At this minute, the entire industrialized world is having a collective panic attack over the protests and brutal crackdowns now underway in the tiny nation of Bahrain. Sure, it might be the dawn of an oppressed people—democracy, civil rights, rule of law. And it might be a government reacting via violent suppression to the tune of five deaths today, and hundreds more injured. But, what the oil-dependent first world is worried about is the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the protector of the oil trade between the region’s oil states and the rest of the world.
And, if you understand at all how the industrialized world functions and survives, then you already know that that oil the most important thing there is. Which is why the U.S. is fairly good buddies with Bahrain’s rulers, and might be less concerned with the nation’s sectarian oppression (the minority Sunni are the ruling class, while the majority Shiite have little power). Secretary of State Clinton meekly urged the nation’s government to show “restraint” when reacting to the protests, not to, say, stop shooting unarmed people.
Like those in Egypt and elsewhere, there’s a remarkable tech element behind what’s happening in Bahrain and it has nothing to do with social networking. It has to do with Google Earth. Some not-so-fun facts, courtesy mahmood.tv: 90-percent of Bahrain is private land, which leaves no space for low-income housing or development—some truly peak wealth imbalance. Consider also that all but 3-percent of the island nation’s beaches have been confiscated by the ruling dynasty. In other words, if you aren’t in the ruling class in Bahrain, you ain’t nothing.
It’s a funny thing when you ain’t nothing but you have no idea that the reason you ain’t nothing is because a very small amount of people have a whole lot. In 2005, Google Earth launched, which meant that for the very first time, Bahrainians could see how fucked things were in the country they lived in.
From an interview today on AOL news with Eugene Rogan, the director of the Middle-East center at Oxford:
When Google Earth was introduced, Bahrainis for the first time could see the walled palaces and rich homes that normally were hidden from view. Bahrainis got a bird’s-eye view of how rich people there lived. Bahrain tried to block Google Earth in 2006, but it was too late. The people had seen the inequality.
From a Washington Post editorial in 2006:
Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas.
“We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,” he said. “And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas have the rest of the country to themselves.”
Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.
The sworn enemy of repression and oppression is information, while information—control of it —is also a repressive regime’s best tool. Unfortunately, we’re seeing right now what that regime’s second-best tool is: soldiers with guns.
When contacted for comment, a Google spokesperson only offered that its Google Earth images/information are “freely available” at the same public and commercial sources that Google gets them. In other words, Google’s not really the source of the images. True enough, but Google made those images free and available in a way that encourages widespread access. Google’s whole thing is that it doesn’t provide content, just delivers it—but it’s at extreme times like this that the different between the two becomes negligible.
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