The Forgotten Pearl of the Gulf

The wheels of our car whipped up the grains of desert sand that had been deposited on the macadamized roads. The turquoise-blue waters of the Persian Gulf whizzed past us as we sped along the causeway. And then I saw it.

Standing majestically, with the six ‘dhow’ sails emerging together to hold up a pearl, was the Pearl Roundabout – a monument that symbolized the history of Bahrain’s pearl cultivation. That was my first glimpse and memory of Bahrain, a small archipelago of islands in the Persian Gulf; a tiny island country that was hard to detect on a world map. Unlike its brother nation – Saudi Arabia – Bahrain was a peaceful and prosperous country run by a liberal monarch – a king who cared for his people, or so I thought.

But that was in the year 2002 and that was Bahrain then. Now, the Pearl monument has been wiped off the face of the world. A piece of history has been swallowed in to the gut of hopelessness and sadness. Thousands of Bahrainis have been crushed by the pro-democracy revolt. On March 18, 2011, the Pearl monument was demolished by the government to suppress the anti-government and anti-monarchy protests, termed locally as the “Pearl Revolution”.

Bahrain’s Uprising was a follow-up to the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations that spread like wildfire across the Arab world, after beginning on December 18, 2010. The protests began in a small town in Tunisia, after a young man set fire to himself when fruits and vegetables from his stall were confiscated by the police. The country was left in turmoil amid violent clashes between the people and the government.

Joblessness and desperation among the people finally succeeded in ousting President Ben Ali, after nearly a month of protests. The uprising sparked anger across the Arab nation of Yemen and soon there were anti-government rallies against dictator-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In February 2011, the protests spread to Egypt, Libya, Iran, and Bahrain. Amidst these bloody protests, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia managed to oust their dictators from power.

Egypt’s Tahrir Square became the global weapon for destroying tyranny and dictatorial ambitions. The demands were simple: political reforms, human rights, pro-democracy, and eradication of discrimination against Shia Muslims.

In Bahrain, 70 percent of the country’s small population is Shia Muslims. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa along with other government heads, including the prime minister, is Sunni.

While Egypt and Libya are on the verge of elections and democracy, Bahrain is a country besieged by sadness, arrests, gruesome torture at the hands of the government and military forces, and Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict. Bahrain’s pro-reforms revolution by the Shiites has been misinterpreted by the Arab media and the rulers as an Iranian-controlled Shiite takeover of the nation.

Demonstrators made the Pearl Roundabout, the epicentre of the revolt, by camping out and blocking the area. Over 100,000 protestors gathered peacefully at the Pearl monument to rally for their rights. However, the clashes became more and more violent as the rulers grew more and more hostile towards the uprising. Tension within the country began to escalate as the uprising transformed into a Shia-Sunni sectarian clash.

Over 3000 arrests have been made till date. Amongst those arrested and brutally tortured are Shia medical personnel i.e. doctors, nurses, and staff tending to the injured Bahrainis. Dozens of doctors and nurses have been whisked away in the dark of the night by the secret police and have been detained for days, even months. They have been interrogated, tortured, and kept in ice-cold cells. People have been sentenced to imprisonment for their direct or indirect (by treating injured civilians) role in the protests. Bahraini activists have been charged with espionage and conspiracy against the regime.

Human rights violations are occurring, and yet nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States of America have not interfered with the proceedings. Bahrain is a strategic asset for the U.S., whose navy’s fifth fleet lies there.

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province dominantly comprises of Shia Muslims. Bahrain’s King set up an independent commission to look into the injustices carried out by the government against the people, but reforms are yet to come. Will they come? It is a hard question. The Arab Spring revolt has consumed nearly 60,000 lives till date. There are ongoing protests in Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

The civilian uprising and the government crackdown in Bahrain have damaged the investment and the economy. Affluent Shia Bahrainis have been affected by the revolt with no fault of theirs.

In Bahrain’s small villages or towns, there is unemployment and the people live in poverty. Shiite Muslims who had jobs have been ousted from their workplaces, even if they had no direct role in the protests. This international incident has been controversial. Allegations have been made and denied, the regime’s rule has been criticized by the international media, and news stories have propagated confusion and covered the geo-political disharmony with several conflicting loopholes.

Amid the exploitation of the people’s sentiments by other nations, lack of Middle Eastern solidarity, government-led talks, repression, and civilian trials and retrials, it is the people who have lost the most. Bahrain will now have to be a blank white page. It will have to start over. The birth of revolutionary change is awaited in this island-kingdom, which was once the ‘pearl’ of the Persian Gulf.

Kritika Pramod Kulshrestha

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