The Costs of Violence in Bahrain

Editor's Desk

Mitchell Belfer

The Costs of Violence in Bahrain


In the two months since Bahrain’s parliamentary elections, the country has witnessed dozens of concentrated, violent demonstrations and a spate of bombing attacks that have caused death, injury and the destruction of public and private property. Yet, the country remains on the receiving end of a loud chorus of international condemnations. It is accused of a variety of things ranging from human rights violations, the alleged torturing of political prisoners, encouraging sectarianism and enticing the UK back to the Arabian Gulf shores to retard domestic political reform. For even the casual visitor to Bahrain, such accusations are unfounded and suggest deliberate disinformation. The words typically used to describe Bahrain simply do not match the realities of the country.

Instead of being a chronically abusive state, Bahrain is politically and economically open. Tolerance is not only political doctrine; it forms the bedrock of Bahraini society. The Shia and Sunni Muslim communities have a long history of intermarriage and share everything from the highest governmental positions to schools and public spaces while Christians, Jews, Hindus (etc) are free to set up their own houses of prayer and participate in the religious life of their community without fear or danger—just as they fully participate in Bahrain’s national life. And then there are the country’s women; empowered in Bahrain’s social, political and economic life. Nowhere else in the Arab Middle East, or in much of the developing world for that matter, do women play such prominent roles. Bahrain has also been steadily liberalising its national economy while continuing to subsidise an assortment of essentials: energy supplies, food, water, housing, education, healthcare (etc) without levying income tax. To do so, Bahrain created strategic niches and successfully pushed into the aluminium, refined hydrocarbon, textile and, most importantly, the financial markets. 

But for each step towards national progress and prosperity, the level of international detraction is dizzying—and confusing. Scratch the surface of what is window-dressed as a “human rights” and “democracy” demand and a determined push to discredit the country – to isolate it from its closest European allies and erode its national stability both politically and economically – becomes apparent. This is costing Bahrain dearly. 

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become an all-too-common feature of Bahrain’s political life and many in the international press support those responsible for such violence instead of those combatting it. The result is a double-dilemma for Bahrain’s government: respond to violence and risk international condemnation and with it capital retreat; don’t respond and risk escalation and capital retreat. In either case, Bahrain is under attack and the frontline is its national economy.

Bahrain’s swelling national security budget, the sunken costs of force training and equipment, stand in testament to the levels of threat faced by the country as it attempts to combat internal terrorism, stifle politically-motivated violence and limit (if not fully prevent) further Iranian instigation of its domestic situation. According to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Bahrain’s spending increases as the dangers of internal combustion and Iranian intervention rise and stabilises as the threat subsides. In 2000 and 2001, for instance, fresh on the heels of King Hamad’s accession, Bahrain’s security spending averaged $400 million USD. The intifada of the 1990’s was over, national unity on the rise, reforms under way, the country’s first parliamentary elections undertaken and Iran – Bahrain’s main rival – internationally isolated and in check. From 2003 until the present however, there has been a steady increase in Bahrain’s security spending. Both the region and Bahrain’s internal situation intensified owing to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the failed (later restarted) nuclear talks with Iran, further developments in Iranian power (regular and asymmetrical) capabilities and the latter’s manifestation on Bahrain’s streets during those years. In economic terms, Bahrain’s security spending rose in 2009, 2011 and 2012 as the threats projected from Iran manifested in political violence and the dangers of direct intervention. So, from $400 million in 2001, a decade later, during the first full year of the Arab Spring and Bahrain’s national security bills rose to about $750 million (USD), in 2012, it reached $924 million (USD) and surpassed the $1 billion (USD) mark in 2014.

The fact is Bahrain over-spends on its security. It deploys resources that could and should be used for national growth and development projects but is forced into prioritising security by the violence brought to its streets. Like any country, Bahrain’s citizens demand to feel safe and secure. There are two ways to generate such security: a tough but cheap way (live ammunition), and a softer, more expensive way (non-lethal crowd control). Bahrain has clearly chosen the latter. Bahrain’s tries everything to limit, if not fully avoid, casualties. It has purchased special equipment, intensely trains officers and employs “super cops” – John Timoney and John Yates – all for the sake of a crowd control strategy that prevents death. Mistakes have, of course, been made and people have died as a result of the cat-and-mouse violence that has come to define national politics, but these deaths are unintentional and not the result of a deliberate policy. 

If only the same could be said of the other side. While Bahrain is spending the national coffers to prevent death, members of the al Wefaq bloc – and its Hezbollah-esq offspring, the Youth of 14 February – are busy expending their energies encouraging it. These groups have deliberately targeted people – police, members of the public and even Shia that disagree with their platforms – and national infrastructure to increase the country’s economic burdens through acts of vandalism and destruction in the hope of sparking a capital torrent out of the country.

Since violence erupted in 2011 a handful of international companies have decided to relocate outside of Bahrain, notably BNP Paribas. The country has had difficulties attracting new money. While the actual number of companies headquartered in Bahrain rose from 401 (in 2012) to 414 (2014) the pace was certainly slowed against the backdrop of a dip in investor confidence generated by the simmering violence. Then, of course, there is the Formula 1 race. Cancelled in 2011 amid protest and violence, Bahrain was denied well over $70 million (USD) and an incalculable amount in goodwill and reputation as the F1 circuit was hit with a $100 million (USD) loss. While the subsequent races (2012, 2013 and 2014) were sweeping successes, it is important to remember that a collection of terrorist activities in the country, coupled with damning reportage internationally sought – each year – to prevent the race from happening and it is a matter of time before they are again able to do so.

After four years of political violence in Bahrain and some things are clear. First, Bahrain’s government wants the return of inter-communal peace and the ending of sectarianism in the country. It is rapidly reforming the state to that end. Bahrainis simply must get on with each other; the state is too small to fracture. Second, the international community needs to be much more aware of Bahrain’s domestic situation so that greater understanding of its choices may be gleaned. Otherwise, and unfortunately, many news media outlets, foreign governments and individuals will end up contributing – probably unwittingly – to further fanning the flames of unrest instead of conciliation. In this way reportage must be current and balanced, not based on aged and inaccurate materials. Finally, there is a price-tag to the unfolding violence and it is time that al Wefaq and its more aggressive allies start contributing to maintaining the all-inclusive Bahrain or risk alienation. Ultimately, Bahrainis demanded progress in the November 2014 polls and progress they will get—no matter the financial burdens they will have to bear.


Author’s Note: The original of this (semi-altered) article is available in World Economics Journal, 15:4, 2014. 

2021 - Volume 15 Issue 1