Located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula and home to the oil-rich, Western-allied countries of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the Persian Gulf is usually viewed as an Arab resort and not as a place of oppression and aggression.
But oil is the not the only thing to be found amidst the tranquil streams of the Gulf. Beneath the veneer of tranquility and wealth lies the harsh reality of undemocratic, authoritarian states that regard human rights with contempt – cowardly regimes that stifle dissent and crush freedom. And the recent, massive $60 billion arms deal – the largest ever to be signed between the US and Saudi Arabia – might bring further uncertainty to this otherwise apparently quiet region.
Take Bahrain, the land of oil and pearls, that is gearing up for general elections scheduled for October 23. Citizens – only half of Bahrain’s residents have that status – will vote for 40 elected MPs, while 40 others will be appointed by the royal family. But even this quasi-democratic process can still get out of hand – so the government has increased its suppression of opponents, blocking Internet sites, taking control of Shiite mosques and arresting human rights activists.
Last week, at the peak of a government crackdown, Nabeel Rajabm, the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the former president of the center, found their pictures splashed across the pages of a government paper. The two were alleged to be members of a “terrorist network” and were accused of “providing false information” to “international organizations” and causing “harm to Bahrain’s reputation.”
Starting in August, the minority Sunni-controlled Bahraini government initiated a series of arrests, targeting Shia leaders, human rights activists and the HAQ – the Civil Liberties and Democracy movement in Bahrain. Among those arrested was Ali Abdel Imam, the creator of the largest online Internet site opposed to the government, BahrainOnline.org. He was charged with spreading “false news.” According to a posting on his Facebook page, Abdel Imam dutifully attended the National Security Apparatus offices on Saturday after being summoned by the agency. The next day, the official Bahrain News Agency claimed Abdel Imam had been arrested while “trying to flee to Qatar.” His website was shut down.
In neighboring Kuwait, a country once saved by an American-led coalition from becoming an Iraqi province, another prominent democracy activist is standing trial. Mohammed Abdulqader Al-Jasem, a Kuwaiti lawyer, journalist and secretary-general of the liberal National Democratic Alliance, was imprisoned on May 11 for criticizing his country’s government. Al-Jasem, 54, has published six books on democracy and Middle Eastern politics and served as editor of Newsweek Arabic, Arab Reform Bulletin, and Al-Watan Daily.
In 2005, Aljasem created “Meezan” – a website providing his opinion and analysis of the Kuwaiti Government and the ruling Al-Sabah family. Through his weekly articles, Aljasem criticized the overall deterioration of the government and accused the Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah of mismanagement and corruption. The charges against Al-Jasem include “instigating to overthrow the regime and dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society” and “disseminating false information that will undermine the dignity of the state.” In fact, his articles merely criticized the Kuwaiti Prime Minister and questioned Iranian influence in Kuwait. If convicted, Al-Jasem could be imprisoned for up to 18 years, and Kuwait’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, is demanding that Al-Jasem compensate him to the tune of $15,000. Al Jasem’s trial was renewed last week, and prosecutors have asked the information ministry to maintain the media coverage ban that has been in effect since May 24.
Saudi Arabia, the recipient of 84 new American F-15s, is already engaged in other battles closer to home, like the bitter repression of former judge and human rights activist Suliman al-Reshoudi. Al-Reshoudi has been jailed without trial since 2007 after he and other activists were arrested for drafting a petition demanding political reform and the establishment of a constitution. And then there is the case of Ali Ahmad Asseri, a Saudi diplomat who also happens to be gay and now seeks political asylum. Now that his case is public, he is likely be killed if he were ever to return to his home country.
Our “moderate” allies in the Gulf seem to adopt a moderation of convenience assuming, perhaps correctly, that with few friends in the region, the US is not likely to intervene in what might appear to be minor domestic human rights cases.
The repression of Arab citizens by their own regimes seems not to be particularly newsworthy – but this should not be a reason for the US to abandon its friends nor those who fight for the fundamental precepts of liberalism. Friends can and should do better.
Nir Boms is a co-founder and board member of CyberDissidents.org