In the Gulf region, the month of May marked a convergence of tensions. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, notably Kuwait and Bahrain, both internally dealt with growing civil discord amidst an evolving regional conflict with Iran. In January 2016, Saudi officials executed Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr–an event which precipitated Shi’ite demonstrators’ destruction of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Kuwait and Bahrain, in a display of solidarity with its Sunni ally, consequently downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran (1). Since January, Kuwait and Bahrain have renewed their respective efforts to suppress internal Shi’ite dissent, prompting not only greater civil discord but also further disregard for human rights.
Tensions in Bahrain last month were reminiscent of the country’s sectarian crisis that characterized, in part, the beginnings of the Arab Spring. In February 2011, the Bahraini government, which the Sunni minority leads, sought to disband the Shia opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in order to quell the pro-democracy movement among the Shia majority. During this crackdown, Bahrain’s officials killed, arbitrarily detained, and tortured hundreds of protesters. The regime justified its violent suppression of dissent, claiming that Shia-majority Iran was fomenting unrest among its population (2). However, in November 2011, Bahrain’s king acceded to the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) related to the government’s human rights record and promised desperately needed reform. Despite claims that Bahrain has fully implemented BICI recommendations, the regime has not held a single government official accountable for abuses that occurred in 2011 (3). Moreover, Bahraini activists and civil society leaders continue to report the suppression of basic rights, like the freedom of association and expression. Human Rights First, in interviews with activists and leaders, additionally confirms the continued arbitrary detention and torture of opposition (4). The Bahraini regime has successfully cloaked its abuses in a narrative that portrays Shia Muslims as not only terrorists but also, more importantly, the agents of Iran. The US, among other members of the international community, has readily accepted this narrative, as its relationship with Bahrain carries strategic military considerations. Notably, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (5). While BICI recommendations remain unimplemented, the US State Department, in response to this strategic relationship, continues to weaponize the regime with small arms (6). This year, however, it appeared that the US might seek to mitigate Bahraini abuses. At the behest of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Bahraini government, on May 31, released opposition activist Zainab al-Khawaja and her toddler from Bahraini detention. As Brian Dooley of Human Rights First notes, the release of al-Khawaja and her son, although certainly positive, is “no major breakthrough for human rights, (and) no indicator of fundamental reform (7).” If the US supports human rights as it claims, it must immediately ban the sale of small arms and ammunition to Bahrain and impose sanctions on those who promulgate these abuses.
Meanwhile, in Kuwait, sectarian tensions indeed persist, as about a third of Kuwait’s population are Shia. ISIL attacks have primarily marked this divide between Sunni and Shia. In June 2015, an ISIL attack on a Kuwaiti Shia mosque killed 27 worshippers (8). Though, it should be noted that Kuwaiti Shi’ites have historically enjoyed a relatively cordial relationship with the Sunni ruling family and played an integral role in the country’s politics. After the liberation of Kuwait, when the country’s parliament was restored, the Kuwaiti Shi’ites reassumed their active role in the parliamentary process and continued to align themselves with the royal family (9). Despite interruptions to the peace, this relationship, however tenuous it may be, endures today. Perhaps the more salient source of civil discord in Kuwait is the government’s treatment of the Bidun population. The Bidun are an ethnic population, numbering nearly 100,000, whose name means “without nationality.” Either descendants of nomadic tribes or Arabs who joined the Kuwaiti army in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Bidun are denied citizenship and are considered illegal immigrants in Kuwait (10). On May 28, reports stated that Kuwait’s supreme court upheld the jail sentences of six stateless rights activists, including Abdul Hakeem Al Fadhli, who were arrested in 2014 while protesting the denial of Kuwaiti citizenship and other basic rights to the Bidun population (11). Possibly, in an effort to distract from the outcome of these proceedings and assuage the international community, the next day, May 29, Kuwait agreed to return 47 prisoners to Iran after months of negotiating a bilateral agreement. This transfer of convicts to Iran is the largest, at one time, since the 1979 Revolution (12). The following day, the US State Department approved a $420 million support package to enhance Kuwait’s fleet of Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet fighter aircraft (13). It appears that the US will continue to prioritize military strategy over the protection of human rights and the promotion of human security.
Given the United States’ resources and influence in the international community, the onus primarily falls on the US to induce countries like Bahrain and Kuwait to honor their international obligations. With lifting international sanctions and a projected, improved economic forecast in Iran, the balance of power might shift favorably toward Tehran, causing Gulf insecurity to increase. If the repression of Shi’ite communities in these states is largely a response to regional insecurity over Iran, the insistence that the US organize an effort to address these concerns becomes increasingly imperative.
(1) Al Omran, Ahmed and Asa Fitch. “Sectarian Tensions in Middle East Deepen as Saudi Arabian Allies Join Rift With Iran.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 4 Jan. 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(2) Kerr, Simeon. “Bahrain Moves to Ban Opposition.” Financial Times. Nikkei, 14 April 2011. Web. 2 June 2016.
(3) Dooley, Brian. “Bahrain’s False Claims on BICI.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 10 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(4) Dooley, Brian. “50 Days of a Broken Promise in Bahrain.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 26 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(5) Agence France-Presse. “Bahrain Releases Activist Zainab al-Khawaja.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(6) Dooley, Brian. “50 Days of a Broken Promise in Bahrain.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 26 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(7) Agence France-Presse. “Bahrain Releases Activist Zainab al-Khawaja.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(8) Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. “Shattering the Myths about Kuwaiti Shia.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera
Media Network, 30 June 2015. Web. 2 June 2016.
(9) Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. “Shattering the Myths about Kuwaiti Shia.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 30 June 2015. Web. 2 June 2016.
(10) Taylor, Adam. “The Controversial Plan to Give Kuwait’s Stateless People Citizenship of a Tiny, Poor African Island.” The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC, 17 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(11) “Top Kuwait Court Jails Stateless Activist Over Protest.” Gulf News. GN Media, 28 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(12) “Kuwait Returns 47 Iranian Prisoners to Tehran.” Al Bawaba. Al Bawaba Media Network, 29 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
(13) Waldron, Greg. “US Approves $420m Support Deal for Kuwait Hornets.” Flightglobal. Reed Business Information Ltd, 30 May 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.
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Bailee Ahern has been the Director of Human Security for Global Intelligence since the summer of 2016. In this position, she strives to find the nexus of international affairs and human-interest stories. Outside of GIT, Bailee is a student at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and international relations. Her research interests are varied. Bailee has spent time in Washington, D.C., studying nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction; at the University of Oxford, researching humanitarian action and peacemaking; and on campus, assisting a professor with political-risk analysis of inter-state conflicts. Both the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review and the USC Journal of Law & Society have published her research. The one through line in all of Bailee's work is a passion for writing. Her column for the Daily Trojan––USC's only student-run newspaper––has become an invaluable outlet to engage her campus and a confluence of all her greatest passions––writing, politics, and social justice.