The arrival of Saudi Arabian troops has raised the stakes for Bahrain's fledgling revolution. Tim Nelson reports on the uprising in the Middle East's smallest state
On 14 March Saudi troops crossed the causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has also sent about 500 police into the country. They were invited by the Bahraini government after it was becoming increasingly clear the security forces were unable to contain the mass protests against the authoritarianism of the ruling Al Khalifa family. Since 14 February there have been mass protests against the regime, demanding democratic reforms and, increasingly, the removal of the ruling family. On 13 March protesters successfully resisted a renewed onslaught by the regime's security forces.
Bahrain's largest trade union federation, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which represents 25,000 employees from 70 unions, started strike action on 13 March in support of the movement. The strike includes workers at Bahrain's two largest companies, Aluminium Bahrain and the Bahrain Petroleum Company. Trade union leaders have also announced their intention to join the opposition committee, which is leading the resistance. This sort of action is essential to victory. In Egypt and Tunisia the key to toppling the dictatorships was the working class organising and taking strike action.
Small state, big bucks
A small island, with a population of little over one million, Bahrain is the smallest of the oil-rich Gulf states. However, in February the people of Bahrain, following those of Tunisia, Egypt and across the region, came out onto the streets. From
4 February there were small demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and a large day of protest was called for 14 February. Thousands marched. The Bahraini government responded with a level of repression which has become all too familiar in the Arab revolutions, with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition used against peaceful protesters. The Bahraini people have responded to this violence with further protests and the occupation of the landmark Pearl Roundabout. They also targeted state buildings and the financial district.
Like many countries in the Middle East, Bahrain is marked by both the brutal nature of its authoritarian regime and deep divisions among its people, which the ruling class encourages and intensifies. The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since it was installed by the British Empire in the 19th century and ever since has relied on the support of either British or US imperialism to maintain its power. Bahrain's security forces are equipped with US weapons, tanks and aircraft, and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is harboured there. Since the 1930s Bahrain's economy has overwhelmingly centred on oil. Since the 1970s Bahrain has also become a financial hub for the Middle East, making the state central to Western imperialism's economic and military regional dominance. The House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, has long supported the Al Khalifa family. Despite the vast wealth of the country, few people see its benefit.
Large-scale youth unemployment has been an ongoing problem in Bahrain, as have low wages for the majority of people. Although the majority of Bahrain's population are Shia Muslims, the Al Khalifa family, as well as most of the ruling elite and the hated security services, are Sunni. Shia people are often discriminated against for jobs. The elite uses discrimination and oppression of the Shia majority in order maintain support among Sunnis.
Despite the overwhelming majority of protesters being Shia, and the involvement of Shia Islamist organisations in the opposition, the people of Bahrain have continued to stress that this is not an exclusively Shia movement, nor is its aim to replace the oppression of Shia with that of Sunnis. The significance of the movement in Bahrain, and its implications for the region, should not be underestimated. It is the first of the Arabian absolute monarchies to face mass protests on this scale. If the movement wins in Bahrain it can prove to the people of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, that the monarchies can be beaten. Also, in order to defeat the Al Khalifa family, the Bahraini people will have to overcome the deep sectarian divisions which have been exploited by the Bahraini ruling class, and that of the Middle East as a whole, for so long.
A revolution of the kind we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt would send shockwaves throughout the region and beyond. That is why the Saudi intervention in Bahrain must be actively opposed by all those who stand in solidarity with the Arab people. The absolute monarchy of the House of Saud is one of the most reactionary regimes in the region. In Saudi Arabia any criticism of the regime, and its widespread human rights abuses, is punishable by imprisonment, torture or death. Women are treated as second class citizens. This brutal regime is supported by Western imperialism. After Israel, and the military dictatorship in Egypt, Saudi Arabia is the most important US ally in the region.
The House of Saud fears the spread of the movement beyond Bahrain into the other Gulf states and Saudi Arabia itself. The movement that began in Tunisia, and deepened in Cairo, has spread across the Arab world and North Africa. The Saudi monarchy and its supporters in Washington and London are well aware that if the revolutions succeed they will threaten all the puppet rulers in the Arab world and Western imperialism as a whole.