Has the Arab Spring run dry?

(c) Al Jazeera English

Georgia Lewis

News of Bahrain’s special security court jailing 13 doctors for 15 years each for various crimes against the state after they treated wounded protesters in the anti-government uprisings has spread across the world, although it has not been met with too much in the way of public condemnation by world leaders.

As well as the doctors being jailed for doing their job of treating patients without checking their religious or political affiliations, two more got 10 years, five were sentenced to five years and a protester has been given the death penalty on charges of killing a police officer. Yet it’s the despotic leaders of Syria, Libya and Egypt who have received more criticism from supposedly democracy-loving nations.The only UK newspaper to give this situation any serious coverage on their website homepage has, unsurprisingly, been the Guardian. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the Abu Dhabi government-run paper The National has covered the story; it’s not on the homepage but readers have obviously gone looking for it because by today it was in the top 10 most viewed articles.

There are plenty of people out there who are concerned about ER doctors going to jail yet Bahrain – a nation whose oil reserves have peaked but is still producing around 15 million barrels a year – is getting an easy ride from the West. The armies of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stepped in to help out the Bahraini army during the most violent struggles earlier this year; two more nations that are allies of the West, have oil, and generally escape criticism for human rights abuses.

What is interesting is the response in the both the UAE and Saudi Arabia to events in Bahrain. The UAE’s fears go beyond the possibility of losing the Abu Dhabi F1 grand prix if there was ever a popular uprising. In response to five Emirati bloggers who have written about their concerns with the current system, the government put them on trial in a closed court. In a bizarre twist, scores of pro-government Emiratis have technically broken UAE’s freedom of assembly laws by gathering outside the courthouse to publicly voice their support for the government.

The UAE is taking its first baby steps towards democracy with the second Federal National Council elections held earlier this month. This body can only make recommendations rather than pass laws and only a very limited number of people in the country are allowed to run for election or vote.

However, all of these people both voting and running were chosen by the current rulers and whilst in this year’s FNC election more people were allowed to vote, the turnout was still less than 30%. This has disappointed some Emiratis but it seems that many are happy enough with the status quo and the ruling Khalifa family probably doesn’t have to fear Bahrain-type scenes happening any time soon.

In Saudi Arabia, another nation where the locals are generally well taken care of, King Abdullah has announced women will be able to take part in the next municipal elections. This isn’t until 2015, voting won’t be compulsory and plenty of women probably won’t vote because their male guardian won’t let them, but the King is to be applauded for making such a statement in the face of serious opposition.

This week also saw a women sentenced to 10 lashes for driving – this seemed to create bigger shockwaves around the world than the Bahrain situation – but the king mercifully overturned this sentence. It is amazing what the fear of bad PR can do for a leader.

But it seems fear of bad PR isn’t stopping the Bahrain judiciary from meting out extremely harsh sentences. They’ve already lost their grand prix for the foreseeable future, the West still trades with them; perhaps it seems easier for the powers-that-be to hope it will all blow over. But with maybe a decade’s worth of oil left and a Shia majority ruled by a Sunni royal family, dialogue between the rulers and the protesters would certainly have been more constructive for the country’s long-term stability.

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