Disposable Lives: Bahrain’s Sacrifice Zones

7th Jun 2021 by Staci Strobl

Disposable Lives: Bahrain’s Sacrifice Zones

This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050


The crisis of political repression in Bahrain continues to challenge Western foreign policy approaches to the country.  Long-standing United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) alignment with the Bahraini regime has perpetuated an abysmal human rights record in the country, essentially relegating marginalized and politically repressed Bahrainis to sacrifice zones, whereby their lives and their communities are rendered less important than geopolitical, strategic considerations. Given Western democracies’ purported interest and moral obligation to promote democratic and liberal values, the sacrifice zones are stark markers of policy failure.

The question of a policy trade-off falls into a larger theoretical debate in the scholarly literature. Jonathan Gilmore (2014) presents the question as one of UK national interests versus its moral values.  He uses the sale of armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, for use in quelling the Bahrain uprisings as one of the many examples of the UK sacrificing human rights values for its economic and political interests. Gilmore advocates for a disaggregation of national interests and moral values in policy development, so that the values-orientation can be better considered. Further, the values orientation is fundamental to the success of the interests orientation.  In the case of Bahrain, sustainable regional safety and security involves confronting the incubation of unrest and violence that the Al-Khalifah regime cultivates through its brutality.  The status quo is dangerous to both geo-political interests and to human rights. 

Indeed the situation in Bahrain is a product of Western priorities that include balancing power in region (against the perceived threat of Iran), maintaining a military presence in the Persian Gulf with Bahrain as a major installation, keeping oil resources secure, promoting domestic arms industries, and stymying perceived incubators of religious-based terrorism.  To be fair, these geopolitical goals come with some symbolic effort by the US and UK to decry human rights abuses.  President Biden (2021) has articulated the aims of pushing back authoritarianism and “defending equal rights the world over” as the cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy.  The UK government makes similar overtures, albeit many commentators have observed that human rights have even less of a billing under Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Law, 2017).  Meanwhile, both governments ally themselves strongly with Bahrain despite its authoritarian behavior, such as state-perpetrated political oppression of its majority under-class community, Shi’a, indigenous (Baharna) and/or those who are critical of the government. 

The nature of the on-going political repression in Bahrain has been well-documented in recent publications that forefront the struggle for civil and human rights, in particular Marc Owen Jones’ Political Repression in Bahrain (2020) and a recent report from the human rights group SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights entitled Decade of Oppression (2021). Together, these two works, the first scholarly and the other scholarly-activist in nature, make an important dent in correcting a monarchy-centric narrative about the unrest and political dissatisfaction that typically minimizes the scope and scale of human suffering.

To cite a few examples, there have been over 400 citizenship revocations of Bahraini dissidents since 2011, 23 death sentences deemed “political” by human rights groups since 2014, the documented use of mass trials which result in criminal punishment, and the torture of hundreds of the several thousands of political prisoners in the country.  Meanwhile police are consistently acquitted for torture and murder after questionable and violent behavior in the line of the duty.  Over 100,000 foreign Sunnis have been naturalized since 2011 (ostensibly to artificially shift the sectarian demographic) (SALAM DHR, 2021; Strobl 2019). 

Although the Al-Khalifah regime bears the most responsibility for the treatment of its subjects, the problem is compounded by the lack of effective engagement by Western allies.  The US and UK are at minimum complicit with these abuses, but more likely can be characterized as enabling them (through arms sales, a continued military alliance, and economic investment in the country).  As a by-product, marginalized communities in Bahrain are essentially transformed into sacrifice zones, where residents’ suffering at the hands of an illiberal and violent regime occurs daily, yet they are abandoned to their difficult situation by the international community.

 Sacrifice zones have both social and spatial characteristics. Borrowed from Environmental Sociology and Anthropology, the construct was initially developed to explain the abandoning of poor, minority neighborhoods and territories within Western democracies to toxic waste and pollution.  Inhabitants bear the human costs, such as poor health and even death, unwittingly sacrificing themselves on the altar of capitalist, industrial production (Taylor, 2018; Scott and Smith, 2017; Little 2016; Lerner 2010), their lives considered “disposable” by the larger political and economic system (de Souza 2021, p. 226).  “While sacrifice may be personalized, it is socially contextualized and couched in and by a broader web of [political] pathologies,” and the zones are known for their landscapes of both ruination and survival (Little, 2016, p. 10).

Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco (2013) took the concept of sacrifice zones further by arguing that sacrifice zones go beyond environmental injustice; they are zones of political and economic structural malaise in late capitalist societies, where human suffering in certain places can be ignored under the rationale that it serves more important interests. David Taylor (2018) refined this expanded version of sacrifice zones explaining that the following more general attributes characterize these places.

First, sacrifice zones are an abandonment of a geographical location by the political-economic order but justified on political-economic grounds.  They serve to maintain the power and control of national and international elites outside the zone, while also legitimizing existing social inequalities.  Second, the sacrifice zones are space-based constructions by the state where existentially problematic dissidents and political activity is said to stem, and where the purported political threats to the unity and well-being of the country originate. Consequently, the state abandons the zones in terms of protecting civil and human rights (as well as withdrawing adequate social services).  Simultaneously, it also over-polices the zones to squelch the perceived threat.  In essence, the ideological construct of people in these zones as inherently criminal and state-threatening forces their very bodies and violence against those bodies to be the means of the meaning-making of others (Taylor, 2018).

Taylor’s treatment of sacrifice zones acknowledges parallels to Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of the refugee camp, in which internal borders within a state are marked by the withdrawal of social and political protections.  For Agamben, the camp embodies the contemporary problem of reducing internally-excluded people to bare life, or the state of being stripped down to mere physical existence, mere body, or even relegated to the animal world, “…a binary distinction between those who are fully human through their participation in political life and those who are outside…” (Mabon, 2020, p. 13).  Camps are demarcated as places occupied by usurpers, and racial, ethnic, or religious differences further justify the abandonment. State violence is used in order to control any solidarity or political activity originating in the camp (Taylor, 2018; Agamben, 2020/1995).

A prime example of one of the Bahraini sacrifice zones is the village of Diraz, in particular  from 2016 to 2018, when it was besieged by security forces that blockaded the village, controlled movements in and out of the village, put down non-violent protests, and interfered with religious observances (Jones, 2020; ADHRB, 2016).  Although Western powers paid lip service to human rights, consequences were insufficient to compel the government to back down from the siege for two years.  This predicament was an extension of the more routine governmental containment of mostly Shi’a, often indigenous (Baharna) neighborhoods and villages, engineered to be behind walls, separated from wealthier Sunni neighborhoods, and inconvenient to and from major thoroughfares as well as the gaze of expatriates (Strobl, 2011; Mabon, 2020).  The situation is nothing less than a divided society where structural inequalities and political stalemate can be mapped onto the geographic delimitations of Sunni and Shi’a communities to a noticeable degree (Mabon, 2020, pp. 161-163).  One of the primary “audiences” for the ordering of space in this way are internal and external Sunni communities (Mabon, 2019: 42) who cohere in part by defining themselves against the Shi’a, indigenous others (Strobl, 2018).  

Further, marginalized and repressed Bahrainis increasingly recognize their political situation as at a violent stalemate, leading to frustration and despair that can once again, like during the Bahrain Uprisings, bubble into significant unrest and violence.  As Bahrain Mirror (2018) explains:

Sacrificing citizens does not protect other citizens' security, nor does it protect the state's sovereignty or its monopoly of violence, it rather opens the door for rights organizations, states, and counter-violence forces to interfere. The state would therefore lose its security, peace, and stability. This is a barren sacrifice; it is more likely suicide, or stabbing oneself (no page number).

Bahrain Mirror further states “... the ruling family secures itself from evil, through barbarically sacrificing its citizens, thinking this will repel evil phantoms” and “[t]his violence expands the profits of groups at the expense of other groups” (no page number).  Similarly, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights has long called the death penalty in Bahrain a political “sacrifice to the state” (ADHRB, 2015, p.1): 

More broadly, Bahrain] ultimately employ[s its] capital punishment mechanisms to maintain the security and autonomy of the monarch[y], at the expense of the public. The weight of the sword falls heaviest, and most deliberately, on the development of civil space, rule of law, and sustainable human security in the Gulf; a sacrifice to authoritarian stability (ADHRB, 2015, p. 9).

In 2018, government-dissolved political party Al-Wefaq tweeted that the revocation of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim’s Bahraini citizenship was another of many Shi’a sacrifices to Bahrain authoritarianism.  And Jeremy Corbyn took a strong stand on Twitter in 2016 that “This week in Bahrain, we have seen the Prime Minister sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade,” enthusiastically liked and retweeted by individuals and organizations critical of a recent arms deal.

Of course, sacrifice zones do not just exist in Bahrain, but throughout the region.  Perhaps the starkest example is in Palestine where communities in the Occupied Territories are tightly controlled, socially and economically depressed, and besieged militarily— a sacrifice to Israeli security. Oren Yiftachel (2010) looks at Israeli nationalism from the point of view of that territory has strong symbolic importance for the nation, arguing that the project to secure and settle territory essentializes and segregates group identities.  In particular, the hitnahalut (settlement) project literally encircles and chokes off the Palestinian state, creating distinct zones of despair also marked by ethnic, religious, and socio-economic differences.

UK relations with Israel have grown stronger in recent years due to expanding trade agreements and on-going arms sales.  US alignment with Israeli nationalism also grew under the Trump Administration.  Although from both the US and UK, there is aid going to Palestine and articulated support of the peace process, these overtures pale in comparison with the material bolstering of the militarized Israeli state.  Meanwhile, Palestinian communities continue to stew in a sacrifice zone of hopelessness and despair with no end in sight.

Similarly, the sacrifice zones in Bahrain show no signs of diminishing.  Officials from both the US and UK consistently meet with Bahrain officials and reiterate strategic partnerships with little caveats and no necessary conditions around Bahrain bettering its human rights record.  Meanwhile, the sacrifice zones in the country become sites for continued resistance to the government, taking a stale mate since the events of the Arab Spring into an ever-present potential for renewed violence.

To counter the current state of burgeoning unrest in Bahrain, UK and US foreign policy must meaningfully push for legal and security reform, broad representation of groups in the apparatuses of the state, the release of political prisoners, the rejuvenation of prohibited political parties and civil society, and political momentum toward measures that would counter social and economic inequality and spatial isolation in indigenous and Shi’a communities-- all overseen by an international observer such as a United Nations Special Rapporteur.  Failure to so should be met with meaningful sanctions by Western countries, such as a moratorium on the sales of arms and other security equipment for any purposes, radical economic divestment in the country, removal of military bases and related personnel to other locations in the region, and the rewriting of defense agreements.

To the extent that other countries would attempt to fill the void of material and moral support to Bahrain, such as Saudi Arabia, similar sanctions can be applied to them, essentially reordering Gulf regional foreign policy into alignment with human rights values case by case, leveraging American power (at least for now) as the world’s largest military and economic power.  Nothing less will make good on the lip service to human rights in the West; otherwise the human suffering in sacrifice zones—and its incubation of violent unrest— will stand as dangerous markers of foreign policy failure.