Bahrain's Sunni monarchy is hiring hundreds of Baluchi mercenaries in Pakistan to crack down on the Shia majority's demand for democracy and reform. Saudi Arabia backs the Khalifa rulers, who are exacerbating sectarian anger and tensions throughout the Gulf. The Arab awakening puts American values and interests in contest with each other throughout the region but especially on this small island in the world's energy storehouse.
Since the Arab Spring reached Manama, the hard-liners in the Khalifa family have tried to intimidate the Shia majority into accepting something less than their full rights as equal citizens and something less than a constitutional monarchy. The Saudi and Emirati forces that intervened in March back up the Bahraini National Guard, which does the dirty work of smashing demonstrations and arresting the reform leaders. For decades the Khalifas have recruited in Pakistan—especially its western province of Baluchistan—for Sunni soldiers who won't hesitate to repress Shia.
Now the Khalifa are advertising and hiring by the hundreds in Baluchistan for retired soldiers and police to come urgently to the island and join the National Guard and the Bahrain Defense Force, the regular army. Several thousand have already enlisted. Want ads for more riot police jobs are in Pakistani papers. The ads say "urgent need" for "army and police experience." Bahrain’s generals and diplomats have been pressing the Pakistani authorities to help them recruit mercenaries on a crash basis. The Saudis have encouraged Islamabad to send troops.
And Pakistan has been more than willing to help. It has been sending soldiers to keep Arab kings on their thrones for a half century. Zia ul Huq, Pakistan's dictator, who led the anti-Russian jihad in Afghanistan, gained his combat experience in Jordan in the late 1960s fighting the Palestinian fedayeen. The Hashemites still regard him as a key to their survival in Black September 1970 when he helped crush the PLO. The Shia demonstrators in Manama now try to taunt the mercenaries by yelling at them in urdu “the police are crazy” since many speak no Arabic. A Baluchi soldier can get Bahraini citizenship for his duty, a reward that the Shia majority sees as a way to increase their sectarian rivals’ numbers.
The king has promised reform for years. Unrest has been persistent since the British gave the island independence in 1968. I witnessed stone-throwing demonstrations and tear gas in 1994. The Khalifas had many opportunities to open up the system and let them all pass by. Now the Saudis, especially Interior Minister Prince Nayif, who despises Shia, are calling the shots.
The Sauds and the Khalifa are only exacerbating the sectarian hatred on the island, probably sowing seeds that will sprout terror and violence up and down the Gulf. Iran and Iraq have both protested the treatment of the Shia on the island and criticized the royal family for its extreme sectarian policies. The Bahrainis and Saudis have accused Iran of stoking Shia unrest but so far have provided little proof. Bahraini politicians have been accusing Iran of meddling for decades; sooner or later it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For years the United States has pressed the Khalifa to engage in a genuine dialogue to bring about real change and democracy. Now Washington is quietly pushing for more from King Hamad bin Eisa al-Khalifa, but with little to show. The Obama administration thought it was close to a deal when the Saudis intervened.
The Arab awakening has placed our values and interests in opposition all year. In Egypt, we successfully used our considerable influence with the army to open the door to elections. In Libya, Yemen and Syria we have had only marginal influence because we have only marginal leverage. In Bahrain we have not used the leverage we have, our military presence on the island.
The U.S. Navy has its command headquarters for the Fifth Fleet in Manama. Other western countries have also backed up the Khalifas for years; the British created their security and intelligence services. But we are the big player on the island. The Fifth Fleet is the front line in containing Iran and ensuring oil traffic through the Straits of Hormuz. But it is also a powerful symbol of our support for the king. At some point, Washington is going to have to do some real soul searching here. Do we let a democratic movement be crushed and keep our naval base, or do we signal that the fleet is leaving if the king chooses to use his Baluchi option?