July 1, 2017 – By Fatema Juma
As a former resident of Bahrain, allow me to begin my observations by reflecting on 2011, the year, in the media’s eyes, when the Arabs were awakened from their long slumber of oppression. The reality is that the activists and protests in various countries had occurred long before this media attention. What catapulted this triumphant presence into international media outlets is the timing of certain events, the domino effect that ensued, and the successful integration of social media. You see, before this media attention in Bahrain, people had been taking to the streets every year since February 14, 2001 to protest measures taken by the current king.
As per the Charter of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council integrates and coordinates economics, financial affairs, customs, education and culture of member states. Established in 1981 in Riyadh, to secure unity amongst the Gulf states and with the focus on a combined identity, the GCC centered around Islam and Arab identity. As an intergovernmental union, this body brings several countries together, uniting their wealth, power and resources.
In 2001, Hamad Al-Khalifa, who is now Bahrain’s king, promised democratic reform and restoration of constitutional rule, the main demands of the opposition movement. At first glance, these are ideal measures to end decades-long unrest. But, looking closely, the then-proposed National Action Charter didn’t promise progress from the threats to freedom of expression that had been present since the early 1970s, under the previous Emir. Instead, human rights violations including torture and suppression of freedom of expression didn’t stop under the new leadership, according to international human rights group like Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First.
The measures Hamad introduced to attempt reform and revive political life in Bahrain were met with skepticism. People in the Arabian Gulf have seen many similar ‘gestures’ in the past, where rulers call public attention to an attempt to change that doesn’t materialize or come to life. To no one’s surprise, this time was no different. As soon as the National Action Charter passed, the 2002 Constitution was written and the local media glorified these efforts, the 1990s unrest returned and protests continued.
Now, how do these events connect to the current situation and pertain to Gulf Corporation Council tensions? Some of you may have noticed that GCC was very successful at dismantling the opposition movement with their international PR campaigns. I had my share of encounters lobbying on DC’s Capitol Hill in 2011, after the Congressional staff members had been invited to all-expense paid trips to Bahrain. On those trips they were carefully escorted, limiting the trip to certain areas to advertise the narrative that things are in order and unrest is in the past. You may have also noticed how quickly the GCC acted to quell ‘violent’ protests in Bahrain by importing troops from GCC member states into Bahrain.
This quick response and unified action of the GCC was challenged by Qatar, a welcomed member of GCC at the time. According to an Al Jazeera timeline of Qatar-GCC tensions, the relationship has been unstable since 1990s border disputes with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These tensions continue into the 21st century, with Qatar’s role in backing rebels in Libya and supplying troops to quell protest in Bahrain. It was not very clear what role Qatar was playing and how it could justify such inconsistency. In my opinion, its GCC membership was the main motivator to support oppression in Bahrain despite its stance on Libya. Regardless, today’s tensions highlight a new shift in GCC dynamics. House of Saud in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the leader of the ‘Oil Oligarchy’ is no longer willing to allow Qatar’s defiance to continue and it is alarming that these tensions broke out after Trump’s visit.
The GCC has always been driven by wealth and power, ever since the wars over land and territory between the now-friendly royal families, who are the driving force in bringing these powers together and securing the future of these systems. This sudden shift in attitude towards Qatar is an interesting turn of events. I do not anticipate much changing, since the GCC is controlled by the Saudis and it is in their best interest to keep Qatar in line and in subordination. But, if I am wrong, this will be the greatest upset to the GCC’s Charter and may give hope to people seeking change in the region. I doubt change will because of two main factors: 1) the GCC is one of the wealthiest powers in the world and to dismantle this system, we need to drain its resources, and 2) the United States’ interest lies in stability in the region, and even Trump will not gain from an unstable region that would undermine the US presence in that part of the world, which keeps a close eye on neighboring Iran.
Fatema Juma is the NewPeople Coordinator. She is originally from Bahrain and is dedicated to equity and inclusion.