Summary: tweeting against the maritime force established by the US to protect Red Sea shipping from Huthi attacks has resulted in an arrest in Bahrain, a move that shows how nervous Gulf rulers are of popular support for Palestinians.
The arrest of the Bahraini political activist Ebrahim Sharif on 20 December underlines the fear that Gulf ruling families have of the overwhelming support among its subjects for the Palestinian cause in the Gaza war. Their anxiety is that it will become a lightning rod for other protests. Of equal concern is that, as elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa Hamas, an Islamist organisation, is viewed in a positive light by a large majority. Many in the region see the 7 October attack, despite its barbarity, as striking a blow against the oppressors of the Palestinian people. The contrast with ruling families and their efforts to find a comfort zone with Israel – public criticism accompanied by private reassurances – could hardly be sharper.
Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family has more to worry about than the other Gulf states given that Bahrain was severely battered by the Arab Spring and it was only the intervention of Saudi troops and Emirati security police that prevented the family’s likely overthrow. Bahrain, too, had followed the Emiratis in joining the Donald Trump-inspired Abraham Accords formally recognising Israel in 2020. It was a decision that did not sit well with Bahrain’s Shia majority population nor with the minority Sunnis whose backing the Al Khalifa, also Sunni Muslims, count on.
Ebrahim Sharif, himself a Sunni but a long time opponent of the ruling family was the leader of the secular Wa’ad party. He was arrested, charged and convicted under Bahrain’s Draconian security laws in 2011 and sentenced in a military court to five years in jail. His conviction was based on a confession widely understood to have been obtained through torture. In an ongoing crackdown on dissent, the political society he led was banned in 2017, joining the Shia party Al Wefaq that the previous year a court had ordered dissolved. Members of both banned societies are prevented from standing in elections for Bahrain’s toothless parliament.
Sharif who, after his release from prison in 2015 took occasionally to social media to support democracy movements in the region, expressed his dismay via X of Bahrain joining the US-inspired maritime coalition force announced in the capital Manama on 17 December by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. The force is intended to protect shipping from the increasing number of drone and missile attacks on ships in the Red Sea being conducted by Yemen’s Huthi rebels in support of Hamas and the Palestinian cause. In addition to the US and Bahrain, the ten nation force includes the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Canada and the Seychelles. Notable absences are Saudi Arabia (with its 1750 kilometre Red Sea coastline) and the UAE. The former is anxious to do nothing to derail peace talks with the Huthis to end the now 8 years of war in Yemen (see Helen Lackner’s 19 December newsletter) while the latter is striving to walk a line between showing support for a ceasefire whilst not damaging good relations with Israel.
Sharif, reflecting the view of many in Bahrain both Sunni and Shia, had this to say in his posts of 19 December:
the government of Bahrain offers itself to the American coalition without any regard for the stance of the Bahraini people, who strongly support our besieged Palestinian people who are being slaughtered in Gaza.
All Arab and Islamic countries, including those with ports overlooking the Red Sea, refrained from participating in this aggressive alliance.
He wondered why “the unelected government of Bahrain offered itself as a legitimate ‘analyst’ for the US coalition to lift the blockade imposed by Yemen on the ports of the usurping Zionist entity?”
That was enough to put the wind up the authorities who arrested him at his Manama home within hours of the postings.
A Bahraini oppositionist who spoke to Arab Digest confirmed that there is widespread support for Palestine in Sunni and Shia communities. “Arresting Ebrahim Sharif is a move that underlines just how out of touch the Al Khalifa are with the majority of Bahrainis in both communities.” The source noted that the government had already banned any street demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, fearful that the protests will be used to air the many other grievances people hold against the ruling family.
Given the strong public support for the Palestinian cause the source said the expectation is that rather than a lengthy jail term Sharif will be held for “a few days or a few weeks” and then released.
Late Thursday the Public Prosecutor ordered his detention for seven days pending investigation on the charge of “spreading false news during wartime.” Insofar as Bahrain is not at war the charge on the face of it is gratuitous. However the Bahraini judicial system is not overly concerned with the finer points of law and if he was so charged and convicted the veteran dissident would face a lengthy jail term.
With such a threat hanging over him Sharif may not want to risk challenging the authorities again. Regardless, what is certain is that Bahrain is a bellwether for other Gulf states and regimes throughout the Middle East who find themselves caught between a desire to appease Israel and their populations’ support for Palestinians. As the IDF continues to prosecute its brutal Gaza war with casualties now rising above 20,000, the vast majority civilians and among them many women and children, the divide between MENA rulers and their subjects will only grow.