Can one unsavoury incident affect the warmth and harmonious relations between two neighbouring countries? Sometimes it can, like in the case of India and Pakistan or North and South Korea. But so close are the ties between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that an incident which anywhere else would have blown up into a full-scale diplomatic row has gone virtually uncommented in the media after the first flush of reports.
Last week there have been reports in the Bahraini and Saudi Press about a Saudi having been beaten up in Bahrain police custody. The incident, which involved a drunken man, had happened in May, and would have gone unreported but this month Al Arabia TV showed a short clip of the man allegedly being attacked by Bahraini policemen, sparking a row in the media though not at the official level between the two countries.
Indeed before the row could blow up into a diplomatic spat Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior was quick to seize the initiative and condemned the incident as “unacceptable”, set an investigation into motion, and also ordered the policemen involved in the incident to be tried in a military court. This early and quick action seems to have assuaged Saudi officials since there has been no official reaction from Riyadh, as if the thing never happened. Indeed the Saudi Ambassador reacted in a statement and said that an official complaint was filed with the Foreign Ministry. He also said it was not the first incident but he added that it couldn’t harm the relations between the two countries.
But it is not merely the timely and decisive action by the Ministry which helped cool tempers. The reasons also lay in close Bahrain-Saudi relations over many decades which an event of this nature – where in any case the bashing seems to have been started by the Saudi when he kicked a policeman and removed his cap prompting the police to react [unacceptably though] in a similar fashion – was unlikely to disturb.
The Saudi silence may also have been prompted by several other reasons. For one, the incident could be termed as minor even if ugly considering that Bahraini Abdurrahim Al Murbati, brother of former Guantanamo prisoner Issa Al Murbati, has been held in Saudi Arabia since 2003 and lately even his family has not been allowed to see him. And Bahrainis Khalil Janahi and Abdullah Al Nuaimi, a former Guantanamo inmate, are also in Saudi jails for a number of years. Since repeated attempts by human rights campaigners and the Bahrain government have failed to elicit a satisfactory response from the Saudi authorities, the clip of the drunken Saudi getting a rap on his knuckles looks more like a blip.
Secondly, it is evident in the TV clip that the detained Saudi initiated the bashing first, also tried to break the police van window with his handcuffs and then resisted undergoing the blood test which eventually revealed an alcohol level of 237mg or more than thrice the legal limit. The Bahrain authorities were also able to question, on the strength of documents with them, the reports of the Saudi having been injured in the chest and broken his ribs, things which were not supported by the official Saudi Embassy medical reports.
And thirdly, both the Saudi government and the average Saudi may not have wanted to blow up the incident since every week thousands of Saudis are otherwise allowed to visit Bahrain where they are able to enjoy the kind of lifestyle not permitted back home – wear and drink what you will, go where you like and for women there is the bonus of being able to drive cars. Similarly, Bahrainis can enjoy weekly trips to Saudi Arabia to buy many products subsidised by the Saudi government and thus available at much lower prices than what they will have to pay in local market.
More than that, many Bahrainis and Saudis are share close blood and marriage ties which cannot be broken because of one or two such incidents.