Don’t hear much about Bahrain?
Thousands of opposition demonstrators hit the streets  there little over a week ago, while security forces faced off  with activists at a flashpoint village just yesterday as unrest continues to roil the Gulf kingdom, a nation so strategically located it plays host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Wait a second. Geopolitically critical nation—check. Protests against the government—check. Sexy Twitter feed about demonstrations—check. Youth bulge—check. Key activists imprisoned—check. Demand for a more representative government—check.
Isn’t this where CNN starts panning massive crowds like those seen in Egpyt’s Tahrir Square last year? Isn’t this where the microphone is held up to the lips of a cute female twenty-something protester? Where’s the love?
There are a few reasons why Bahrain has emerged as the Arab Spring’s neglected child: for one, heavyweights like Sunni Saudi Arabia disapprove of the protest movement there. Riyadh’s ties to the Sunni royal family in the Bahraini capital of Manama go way back. And naturally, the Sunni nation is not enamored with the prospect of a new government sympathetic to the nation’s overwhelmingly Shiite population. No friend for the movement there—but they don’t have to look far for support. Nearby Iran, where a Shiite theocracy runs the show, has been vocal in its support and is rumored to be close with one of the main Bahraini opposition parties. The Islamic Republic’s politically radioactive profile has complicated public relations for the opposition despite its efforts to distance itself. Add rumors that protesters are getting weapons from the Iran-allied Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and it’s a real tough sell.
Then there was the perceived “Arab Spring” fatigue on the part of the Western public. They saw governments toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and then, hardly stopping for breath, the crisis in Syria started to unfold into the catastrophe it is today. The media narrative moved on, leaving the interested parties—among them Iran’s state press—to monitor developments.
Bahrain is a sensitive issue in the region, and the West knows it. Why should the United States and Europe risk enraging oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia, which feels so strongly about Bahrain that it sent  1,000 troops there to aid the government’s suppression of dissent? Saudi Arabia lashed out  on October 15th against a British parliamentary inquiry into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in light of the unrest, with “insulted” Saudi officials saying they were “re-evaluating” UK relations. Clearly the probe had touched a nerve. Meanwhile, support for the embattled opposition from, say, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has hardly been robust—especially after the US resumed  weapons sales to Bahrain’s rulers last May.
As for the more altruistic argument in favor of civilian-led governments, what if Saudi Arabia is right and the protests in Bahrain are really just a move for power by Shiite Iran, a longstanding rival for dominance in the region?
Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace visited Bahrain four months ago and says  that’s not the case. “Bahrain is not a proxy battlefield” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, adding that the main opposition accused of cooperating with the Islamic Republic has made a point of keeping “Iran at arm’s length.”
He says there is “very little evidence” of concrete Iranian assistance to Bahrain’s mostly Shiite opposition, whom he describes as “nationalists.” Yes, Saudi Arabia does not want the situation in Bahrain to “give Iran an opening,” Wehrey said, “but the Iran issue is mostly used as an excuse—the real issue is democratization.”
Not everyone shares Wehrey’s position. The Council of Foreign Relations’ Ed Husain raised eyebrows after he wrote a series of tweets  seen as friendly to the royal family during a visit there several months ago. His neutrality on Bahrain has since been called into question , but he insists  the situation there is not “just a straightforward demand for democracy,” asking the US: “Do we really want to hand over Bahrain to the Iranian sphere of influence?” That, he claims, “is the bottom line in Bahrain.”
Well, the bottom line is really that every “Arab Spring” protest movement has been fueled by a variety of actors, not all of whom would have passed muster under Western scrutiny. Plus, isn’t that what good reporting is all about? Who exactly is behind Bahrain’s protest movement? Fewer journalists seem interested in that part of the story.
Wehrey says there are basically two main groups: the February 14 Youth Movement and the pro-Shia establishment opposition party Al-Wefaq. The two are increasingly at odds, he says, with the youth-led February 14, a group active on the ground as well as on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, seeking bolder reforms than those called for by Al-Wefaq, a group that has been careful to keep its demands within the context of the ruling monarchical system.
Indeed, there is plenty going on in Bahrain these days, as evidenced by the alarming number of human rights reports  protesting the Sunni monarchy’s brutal crackdown on the opposition. Despite the outcry and the bravery of young protest leaders like Zainab Al-Khawaja and Naji Fateel, who was reportedly arrested yesterday, the media—and thus, the rest of us—are left to buy the ruling monarchy’s line.
Photo Credit: Sara Hassan via Al Jazeera English