In the 1970s-80s the United States took over the mission once performed by the British Empire, of serving as protector to the kingdoms of the Arabian peninsula. Under our benign supervision, these states have flourished, turning from sand-blown desert outposts of camel herders and pearl divers into some of the world’s richest states with a Lamborghini in every garage and a Rolex on every wrist. Or so it seemed.
Progress has been especially notable in those states which are swimming in oil and gas. According to the International Monetary Fund, Qatar has the world’s third-highest per capita income–$74,422; number eight is the United Arab Emirates (which include Abu Dhabi) with $47,406: both ahead of the United States.
Even Bahrain and Dubai (Abu Dhabi’s poorer cousin in the UAE), which lack such natural riches, have done well for themselves–Dubai spectacularly so, with a skyline that has come to resemble Hong Kong’s and enough baubles to make a Gilded Age tycoon blush. Bahrain is not as impressive but it, too, has prospered, with its share of high-rise hotels and office towers.
Their secret, Bahrain and Dubai, has been freedom, at least relative freedom. Because they have not been as Draconian in enforcing Muslim strictures, Dubai and to a lesser extent Bahrain became the playgrounds of the Gulf–the place where other Arabs could go to drink booze, pick up Eastern European hookers, drive expensive cars recklessly, and generally enjoy the good life. This despite the fact that Bahrain nominally follows a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, just as Saudi Arabia does.
Having visited these states many times over the years, I can attest to their allure, at least compared to a stifling totalitarian state such as Saudi Arabia. I recall once, in 2007, flying from Dubai to Riyadh. It felt like going from the twenty-first century to the sixteenth century–from a land of miniskirts to a land of gender apartheid. The princes of the Gulf states tend to be urbane and hospitable, especially to American visitors. They generally speak impeccable English. Many were educated in the U.S., American colleges having taken over the role once performed by Oxford and Cambridge.
Yet the surface shine always masked unpleasant subterranean realities. However Westernized they may appear outwardly, the states of the Arabian Peninsula are still absolute dictatorships run by a small, entrenched, unelected elite. Most of the work is performed by a class of Helots imported from the Levant, South Asia, and East Asia who often outnumber the natives. Manual laborers suffer under miserable, slave-like conditions, and even expatriate professionals are denied the dignity of citizenship. All this to ensure the comfort of a tiny native elite which prefers to play rather than work. In Bahrain the problem has been compounded because of the existence of a Shiite underclass, 70 percent of the population, which has long been deprived of power and riches by a Sunni minority led by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and his relatives.
Bahrain’s long-whispered tensions have burst forth in recent days in the form of protests. In response, the Bahraini royal family has revealed a ruthless determination to stay in power even it if means sending the army into the heart of the capital, Manama, to open fire on peaceful protesters. Beneath the surface softness of all these states is a fist of steel, and in Bahrain it is now smashing protesters’ faces in.
Will it be enough to save the ruling clan? That remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that the recent demonstrations and their ruthless suppression have placed the status quo in serious jeopardy. This is of considerable concern to the United States, because Bahrain is home to our Fifth Fleet and the U.S. Central Command naval component. If the ruling family were to fall we might well be forced to relocate a major military hub. That would not be the end of the world but it would be a blow, especially if Iran were able to exert greater influence in our wake.
The current unrest exposes as never before the shaky foundations on which our relations with all the rich Gulf states are built. In return for oil and gas, we have offered them protection—and advanced military hardware they can barely operate. They have accommodated themselves to our bases as long as we don’t allow our service personnel to swagger through their cities in uniform—or in tank tops. Often it has felt as if they looked upon U.S. soldiers as another class of indentured servants. Like the Bangladeshis who collect their garbage and the Filipinas who raise their babies, we are there to perform a vital if tiresome service that they do not care to provide for themselves.
We have accepted this bargain because it has been very much in our interest to project power in the world’s largest oil-producing region. As part of this implicit contract, we did not lecture any of these states overly much on the issue of civil liberties. Oh sure, we made occasional noises about reform, especially after the Gulf War. Having liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, we were embarrassed to see it revert to feudalism. So we pressed for elections—but not too hard. When it became clear that Islamists would be a strong voice in parliament, we backed off and returned to business as usual. The same thing happened in Saudi Arabia post-9/11: Under U.S. pressure, the Saudis held municipal elections in 2005, the Islamists did well, and that was the end of the liberal experiment. The Bush administration, its enthusiasm for democracy promotion cooling amid a worsening situation in Iraq, implicitly acquiesced to the status quo when the Saudi elites said it was either them or Al Qaeda.
The rioting in Bahrain shows—as clearly as the earlier protests in Egypt and Tunisia—just how untenable this strategic bargain is. We need to press for greater openness in all of these states, for a gradual transition to real democracy. Otherwise we might wake up one day and find ourselves as badly shocked as we were in 1979 when Iran—one of the “twin pillars” of U.S. policy in the region, along with Saudi Arabia—suddenly fell into the hands of our sworn enemies.