Bahrain and the politics of COVID-19

According to Johns Hopkins University, as of May 22, 2020, Bahrain has registered 8,000 positive cases of the coronavirus, with 12 deaths. The reported numbers are suspect, especially as Bahrain’s neighbors report much higher totals of positive cases— Saudi Arabia more than 67,000, Qatar over 40,000, the UAE over 26,000, and Kuwait more than 19,000. The veracity of Bahrain’s numbers aside, the reported cases primarily have affected communities at risk, including the migrant workers and the poor Shia villages and towns across the country.

Right after the infections started, the Bahraini regime began to politicize the pandemic by accusing Iran of exporting the virus to Bahrain as a form of “biological aggression.” Situating the pandemic in the political context of the tensions between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other was intended to highlight Bahrain’s close relations to Riyadh and to Washington rather than focus on combating the coronavirus.

As a mini-state directly beholden to Saudi Arabia and indirectly to the United States, Bahrain has viewed every domestic, regional, and global problem and threat — including the current pandemic — through the Iran-Saudi-American prism. In response to the ruling Al Khalifa family’s fealty to its Saudi and American patrons, the regime has been given a free rein to deal with the Bahraini people as it wishes. COVID-19 has not changed this fact.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted the social, economic, and sectarian divisions in the country, which the ruling family has failed to address, and oftentimes has exacerbated, in recent years. The regime’s deplorable human rights record, the mistreatment of the country’s Shia majority, the pervasive corruption, the large number of political prisoners — far exceeding many Arab countries per capita — and the rising poverty and unemployment among Bahrainis have all been pushed to the surface by COVID-19.

In order to fend off its many critics on these issues, the regime has relied heavily on its so-called strategic alliance with the United States and the stationing of several thousand U.S. troops on its soil, specifically at the Shaykh Isa Air Base and at the Salman Port. Bahrain has also invited additional U.S. military presence under the International Maritime Security construct.

During the Arab Spring, the Al Khalifa family turned to Saudi Arabia for military support to quell the thousands of protesters — both Sunni and Shia — who had taken to the streets. Saudi troops entered Bahrain in March 2011 and have remained there ever since.

Migrant workers

Migrant workers — mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines — constitute nearly 40 percent of the total population. Other than a segment of skilled and semi-skilled Indian workers, the vast majority of migrant workers perform the lowest jobs and are at the bottom of the economic ladder. They have no job security, suffer from inadequate or no healthcare, live in dense and often unsanitary housing, and are ineligible for government financial support.

Since the government ordered the COVID-19 lockdown, many of the migrant workers could not observe social distancing in their cramped apartments and had to go out in search of food. As they couldn’t go to grocery stores or order food online, many of them went hungry and were forced to beg for food.

Without work and food, many of these workers began to implore their countries to facilitate their return home. Bahrain, like several of its neighbors, will face a day of reckoning in the post-COVID era with the absence of foreign workers who usually do much of the menial work in the country, which Bahrainis are not willing to do. The coronavirus has unmasked the status and mistreatment of foreign workers in Bahrain and other Gulf countries. It has also exposed the government policy of importing migrant workers to work under harsh conditions, with minimal wages and without labor rights or job security.

The Al Khalifa regime, like neighboring regimes, has acquiesced to these inhumane policies, which unfortunately have also been tolerated by the sending states, Muslim — including Pakistan and Bangladesh — and non-Muslim — including India and the Philippines — alike. These states have turned a blind eye to the treatment of their nationals in Bahrain and other oil countries because of the millions of dollars in remittances their economies receive from these workers. The harrowing experience of some of these workers during the COVID lockdown, however, will make them less inclined to either stay in or return to Bahrain and neighboring countries for work.

The pandemic and social disparities

Shia citizens have not fared much better than the migrant workers during the lockdown. Many of them are equally poor, unemployed, and disfranchised. Like migrant workers, Shia villagers also have had to leave their homes in search of food. Many Shia are stuck in their heavily patrolled villages, including Sitra, Samaheej, Diraz, Daih, Karbabad, Arad, and Al Ekr, and cannot leave without a police permit. COVID-19 has become another tool in the regime’s hands to control the Shia population.

By contrast, members of the ruling family and wealthy Sunnis have self-isolated in their expensive homes in Manama, Muharraq, and Rifaa or in their country homes and farms. Some members of the ruling family and well-connected Sunnis self-isolated in hotels at government expense — a luxury not provided to the Shia community or migrant workers.

Bahrain, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has used tracking technology, mostly purchased from Israel and Western countries. It has used this technology not to track the spread of the virus, as South Korea and other countries have done, but to track the movement and political activity of Bahraini citizens. The Al Khalifa minority-Sunni regime is using the pandemic to further control the Shia majority and Bahraini Sunni dissidents.

Like other oil countries, Bahrain has suffered a double whammy — COVID-19 and a significant reduction in oil revenues. The drop in the global demand for oil, especially from India and China, and the ensuing tanking of oil prices have resulted in a serious contraction of the Bahraini economy. Consequently, Bahrain like its neighboring family-rules states, has been forced to make nearly 25 percent cuts in subsidies and government salaries. The economic blow is expected to reduce government spending on capital projects, consumer price subsidies, and wages. Consequently, migrant workers in the short-medium term will not return in large numbers, which would force the government to redesign the economy based on a nationalized labor force. Will Bahrain — dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United States — in this time of economic contraction and lower defense spending, be able to survive the COVID-19 blow? How long will the economic and security aid from its two benefactors sustain such a praetorian family fiefdom?

Moving forward

The survival of the minority Al Khalifa rule in the past half century has been predicated on the financial support from its tribal neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, and on security protection from the United States. Shaken by COVID-19, this foundation is unsustainable.

Will the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the Trump administration continue to commit major resources to save an anachronistic tribal regime that has been unable to make peace with its people? If Washington inches toward rapprochement with Iran, and as Mohammed bin Salman moves to end his war in Yemen, will the Bahraini regime be the net loser? These moves do not bode well for the Al Khalifa family.

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