Bahrain and the Gulf States: Human Rights, Citizenship & Reforms

The countries in the Gulf region are a pivotal supplier of oil to the world market. The instability in this region makes a direct impact on global oil price, and consequently its geopolitical importance has influenced the security strategy of global powers, especially the U.S.

Despite its small size and population, Bahrain has also constituted an integral part of stability and security of the Gulf, in between the two regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Maintaining stability in the region, especially in Bahrain, requires three elements to be guaranteed:
sustainable economic development, political reform, and equal citizenship and respect of human rights.

The first prerequisite to stability is sustainable economic development. In Bahrain, The Economic Vision 2030 was launched in October 2008 by the crown prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. It is a comprehensive economic vision for the country, providing a clear direction for the continued development of the Kingdom’s economy and, at its heart, is a shared goal of building a better life for every Bahraini. The Economic Vision 2030 focuses on shaping the vision of the government, society and the economy, based around three guiding principles; sustainability, fairness and competitiveness.

Following the launch, the Economic Development Board (EDB) initiated an on-going programme of economic and institutional reform, as part of the Economic Vision 2030. The EDB led and coordinated with ministries to compile the first National Economic Strategy, which served as a roadmap to achieve the Vision.

These economic visions, however, have not yet headed towards the intended direction, and the economic situation in Bahrain has rather deteriorated. Since 2015, the Bahraini government has lifted subsidies on basic commodities such as meat, flour, and gas. In 2017 the government asked Saudi Arabia and the UAE for financial assistance to replenish its foreign-exchange reserves and avert a currency devaluation.

The economic deterioration in Bahrain attributes the failure in achieving two other prerequisites to stability: political reform, and equal citizenship and respect human rights.

To maintain sustainable economic development it should go with political reform. In the early 2000s, Bahrain launched a reform process with the introduction of the National Charter, aiming at comprehensive change in political system.

Nonetheless, the government failed in meeting basic demands of people for the reform: separation of power, independent elected parliament based on one-man-one-vote, judiciary system independent from the Royal Court and executive body. Moreover, there has been no guaranteed freedom for institutions to monitor the government, including political parties and NGOs.

Instead of gradual movement towards Constitutional Monarchy – as been promised in National Charter in Future Prospective Chapter – The Ruling Family is enhancing the Absolute Monarchy in the country!

The third pillar, equal citizenship and human rights, should be guaranteed for the sustainable development and stability, but the basic civil and political rights have not been protected by the government in Bahrain. Since 2011, there has been a marked increase in the number of arbitrary arrests and travel ban, targeting human rights defenders, activists, religious and political figures and members of civil society.

Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Alwefaq party now serves a nine-year sentence after appealing against a four-year sentence, whilst the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab has been charged with “defaming the state” by publishing “false news and malicious rumours that undermine the prestige of the kingdom”, following the publication of an article by him on the op-ed page of the New York Times. In July 2016, a court in Bahrain ordered the country’s main Shia opposition group Alwefaq to be dissolved in a further crackdown on national civil society, one of the sharpest blows yet against civil society activists in the country. All these examples demonstrate that the government of Bahrain still fails to meet the commitments to its international human rights obligations. Instead, it only escalated its use of criminal charges and restrictive legislation to silence human rights activists, religious scholars and civil societies in the country.

Moreover, citizenship has been rather used as a tool of reprisal against the opposition in Bahrain. One of the most prominent cases is the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia population, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who’s citizenship has been revoked on 20 June 2016. Since then, Bahraini authorities have summoned and interrogated over 150 senior Shia clerics for illegal assembly, preaching without permit or inciting hatred against the government. 578 Bahrainis have been stripped of their nationality and became stateless where 19 of them been forcibly deported outside the country. In the meantime, the government has granted citizenship to a large number of foreigners, mainly from Pakistan and Jordan, who work for security services in Bahrain.

Populations in Bahrain could be ranked in 7 categories with regards to serving in public services from highest to lowest:

  • Ruling Family members
  • Bahraini families who are loyal to Ruling family historically
  • New nationalized citizens Sunni Citizens
  • Foreigners
  • Baharna (Shia Citizens)
  • Ajam (Shia Persian Citizens)

In conclusion, seven years after the eruption of a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain, the country remains trapped in a political stalemate, threatening stability in the Gulf region. Implementation of reforms, enhancement of economic growth, and sustainable development are the key to bring about stability in Bahrain. Nevertheless, the government has failed to achieve any of those to a meaningful level. Continued use of violence and political reprisal against dissidents have been one of the biggest obstacles that impedes progress and development. The restoration of basic human rights in accordance with international covenants is prerequisite to resolve the seven-year old political crisis in Bahrain and stability in the Gulf region.