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Showdown in Bahrain

Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

So what next in Bahrain? The level of trust between opposition and government is zero. There is a stereotype in the West that the Persian Gulf is awash in oil, but it is not evenly distributed. The simple fact is that Bahrain has next to nothing—and would have even less if Saudi Arabia did not provide a great deal. Given their constraints and financial limitations, the Khalifa family has transformed Bahrain from a dusty backwater into a major financial hub. Shiny skyscrapers sit on reclaimed land. Infrastructure is superior even to many oil-rich Saudi cities (don’t even ask about the sewage system in Jeddah). Visitors recognize what the Bahrainis know: Bahraini culture is laid back and Bahrainis are far friendlier than many of their Gulf brethren.

Still, the grievances are real: A Bahraini born Shi’ite has little equality of opportunity. Sectarian restrictions are rife. And many of Crown Prince Hamad’s promises of reform evaporated when he took the throne in 1999. While many Bahraini officials recognize the need for reform, cynicism is rife and trust is non-existent. There is a consistent problem in which all sides recognize the need for reform after bouts of violence but do not want to concede under pressure. Once calm is restored, however, they fool themselves into thinking that reform is unnecessary, until the cycle begins anew.

So how to proceed? The Bahraini government claims the uprising is Iranian-sponsored. Certainly, the Iranians may co-opt it, but to show real Iranian interference beyond media incitement, the Bahraini government needs to expose the financial links between certain opposition figures and Iran. There have been quiet allegations of some businesses and bank accounts acting as fronts and financiers of opposition activity, but the unwillingness of the Bahraini officials to expose such intelligence has begun to erode their credibility.

The opposition, meanwhile, has made a case based on heart strings, but has yet to demonstrate how they would govern the day after any victory. Bahraini opposition politicians avoid too much talk about the role of Ayatollah Isa Qasim in political decision-making and when if ever they have taken action in contradiction to his pronouncements. While the opposition leaders are seasoned and mature, the anger of their followers will not be easily contained. If the opposition does succeed in overthrowing the monarchy—increasingly their goal—then how would the opposition constrain the impulse to exact revenge against the Sunni minority? If Bahraini Shi’ites have been largely excluded from the security forces, how would they be integrated over the following weeks and months? Ditto better integration of the financial sector. Seeking to destroy Bahrain’s economic infrastructure and reputation will, at best, provide a Pyrrhic victory.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, whose offer of federation with Bahrain may be enough to keep hardliners inside the Bahraini royal family from pushing forward with reform. Nothing should remind better that as bad as the Iranian regime might be, the Saudis are just as noxious an influence on Middle Eastern politics. If the Obama administration believes it can farm out the Bahrain problem to the Saudis, then the White House and State Department will soon demonstrate just how counterproductive a strategy of leading from behind can be.