Qatar shooting itself in the foot

llustration by Cruz/O Globo

llustration by Cruz/O Globo

This is my column which appeared in Arab News on March 09, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Tiny Qatar has always liked to be different. And its immense wealth, which comes from its deposits of natural gas, has given it the courage to continue being different and not depend on anyone economically. But now its strong and continued support of the Muslim Brotherhood caused a break with its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on March 5 that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in protest against the fact that Qatar has not implemented a security agreement signed on Nov. 23 last year.

In this agreement, that Qatar signed along with five other members of the GCC, all adhered to a commitment to the principles that guarantee non-interference in the internal affairs of any of the member countries, both directly or indirectly. The agreement also pledged all members not to support any activity that may threaten the safety and stability of any of the GCC countries, organizations or individuals, including support for hostile media.

Although such a commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of other members of the GCC was made, Qatar has allowed Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi — the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has lived in the country for years and is close to the royal family — to attack the UAE and Saudi Arabia for their support of the Egyptian military regime. The government of Qatar gave several billion dollars in economic aid to Egypt when Mursi, a leader of the Brotherhood, won elections and governed for a year.

The Emirati commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi told me in a phone interview that he does not think the Qataris will abandon the Brotherhood, but that several economic projects involving Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates would be delayed because of this diplomatic rupture.

“This reprimand was very public, unlike traditional Gulf reprimands, which are usually done in private, behind the scenes,” said Al-Qassemi.

A victim of the latest tensions will likely be the new airline company, owned by Qatar Airways, which was supposed to launch domestic flights in Saudi Arabia by the end of this year after the Saudi government decided to open the domestic travel market to foreign companies. And as these tensions have been felt for several years, the UAE were already decreasing its imports of natural gas from Qatar, Al-Qassemi said.

Despite these strategic differences, I do not think the GCC will have a dramatic break because of Qatar. The only land border that Qatar has is with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its location and huge deposits of natural gas are too important to be excluded from the union. But Al-Qassemi told me that a new union within the GCC would probably now exclude Qatar.

The government of Qatar in a statement said it was surprised and regretted that the three ambassadors of fraternal countries had been called back to their capitals, stressing that such measures had nothing to do with the interests, security or stability of the peoples of the GCC but was actually a difference in positions on issues outside the GCC.

It is unfortunate that Qatar allows Qaradawi to attack its neighbors. That does not help calm tensions in the Gulf and the Arab world in general, which is experiencing the aftershocks of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which saw dictators being toppled from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt. Maybe Qatar believes it can survive solely with its billions in revenue from its sales of gas, but it would do well to remember that it is in an explosive region, and should try to calm tensions with its neighbors, instead of adding fuel to fire. One hopes fervently that Qatar is not ready to sacrifice its Gulf allies for its support to the Brotherhood.

Sunnis Versus Shiites: Why The Arab Spring Isn’t Happening (Yet) In The Gulf Countries

Saudi Shias protest in Qatif in 2012 for the release of the cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. (Reuters)

Saudi Shias protest in Qatif in 2012 for the release of the cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. (Reuters)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

In the two years since the Arab Spring began, the ruling families of the Gulf monarchies have looked on in horror as several of their long-term allies have been toppled by popular uprisings that have grown increasingly unpredictable. After the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, a military coup earlier this year ousted Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile, two leftist politicians were assassinated in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have captivated and inspired restive populations in the Arab Gulf states, especially in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, pushing them into the streets to protest for more rights. Scared for their lives, the monarchies have responded to the protests with violence and tried to exploit perceived sectarian divides between Sunnis and Shiites to diffuse the opposition and divert attention from their demands for political, economic and social reforms.

It’s a calculated risk that builds upon a long-standing divide, writes Toby Matthiesen in “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, And The Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” which was published by Stanford University Press in July.

“In response to the Arab Spring protests, the Gulf ruling families, above all the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families, have played on and strengthened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia to prevent a cross-sectarian opposition front,” argues Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College of Cambridge University in England. “But while sectarianism in the Gulf owes much to regime-sponsored or approved sectarian rhetoric, and a political campaign indiscriminately targeting the Gulf Shia, other factors are at play too.

“Ultimately, Matthiesen writes, “sectarianism was not just a government invention but the result of an amalgam of political, religious, social, and economic elites who all used sectarianism to further their personal aims.

“Gulf monarchs, he contends, want the world to view the sectarian divide in their countries as a wider battle between the majority Sunnis of the Arab world and the Shiites of Iran. Case in point: The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 civilians during the past two years and is further complicated because President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot religion of Shiite Islam, in a majority-Sunni country. The rebels trying to topple him are receiving military and political support from majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Bahrain, another Gulf state backing the rebels, the split is between the majority Shiite versus the Sunni ruling family, the Al-Khalifas.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states have long wanted to break the alliance between Iran and its two friends in the region, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. To complicate things further, Hezbollah troops are now intervening in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

It’s tempting to view the conflicts as the monarchs do and frame the Arab Spring and the changes it has spawned as a reflection of this divide. But many observers feel the sectarian chasm is too often used to deflect attention from the real struggle, pitting entrenched monarchies in the Gulf against large segments of their populations that want more accountability, democratically elected parliaments and limits on the power of the monarchs, civil and political rights enshrined in law, and defendable in judicial systems that are independent from executive and religious powers.

The Gulf states are immensely rich nations, and in exchange for cushy government-created jobs and the lack of personal income taxes, their citizens have tacitly agreed not to challenge the ruling families — until now.

With rapidly growing populations that are increasingly college-educated and well-traveled, the unwritten agreement has begun to unravel, pressured by a growing demand for more rights and a say in how national and local decisions are made. With the exception of Kuwait, which has had the most vibrant parliament in the region since 1962 as well as regular elections and the right to publicly question government ministers, the Gulf states have made minimal concessions to the political aspirations of their citizens. After 40 years, Saudi Arabia reinstated municipal elections in 2005, and Bahrain resurrected its National Assembly in 2002 after the previous one stopped functioning in 1975. Yet, only half of the members of Saudi municipal councils are elected; the other half are appointed by the government.

Similarly, only half the members of the Bahraini parliament are elected, with the other half government-appointed. In the United Arab Emirates, only half of the 40-member Federal National Council is elected, by a college of 6,689 members appointed by the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

Given such uneven representation, the struggle of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can be viewed as symbolic of the wider struggle between the bloated and often corrupt Gulf monarchies, which have arguably lost their original legitimacy, and populations that want more political, economic and social rights.

Protesters in the Gulf states face a fundamental dilemma. Should they call for the (perhaps violent) overthrow of their ruling families or try to bring change by working within the system? The threat of violence and government concessions both have served a purpose. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s forced Shiite activists into exile who pushed for more rights, yet both subsequently made concessions. In the 1990s, the exiled activists were pardoned by their respective rulers and allowed to return, and the Saudi and Bahraini governments promised greater rights and space to practice their form of Islam peacefully and safely. To some extent, the governments followed through. Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, who make up about 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, are now allowed to openly hold Ashura processions through the streets of Qatif, and have hussainiyas, or Shiite houses of religious studies and mourning. In Bahrain, Shiites have suffered a setback in religious terms since the start of the 2011 protests, with some old Shiite mosques being razed by the government, ostensibly because they lacked the necessary original building permits.

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who’s in jail until 2014 for protesting against the government, told me in a 2011 interview that she wanted to see the top members of the royal family on trial. “Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying — mostly the political societies — that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion. If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen.”

Tawfiq Alsaif, a leader of the Shiite community in Qatif, who went into exile in 1979 but returned after King Fahd pardoned him and others in 1993, says the younger Saudis in general, both Sunni and Shiite, are more critical and less worried about not upsetting the status quo. “My observations during recent years show that the new Saudi generation, both Shia and Sunni, are less considerate of the old norms and traditions, including those used to defuse social unrest,” Alsaif said in an interview. “I see various factors behind this, local and regional, thus I can say that our nation is heading towards worrisome times.”

Alsaif said there have been no talks between the Shiite community and Saudi government for some time now, which he blames on a high level of mistrust on both sides. Indeed, since 2011, 20 Shiite protesters have been shot dead in clashes with Saudi security forces, and last year the popular Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was arrested after delivering sermons calling for Shiites to resist the Al-Saud royal family. He remains in jail and is on trial. The prosecution has called for the death penalty.

Toby Jones, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, believes that the outcome of Al-Nimr’s trial will set the tone for Saudi-Shiite relations for some time. “Saudi Arabia’s Shia community is politicized and mobilized, but hardly radical,” Jones said. “Al-Nimr is a lightning-rod figure, of course, and is certainly less accommodating than the mainstream Shirazi clerics/activists in the Eastern Province. The outcome of his trial will set the tone of Saudi-Shia relations for the medium term, but can hardly get much worse. Saudi security forces have handled the situation roughly. What is often lost in making sense of the state’s relations with its largest minority is that the country’s Shia community (most of it, anyway), has long sought inclusion and basic human rights. They are hardly a radical element or fifth column. Over the last two years, Shiites in Qatif and surrounding areas have supported more revolutionary politics, but the vocal ones are still in the minority.”

The intervention of Saudi troops in Bahrain in March 2011 to prop up the Sunni regime of the Al-Khalifas allowed the main demands of Shiite protesters to remain unanswered. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that there were 84 confirmed deaths in the uprising and that there are more than 700 Bahraini prisoners of conscience. There has been widespread use of torture against detainees in Bahrain, and the center says that about 100 arbitrarily sacked workers still haven’t received their jobs back.

Why has this been allowed to happen? Why has the U.S. remained largely silent about the crackdowns in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? Many say it’s due to America’s use of the Gulf states as a bulwark against the perceived threat of Iran across the Gulf. The ongoing standoff between the U.S., the European Union and Iran over its nuclear program has only aggravated regional tensions. Some Gulf states don’t believe that being within the U.S. nuclear umbrella is enough to protect them from an Iran equipped with nuclear bombs a few years from now. Gulf governments have long accused Iran of providing covert aid to their Shiite populations in the form of money and weapons to stir dissent. No proof has publicly surfaced to bolster these claims, and in the meantime, it’s the local Bahraini and Saudi Shiite populations that suffer from the fallout of the ideological fight between their governments and Iran’s.

Ultimately, at least in Bahrain, it’s a desperate fight for survival of the Al-Khalifa family that has pushed the comparative hard-liners within them to push for the imprisonment of protesting Bahrainis, the majority of whom are Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, the situation is different in that its Shiite population is a minority. The majority of Saudis remain loyal to the ruling family, which is still able for now to provide jobs and services thanks to oil revenue; however, critics argue that Gulf rulers must recognize that overplaying the Shiite-scare card is detrimental to the stability and unity of their countries. According to their line of thinking, Shiite populations who’re given their full rights and are fully integrated into these societies, will ultimately be an invaluable asset to these nations. Matthiesen makes this point in his chapter on Kuwait, where he notes that wealthy Shiite business families have become crucial political allies of the ruling Al-Sabah family in the Kuwaiti Parliament.

Matthiesen writes that the Arab Spring demonstrations in the Gulf have succeeded in lifting one significant taboo: Criticizing or even attacking the royal families and rulers. Young demonstrators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have carried signs calling for the downfall of the Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families. Matthiesen notes that violent repression combined with economic handouts to the rest of their populations has allowed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to weather the first two years of the Arab Spring. But with booming populations and diminishing oil and gas production, Matthiesen predicts that all the Gulf states will face enormous economic challenges in the coming decades. “Sectarianism was a short-term ‘answer’ to the Arab Spring in the Gulf,” he writes. “But the Gulf states will have to find new answers to the looming challenges of lack of economic diversification, increasing energy consumption, youth unemployment, and demands for political reform in an era and neighborhood in which autocratic regimes have lost the power to regulate what people say and demand in public.”

Bahrainis stripped of citizenship

Jalal and Jawad al-Fairouz, both former MPs in Bahrain, were among the 31 Bahrainis who had their citizenship stripped by the government this month. (Photo courtesy of International Business Times)

This story appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly:

The decision to make prominent dissidents stateless ratchets the political crisis to a new level, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Shock and dismay were the reactions of the 31 Bahrainis who were stripped of their citizenship by the Bahraini government on 7 November for allegedly breaching national security and damaging the supreme interests of the country, according to Information Minister Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab.

All are Shia and figures active in the opposition to the ruling Al-Khalifa family. Included in the 31 are two brothers, Jalal and Jawad Fairouz, both of whom are former members of parliament with the Al-Wefaq movement, Said Al-Shihabi, head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, and three Shia clerics, Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.
The Interior Ministry said the revocation of their citizenship was done based on Article 10 of the citizenship law that allows the “re-evaluation of nationality”. All public demonstrations were banned a few days later, further limiting a key method that the opposition had to press its demands.
Bahrain has been in the grip of a long-running battle between the majority Shia population, who are demanding more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family. Around 4,000 Shia were fired for participating in demonstrations last year, and many opposition figures have been jailed after being sentenced to long prison terms in trials that have been deemed unfair.
“The move is part of a broader crackdown on the opposition, led by hardliners who seem to think they can solve the country’s political problems through security means alone,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on the Middle East at Chatham House in London. “It has particularly targeted Shia Bahrainis of Persian ancestry, who face both sectarian and ethnic prejudice.”
Indeed, the information minister told BBC Arabic that all of the 31 belonged to banned political groups, and claimed that all of them were members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a group that was active in Bahrain in the 1980s.
“The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain is a thing of the past. It had links to Iran but the group and those links ceased to exist. The IFLB became the Amal political society in Bahrain. Its supporters were known as Shirazis, but many of those stripped of their citizenship are not ‘Shirazis’, but rather supporters of other Shia political groups in Bahrain,” explained Toby Matthiesen, research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University in England.
The Bahrain Youth Society and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights expressed their grave concern in a joint statement over the move to strip the 31 of their citizenship. “This move is reminiscent of government crackdowns in the 1980s when the past emir, Salman bin Eissa Al-Khalifa, revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens. It is apparent that the action taken by the authorities is intended to punish them for expressing peaceful dissent and thereby intimidate others from exercising their right to freedom of expression,” they said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also deplored the decision to strip the 31 of their nationality, and both groups asked that the Bahraini government reverse its decision.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that at least 10 of the affected have lived outside Bahrain for years, and that only about six of the 31 have other citizenship, meaning that the government decision will leave most of the people involved stateless.
“Bahraini authorities have been increasingly targeting opposition activists and this decision takes it to a new level,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in a statement. “The government should immediately rescind this decision, which denies people a fundamental connection to their own society.”
The government says all 31 have the right to appeal the decision, though few observers believe that any appeal will be successful.
“In the short term, I doubt it,” said Kinninmont. “This has been done unilaterally on supposed security grounds and it’s unlikely the courts would be strong enough to overturn it without a deal being struck with government insiders.”
But Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that some may be successful in reversing the decision. “I would not be surprised to see a reversal of some of these on appeal. It is customary that the regime steps in at a certain moment to lighten the collective punishment. But, the message will stand,” he explained.
“We are studying the case with our lawyer as there has never been another case like this before,” said Jawad Al-Fairouz in a phone interview from London, which both he and his brother Jalal were visiting when the announcement was made that they were among the 31 who had been stripped of their citizenship.
Jawad was previously imprisoned for three months and seven days for his work with the opposition. He is a board member of the Al-Wefaq movement and said that when he was in parliament he regularly questioned government ministers linked to the Al-Khalifa family about corruption allegations. This, he says, made him a target for the government hardliners.
“Our judiciary is not that independent, so we are not that hopeful about it,” said Jawad. “The ones who took this decision should be the ones who have to go to court to support their action judicially, or at least get a ruling to back it,” he added. “We don’t think it is the job of the victim to have to do so.”
Asked if he and his brother were going to apply for political asylum in the UK, Jawad said, “It is one of our options.”
In an earlier interview with the International Business Times the Fairouz brothers said that they had been targeted by the government because of their work within the opposition, and that the ruling had surprised them. “I was so surprised,” said Jalal Al-Fairouz, who is a university lecturer and consultant. “I was never interrogated. No one said I was breaking any laws. All of a sudden I am stateless — and now the country where I was born is kicking me out. So now, where should I go?”
The danger now with the government increasingly unwilling to talk, is the further radicalisation of the opposition, especially of the youth who have been demonstrating in the streets. “There will continue to be protests. We are seeing, however, a turn to more dangerous methods, including greater confrontation,” said Jones.
The US administration of Barack Obama is seen to have taken sides with the Al-Khalifa regime, especially after Saudi Arabia sent in troops last year to bolster the regime, leaving little hope that outside pressure will convince the rulers to share more power with the people. “I don’t see the US or the UK changing their positions in the near future. If the region as a whole changes, or if any of the other Gulf states sees more mass protests and genuine political reform, that could change the equation, but we are far away from this,” said Matthiesen.

No Arab Spring for Bahrain

A protester in Bahrain holds up a picture of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Torture and death lurk behind the return of Bahrain’s glitzy Formula 1 race, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh


THE government of Bahrain was sure that hosting the Formula 1 race again last Sunday, after it was cancelled last year because of the violent clashes between mostly Shia protesters and police, would surely be a sign that things were improving and that the nation was finally healing.

But the island-state went into a virtual lockdown to produce an event that was devoid of many spectators, while violent clashes occurred in the villages surrounding the capital Manama, with many injured and at least one death.

The now 14-month long civil war between the majority-Shia, who want more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Al-Khalifa ruling family, who are Sunni, had dropped off the radars of most international media, who had been much more attracted by the other revolts of the Arab Spring such as the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Now, the media attention returned, if only for one weekend and for all the wrong reasons.

The hunger strike of Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a prominent 50-year-old human rights activist, who has not had any solid food for more than two months, came to symbolise the desperation that so many of Bahrain’s Shia feel towards a government that despite cosmetic attempts at reform, has obstinately refused to share power, release hundreds of political prisoners, or reinstate those sacked from their jobs after taking part in anti- government protests that started on 14 February 2011.

A Bahrain court heard appeals on Monday from defence lawyers for Al-Khawaja and seven other Shia activists, who were all sentenced to life in prison last year following their involvement in the protests, and want to have their sentences overturned. Unfortunately, the court adjourned to 30 April, leaving Al-Khawaja’s family deeply worried that he may not survive until then. One of his daughters, Mariam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict he has only two or three more days to live.

“Al-Khawaja’s fate will have considerable impact on what happens in Bahrain, at least in the short run,” said Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and who has been closely following developments in Bahrain. “A move to have him retried in a civilian court would be a positive development, but I suspect most Bahrainis would see such a move as too little, too late. And given his grave condition, there are serious concerns that he may not live long enough to see a new trial through. His death will unleash a new round of protests and based on past regime responses, will lead to more anti-protester violence.”

King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa formed an international investigation panel last year, led by Sherif Bassiouni, which was tasked into looking at the abuses committed when thousands of Bahraini protesters were arrested, jailed and tortured. The result was an impressive report that documented many abuses and recommended several reforms. The king has taken none, and as Mariam Al-Khawaja told a meeting of activists in Cairo this month, not a single high-ranking official was fired or punished for the abuses.

A main reason for the reluctance of the Al-Khalifas to implement any significant reforms is the fact that its rich benefactor neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has taken a hardline against the protesters, insisting that they are being instigated by Iran in order to create a Shia-ruled nation on its doorstep. The United States, which has its 5th Navy Fleet based in Bahrain, looked the other way in March of last year when Saudi troops rolled across the causeway into Bahrain, under the guise of being part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force that King Hamad had asked to come in. But Bahraini Shia have gone to great lengths to remain independent of Iran, and no credible evidence of any Iranian involvement in the unrest has been presented.

“There is no evidence of Iranian involvement. Their insistence is meant to justify their crackdown,” explained Jones. “The Saudis would view the loss of Bahrain as a vassal state as a strategic calamity. Even without Iranian involvement, it would result in a significant dent in Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.”

Jones also believes that the Saudis want to maintain the US military presence in Bahrain as a deterrent to what it sees as the Iranian threat.

“While the Saudis don’t want the Americans on their territory, they do want a US military presence nearby. Bahrain’s opposition have not said they would kick the 5th Fleet out of Manama, but Saudi Arabia certainly worries that that could be one result of a successful revolution there,” said Jones. “The Saudis also know that the American geopolitical priority in the Gulf is to contain Iran. By repeatedly insisting that Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, Riyadh seeks to appeal to American anxieties. Even though the claims of Iranian meddling are wholly manufactured, they seem to be working. We have neither heard criticism nor seen constructive engagement by the US in Bahrain.”

Bahrainis remain deeply split between those who want to keep the royal family as is, those who want it reformed and made more democratic, and those who want them gone completely.

“Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying, mostly the political societies, that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion,” Zainab Al-Khawaja, another daughter of Abdel-Hadi, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly late last year.

“If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen,” she said.

Yet with the government not releasing political prisoners and unwilling to even talk about sharing power, the situation in Bahrain seems to be grim and is already slipping into more violence, with protesters using more Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs against security forces, much like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.

“Bahrain is on edge. The regime clearly thinks it has a winning strategy. But it has in fact sown the seeds of permanent conflict and resistance. The regime has sealed Manama off from the worst of the violence, but in order to sustain that it is forced to carry out a permanent wave of oppression and brutality in the country’s villages,” concluded Jones.

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at:

Who will investigate the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain?

 This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 9, 2012 edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The Brazilian foreign ministry Itamaraty and Condor Non-Lethal Technologies must find us naive. After my report on the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain (O Globo, 9/1), the Folha de S. Paulo reported (11/1) that the foreign ministry would investigate whether there was breach of contract in the use of gas in Bahrain.

I was waiting for a report from the so-called investigation. Then came an article entitled “Brazil, Producer and Exporter of Arms”, published by the Brazilian investigative site A Publica, on Jan. 27, which said the following: “Itamaraty itself acknowledges that it has no power of investigation: after the scandal of Bahrain, the office of the Itamaraty spokesman said that the ministry was only ‘watching with interest’ as the story unfolds…. ‘It is a contract between private parties. It may even involve a foreign government, but responsibility for its product lies with its manufacturer,’ said the foreign ministry.”

I sent six questions to Itamaraty on the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain, my main question being: “It seems that the Brazilian government is washing its hands of any responsibility for the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas in Bahrain. Why? Does Brazil not think it is important to safeguard the human rights of civilians in a civil war situation, or are Brazilian economic interests more important than human rights? ”

I also asked if Brazil had sent a diplomat to Bahrain to investigate. This was the non-response I received: “This office states that the jurisdiction of the ministry and other public administration bodies on the matter in question is clearly defined by the National Policy on the Export of Military Equipment.”

This policy, known by the acronym PNEMEM in Portuguese, is not very demanding. A Brazilian exporter needs to submit just three things: 1. An import permit from the importing country; 2. An End User Certificate 3. In the case of countries in which the import of these materials is unregulated, a statement from the Brazilian diplomatic mission in importing country or from the importing country’s diplomatic mission in Brazil, is needed.

I called Condor in Rio de Janeiro and talked to their marketing manager, Massilon Miranda, who repeated the statement made in December that his company had never sold tear gas to Bahrain, but may have sold the gas to neighboring countries. Perhaps one of the armed forces of one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which were deployed in Bahrain last year to help the Bahraini royal family quell the demonstrations, had used the gas made in Brazil? Perhaps, but the way things are going, I do not think we will ever know for sure. Certainly not if we depend on Itamaraty or Condor for confirmation.

It is striking that Condor has the inability to admit that its tear gas could have been used in Bahrain. “There was never any confirmation that any person has died a victim of tear gas — even more so Brazilian gas — in Bahrain,” said Miranda. “Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?”

The photo of a used canister of tear gas manufactured by it, emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, released by activists in Bahrain; the two deaths caused by Brazilian gas as reported by Zainab al-Khawaja, and miles of video showing security forces in Bahrain throwing thousands of canisters of tear gas against protesters, are not enough to convince the spokesperson of the Condor that it became involved in a civil war, whether it likes it or not?

The Brazilian government has a policy to help the export of arms manufactured in the country, and President Dilma Rousseff signed a provisional order in September exempting Brazilian manufacturers of armaments from taxes. Brazil has a long history of exporting heavy and light weapons to areas of conflict areas since the 1970s. The country sold many weapons to the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when Iraq was at war with Iran for eight years.

Not surprisingly, Itamaraty is in the difficult position of wanting to help Brazilian exports of weapons, but at the same time must feel a certain discomfort in seeing Brazilian-made tear gas, supposedly non-lethal, being used against children, women and old people. There is a responsibility on the part of Itamaraty and Condor to investigate, ascertain and possibly even suspend arms sales to Arab countries, since the end use of the exported tear gas was not in the country of the government that bought the gas from Brazil. It’s the least we can do to rescue the reputation of Brazil as a country that cares about human rights — not only of Brazilians, but also of other people with a thirst for more freedom and dignity.

Bahrain: Tear gas killing children

From the January 12-18, 2012, issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

A leading human rights activist in Bahrain claims that Brazilian tear gas has already killed several children, reports Rasheed Abul-Samh

In the ongoing protests against the Al-Khalifa ruling family of Bahrain, Zainab Al-Khawaja, a leading human rights activist in Bahrain, is angry that government security forces are misusing and overusing toxic tear gas against mainly Shia protesters, and claims that the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas has already claimed the lives of at least two children, including a five-day-old baby girl.

Sajida Awad, the baby girl in question, died in September after Bahraini security forces changed tactics and began tear gassing mainly Shia villages on the outskirts of the capital Manama, after protesters were pushed out of Pearl Square in March and the monument torn down. The tear gas had seeped into the bedroom where Sajida was sleeping, and she inhaled too much of it and died.

“I went to see the family of this baby. She was from Bilad-Kadim village, and they shot so much tear gas in that area that it was impossible to breathe. These are houses of poor people, with cracks (in the wall), and the tear gas easily gets into them,” recounted Zainab in an extensive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

“What happened is that Sajida has an older sister who is three years old, and the older sister started suffocating. So the mother and father were actually concentrating on the older sister and tried to do what they heard protesters do which is to put milk and Coca-Cola on her face to try and get her to breathe. And what they didn’t notice was that baby Sajida’s hands were already turning blue and that she was suffocating as well, and by the time they got her to the hospital it was too late. They tried to resuscitate her but she passed away.”

Zainab, who is 28 years old and the mother of a two-year old girl, and who has been jailed many times for her participation in protests, says she is not sure what is in the formula of the Brazilian tear gas, but that it appears to be extra-potent and has caused many protesters who have inhaled it to foam at the mouth.

“Some people think that it is more toxic than just regular tear gas. Because it is not the same as the tear gas that’s being used in Europe and in the States, it has some kind of chemical that in some instances has led some people to froth at the mouth and other things. And we’re not really sure what’s in it, but the reactions people have to it are very scary,” she explained, adding that American and French tear gas have also been used in Bahrain.

Activists in Bahrain took photos of used canisters of Brazilian-made tear gas and posted them online. In the photos a Brazilian flag and the words “Made in Brazil” can clearly be seen printed on each of them.

The Brazilian press in December carried several stories about this use of Brazilian tear gas against the Arab Spring protesters in Bahrain, and the Brazilian manufacturer, Condor Tecnologias Não-Letais, denied that it had exported tear gas to Bahrain, but admitted that it had sold tear gas to several other Arab countries, which it refused to identify. It did say, though, that perhaps the Brazilian-made tear gas had been used by the military troops of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, that were called in last March to help put down the revolt. The manufacturer also stressed that its tear gas was non-lethal if used in the correct manner, and that it was not supposed to be shot directly into crowds.

But statements like Condor’s do not convince Zainab, who says innocent protesters have been on the blunt end of the misuse and overuse of tear gas in Bahrain.

“Tear gas is killing people in Bahrain. Companies are saying its non-lethal, but if these weapons are killing people you don’t sell them to dictators who are trying to kill pro-democracy movements in the Arab world,” she said. “A lot of people here haven’t been to Brazil, don’t know much about Brazil, but what they do know about Brazil is that one of its canisters of tear gas is what killed one of our children, Ali Sheikh, an innocent child who did nothing but be an activist demanding democracy. The Brazilian government should care about their image in the Arab world and their image towards the Arab Spring.”

The Brazilian Foreign ministry, Itamaraty, said on Tuesday that it will investigate if there was a violation of the contract in the use of tear gas manufactured by Condor against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain. Condor told Folha Sao Paulo newspaper that it was incredulous upon hearing the news that baby had allegedly died from inhaling its gas in Bahrain, and that its tear gas is used in Brazil and in 40 other countries, following international standards of safety. Earlier, the federal deputy Fernando Gabeira from the Green Party, in Rio de Janeiro, wrote on his blog this week that he did not support the export of tear gas by Brazilian companies, and noted that Brazil still exports cluster bombs despite a ban on them by many countries.

Zainab noted that the Bahrain security forces were now using tear gas that comes in black canisters with absolutely no writing on them or manufacturing dates. “We cannot tell what country it comes from, or who made it,” she said. This is perhaps in reaction to the campaign launched against the Brazilian made tear gas.

The misuse of tear gas by security forces, shooting the canisters directly into crowds or at blank-point range at individuals, has also claimed many victims in Bahrain.

“Ali Sheikh was a 14-year-old kid who was active and involved in the revolution of February 14. His hobby was to take pictures, and he used to go to the Pearl Roundabout and after they hit it he used to go to the demonstrations and take pictures and record videos of the protesters,” recounted Zainab. “On the first day of Eid last year, after Ramadan, he went out in the morning to a peaceful protest. Some of the kids in his village of Sitra were saying ‘we are not going to have Eid when all of our leaders are in prison and being tortured, and being put to unfair trials.’ So he went out with a few kids, and the riot police attacked the protest. One riot police car drove behind him as he was running, and shot directly at him with tear gas, and the canister hit him at the back of his neck and he died instantly. The tear gas that killed Ali Sheikh was made in Brazil.”

Zainab does not believe that the daily protests against the Al-Khalifa, scattered among the villages, will end soon. She admits that the protesters are split between those who want a constitutional monarchy and those who say the Al-Khalifa have to go.

“I think that the Bahrain government thought that if they brought the Saudis in, and that if they used armies to attack families in villages, unarmed people, peaceful people who are holding flags and flowers, they thought they would scare the Bahraini people enough to get them to go into their homes and just let go of their demands, let go of the revolution, forget about the Arab Spring. But I think they are realising that this is just not happening, that every single day people in villages across the whole country are going out of their houses and shouting ‘Down with Hamad’. Maybe on 14 February people were calling for reform, but now they are not, now they are calling for complete change,” said the activist.

Zainab is from a family of activists, and they have all paid a heavy price for their beliefs. On 9 April, masked commandos burst into her family’s home and beat her father, Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a leading activist and former head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, so badly that he blacked out and needed a four-hour surgery later to treat his wounds. Her husband and brother-in-law were also arrested that day. Her father was sentenced to life imprisonment on 22 June, by a military tribunal. Her husband was sentenced to four years in jail.

“In the Arab world, our problem is not with only one king; the problem is that the whole system is oppressive. So for example, we have hundreds of political prisoners in jail and we don’t want them to just be released. Because we know that with the system we have in this country, if the king decides to re-arrest them tomorrow, he can do that. If the king decides to torture them in prison tomorrow, he can do that also. So we want a system that protects Bahraini citizens, that gives them rights and treats them as equals,” she concluded.

Brazil to investigate use of tear gas in Bahrain

A used Brazilian tear gas canister photographed by protesters in Bahrain. Note the "Made in Brazil" tag and the Brazilian flag.

THE Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty, announced on Tuesday (10/01/2012) that it was going to investigate the lethal use of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, following the publication of my story in O Globo newspaper on Monday in which I quote Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja saying that Brazilian-made tear gas was responsible for the deaths of at least two children.

The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper carried the news this morning in its print edition and online. Click here to read the story in Portuguese.

Here is my quick translation of their story into English:

Brazilian foreign ministry investigates the use of tear gas in Bahrain

Claudia Antunes


The Brazilian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it is examining whether there was a breach of contract in the use of tear gas made by a Brazilian company, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.

Re-exports of arms without the authorization of the seller country is prohibited, and Condor has not sold tear gas to the monarchy of the Persian Gulf, according to the company and the foreign ministry.

The most likely hypothesis, however, is that the gas was used by one of the other five monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to support the King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Condor, a maker of “non-lethal” weapons and ammunition based in Rio and that earns 30% of its earnings in exports, has confirmed that countries in the region are clients, but does not reveal which ones.

The use of the tear gas was denounced by activists from Bahrain and reported in the newspaper “O Globo” by journalist and blogger Rasheed Abou-Alsamh.

Activists attribute the death of a baby to a substance of the gas, whose main chemical agent is chlorobenzylidene malononitrilo.

Condor said it received the news of the baby’s death with “disbelief”, stating that its tear gas is also used in Brazil and in 40 other countries and that it follows “international safety standards.”


This case calls attention to the lack of transparency in arms exports, when it is Brazil’s official policy to encourage the domestic arms industry.

In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed an interim measure to exempt such manufacturers from taxes, which the defense ministry says is aimed to put them on equal footing with foreign competitors.

At the time, Dilma said that one of its goals was to increase exports.

These sales must be authorized by the foreign ministry and the Directorate of Controlled Products Inspection, linked to the command of the Brazilian Army.

Asked if there is no political obstacle to the sale of weapons of crowd control to dictatorships, the Foreign Ministry said an analysis is made on a case-by-case basis.

Government and companies claim confidentiality agreements in not disclosing details of sales, and say this is international practice.

Legislation to be submitted to Congress by the defense ministry would provide for the setting-up of a public database on acquisitions and sales of weapons.

Numbers available today in the Ministry of Development show that exports of arms and ammunition, excluding dual-use items like jeeps and helicopters, grew 320% between 2000 and 2011, from $69.7 million to $293 million.

Brazil sold $19.5 million worth of weapons between 2006 and 2011 to five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwaitis), according to this data.

In the ranking of leading global weapons exporters, according to the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm, Brazil was in 14th position in 2010. The list is headed by far by the US and Russia.

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