Overshadowed by the influence of its wealthier Gulf neighbours and the drama of the massive conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain has nonetheless been plagued by unrest since the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
Dozens of pro-democracy protesters were killed in the initial uprising against the Sunni minority government; perfunctory attempts by the regime to start a dialogue with activists failed after government infighting about how best to deal with the problem.
While the new political opposition became less vocal in the wake of successive crackdowns, it has never really gone away, instead morphing into increasingly sectarian movements.
Moderate ministers have time and again promised constitutional reform – as well as investigations into allegations of torture – but little in the way of legislation has actually passed.
This week, the High Civil Court ordered the dissolution of the main secular opposition party, the National Democratic Action Society (Waad), on terrorism charges, in a sign that the government may be trying to do away with opposition altogether.
The accusations levelled at the group included violating the law by describing three men executed earlier this year for killing police officers as “martyrs”, expressing solidarity with outlawed Shia political party Wefaq and declaring Bahrain’s 2002 constitution “illegitimate”.
The move comes on top of the banning of Wefaq last year and the revoking of the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim – the kingdom’s most prominent Shia critic – and escalating clashes between protesters and police.
Five demonstrators were killed and 300 arrested when police broke up a peaceful sit-in at Sheikh Qassim’s house on 23 May.
The decision to ban Wefaq is widely believed to have triggered the new chapter of unrest; the Bahraini authorities have since openly accused Iran of fomenting anti-government sentiment in the country amid a string of attacks on public targets and members of the security services.
Last month, a government advisory body passed a constitutional amendment which means civilians suspected of attacking security forces can be tried in military courts.
Amnesty International has called the latest crackdown “baseless and absurd”.
“By banning major political opposition groups, Bahrain is now heading towards total suppression of human rights,” said Lynn Maalouf of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa office.
“The suspension of Waad is a flagrant attack on freedom of expression and association, and further proof that the authorities have no intention of delivering on promises of human rights progress.”
The international community has been noticeably silent on Bahrain’s rights issues, and the country receives little English-language media attention; part of the reason for that is that the West is reliant on Bahrain’s diplomatic assistance in the fight against Isis.
“The government of Bahrain is acting with the aim of totally silencing all peaceful voices, leaving open the alternative of underground opposition and violence,” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
“This was allowed to happen because Bahrain feels zero geopolitical and international pressure from ‘champions of democracy’ in the West,” he added.
Low oil prices have led to huge cuts in government spending in the country and driven up the price of water, food and fuel, adding to citizens’ anger.
While Bahrain’s troubles have not erupted in full scale war or regime change, as in other Arab countries, the increasingly authoritarian attitude of the government does not bode well for future stability.
As Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently: “This is a pressure cooker, and the pressure will build as long as legitimate grievances exist – and grow. And they will.”
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