So Bahrain managed to hold its much-heralded Grand Prix auto race last weekend without significant disruption–but only because of a massive security presence on the roads. The weekend was a turbulent one, with a protester getting shot and killed and opposition groups alleging that the government was responsible. His funeral drew 15,000 people and was punctuated by attacks on police stations.
Having recently returned from a few days in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, I can’t say I’m surprised. While I was there, the news was full of reports of Molotov cocktails being tossed at police cars and various other clashes–all of this happening, mind you, more than a year after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Those protests were crushed in March with the help of Saudi security forces whose armored vehicles rumbled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain. But the discontent that led to the outbreak has not gone away. It continues to be expressed in both peaceful protests and violent attacks.
After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.
Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.