British royal relationship to Bahrain complex

DIRAZ, Bahrain (AP) — In the small town of Diraz, just a few miles from where Prince Charles met with Bahrain’s royals, there is graffiti demanding the death of the Gulf island’s monarch, armored vehicles with chicken wire on their windows and a tense calm that could be shattered at any time.

The police have laid siege to the town for months, a sign of the lingering standoff between Bahrain’s Shiite majority and its Sunni monarchy more than five years after Arab Spring protests were crushed.

The ongoing crackdown has seen some activists imprisoned, others exiled, and a major Shiite opposition group dismantled.

But there was no sign of the unrest as Prince Charles and his wife Camilla took in the sights as part of a three-nation tour of the Gulf.

The Prince of Wales inaugurated a new naval base on Thursday, the first permanent British military presence since its withdrawal from Bahrain in 1971.

The royal visit and the military base suggest Britain, which has long had influence with Bahrain’s own monarchy, may not be pressing it on human rights. Tensions continue to grow amid the crackdown, with some worried a larger crisis could loom in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“You will reach the level where people realize they have nothing left to lose,” one local activist told The Associated Press.

Bahrain, a small island off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has long drawn revelers to bars across the causeway from dry Saudi Arabia. Its history as a port town for pearl divers and shippers has drawn an eclectic mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Iraqi Jews, Christian missionaries and Hindus.

The 2011 Arab Spring protests were backed by the Shiite majority and others, and were aimed at demanding more political freedoms from the ruling Al Khalifa family. The government put down the demonstrations with help from Saudi and Emirati troops, and later pledged to reform.

While low-level unrest persisted for years, things remained largely peaceful until April, when Bahrain’s military announced it was “ready to deal firmly and with determination with these sedition groups and their heads” after a gasoline bomb killed a police officer.

Since then, authorities suspended the country’s largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, and doubled a prison sentence for its secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman. Famed activist Nabeel Rajab was imprisoned and now awaits sentencing on a charge of spreading “false news.” Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of well-known activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who himself is serving a life sentence over his role in the 2011 protests, was forced into exile.