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      Mechanisms of Authoritarian Rule in Bahrain



            This investigation identifies the different elements in Bahraini society and government that indicate the existence of authoritarian rule and the mechanisms which perpetuate it. Hardliners in the royal family have strategically obstructed democratization in the country by controlling Bahrain's ideological and coercive state apparatus. The ideological apparatus encourages public disavowal of political reform and marginalizing Bahrain's Shī'ī heritage. The coercive state apparatus regularly punishes, imprisons, and physically abuses political activists and those who are suspected of encouraging civil unrest. Bahrain's alliance with Saudi Arabia has encouraged hardliners in the government to particularly promote anti-Shī'ī agendas that stigmatize, disenfranchise, and repress the majority of its citizens. Representatives of the Bahraini government have consistently accused Iran of providing logistical support to Bahraini activists. However, evidence suggests the claims of Iranian involvement in the 2011 demonstrations or an alleged coup attempt in 1981 to be false. Finally, this article identifies developments in 2011, both inside and outside of the country, that encouraged the reduction of repression of its citizens.


            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            Winter 2015
            : 37
            : 1
            : 33-53
            © 2015 The Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

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            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            sentiment,coercive state apparatus,repression,Bahrain,Arab Spring,authoritarianism,Khawālid,protests,anti-Shī'ī,ideological state apparatus


            1. Over 61 percent of Bahrain's gross domestic product (GDP) was dependent on oil and minerals in 1995 ( 2001: 326, 327). A rentier state is defined in this investigation as one in which rents are paid by foreign actors and only a few “are engaged in the generation of this rent (wealth), the majority being only involved in the distribution or utilization of it” (ibid., 329 especially n8). According to the US embassy in Manama, although petroleum and its related industry comprised of less than 30 percent of Bahrain's GDP in 2006, oil revenue still made up almost 80 percent of the government's income ( The Telegraph , 2011).

            2. Khalid b. Ali al-Khalifa was the brother of Isa b. Ali (r. 1869–1932), a former ruler of Bahrain. Laurence Louër and Patrick Cockburn offer insightful exposés on the hardliners (, 2011; Louër, 2011).

            3. Compare the cycle of funerals in Bahrain to those that occurred in Iran on February 18, March 27, May 6, and June 17 of 1978 and regularly thereafter ( 1980: 327–368).

            4. For example, “Do no harm: a call for Bahrain to end systematic attacks on doctors and patients” and “Weaponizing tear gas: Bahrain's unprecedented use of toxic chemical agents against civilians” (Physicians for Human Rights [US] 2011; Sollom and Physicians for Human Rights [US] 2012). For links to the reports published by Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Without Frontiers, International Crisis Group, Physicians for Human Rights, and others, see “Human Rights Reports on 2011–2012 Bahraini Uprising” (Wikipedia).

            5. The bombing of Shī'ī mosques and processions has plagued Pakistan for decades, and anti-Zaydi sentiment is a problem in Yemen (Human Rights Watch, 2013; , 2012). While King Abdullah of Jordan has expressed concerns over the growing power of Shī'īs in the region, anti-Shī'ī sentiment is better gauged by the arrest, surveillance, and deportation of Shī'īs. Propagation and conversion to Shī'īsm is considered a threat to national security in Jordan due to tensions with Iran and Iraq (, 2010).

            6. Alternatively, “hegemony” is the complex interlocking of the social, cultural, and political forces. Ideology, in this context, is defined as a system of meanings and values projected by a particular group.

            7. Pro-government billboards sometimes showed a noose or pictures of prominent activists and the necessity of punishing them. Two articles published in Times and Voice of America each feature a photo of a representative billboard (, 2011; Voice of America , 2011).

            8. Hasan Tariq Alhasan's recent study of evidence for Iranian involvement in an alleged 1981 conspiracy to coup is tenuous at best, which he admits, but then ignores in his narrative. He writes that Bahraini citizens and clerics revered Khomeini and other leading clerics in Iran and perhaps visited them, but that such evidence did not “necessarily imply the existence of a direct relationship on the tactical or operational level” (, 2011: 608–609).

            9. Of the 73 convicted of the coup conspiracy, 10 of them were minors under 18 years old, all of whom received 7-year sentences. Four individuals were identified as high-school students, while 17 individuals were college students (Ḥamādah, 1990: 93ff., 330, for a reproduced Sep. 26, 1983 IFLB report). I could only verify the names of five of the minors: 'Abd Allāh Āl Maḥfuẓ, Mahdī Ṣalīl, Zakī al-Baḥārnah, 'Abbās Āl Muslim, and 'Abbās Ṣādiq Bukhalīqah (362, 377–379).

            10. Toby Matthiesen provides a few further references regarding the IFLB and their alleged activities (, 2012: 633n27). As previously mentioned, Hasan Alhasan's study of the IFLB unfortunately does not provide any hard evidence of Iranian involvement in the 1981 incident or even the existence of a coup d'état attempt. The author admits the former, but assumes the latter without mentioning the evidence contradicting his thesis (, 2011: 608–609). In spite of his access to IFLB literature and other primary sources regarding the 1981 episode, Alhasan fails to mention their steadfast denial in orchestrating any coup, the mass arrests of over 1,000 Bahrainis during this period, the unfair trials, arbitrary sentencing, and other relevant indications that the security apparatus may have conjured up the entire affair to justify a crackdown on pro-Iranian fervor and activists who ideologically supported regime change. The historic absence of opposition groups advocating violence in Bahrain, despite the claim of government officials, is a topic that deserves further study.

            11. The five examples of Bahrainis who “were hired to carry out assassinations in other countries, received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or participated … in its war against Ba'thist Iraq” (, 2011: 612) deserve further study. Additional information regarding those individuals is not provided in the article. Were any of these men actually Bahrainis who independently chose to participate in pro-Iranian activities, but were retroactively projected as members of the IFLB? Were any of these individuals actually Iranian citizens, either originally or naturalized (after their exile from Bahrain)?.

            12. “The 489-page report describes systematic patterns and practices of abuse by Bahrain's security, military, and judicial branches. These abuses included excessive use of force against protesters leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries, arbitrary arrests and detentions, psychological and physical abuse of detainees that in ‘many cases’ amounted to torture, and a pattern of due process violations and unfair trials. The report also documented the unfair and summary dismissals of thousands of professionals, workers, and students” (Human Rights Watch, 2011c). The BICI's comprehensive report is used extensively throughout this article.

            13. Emile Nakhleh writes that if hardliners “persist in opposing genuine reform, the window of compromise will rapidly close and hope for dialogue will vanish. Violence will escalate, calls for regime change will become more vocal and the U.S. will be blamed for the impasse. This is a recipe for lawlessness and terrorism” (, 2012).

            14. Articles on democratization inspired by Dankwart Rustow stress that “democracy will emerge when incumbent authoritarians opposed to change (hard-liners) … come to see the uncertainty associated with free and fair electoral competition as the best option among other alternatives” (see , 2005: 1–18).


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