Bahrain is fast emerging as the new tinderbox in the Middle East. Although that country has not received much attention from the Western news media, which has been obsessed with Iran, Syria, and the U.S. presidential election, recent developments are profoundly disturbing.
On October 30, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry imposed what amounted to a declaration of national emergency, banning all protest gatherings. The Ministry also threatened to take legal action against groups or individuals who dared to advocate further protests.
The move was in response to a resurgence of anti-government demonstrations that first began in February 2011 and resulted in the deaths of nearly sixty people—in a country with a population of barely 1.2 million. Those demonstrations had subsided somewhat in late 2011 and early 2012, but there have been major flare ups in recent months. That was especially true after a Bahraini court upheld jail terms in September for thirteen opposition leaders—including seven facing life in prison. Those sentences had been imposed by a blatantly biased special tribunal in June 2011. Some of the renewed protests turned violent. In October, two policemen died from injuries suffered in firebomb attacks during demonstrations.
The Interior Ministry’s attempt to ban even peaceful protests, though, appears to have backfired. On the morning of November 5, five bombs exploded in the heart of the capital, Manama, killing two innocent civilians. That development has produced a dramatic escalation of tensions, since terror bombings had not previously been a feature of the confrontation between the government and its political opponents.
Two aspects of the conflict in Bahrain make it something other than a parochial struggle in a small, obscure country. Bahrain is likely to be one of the first troubling foreign policy issues that President Obama must confront following his reelection, since the main port for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the keystone of Washington’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf region, is located there. If chaos overtakes Bahrain, it would be difficult and expensive for the United States to find an alternative facility—and especially to do so in a timely fashion.
The other element that makes developments in Bahrain have wider significance is that the country has become a cockpit, along with Syria, for the region’s bitter Sunni-Shiite rivalry. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy rules a population that is nearly 70 percent Shiite, and the Sunni political and economic elite engages in pervasive discrimination against the latter community. Tehran openly backs Shiite factions in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia is King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s principal patron. Indeed, the Shiite-led opposition might have prevailed in the first wave of unrest if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had not intervened with 2,000 troops in March 2011.
The Interior Ministry’s emergency order in October was clearly directed against the largest Shiite political bloc, al-Wefaq, which had organized many of the previous antigovernment demonstrations. A Ministry statement insisted that both the government and Bahraini society were “fed up” with demonstrations, and that “there was a need to put an end to them.” The regime was even more intransigent following the November 5 bombings. It charged that Iran was fomenting violence and implied that al-Wefaq was doing Tehran’s bidding. Shiite leaders responded by accusing the government of staging the bombings to justify a further crackdown on political opponents.
Washington has fostered the impression that it is trying to steer a responsible, middle course regarding Bahrain. U.S. officials have called on both sides to refrain from provocations and to engage in constructive dialogue. But there is an unmistakable tilt toward the monarchy’s position. The Obama administration’s response to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2011, for example, was little more than tepid, perfunctory criticism.
Bahrain is likely to be high on the president’s foreign-policy agenda at the start of his second term, however much it might wish otherwise. Tehran appears to be increasingly active in backing the Shiite insurgents. To some extent, that reflects religious solidarity, but it also looks like payback to Saudi Arabia for Riyadh’s blatant support of the primarily Sunni-led insurgency against Tehran’s principal ally in the region, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Iranian government is showing Saudi Arabia (and the United States) that it has the capability to foment trouble against a key Saudi ally.
The turmoil in Bahrain illustrates both the domestic Sunni-Shiite split and the larger regional Sunni-Shiite power struggle. There has been speculation that a reelected President Obama intends to be more flexible and pragmatic regarding foreign-policy issues. His much-cited “open microphone” comment to Dmitri Medvedev has fed such speculation. The Middle East is one region where greater flexibility and pragmatism is needed.
Washington ought to reconsider whether it makes sense to continue implicitly supporting Saudi Arabia’s bids to impose or fortify Sunni dominance throughout the region. The Bahraini monarchy is a thoroughly authoritarian regime that oppresses the Shiite majority. To continue backing that government merely because Iran supports the other side makes a mockery of Washington’s professed commitment to democracy and human rights. Policy regarding Bahrain should be high on the list of matters for reconsideration in President Obama’s second term.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and studies on international issues. He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest.