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Obscure to most Americans, but vitally important to the American military, the tiny island nation of Bahrain has become the latest Middle Eastern country to be caught in the throes of destabilizing unrest. At least four Bahraini protesters are now dead from the military’s swift response to Thursday’s tumultuous political demonstrations. As with most imperiled states in the region, the political reality of Bahrain is extremely complicated, and the matter of which faction is worthy of support — the populace or the authoritarian government — is no simple question. In many ways, Bahrain is one of the best examples of the Mideast democracy paradox; one that, if lost to the winds of fortune, would be devastating for regional stability, and probably the people of Bahrain as well.
A coveted Archipelago, Bahrain has a long history of domination by world powers. This includes the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottomans, and to some extent, the British. For most of the modern area, Bahrain has been an Islamic country, with roughly 70% of the population identifying as Shia Muslims, and 30%, Sunni. For the last decade, Bahrain had been a parliamentary monarchy, whose al-Khalifa dynasty, which is Sunni, has ruled for more than 200 years.
The current monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has been a devoted ally to the U.S. and to its strategic interests in Middle East, especially with respect to Iran. In turn, the U.S. has been a military aegis for the tiny Persian Gulf nation, installing the home base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Jaffair, and actively preventing Iranian influence in the country and elsewhere in the region. This is important, as the Shia Iranian theocracy has often expressed kinship with the Bahraini Shia population, whom the minority-Sunnis frequently accuse of being clients of the Islamic Republic (although the Shiites adamantly deny this is the case). The American Fifth Fleet monitors important strategic waterways in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and others. It also oversees operations from Afghanistan and Iraq from the Bahraini base.
What is also important about Bahrain, is that the presiding monarchy would be supportive of military or other action against Iran, and, in fact, suggested as much to the U.S., according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, also a Sunni monarchy, is likewise supportive of this eventuality, and the two countries have maintained extremely close ties. In enabling the U.S. to monitor the area for malignant forces, such the Iranian Navy and piracy, the Bahrain-U.S.-Saudi trifecta, is a cornerstone of peace in the region.
But the significance of Bahrain is not merely strategic. Bahrain is a sliver of modernity in the Muslim world. It is a relatively open, prosperous society, and is a favored retreat for military personnel and Saudi playboys for this very reason. The country is home to bars and resorts, for instance, and it is the hub of the regional banking system, particularly for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain provides free or low-cost health care, and both its standard of living and literacy rate are high. In 2010, the government reported its unemployment rate was enviously below 4%. After assuming power, King Hamad was favorable to the country’s women’s right movement, granting women the right to vote and to hold political office.
One wonders, then, why there would be an anti-government uprising in Bahrain in the first place. Generally, much of the restive atmosphere in the Middle East has to do with economic woes, felt most acutely among the poor, which has been exacerbated by the global economic downturn and the meteoric rise in food prices. These conditions also exists in Bahrain to some extent, but economic hardship is also stratified between Sunnis and Shiites, where the former tends to live a more comfortable, modern lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the anti-government opposition in Bahrain is primarily comprised of the less well-off majority-Shiite population. Sunnis, on the other hand, are supportive of the monarchy, and are skeptical about where blame for Shiite grievances truly lies.
In an interview with The New York Times, several Sunni Bahrainis, supportive of the monarchy, pointed to the Shiite culture, not the government, as the reason that Shia economic mobility was lacking. Having too many children, cutting short their education, and demanding handouts from the government, were cited as the sources of Shiite adversity. The interviewees also expressed fears that their freedoms would be taken away if Shiites were to come to power, and worried that they would align the country with Iran and impose harsh religious restrictions . “To me, it’s about preserving my freedoms,” one Sunni woman told the Times.
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