Iran’s pack of lies
This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.
In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.
Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.
Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.
Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.
After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.
Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.
It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.
Tehran gains more leeway for meddling
This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.
From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.
With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.
In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.
In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.
“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.
The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.
“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”
And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.
“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.
The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.
This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.
From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran
Read my story from 2007 when I interviewed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Awamiyya:
I just returned from a three-day trip to Qatif in the Eastern Province to interview Saudi Shiites and witness their Ashoura festival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were warm, friendly and intelligent, all too happy to talk with journalists and share their hospitality with me and my colleagues.
Here’s my report:
By Rasheed Abou Alsamh
QATIF, Saudi Arabia – “Hussein, I am so proud to say your name,” chanted the long line of Shiite men dressed in black as they moved slowly up the narrow street of a working-class district of Tarout Island on Monday, the sound of the beating of their chests with their hands and the chants praising Imam Hussein echoing through the air.
Just a few years ago such a scene would have been impossible to see in Saudi Arabia, the Shiites here having long been under the unforgiving thumb of the majority Wahhabi Sunnis. Accounting for around 15 percent of the Saudi population, the Shiites have long been the target of religious edicts, or fatwas, declaring them to be kaffirs, or non-believers. This has led to long simmering tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis here, which came to a head when a similar Shiite procession was violently dispersed by Saudi security forces in Qatif during in the Islamic month of Muharram in 1980 which resulted in the death of 27 Shiites.
The ensuing sectarian strife led many Shiite notables in Saudi Arabia to go into exile after the Saudi government threatened to imprison them.
But following a breakthrough meeting with King Fahd in Jeddah in September 1993, the Shiites were promised that action would be taken on a long list of demands.
“Many Shiites were released from prisons, given back their passports and allowed to travel again following the 1993 agreement,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, considered the right hand man of prominent Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar. Both fled the country in the early 1980s and were core members of the Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, of which Saffar was the spiritual head.
Alseif says that he is mildly optimistic that things are changing in this ultra-conservative kingdom, bringing improvements in the lives of all Saudis, and not just for the Shiites.
“The religious establishment is still strong and they pressure the media and government to stick to the old ways,” said Alseif. “But they cannot hold back the wave of change that modernity is bringing to Saudi Arabia in the form of the Internet, travel abroad and a huge range of satellite television channels.”
Indeed in 2005 the first municipal elections held in this country in over 40 years, Shiites won most of the seats in areas where they are a majority and are now not stopped from openly marking Ashoura in some areas. But the fact that most of the freedoms they have now can be easily taken away from them by the Saudi government has many Shiites worried about the future and demanding that their rights be enshrined in law.
Jafar Al-Shayeb won the elections in Qatif and is now the president of the Qatif Municipal Council. He too lived in exile for many years and returned to the country in 1993. He stressed that the demands of Saudi Shiites were local ones calling for more civil and religious rights, and not linked to the regional tensions caused by the civil war in Iraq and America’s tense standoff with the Shiite powerhouse that is Iran.
“We want to be able to serve as a minister of state, to join the military, represent the kingdom abroad as diplomats, get jobs in local companies, build our own mosques and print our own religious books,” said Al-Shayeb.
He said the fact that Shiites had not reacted adversely to the fatwas attacking them was a sign of political maturity that did not exist in the past.
“We are now separating ourselves from problems like the sectarian strife in Iraq. There is a better understanding between the Shiites and the government,” he said.
But not all Shiites in Saudi Arabia agree with this line, with many of them accusing Al-Shayeb and others like him of having been co-opted by the government into lessening Shiite demands and stopping any sharp criticisms of the government.
Sheikh Nimr al Nimr is one of the critics of the dialogue that Al-Shayeb and Sheikh Saffar have been having with the government, insisting that Shiites in Saudi Arabia will only get their rights by fighting for them as the government has only begrudgingly given them the few freedoms that they now have because of outside pressure.
“The government is not going to give us our rights; the people are going to have fight for them. If people fight for their rights, they have to expect to pay the price for it such as being imprisoned and losing their jobs,” explained Sheikh Nimr, who himself had only just been recently released from a brief spell in jail for his outspoken views.
The division between the Saudi Shiites is due in part to economic differences that have left a large portion of the Shiite community in a state of financial desperation. Sheikh Nimer is one of those living in a poorer area, so poor in fact that he was not able to hold nightly Husseiniyas, or religious lectures that are held during Ashoura, because he did not have access to a building in which to hold it.
In contrast, Sheikh Saffar held daily Husseiniyas in a brand new, three-storey building in Tarout that is owned by a local family.
“If Sheikh Saffar and his followers think things are improving for Shiites that is their opinion, but I don’t agree with them,” said Nimr.
Some Saudis believe that the Shiites here are being used as pawns by the United States in its ongoing occupation of Iraq and growing confrontation with Iran.
“Don’t tell me that things are getting better. They are going backwards for the Shias,” said Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, the president of an independent human rights group.
“There are 250,000 Shiites in Dammam but there is only one mosque for us. There are thousands of unemployed and poor Saudis committing suicide over their debts,” said Al Mugaiteeb.
The human rights activist, who has been jailed several times for his work, says that he wants transparent trials for the 9 Shiites in prison for the 1996 Alkhobar Tower bombing in which 19 US Marines were killed and 372 people wounded. According to Al-Shayeb they are still in jail and have not been tried or convicted yet.
“The Americans were quiet all of this time about the 9 Shiites in jail here, but now that they are escalating their confrontation with Iran they have revived the issue of the Alkhobar bombers by linking them to Iran,” said Al Mugaiteeb.
And if war breaks out between the US and Iran, where will the loyalties of the Saudi Shiites lie? That is a question that few Shiites here were willing to discuss frankly. Most insisted that their loyalties would be to Saudi Arabia, with only Sheikh Nimr admitting that if war broke out with Iran most Shiites here would support Iran.
Despite the many differences in the Shiite community, the bottom line is that all of them want to be able to practice their religion freely, openly and with dignity.
“In school I remember having to answer questions on exams that asked if Shiites were nonbelievers,” recounts Mohammed Al Khabbaz, a young Shiite in Tarout. “I always answered ‘no’ because I knew I had to in order to pass the test. I just wish that one day soon we won’t have to do that anymore.”
Criminalizing hate speech
This article was published in Arab News on June 21, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In these uncertain and turbulent times, we in the Kingdom need to promote unity now more than ever. With the bloody Daesh group wreaking havoc on Iraq and Syria, and the civil war next door in Yemen, we are surrounded by chaos, violence and death. And at home we have had to deal with our own terrorists, who after being brainwashed by an extremist ideology launched two separate attacks recently on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom’s eastern region in an attempt to sow sectarian strife.
It seems hard to believe, but so many of these young Saudis who are lured by the siren call of the extremists must really believe in the falsehoods that are fed to them by the terrorists, blissfully unaware that the peace and stability of Saudi Arabia has not come at an easy price for our forefathers who grew up 70 years ago, before the oil boom, in times of great financial hardships.
What we thought were going to be the liberating winds of the Arab Spring in 2011 turned mostly to violence against innocent civilians and instability that has left the whole Middle East in the utter shambles that it is in today. We should thank God a thousand times over that we can still go to bed without hearing bombs falling nearby; that we have electricity all of the time; that we have a strong government running the affairs of the nation, and an economy that gives Saudis a GDP per capita matching that of industrialized nations.
This is why I was surprised to read recently in this paper that the Shoura Council decided not to discuss proposals to set up a national unity project. Shoura members in favor of such an initiative had proposed that the government punish those convicted of promoting hate speech to jail terms ranging from six months to five years and a fine of SR500,000. The arguments against such an initiative were the ones we are used to hearing in other countries too: Why should we have new laws regulating public behavior when we already have so many laws on the books; and just writing down regulations in a new law will not necessarily produce change.
In the United States, these are usually the arguments of social conservatives who do not want hate laws enacted meant to protect people that are discriminated against, such as blacks, women and the handicapped. The point of this new law would be to stop those Saudis who make sectarian and racist comments under the guise of free speech, and who expect to get away with it. This should no longer be tolerated and our government and society should take swift action against those who insist on dividing Saudis according to their national, racial or sectarian origins.
After all, our founder King Abdul Aziz did not unify our country to just have our national fabric be ripped apart today by sectarian and racist violence.
For too long we have looked the other way as extremist preachers have spouted their words of hate and discrimination, poisoning the minds of young Saudis and thus producing new generations that hate others of their own countrymen because they are too dark, don’t look Arab enough or are of a different sect. I applaud Shoura member Abdullah Al-Fifi for supporting the national unity project and for pointing out that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has not done enough, or indeed done anything visible, to implement anti-extremist programs in schools and mosques.
The government has rightly clamped down on the hate speech of imams across the country, ordering them not to talk about sectarian issues, and instructing them to have sermons (khutbas) that encourage unity and social cohesion.
With the Arab world in flames we cannot afford disunity or discord in our midst. The stakes are just too high and as the repository of Islam’s two holiest mosques we indeed have a duty not just to ourselves, but to the whole Muslim world, to keep the Kingdom a safe, clean and prosperous place where all Muslims are welcome, be they from Africa or Asia.
Bold steps embolden nation
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s first 100 days in office have been marked by a series of bold decisions that have left Saudis pleasantly surprised at the measures taken after what seemed a long period over the last several years where the Kingdom just seemed to be coasting along on its reputation as the center of the Muslim world.
The unrelenting march of the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, taking over the capital Sanaa last year and then forcing Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia when they bombed his Aden office, moved King Salman to decide to intervene militarily in Yemen along with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Muslim coalition of more than 10 nations. Critical to this decision no doubt was his son Prince Mohammad bin Salman, recently appointed the deputy crown prince, and our current defense minister. Only 30 years old, Prince Mohammad is known for his hard work and determination to get things done, and we are now seeing this in the campaign in Yemen to halt the advance of Houthi troops and reinstate the legitimate government of Hadi.
Our new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, a youthful 55 years old, brings years of experience as interior minister fighting the scourge of Al-Qaeda, having survived an attack on his life by this nefarious terrorist group. The crown prince while being tough on the terrorists of Al-Qaeda has also realized that many of its members are disaffected youth that have been led astray by the deviant, hateful and bloody ideology spouted by the group, and therefore started a de-radicalization program run by the Ministry of Interior aimed at re-educating captured members of the group and offering them a way back into Saudi society by giving them jobs and marriage possibilities. For sure, some of the program’s participants have relapsed and returned to the folds of Al-Qaeda, but that is to be expected, as no program is 100 percent effective when it comes to ideology and what really stays in a person’s mind and heart.
Other appointments by King Salman to his Cabinet have injected new blood into the highest echelon of the Saudi government, giving a much younger generation of Saudis the chance to have a say in how the country is governed. My good friend Adel Al-Toraifi, who is only 36, is now the culture and information minister. I was very glad to hear of his appointment, remembering our many conversations about Middle East politics over cups of coffee whenever he used to visit Jeddah from Riyadh. Likewise, it was exciting to hear of the appointment of Adel Al-Jubeir as our new minister of foreign affairs, who at 53 is only a few years older than me. I still remember working with him at the end of the 1980s when I helped cover a Saudi exhibition for Arab News in Washington and he was just starting his career at the Saudi Embassy there.
But perhaps most intriguing have been the recent sackings of several officials by the king after they misbehaved in public and their shenanigans were caught on video and quickly posted on social media on the Internet for all to see. In April the then health minister, Ahmed Khatib, was caught on video having a heated argument with a citizen who was complaining that his sick father was getting poor treatment at a private hospital. Khatib could be heard dismissing the man’s complaints. After the clip was posted online there were many angry reactions and King Salman sacked the minister. The crown prince decided to treat the father of the man in the video.
Later in April, King Salman banned Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman from speaking to all media and from taking part in any sports activities after he made racist remarks on a live sports television program against a Saudi sports journalist, denigrating him for being of foreign descent. Online commentators praised the king for his action, saying that it showed that all Saudis should be treated the same and with respect. Indeed, in March King Salman stressed how all Saudis are the same in a speech he gave: “There are no differences among Saudi people or areas,” he said. “We are determined to address the roots of the divergences and the causes of divisions so that we can eliminate the categorization of the society in a way that harms national unity. All Saudis are equal in rights and duties,” he said.
This month the king replaced the head of royal protocol after the official was caught on camera slapping a photojournalist in the face at the airport in Riyadh when he was covering the arrival of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI. Happening just a few meters away from where King Salman was warmly greeting the Moroccan king, Mohammad Al-Tibaishi, the royal protocol official in question, was caught on camera slapping the journalist. While I know that journalists can be quite pushy and aggressive while trying to cover such important events, nothing ever justifies physical violence in such circumstances.
With all of these actions, King Salman is showing immense resolve to show the Kingdom’s determination to defend its strategic and national interests by intervening in Yemen and sacking Saudi officials who disrespect the Saudi people. This has given much pride and hope to the average Saudi citizen, who feels happy that the Saudi leadership is taking charge of our country’s destiny instead of allowing it to be too affected by foreign powers. We are a strong nation that can and should decide its own future. The time has come and all Saudis should rise to the challenge.
We’ve had too many years of complaining and expecting that others will solve our problems. We can do it ourselves, and we should be proud that we are able to do so.
No room for sectarianism
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The horrific and bloody attack on the mosque in Al-Qadeeh in the Qatif province on Friday which left at least 21 people dead and 100 injured, when a suicide bomber blew himself up after Friday prayers, is another desperate attempt to sow sectarian strife in the Kingdom. But our enemies will not succeed.
The enemies of Saudi Arabia are constantly trying to stir sectarian tension in the Eastern Province, hoping that the situation will explode and engulf our oil-producing region and cause irreparable harm to our economy, security, sense of well-being and stability. Fortunately, despite these evil schemes to try and make this happen, nothing even close to their nightmare scenarios has ever taken place.
Thank God, our country has been spared the ugly sectarianism that has corroded neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where Shiite militias have fought against Sunni ones, each side committing worse atrocities, in an endless cycle of violence that takes neither country forward and never produces a clear winner. In fact, all of us Muslims and Arabs are victims and losers of this scourge called sectarianism.
In Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his iron-grip that he had over the country for decades, the new-found power that the Shiites were given was misused by some to exact seemingly endless bouts of bloody and merciless revenge that is responsible in large part for the appearance of the self-ascribed Islamic State (IS) in the last couple of years.
I visited the Qatif region in 2005 along with some Saudi and western journalists to cover the marking of Ashoura, the Shiite commemoration. Although there were many policemen in the streets, they allowed the local population to perform all of their rites in public over several days in perfect safety and without being harassed or stopped by anyone. We did not feel at any stage that Shiites were being denied their right to practice their rituals.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman has clearly stated that all Saudis, irrespective of their sect, color, national origin or economic status, are all equal and the same as citizens of this great nation. This cannot be forgotten, and should be implemented by all citizens, both private and those in official positions.
One good example of the Kingdom being put in a negative light by its enemies was when the Sindh government in Pakistan put the question on forms for pilgrims intending to perform Haj this year in Saudi Arabia, asking whether they were Shiite or Sunni. Critics of Saudi Arabia immediately jumped on this to accuse the Kingdom of fanning the flames of sectarianism. Days later, Ministry of Haj officials denied that they had ever asked Pakistan to ask this of their pilgrims, stating that the Kingdom never asks the sectarian denomination of its pilgrims. Most Saudis are upset and horrified at such wicked violence, and condemn it. Last November, eight Shiites were gunned down in Al-Ahsa also by the IS gunmen. But these attacks against Shiites have thankfully been few and far between. As Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh told Saudi Television, the Qatif attack is aimed at “driving a wedge among the sons of the nation.”
On my trip to Qatif, I was invited by a group of young Saudi Shiites, that I had befriended, to pray with them. I politely accepted, and prayed the Maghreb prayer alongside them at their small mosque. It was a serene moment that pleased all of us, as I a Sunni Saudi joined them to pray to the one and same Allah. If only more of us practiced such acts across the country, and across the Arab and Muslim worlds, sectarianism would not have a chance to breed and grow, and thus cause so much strife and bloodshed as it does today.
This is my column that was printed in Arab News on May 23, 2015: http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/751116
Bahrainis stripped of citizenship
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.