The Al-Khalifas have ruled Bahrain for nearly two centuries, much of the time as a British protectorate, and for the last forty or so years as an emirate and most recently as a kingdom. With centuries of Persian rule up to about the mid 18th century, the majority of Bahrainis profess the Shia sect of Islam. Unlike other rulers in the Persian Gulf, the Al-Khalifas have had to contend with four major handicaps: (i) Bahrain has no oil or natural gas wealth to speak of, (ii) it is literally a stone’s throw away from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where most of Saudi Arabia’s 15 percent or so Shia population live, (iii) the Al-Sauds, who financially support the Al-Khalifas, viscerally hate the Shia and have subjugated and deprived them for decades, and (iv) the Sunnis are, at most, 30 percent of Bahrain’s population. The Al-Khalifas find themselves between a rock and hard place. Understandably, the Shia majority wants freedom and a voice in the administration of their tiny island country, especially in the aftermath of Shia rising to power in Iraq and the broader “Arab Spring.” The Al-Sauds want the Shia subjugated and treated as third-class citizens–just like they are in Saudi Arabia. How have the Al-Khalifas responded?
The Al-Khalifas have thrown their lot in with the Al-Sauds by mistreating their Shia majority. The Shia communities have less of everything the Sunni minority enjoys: modern infrastructure, healthcare, education, jobs, wealth, and a whole host of other privileges. To buttress their rule, the Al-Khalifas have put together a harsh security force largely made up of foreign mercenaries: Pakistanis, Jordanians and Yemenis. They have actively recruited and granted citizenship to Sunnis to increase their numbers. And most recently they have “invited” Saudi forces (accompanied by a few from the UAE to afford the Saudis GCC cover) to help them put down the protests, called on Kuwait to help patrol their waters, arrested the leaders of the Shia opposition for no valid reason, killed peaceful protesters and declared a three-month state of emergency, banning any and all peaceful demonstrations. This is not a pretty picture of Al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain—selling the country to the Al-Sauds and starting a process that could surely be classified as ethnic cleansing. Is this something the United States can afford to embrace? No.
America and Western Europe have denounced the use of excessive force to obstruct demonstrators on many occasions, and condemned the killing of peaceful protestors and the use of mercenaries. They have supported the legitimate rights of people to choose their government. How can the United States and Europeans freeze the assets of the Gaddafi clan, condemn the use of overwhelming force and mercenaries, and say virtually nothing about Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s role therein? How can they use military intervention to protect those in peril in Libya and do nothing in Bahrain except to advise ‘restraint’ to all parties? This sort of blatant duplicity will not go answered in this day and age of the Internet, social media and mobile communication devices. Sadly, US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa has been to adopt what is expedient at the time and not consider the future implications for US national security and economic interests. America must not let its ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, its historic marriage to Middle East dictators or its need for a naval base in the Persian Gulf deter it from looking at all the facts shaping its longer-term national security interests in the Middle East.
Iran’s population is more than the population of the rest of the Persian Gulf combined, while the combined population of Iran and Iraq, both majority Shia countries, is about four times that of the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. Iran and Iraq are respectively 90 and 60 percent Shia, while Bahrain is about 70 percent Shia. Iraqi Shia know what it is like to be discriminated against after decades under Saddam Hussein. In fact Iraqis already protested in Basra last week in support of their brethren in Bahrain. One thing is for sure. Iran, Iraq and their surrogates, such as Hezbollah, will not stand idly by and let this persecution against Shia gather momentum. They will intervene with ominous implications not only for Bahrain, but also for the rest of the GCC and for the future of the United States in the Persian Gulf.
If the United States wants to protect its dictators in the region, it should use tough love to persuade these dictators to change while they have time.
King Abdullah has reportedly taken the position that he will never allow Shia to have a say in shaping their destiny in Bahrain. Such a position is a morally reprehensible. How dare he interfere in the internal affairs of another country? How dare he quash the justifiable demands of a people? Surprisingly, at the meeting in Paris on March 19, the Saudi foreign minister was invited to have a seat at the table with legitimate governments because “the US wanted Arab support” for its intervention in Libya. This was the man who had said he would cut off any finger raised in protest! By courting Saudis, we are sending the message that their behavior is acceptable. It is not. By supporting the Al-Sauds we are sending the same message to the people of the Muslim World, especially to all Shia. And at the same time, we are doing nothing to stop the killing of innocent people by a dictator in Bahrain.
Are the Al-Sauds an ally Washington can afford? In the Middle East, it is said that you really know a person by the company he keeps. Is this how the United States wants to be known in the region, as the ally of the Al-Sauds and the Al-Khalifas? If so, then our future in the Persian Gulf is indeed a dark one.
If we continue to support despots in the Middle East we are handing Iran and Iraq unbelievable propaganda material. It is they who will have the moral high ground. We are giving them carte blanche to interfere in Bahrain, and eventually in Saudi Arabia, as the only means to prevent killings and ultimately ethnic cleansing. We are putting them on the right side of history. We must stop looking at each event in isolation. These are the conflicts that, if not addressed today, will beget the massive wars of the future.