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.
In Bahrain, as in many other places around the Middle East, the dispute over political reform cannot be separated from sectarian disputes, as the ruling al Khalifa royal family is Sunni and the majority of their subjects are Shi’ites who feel impoverished and disenfranchised. Law and order is maintained by overwhelmingly Sunni security forces, many of them of immigrants from other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, further fueling discontent among impoverished native Shi’ites.
Always present is the specter of Iran, the giant Shi’ite state which lies only a few miles away from Bahrain across the Persian (of if you prefer Arabian) Gulf. The Bahraini and Saudi royals insist on seeing all demonstrations as an Iranian plot, even though no evidence of Iran’s hand at work has been uncovered. Nevertheless, there is cause to fear that complete chaos in Bahrain could play into Iran’s hands.
Moreover, from the U.S. perspective, there is even more direct cause to favor the status quo: Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet and the naval headquarters for Central Command. The Bahrainis are very cooperative and hospitable hosts, allowing the U.S. nearly complete freedom of movement. That would not be easy to achieve elsewhere in the region if the Fifth Fleet headquarters had to move–and that would be a costly undertaking in any case given the fact that the U.S. has built so much infrastructure in Bahrain already.
Yet the U.S. cannot simply turn a blind eye to the repressive practices of an ally, which would discredit our promotion of democracy elsewhere in the region. To its credit, the Bahraini government commissioned a credible independent review of its human rights abuses, led by a widely respected Egyptian-American law professor. However, the government has not fully implemented the commission’s reports, and there are still many troubling reports of the security forces continuing to torture perceived troublemakers.
While Riyadh will use its influence to block any liberal reforms, the U.S. must use our considerable sway–including the provisions of weapons to the Bahraini armed forces–to push the Bahrainis toward curbing their security forces and initiating dialogue with the main opposition group, al Wefaq. Its demands for greater democracy are reasonable, and it is not even calling for the ouster of the royal family. Rather, it seeks a constitutional monarchy which would be a first in the Gulf region. The model could be Morocco where the king is introducing democracy while for the time being keeping control of the military and foreign policy.
Accomplishing this would probably require the ouster of Bahrain’s hard-line prime minister who is widely seen as an obstacle to reform, which has been championed by the American-educated crown prince. It would be premature and counterproductive, as some suggest, to remove the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, but we must do more to push for the type of reforms that can head off a future explosion. The examples to avoid are Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011: in both cases the U.S. gave carte blanche to dictators for years, making inevitable a revolution harmful to American strategic interests. Difficult actions are needed now in Bahrain to avoid a potential catastrophe down the road.