Friday, 2 September 2011

2 September 2011

You will have noticed, I hope, that there have been dramatic developments in Libya over the last couple of weeks. You may also have noticed that there have been continuing protests in Syria.

But how about Bahrain – and Yemen? Two more Arab nations which, earlier this year, were very much in the headlines as they too became engulfed in popular protests. Since then – well, what?

Bahrain first. Two days ago, according to a report by the Associated Press news agency, hundreds of protesters tried to reclaim control of a central square in the capital Manama, which had been the symbolic hub of the protest movement after it began in February. Riot police used buses to block roads and fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.

Yesterday, thousands of people – tens of thousands, according to one activist quoted in the New York Times – were out in the streets again, for the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who was said to have been killed during Wednesday’s protests.

Witnesses said he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired at close range. (The interior ministry said a coroner’s report indicated that the boy’s injuries were not consistent with being hit with a tear gas canister or rubber bullet, and that there had been no clashes at the time he was said to have received his injuries.)

Also in Bahrain, a group of 14 doctors who are in jail awaiting trial on charges of having turned their hospital into a “terrorist base” when the protests first erupted last February have now gone on hunger strike in protest against their treatment. (There’ll be more about Bahrain on the programme tonight, Friday.)

So, what about Yemen? Two weeks ago, nearly 150 opposition leaders formed themselves into a “national council” to act as a sort of government-in-waiting, while the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was seriously injured in an apparent assassination attack last June, remains in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, government forces backed by fighter planes killed 17 people in the south of the country in what officials said was continuing action against al Qaeda-linked militants. In the poorest, and most volatile, country in the Arab world, the dangerous stalemate continues.

Why do we hear so much about Libya and Syria, and so little about Bahrain and Yemen? True, Bahrain is tiny by comparison with its much bigger neighbours – its population is barely half a million – but it happens to be home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and its position as an island in the Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile long causeway, gives it a strategic importance that far outweighs its size.

As for Yemen, it too is of immense importance to the Saudis, with a long and ill-policed border and suspected jihadi bases which the Saudis regard as a permanent potential threat. For the past few years, President Saleh has been cooperating closely with the US in counter-terrorism operations, aimed principally against groups believed to be linked to al Qaeda.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American jihadi of Yemeni origin and sometimes described as the world’s “number one terrorist”, is based in Yemen and is said to have been linked to a string of recent attempted terrorist attacks, including the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit in December 2009; the attempted Times Square bombing in May last year; and the dispatch of explosives-filled toner cartridges from Yemen last October.

In other words, Western security agencies have a lot invested in Yemen, and although no one pretends that President Saleh is the world’s number one democrat, there’s no great appetite – in either Washington or Riyadh – to see him replaced.

And if you were wondering why King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain is never spoken of in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya or Bashar al-Assad of Syria, despite continued reports of serious human rights violations, well, he was an invited guest in Paris yesterday at the Libya conference hosted by President Sarkozy and David Cameron, where he joined them in celebrating the overthrow of a hated tyrant.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

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