Bahrain Just Bought More Tear Gas Canisters Than It Has Citizens

Because it's easier to fire noxious gas at protesters than listen to their demands.

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22 October 2013, 3:55pm


Photo of Bahraini protesters by Ahmed Al Fardan

After a year or so of beating everyone at the internet, South Korea has decided to impart a different kind of cultural impact on the rest of the world: supplying instruments of repression to Bahrain, one of the Middle East's most autocratic nations.

The country's Arab Spring uprising has refused to abate since February 2011, and the main players seem to have all but given up on trying to find a solution. Instead of dealing with the protesters' demands for reform and improved social justice, the government have instead been firing live ammunition and rubber bullets at them during previously peaceful protests.

Now, a document leaked to UK-based advocacy group Bahrain Watch appears to show that the kingdom is planning to import a whole load of tear gas from South Korea to aid them with putting down civil dissent. The shipment amounts to approximately 1.6 million tear gas canisters and 90,000 grenades, leaving the country with more of the stuff than its 1.3 million citizens.

But what's fuelling the uptick in demand for tear gas? Well, it seems that yet another chance of a political resolution to the uprising has come and gone, leaving the regime with a chance to once again crack down on the civil opposition.

Bahrain sits at the epicentre of a regional tussle between Saudi Arabia – a Western ally, in league with the militant Sunni extremists fuelling the rebels in Syria – and Iran, ideological enemy of the West, Shia theocratic state, Assad ally and regional rival of Saudi Arabia. While the US were still flirting with the idea of bombing Syria for their alleged use of chemical weapons, Washington presented a plan to resolve the Bahraini conflict. The hope was that Iran – grateful for the US stepping in to quell the civil war raging on their doorstep – would neutralise their involvement with the Assad regime and not kick up too much of a fuss about America dropping peace bombs all over the country.

While Iran never explicitly agreed to withdraw their support for Assad, they publicly approved of the US resolution in Bahrain and things were beginning to look up for the Bahraini people. However, now that Syria isn't going to be the recipient of thousands of tonnes of US ordinance, the State Department and Pentagon no longer feel the need to placate Iran by helping to solve the problems in Bahrain.

The fading hopes of a compromise prompted the hardliners in the Bahraini regime, backed by their Saudi patrons, to renew their crackdown on the dissidents. As well as arming themselves with enough tear gas to disperse protesters for the next decade or so, authorities have arrested deputy head of the opposition party, Khalil al-Marzooq, and jailed dozens for allegedly being part of the February 14 movement, an Anonymous-like youth coalition who have been blamed for encouraging violent street protests.

This has been accompanied by a number of reports that the Bahraini government is seeking a treaty with the UK in order to extradite "Shi'ite terrorists", who they say are looking to undermine the regime from London. It's highly unlikely that the UK would sign such a treaty, especially as many of the people Bahrain wants to arrest are now British citizens. So one potential explanation for the proposed treaty is that the Sunni regime simply want to demonise the Shi'ite Muslims taking part in the uprising.

The next thing the protesters have to look forward to is, of course, the prospect of having barrages of tear gas fired at them every time they demonstrate. According to various sources, Bahraini police have already killed between 26 and 77 with their use of tear gas – either through suffocation, firing canisters directly at protesters' necks and heads or causing miscarriages after pregnant women suffered prolonged exposure to the gas. The number of those treated for tear gas inhalation is impossible to verify, as many are treated at home or in private clinics because the main hospitals are government-controlled and people are afraid of the consequences of being treated for protest-related injuries. 

This kind of thing has been going on in Bahrain for the last two years, so anyone selling tear gas to the country can't be under any illusions as to what it will end up being used for.

Both the UK and US say that they're not currently exporting equipment that can be used for repressive crowd control, most likely because it doesn’t play too well to their domestic audiences and somewhat undermines their stated commitments to human rights. However, we’re both still perfectly happy to host arms fairs where the Bahrainis can buy them from companies based elsewhere.

Which is perhaps how Bahrain ended up looking to countries with less developed human rights organisations – like South Korea. South Korean company DaeKwang appear to have become the primary supplier of tear gas to Bahrain, though they don’t seem to be overly proud about it, given that their canisters all arrived in the kingdom unmarked.

The value of the DaeKwang contract could be worth between $25 to 30 million if the price is $10 to $20 per canister, though it's likely that the final price would be inflated due to commissions (otherwise known as bribes) for middle-men, like brokers and members of the royal family who are well known to siphon off cuts of business deals to line their own pockets.

It is just this kind of corruption that first united Bahrainis of all backgrounds against the regime at the start of the 2011 uprising. Those in charge have done their best to divide and rule Bahraini society, emphasising the sectarian divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni protesters in order to isolate those calling for reforms. But in doing all this, the Bahraini regime seem insistent on remaining their own worst enemy, persevering with the exact kind of policies that originally fuelled social unrest.

Follow John on Twitter: @jwsal

More from Bahrain's forgotten uprising:

Explaining Human Rights to Bernie Ecclestone

I Was Tortured as a Bahraini Political Prisoner

Bahrain's PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail