Don’t Expect a Split in the U.S.-Bahrain Relationship
Having spread from the North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, the uprisings and protests against local rule are unlikely to abate in the immediate future. Only negotiated changes to the status quo, the toppling of local leadership or repressive reaction seem likely to halt the momentum spreading throughout the Arab world.
In one of the tiniest, lowest-profile nations in the Middle East the latter scenario is generating uncustomary attention. A government crackdown on a protester encampment in the capital city of the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain on February 17 left five people dead, many more injured and emotions rubbed raw.
Ruled by the Al Khalifa family since the late 18th Century, Bahrain faces sectarian pressures that threaten to fracture the tiny island nation beyond recall. The kingdom’s lopsided sectarian makeup has served as a persistent worry for the Al Khalifa family, who fear that the Shiite Muslim majority represents a dangerous element thirsting to unseat its Sunni rulers. To the Sunni ruling class the Shiite community – 70 percent of Bahrain’s population – represents a dangerous fifth column in their midst, one that can be utilized for ill-intent by Bahrain’s principal strategic threat, Iran.
The result of such fear and anti-Shiite prejudice has meant this segment of the population has been relegated to a second-class existence and in the process provided very limited avenues to government ownership. Government access for Shiite political voices is afforded in the lower house of parliament, the Council of Representatives, but these elected slots are subsequently neutered by the Al Khalifa-appointed members of the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council.
It is also hardly lost on Bahraini Shiites that through government policy Sunni foreign nationals – mainly from India and Pakistan – are absorbed into the military and police force and eventually granted citizenship in an attempt to dilute the overwhelming Shiite-to-Sunni demographic.
It is no surprise, therefore, that tensions have spilled over – much like they promised to do last fall when weeks of Shiite rioting resulted in the arrests of scores of Shiite political opposition leaders in advance of the October parliamentary election.
As in the case of Egypt, the situation places the United States in a delicate political position. On the one hand as a promoter of democracy it must lend ear to the grievances of the Shiite community and press the Bahraini rulers for reforms; on the other it has to stand firm with one of its closest, most reliable allies in the region. The former is the American ideal; the latter is realpolitik in crude form.
With Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms bent on stopping civic unrest at its inception expect realpolitik to win out in Washington.
The reason for this is practical and simple: Bahrain plays a central role in U.S. military operations in the Middle East and its security relationship with Washington is a close one. The kingdom serves as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet it has allowed U.S. forces to utilize its Shaykh Isa Air Base for combat missions in both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bahrain also served as a forward operating point for U.S. forces during the First Gulf War in 1991. Its Air Force pilots flew sorties over Iraq during the conflict and Bahrain is one of only two Gulf Arab states to deploy forces in Afghanistan, sending 100 police officers to serve for two years there as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeeping mission.
Bahraini support for U.S. regional policy has resulted in its designation by Washington as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) as well as a supportive U.S. hand in military assistance. Though its armed forces are small in manpower at around 10,000-strong, Bahrain’s military is well-equipped with American material ranging from F-16 jet fighters to UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to M60A3 tanks, M113A2 armored vehicles, an ex-U.S. Navy Perry-class frigate, Javelin anti-tank missiles, self-propelled howitzers, multiple launch rocket systems and a ballistic missile defense radar system. Since 2000 the U.S. has sold Bahrain some $1.4 billion worth of military hardware.
The upshot of this support for Washington is that Bahrain remains firmly in its camp – something that can hardly be underestimated at a time U.S. forces remain militarily engaged in two foreign theaters and a troika of regional actors – China, Iran and Russia – seek to expand their influence beyond their own backyards, possibly testing U.S. resolve in the process.
Small as it is Bahrain remains a crucial link in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) chain of strategic deterrence the U.S. is relying upon to help keep Iran at heel in the region. Bahrain’s fears of Iran, conflated though they may be, assure that its security compass remains fixed in a U.S.-centric direction. The Bahraini rulers intent to meet their internal and external security threats head-on is reflected in the steady growth of its year-on-year defense spending: 5 percent in 2010, 15 percent this year and plans for another jump of 8 percent in 2012.
Yet Washington is left walking a tightrope. Bahrain has made mild gestures in the past regarding reforms, but there is little doubt that the monarchy still holds firmly to its power and King Hamad’s writ is absolute. If it fully supports the monarchy the U.S. risks irrevocably losing the Bahraini population. Pressing for real constitutional reforms and the alleviation of Shiite grievances while coupling such demands with a reassurance towards some softer (or ideally ceremonial) form of monarchical rule might be Washington’s best path forward. But even this comes with no guarantee of a favorable outcome.
Ultimately the Gulf monarchies are not going to easily let go of control over their kingdoms – and the U.S. is not going to alienate itself from those nations allied to its interests.
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook