The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

BahrainBahrain

Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.

 

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