A state is engaged in violent repression; the ruling regime has forfeited its legitimacy; there are disturbing reports of civilian casualties. All this describes what is taking place in Bahrain. The fundamentals of the emergency in the small Gulf state are not so dissimilar from what is taking place in Libya. And yet whereas Muammar Gaddafi's vicious assault on his opponents last month galvanised the international community into protective action, the situation in Bahrain has gone more or less ignored in Western capitals.
There has been no United Nations Security Council discussion of the situation in Bahrain, no trenchant Western demands for the regime in the capital, Manama, to acquiesce to the legitimate democratic demands of the opposition. No sorties by Nato jets to protect the opposition from the regime's terror are in prospect.
The difference is that Bahrain, ruled by the Khalifa dynasty, is considered to be an important strategic ally for the West. The Gulf state hosts the United States Fifth Fleet. Manama is America's largest military base in the region. Our own Government has been just as close to the Khalifa regime. Until a few months ago, Britain was very happy to authorise the sale of tear gas and other crowd control equipment to Manama. The Khalifa dynasty is also backed by an even more important Western regional ally: Saudi Arabia. Last month Riyadh sent troops across the King Fahd Causeway to aid the suppression of the protests by Bahrain's Shia population. Like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shia population. The Saudi regime fears that, if the opposition prevails in Bahrain, its own Shia will be emboldened to push for reform. The United Arab Emirates has sent troops to Bahrain for the same purpose, and motivated by the same fears. Unelected rulers across the Gulf are determined that the Arab uprising, which has already swept aside autocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, will not tear down their own regimes.
Yet in standing by while this counter-revolution takes place, the West is giving an impression of egregious double standards. We deplore repression and human rights abuses when they take place in regimes that are perceived as hostile to our interests, such as Syria or Libya. But when our allies engage in similar behaviour our leaders, apparently, see little evil.
This selective blindness to violence from our allies is not only morally offensive, it is strategically foolish. Shia-majority Iran (scarcely less autocratic than its Arab neighbours) has loudly condemned the crackdown taking place across the Persian Gulf. The Bahrain regime has accused Tehran and the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, of supporting the domestic opposition. But whether this accusation has any truth in it (and recent Wikileaks cables suggest that it does not) is irrelevant: the Khalifa regime has clearly alienated Bahrain's Shia population through decades of discrimination. Otherwise it would not have needed to resort to martial law and, as this newspaper revealed yesterday, the harassment of doctors treating injured demonstrators.
The regime in Tehran now has an opportunity to bolster its own domestic position by citing apparent Western indifference to the repression of the Shia of Bahrain as a sign of bad faith. It can argue that while Westerners preach human rights and self-determination, our actions show that our true motivation is self-interest.
And until Western leaders condemn the human rights abuses by our supposed allies, as loudly as those perpetrated by our enemies, we will have no answer to this.Reuse content