As Bahrain celebrated its “National Day” holiday on December 16, the frustrated efforts of the Shiite-led opposition to isolate the Khalifa monarchy for its allegedly repressive policies continued to be ever more apparent. Formula One races, international conventions, a record-setting year for cruise-ship dockings and Kim Kardashian’s newest milkshake franchise expansion all signal that despite nearly two years of civil unrest, Bahrain’s image as an international trade and business hub remains largely intact. The credit goes to the Khalifas, who have successfully exploited regional tensions to keep ties with the West warm and the Saudi military waiting across the King Fahd Causeway, ensuring this strategic piece of island real estate never becomes the southern doorstep of an Iranian-led Shiite Crescent.
Predictably, the rise in violence amongst Bahrain’s opposition has been widely attributed as a natural result of feelings of abandonment by the international community. When (or if) Bahrain’s opposition movement will take the form of a low-level insurgency remains anyone’s guess. But amidst brewing tensions nationwide, some Shiite villages stand out as particularly angry. If things do get uglier, here is a short list of Bahraini opposition hubs which may just earn themselves an Arab Spring household name along with Syria’s Homs or Libya’s Misrata.
A five minute causeway drive south from Manama, this small islet is dubbed “the capital of the revolution,” and for good reason. Sitra’s self-described “dialogue killers” are notorious for their uncompromising Haqist ideology, which calls for replacing the Bahraini monarchy with a republic form of government, not to mention their ability to construct fire bombs and other crude weapons using household products.
Many of the island’s numbered streets have been renamed for martyred activists, while the main police station on Ahmed Farhan Street (formerly Avenue #1) has become a military fortress, enduring constant nightly attack by Molotov cocktail-wielding youth.
The Bahraini government doesn’t have the luxury of simply sealing off Sitra Island, since it hosts two of the Kingdom’s key industrial centers on its northern and southern extremities. Both provide ideal locations for local youth to block roads entrances with burning tires.
Located near Sitra’s southern entrance, Al Eker became an opposition symbol in October 2012 when the Bahraini government called in the national guard to impose an unprecedented security blockade on the village after a policeman was killed by an explosive device in the village. Even before the blockade, anyone entering Al Eker or nearby Nuwaidrat and Ma’ameer would likely have their senses tickled by the residual smell of tear gas, whose often excessive use by security forces left several elderly residents dead or severely injured from asphyxiation inside their own homes.
Straddling the northern boundary of Bahrain International Airport, Samaheej and nearby al-Dair have gone from being a nuisance to riot police to a national embarrassment for the Khalifa monarchy. Depending on what side of the aircraft cabin they’re on, travelers arriving in Manama on a Friday afternoon are likely to look out their window to plumes of black smoke rising from these increasingly notorious opposition hubs. Resourcefulness would be an understatement when describing the ability of young activists to literally cloud Bahrain’s hard-earned image as stable commerce center and tourist friendly destination, as long as they have enough tires and gasoline.
The Budaiya Highway
A ten minute drive down this Northern Governorate highway could easily double as a complete tour of Bahrain’s opposition movement in all its aspects. On the west end, the village of Bani Jamra has become a pilgrimage site as the hometown of currently imprisoned human rights all-star Nabeel Rajab, while the Burgerland Roundabout (Freedom Square) on the east end has replaced the now destroyed Pearl Roundabout as a focal point for mass protests. As Bahraini police officers can likely attest, a patrol along the Budaiya is guaranteed to be welcomed with a red carpet of burning tires, rocks, and molotov cocktails.
In early November, a raid in Bani Jamra discovered hundreds of Molotov cocktails, 200 iron rods, two large fuel containers, and dozens of tires ready to wreak havoc on the roads. Even al-Wefaq leader Shiekh Ali Salman had difficulty taming the locals’ anger during a government-sanctioned mass protest on December 7, urging the crowd to cease their chants calling for the downfall of the Khalifa monarchy, sentiments which have become increasingly prominent in the area as of late.
Both the Bahraini government and its U.S. backers are privy to the increasingly unsettling situation evolving down the road from Manama’s glimmering financial towers and America’s Fifth Fleet Naval Base. The Crown Prince’s recent calls for dialogue with the al-Wefaq party and re-approval of the group’s peaceful protests highlight their efforts to bolster moderate opposition groups who continue to lose ground to radical elements sprouting up across the country. But the unabated flow of foreign investment ensures that the Khalifas won’t be hard pressed to concede to any of the opposition’s key demands for power sharing anytime soon, while security forces continue to operate with the backing of the region’s most powerful militaries.