What I Learned in the Airport in Bahrain
Bahrain International Airport - When I came to Bahrain, it certainly wasn't with the intention of spending my whole time in the country in the airport. I wanted to see what was going on in the country, not to see what was going on in the airport.
But the Bahrain authorities would not let me enter the country. At this writing, it's 5 PM local time. My flight got in at 2:15 AM. I have been informed that the Director of Immigration has decided that I shall not have a visa to enter Bahrain - although in the past it was the practice of the Bahrain authorities to give visas to Americans in the airport pretty much automatically - so the authorities are saying that the only way I am leaving the airport is on a plane out of the country. At this writing, it looks like I could be in the airport for another 36 hours.
Other observers managed to get in, and you can see their reports at Witness Bahrain. [You can't see that website if you live in Bahrain though - it's blocked here by the Bahrain authorities.] But if you're in the U.S., you can read reports on Witness Bahrain on the protests marking the first anniversary of the uprising for democracy, and the Bahrain government's response to those protests. I won't be able to contribute to those reports, since, sitting in the airport, I won't be able to observe the protests and the government response.
However, I did learn something useful, sitting in the airport, waiting with a bunch of other foreigners for permission to enter the country.
I learned that the government of Bahrain is starting to pay a real price for its efforts to shield its actions towards peaceful protesters from international scrutiny.
In its efforts to keep people like me out - people who want to observe how the Bahrain government is responding to peaceful protests - the Bahrain government has adopted a policy of suspicion towards a much broader group of Westerners. And that's going to hurt the Bahrain government's image among a much broader group of people than just people like me. It will hurt the willingness of tourists and business people to come to Bahrain.
I saw a bunch of very irate British people this morning who said they had been invited by Bahrain's oil company to give a marketing presentation. They said they were late to their meeting, because the Bahrain authorities would not let them out of the airport. One of them started saying, very loudly, "I don't even want to be here."
A saw an English woman say: I've been here before, it's never been like this.
I saw a bunch of Spaniards who said they came for a conference, one of whom said he was supposed to make a presentation. They could not get out of the airport. They were also very irate.
I also saw an AP journalist who could not get out of the airport.
When I saw how people who "just came for business" couldn't get in and were getting irate with the government of Bahrain, it gave me some consolation. It made me think that my being here had some small utility, even if I didn't get to leave the airport. The willingness of folks like me to show up in response to the call from Bahrainis for observers provoked the Bahrain government to show its face to a broader group of people. It showed that the monarchy in Bahrain can't have it both ways - open for business, but not open for observation.
The monarchy in Bahrain, like the military government in Egypt, seems to have a love-hate relationship with America. They love America's weapons. But they don't want Americans to see how they treat protesters who are struggling for democracy, and they don't want Americans to say anything about it.
But it's a package deal. Roll out the red carpet for the Americans who want to give you weapons, and the Americans who don't want you to shoot protesters are going to have their say as well.
For decades, the U.S. government has backed tyrants in the Arab world at the expense of the majorities ruled over by the tyrants. The promise of the Arab Spring for U.S. foreign policy is that U.S. policy could change. Hosni Mubarak was the best buddy of the U.S. government, until he wasn't, because Americans saw on their TV screens Egyptians protesting and being attacked by Mubarak's thugs and the U.S. policy of being best buddies with Mubarak could no longer be defended in front of U.S. public opinion.
This change could happen in Bahrain, if we could raise the profile in the U.S. of what is happening there.
People have all kinds of excuses for why the U.S. policy of coddling the Bahrain government can't change. The U.S. has a military base in Bahrain, so U.S. policy can't change. Bahrain is a "bulwark" against Iran, so U.S. policy can't change. The U.S. can't afford to offend Saudi Arabia, so U.S. policy can't change.
But Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was a "bulwark" against Iran - a much, much bigger "bulwark" than Bahrain - and under public pressure, the U.S. cut him loose. Saudi Arabia was offended when the U.S. cut Mubarak loose, but the U.S. cut Mubarak loose anyway.
And we don't need the base. A year ago - when the U.S. was still speaking up with a bit of vigor about human rights in Bahrain, before the Obama Administration adopted its current policy of quiet - a report in the New York Times called the base "mainly a matter of convenience" for the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. government could speak openly and directly about what is going on in Bahrain, and the sky wouldn't fall. But it might be "inconvenient." So the U.S. government is not going to speak openly and directly, unless there is some real public pressure.
A good place to start: we should demand that the U.S. press the Bahrain government not to block international observers from entering the country. And we should demand that the U.S. not send any more weapons to Bahrain until the Bahrain government stops suppressing peaceful protests with violence. Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.