Monday, April 1, 2013

Balloons Bahrain and Doctors Without Borders

March 14th marked the second anniversary of the intervention of Saudi-led forces in Bahrain. The clashes on the 14th between protesters and riot police were the worst in several weeks1. Despite the intervention and despite continued harsh repression by the regime in Bahrain, protests and riots are still a daily occurrence. 

A New Normal

The protests in Bahrain may have started from diffusion of the Arab Spring protests in other countries, but two years after its start the conflict in the tiny nation has taken on its own character. One aspect of Bahrain’s new norm is the constant starting and stopping of ‘talks’ between some opposition groups like Al Wefaq and government representatives. Many however see these meetings as pointless since the regime shows no indication that it plans to ever share power. The regime seems intent on maintaining all real control in Bahrain and all important governmental and military positions are still hand-picked by the ruling family. The government has changed its tactics somewhat however. From installing a white balloon in the capital that “observers in Manama claim…is used to monitor the population of the capital’s restive suburbs,”2 to revoking the citizenship of prominent opposition leaders and protesters, the regime has been approaching repression with a more nuanced game. When reporting the protests on the 14th, the state-run Bahrain News Agency stated that the suburbs saw "acts of terrorism committed by saboteurs for the purpose of intimidating and jeopardizing the lives of citizens"3. This word choice is interesting considering the many ways that citizenship in Bahrain has been manipulated by the regime.

Balloon over Manama

Scrutiny and the International Community

Last week Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres, MSF) announced that its planned conference in Manama would be canceled due to the regime’s unwillingness to give the group final permission. The conference was planned to discuss medical ethics and conflict. MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens stated that, "It's a fact that in many countries, as in Bahrain, hospitals have become forefront places for political struggles, and people who are injured cannot find in any way a sort of neutral space where only clinical medicine is practiced and not find political discussions – or worse. For example in Syria, hospitals are basically traps for people to get arrested."4 Dr. Janssens’ comments on Syria no doubt are meant to call to mind the arrest of doctors during the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain for treating injured protesters.  Four of the at least 40 doctors arrested during the uprisings are still imprisoned.

The news of MSF not being allowed to hold a conference with such a controversial theme in Bahrain is not surprising, but what it highlights is the lack of international scrutiny against Bahrain as well as the regime’s unwillingness to allow scrutiny within its borders. With such a situation as well as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia both desiring the status quo be maintained, intervention in Bahrain on the side of the protesters seems bleak at best.

Doctors embrace after treating victims of the 2011 clampdown

Works Cited

1. "Protests mark anniversary of Bahrain uprising." Aljazeera 14 Mar. 2013. Online. <>.

2. Kerr, Simeon. “Bleak Bahrain struggles among high-flyers.” The Financial Times 18 Mar. 2013. Online. <>.

3. "Protests mark anniversary of Bahrain uprising." Aljazeera 14 Mar. 2013. Online. <>.

4. Fisk, Robert. “Bahrain hit by doctors' desertion: Major medical ethics conference is cancelled in the troubled kingdom.” The Independent 24 Mar. 2013. Online. <>.


  1. I certainly agree with you in that any foreign intervention is a incredibly unlikely possibility. But what is interesting to me in this post is the heading "A New Normal" and although that is perhaps an accurate way to describe the continued small protests and government repression and maneuvering (which I agree is becoming a more "nuanced game"), I wonder how durable this "new normal" will be. Without doubt, from the side of the protestors and opposition groups, it is unlikely that much progress will be made with the government in forming any sort of power sharing agreement or even increasing civil liberties. But, after two years of little progress, people are still out on the street, still protesting--their resolve is amazing.

    So I guess the question becomes: How long can the government maintain this "new normal"? And what will the next "normal" look like? Even more extreme repression (20 balloons with snipers "for the protection of the good citizens"?) Or will the radical protestors become more violent and extreme? Either way it is important that we keep an eye on Bahrain to see what the new normals evolve into.

  2. What I find interesting, is that the government has tried to paint the protesters as violent Shia who want to intimidate Sunnis, but even two years in, the protesters are not throwing petrol bombs into Sunni neighborhoods, they are throwing them at security forces and the regime that they represent.

    Given the limited means of the protesters, the possibility of the opposition becoming more violent against the regime seems unlikely, but if their anger turns against their Sunni countrymen, then the regime could have a very ugly situation on their hands. This is especially worrisome considering how much the government has tried to shift the discourse in the direction of Shia vs. Sunni.

  3. If there is a balloon floating over the people of Bahrain I feel like the best way that they could protest would be to shoot it down. I wonder if they can retrieve such weapons. There is really nothing for them to do at this point with so many limitations to weapons coupled with the fear of both Saudi Arabia and Bahrains military forces. I feel like this new normal will in fact last a very long time, at least until Saudi Arabia experiences drastic changes in regime and interests. It is so hard to fathom a government that is so against its people that it would deprive them of medical help by imprisoning their doctors. What an incredibly ridiculous way to make your constitutes comply with you. I wonder if the leaders of these countries look at long term consequences of what they do or if they just live day to day. It makes no sense to control a population by balloon monitoring, brain draining, and decreasing the general health of the country.