a protester killed by tear gas, January 13.

It is now two years since spontaneous mass uprisings against political and economic injustice started to sweep through the Arab countries. This began a period of heightened class struggle known in the West (but not the Arab countries) as the Arab Spring.

The initial uprisings followed a broadly similar pattern: mass street protests demanding the resignation of a brutal and corrupt dictator. But the protests were as much against the effects of neoliberalism — such as include unemployment, food and energy insecurity, removal of subsidies, privatisation and increased inequality — as against political repression.

The different paths of the uprisings in the two years since in part reflects the relative strength of the different regimes in the region. But it also reflects the response of the West, which has varied considerably between different countries.

West's response

The West's response has ranged from aiding the crushing of protests by dictatorships to direct military intervention against Muammar Gadaffi’s dictatorship in Libya.

The uprisings took the West by surprise. Not only did they reflect and fuel anti-neoliberal protests in Europe (and influence the Occupy protests in the US), within two months two pro-Western dictators had been overthrown: French puppet President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian tyrant notorious for his slavish obedience to US and Israeli diktats.

Moreover, the uprisings challenged the traditional justification for the West’s continual military interventions in the region: spreading democracy. Mass, mostly non-violent, demonstrations appeared to be achieving democracy while 10 years of US-led occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan had failed.

NATO militarily overthrew Gaddafi in 2011 to reassert its official role of “bringing democracy”. Despite Libya now being neither remotely democratic nor entirely under Western control, the West considers this mission accomplished.

In his January 21 inauguration speech, US President Barack Obama reaffirmed: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

The corporate media has dutifully aided the Western response to the Arab uprisings. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are declared completed and ongoing protests are explained away with the racist subtext that Arabs have some innate difficulty with democracy.

Continuing protests in most other Arab countries go unreported in the West. The exception is Syria, whose dictator, Bashar Assad, is allied to the West’s rivals, Russia and Iran, and has materially supported some armed resistance to Israel in Lebanon and Palestine.

The West’s diplomacy and selective indirect military aid has strengthened undemocratic elements in the opposition and helped turn a mass uprising into a civil war. Despite this, the saturation media coverage of Syria has turned the Arab Spring into a Western-inspired struggle for democracy against anti-Western tyranny.

The hypocrisy of the Western narrative becomes glaring in the case of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — an alliance of oil-rich absolute monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, the West’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The GCC played a prominent diplomatic role supporting the NATO military intervention in Libya and sent a token air-force contingent. It continues to play an important role in the West’s diplomatic interventions in the Syrian conflict. Moreover, rather than giving direct military aid to Syrian opposition forces, the West has facilitated GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, giving weapons money and to groups of their choosing.

Western politicians and media portray the GCC regimes as partners in the struggle to bring democracy to the Middle East. In reality the theocratic absolute monarchies stand out for their authoritarian brutality in a region of foreign-imposed dictatorships.

There have been pro-democracy protests and upheavals in all the GCC countries, although these have been downplayed or ignored by the Western press.

Bahrain

Bahrain, scene of some the earliest and largest protests in the Arab Spring, and the home port for the US Fifth Fleet, has received some media coverage. When the regime failed to quell the uprising, the GCC invoked a mutual defence agreement to approve a Saudi invasion of Bahrain in March 2011, the same time that the NATO force with the token GCC contingent began air strikes against Libya.

Saudi troops have maintained the regime in power, but the uprising continues. Press TV reported on January 30 that four days of clashes between protesters and Bahraini and Saudi forces after the killing of Qasim Habib Ja’far, an 8-year-old boy, by tear gas at a January 26 demonstration in Karbabad village.

Since the Saudi invasion, the Western media has downplayed protests in Bahrain. The March 9, 2012, Al-Akhbar reported protests of between 100,000 and 250,000 demanding democracy but noted: “The international media largely ignored the protests.”

Protests gained some coverage in April last year during the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix. The 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled because of the uprising and by going ahead with the 2012 race, its promoters and sponsors were aiding regime propaganda that Bahrain had normalised.

The regime achieved a similar public relations coup of sorts with the December visit to launch a milkshake chain by US TV personality Kim Kardashian, who enthusiastically endorsed the regime and its absolute monarch. “Thanks Sheikh Khalifa for your amazing hospitality. I’m in love with The Kingdom of Bahrain,” she tweeted.

Anti-monarchy protesters attempted to again to use the international media presence to draw international attention to their cause. But their condemnation of Kardashian for supporting the King was conflated with criticism by pro-regime clerics of her lifestyle choices in much of the Western media coverage, including the Murdoch media in Australia.

Human Rights Watch 2013 country report on Bahrain, released on January 31, reported continued use of “excessive force to suppress peaceful protests” and arrest, torture and prosecution without due process of activists, journalists, dissidents and health workers who treat victims of regime violence. Press TV reported on January 23 that a court gave a jail term to protester Mohammed Mushaima despite him having already died in custody.

The scant Western coverage of protests in Bahrain misrepresents them as religious communal conflict. On December 13 the BBC said: “The most significant single cause of unrest … is religious sectarianism. Bahrain lies between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the Shias of Iran, and has a long history of sectarian tension, between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. The Sunnis control most of the money and power.”

This explanation was in a report of a protest whose demands, the BBC conceded, were secular.

The monarchy, which adheres to Sunni Islam in a Shia majority country, does have a religious sectarian ideology. While the large migrant workforce is deprived of civil rights, Sunni mercenaries are given citizenship if they join the Bahraini security forces. Al Jazeera reported on July 30, 2011, that 30% of the Bahraini security forces were recruited in Balochistan, Pakistan, and that advertisements for mercenaries in the Pakistani press were proliferating.

The BBC reported on November 7 that 31 Bahraini opposition activists, all Shia, had their citizenship revoked after being accused of working for Iran. The regime has used religious sectarian discourse to paint the entire opposition as pro-Iranian.

The Western media echoes this — it is the implied reason why Western support for democracy does not include Bahrain.

The December 13 BBC report of the apparently secular protest warned that unrest in “Bahrain will export trouble to the region — sharpening Shia-Sunni sectarianism — and the dangerous competition between the Saudis and Iran. The Americans fear that, without urgent political progress, the country will continue to fragment — and that, they say, will only benefit Iran.”

Protests in the West's favourite theocracy

The supposed Western support for democracy also excludes Saudi Arabia. With its public executions for witchcraft and prohibition on women driving, the Saudi monarchy has become a favourite case of Muslim barbarism in Western Islamaphobic propaganda despite being the West’s closest Arab ally.

Mass protests have been occurring in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, particularly around Qatif, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, although these have received even less Western media attention than those in Bahrain.

“Qatif witnessed its first street mobilization in the form of a mass protest in al-`Awamiyah on 17 February 2011 that demanded the release of prisoners of conscience,” the anonymous editors of Easter Provinces Revolution on Twitter and Facebook said in a May 7 interview with Jadaliyya.com.

“This coincided with the emergence of both the Free Youth Movement and the Free Dignity Movement,”

“Shortly after, the dispersed street mobilizations in Qatif developed into two other main groups: Day of Qatifi Rage for the Release of Forgotten Prisoners and the Youth Reform Movement. The protests reached their zenith in March 2011 …

“Eventually, Qatifi groups and movements decided to unite under one organised and public entity. They decided to form the Coalition for Freedom and Justice.”

Despite repression, protests have continued in the intervening two years but have been mostly confined to the Eastern Province. However, Press TV reported on January 27 and January 29 that protests had spread to the capital Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries have remained major importers of high tech Western arms and recipients of Western military aid, Glenn Greenwald wrote on the Guardian.co.uk on January 31.

As in Bahrain, the Saudi monarchy has used religious sectarian discourse to accuse the protesters of being pro-Iran. The Eastern Province Revolution editors rejected this. They told Jadaliyya.com: “Al Saud are doing the work of the United States and Israel in the region and this is no secret. They need to stop doing that before they start talking about other people’s plans and those who execute them here …

“If we were receiving support from Iran we would have been able to topple Al Saud in a short period of time, and the same goes for Bahrain.”