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November 1, 2012

From Arab Spring to Winter: Courtesy of the U.S. & Canada

Reuel S. Amdur

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Arab freedom does not rank very high in Stephen Harper's priorities. That is why neither Canada nor the U.S. was cheering very loudly when the Egyptians were in the process of throwing off the chains of the Mubarak dictatorship. In that situation, Harper's expression of concern was that Egypt needed to keep the commitments made with Israel. The U.S. waffled because it wanted to keep its options open no matter who won.

Then we come to Bahrain, whose monarch has been a long-standing U.S. ally and which provides the U.S. with an important naval base.  Bahrainis have been pressing for more democracy, and with the royal forces pushing back, the demand for an end to the monarchy has been growing.  Reactions to government repression early last year led to the creation of an international commission which issued a damning report on the behavior of security forces and prisons, involving serious human rights violations.  According to Amnesty International, in spite of the promise by the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the violations continue.  Anti-government demonstrations continue to occur across Bahrain, and those arrested face the real danger of torture.

When major mass demonstrations shook the country in February, 2011, police entered hospitals and arrested, imprisoned, and tortured doctors and nurses who were treating injured demonstrators as well as injured security personnel.  A military trial sentenced leaders of the protest to long prison terms.  On September 5, a civilian court upheld the sentences.  Abduladi al-Khawaja is a rights activist sentenced to life imprisonment.  His daughter Maryam had this to say: “The verdict does not come as a shock.  With no international consequences and accountability for the Bahrain regime, they have no incentive to change.”

In response to the threat to its control, in March 2011 the Bahraini government called on neighboring dictatorships for help, and forces from the United Arab Emirates and especially from Saudi Arabia came to its rescue.  When Saudi forces invaded, it was with light armored vehicles manufactured in Canada leading the way.  “This is not an invasion of a country,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, as quoted in the Guardian.

The Canadian government continues to approve huge arms deals with Saudi Arabia, $4 billion worth approved in 2011 after the invasion.  Much of that trade is in the same kind of light armored vehicles.

Project Ploughshares’ Ken Epps noted that Canada no longer tables annual reports on Canadian arms sales.  Why might that be?  “The LAV-3 (light armored vehicle) and other similar vehicles that Canada has supplied to the Saudi Arabian National Guard are exactly the kind of equipment that would be used to put down demonstrations and used against civilian populations.”  Ahlul Bayt News Agency, a Shiite media source, comments that for Canada “the total in government-approved arms export licenses for Saudi Arabia was more than 100 times the $35 million approved in 2010.” 

While Canada continues to do arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which is determined to prop up the unpopular Bahraini king and his hangers-on, the United States continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth.  Here is Barack Obama’s artful if mealy-mouthed, commentary on the situation:

“Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security.  We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.  Nevertheless, we have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.”  One of the claims that the king, his family, and his protégés have made is that the unrest is stirred up by Iran, to which Obama gives credence in his utterance.

The United States is renewing weapons shipments to Bahrain.  Speaking for the U.S. State Department, Victoria Nuland explained that “the items that we are releasing are not used for crowd control.”  Among these items are upgraded F-16 engines.  Nuland might not have heard that the Syrian government is using fighter planes against its own people. 

Nuland expressed concern “about excessive use of force and tear gas by police,” but she balanced that concern with “the almost daily use of violence by some protesters.”  Why don’t the protesters simply take the repression and accept the royal dictatorship?  Life would be much easier for Obama.  On the other hand, if all is quiet in Bahrain, would Saudi Arabia be interested in buying as many light armored vehicles from Canada?  But of course they would prove useful if the Saudi population became restless.

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