A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bahrain: the US Dilemma

What to say about Bahrain? Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, my knowledge of the country is superficial. But even more than in Egypt, the growing violence in the country and the bloody response of the authorities produces a dilemma for US policy. Not only is it unclear whether this will end well for US interests; it is unclear whether it can end well. The contradictory elements within the strategic gambles the US has made in the region, but particularly in the Gulf, may finally be coming home to roost, and the fact that Bahrain is in question involves not only critical US interests in the island nation itself (the base of the US Fifth Fleet), but also the elephant in the living room: Bahrain's neighbor at the other end of the King Fahd Causeway. And that goes to the heart of US policy in the Gulf. American sympathy for protesters demanding democracy, unarmed protesters being fired on with live ammunition, is in direct conflict with two countervailing US interests: diminishing Iranian influence on the Arab side of the Gulf, and maintaining the crucial relations with Saudi Arabia, the cornerstone of US Gulf security policy since the fall of the Shah 32 years ago this month.

This is not a partisan US issue. The Saudi relationship was a cornerstone of US policy under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. It still is. Dating as it does from the fact that it was American oil companies (as opposed to British elsewhere in the Gulf) that controlled the Saudi concessions, the Saudi relationship has been sound since FDR's day. That the Bush family, including both Bush Presidents, were close to the Saudis is well known, but it was that human rights crusader Jimmy Carter who, toasting the Shah not long before his toppling, praised Iran as one of the Gulf's twin pillars of stability. The Clinton and Obama Administrations have upheld the centrality of the Saudi relationship to US strategic interests in the Gulf.

But there may be no country in the world — and I explicitly include Israel here — where US and Saudi interests potentially might conflict more than in Bahrain. The Saudis backed Husni Mubarak to the end, but they've had disagreements with Egypt before, especially in the Nasser era. But for the Saudis, Bahrain is literally too close to home. It is both an outlet (where a Saudi can get a drink and enjoy other pleasures unavailable at home by driving across a causeway) and a potential blowback threat: if Bahrain's Shi‘ite majority were to take power from the Sunni monarchy, the substantial Shi‘ite population in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province might become restive, as they did in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution. And the Eastern Province is where the oil, the refineries, the pipeline heads, the oil ports, almost all of the industry, is based. The Saudis are likely to back the King of Bahrain to the hilt, but unless there is some progress towards dialogue and away from bloodshed in Bahrain, the US may face an insoluble dilemma.

If Bahrain's Shi‘ite majority were to actually control the country's policies (with or without continuing the Sunni monarchy), that would not automatically mean it would become pro-Iranian; while some Bahraini Shi‘ites are of Persian origin, the majority are Arab. But implacable Saudi hostility to a Shi‘ite-dominated Bahraini government might give a representative government nowhere else to turn. The Shi‘ite government of Iraq has its own problems. Forced to choose between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the US would have little choice but to side with the Saudis, however unpopular such a choice would be.

Finding some formula for negotiations and genuine liberalization that does not overtly threaten the Saudis' own security would be the ideal policy to pursue in Bahrain, but little of what has happened in the last 48 hours suggest any eagerness on the part of the King to do so. And he is no doubt hearing frequently from the neighbors across the causeway urging him to hang tough.

This will be a three-day holiday weekend in the US, with Monday off. I doubt if events will wait till Tuesday, but weekend posting will be limited to critical events.


David Mack said...

Agree with most of this. One note concerning the Bahraini Shi'a: Aside from the fact that most of them are ethnically Arab and share the unwillingness of other Arab Shi'a to be subject to undue "Persian" influence, the Al Khalifa family dominated government trusted the Persian origin Bahraini Shi'a more than the far more numerous Arab (Baharna) Shi'a. The reason was that the Persian Shi'a tended to stay out of politics, focus on making money and getting higher education for their sons and daughters. It was the Baharna who posed a potential political threat to the Al Khalifa, who had only come to the island 200 years ago (!) and did not have a superior claim to Bahraini or Arab nationalism. US government policy, at least as far back as when I was a State Department DAS in 1990, was to commend the government for its declared intention of providing more social and economic justice for the Shi'a majority while gently urging the government to enable the Shi'a to participate in an equal way in the country's governance. Old Shaikh Isa tended to defer to his brother Shaikh Khalifa, the Prime Minister,on such matters, and Khalifa considered it too risky. In that regard, he represented rather well the parochial (a nicer word than bigoted and selfish) view of the privileged Sunni minority. As one Bahraini Ambassador in Washington, who had a British PhD and was otherwise quite civilized, remarked to me: "The trouble with the Shi'a is that they have too many babies." I have no doubt that other Bahraini Sunnis, including most of the ruling family, consider the current King, Shaikh Hamad (who struck me, when I met with him a few times, as an amiable but weak personality) as being a poor protector of their interests. As for the American University (in Wash, DC) educated Crown Prince, Shaikh Salman, he was known to have dangerous "American" ideas.

Anonymous said...

I visited several Shi'ah mosques when I was in Bahrain - both Persian and Arab. In each one there were two pictures. The Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei.

A colleague of mine joked with an Arab Bahraini Shi'ah in one mosque. "You're Arabs. You should have Fadallah up there not some Ajami". The response "We follow Khamenei".