Bahrain is one of the world’s smallest countries, and is the 5th most dense country on Earth. It has a starkly visible Shi’a-Sunni divide – one that can be seen plainly from space, as poor Shi’a slums bump up against plush Sunni ones.
It is also a critical Middle Eastern bellwether. It was the first to find oil; it will be the first to run out. It invented the sectarian struggle template now replicated across the region. Before Bashar al-Assad decided to unleash the Syrian army on his Arab Spring protesters in May 2011, King Khalifa had already done so – thrice.
The struggle is far from over, the politics wholly unresolved. Last month, five protesters were killed by security forces as they raided a suspected militant hideout. From Reuters:
A U.N. human rights chief on Friday urged an investigation into a Bahraini security raid which killed five people last month and expressed concern at what he called a crackdown on dissent in the Gulf island kingdom.
Bahraini police pushed into Diraz village outside the capital Manama on May 23, according to the government, to arrest suspected militants and others wanted on security charges.
Too small to fail
Most often, Bahrain is associated with the American naval base that headquarters the 5th Fleet, the flotilla that protects the Persian Gulf’s sea lanes from piracy and Iran. Like so much of the Gulf’s geopolitical structure, that base is a remnant of Britain’s imperial days, with the U.S. slotting in as the Royal Navy withdrew in the 1970’s.
On the face of it, this is classic American international hypocrisy, propping up a brutal ruler in exchange for basing rights.
That is an oversimplification of a complex situation. What’s more, it’s also wrong.
For the Americans are not so much in Bahrain because they need Bahrain to control the Gulf. They remain because the Bahraini King, and his Emirati and Saudi patrons, desperately need the Americans.
The United Arab Emirates, after all, has bigger, more modern, and much safer ports only a skip across the water. The Emiratis don’t blather about democracy much, either, and put public protest just a few steps below blasphemy in their hierarchy of sin. The 5th Fleet is not so large that Emirati ports at Jebal Ali or Port Khalifa could not find a way to accommodate it.
But the UAE doesn’t want the 5th out of Bahrain. Because if Bahrain’s Kingdom collapses, it could upend the entire Gulf., and so long as there is an American fleet near the chaos, neither the Iranians nor the Shi’a dissidents dare fly too close to the sun of overt rebellion and revolution.
The compliant Gulf Arab, minus those pesky Shi’a
Gulf Arabs can be strikingly apolitical. Decades of royal control, media suppression, and cradle-to-grave welfare has made pulling a political conversation out of many Gulf Arabs an exercise in patience. Fear is part of the equation, but so too is simple apathy: there just isn’t a reason to care when one can’t vote and is totally reliant on the government for economic security.
Bahrain threatens that attitude. Gulf Shi’a are precisely the opposite of Gulf Sunnis because so many have been shut out of the cradle-to-grave welfare, and because some have long been influenced by Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric. And so while Bahraini Shi’a, who are the island’s majority, have long clamored along with Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province’s Shi’a for greater say, Gulf royals could and long have portrayed it as the peculiar treachery inherent to Shi’a.
If Bahrain stumbles, and if Shi’a gain significant power, it will embolden the Shi’a who range from Kuwait to downtown Abu Dhabi’s Madiynat Zayed, and who are almost universally discriminated against by their Sunni governments. That in turn will cascade to political conversation among Sunnis, who for once will have reason to be opinionated. It won’t mean a Shi’a wave of revolution from Kuwait City to Fujairah, but it will mean a political awakening that Gulf royals, especially the Saudis and Emiratis, fear. For if the people of the Gulf question the efficacy of their governments, the royals will have few good answers.
Gulf royals therefore work hard to manipulate the Americans into staying in the Gulf as long as possible, offering praise and preferential basing rights. There’s a reason Trump started in Saudi Arabia and not Europe; it is one of the few countries he can be assured of smiles, even if they’re forced.
Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by bridge, and so the Saudis can send soldiers in short order to crush any serious rising, as they did in 2011. This produces more or less a stalemate for the time being. Riyadh can invade when it wants while the Shi’a gather energy and organization to protest yet again. It is a ritual, a geopolitical dance, as each side fences to find the other’s weaknesses.
If and when Saudi Arabia’s power base begins to founder, either from running out of cash or from losing a war in Yemen, it will be in Bahrain, and not Saudi itself, where this will be most obvious. Much as proof of the Soviet Union’s early collapse was not within the USSR itself but its satellites, the wobble and fall of Bahrain will be evidence that Saudi Arabia is not far behind. And if Riyadh goes, there will be no telling how far the chaos will spread.
In 1981, the USSR and Polish Communist Party instilled martial law to save the tottering Soviet empire. Military rule did not address the problems of Communism; neither will it bring Sunni and Shi’a together under their King in Bahrain. It has been six long years, and may yet be more than that before it is all over. But on a long enough timeline, the poor governance of Bahrain and the Gulf states must be reckoned with.