Until last week, Bahrain was an overlooked, underreported speck on the regional
map, an island fiefdom known in the West as home to an annual Formula One auto
race and, presumably, a few oil wells.
But by the start of February,
popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had stoked old grievances across the Arab
world, and by mid-month a disparate collection of disaffected Bahrainis had come
together to organize a large-scale protest for February 14, the 10th anniversary
of a national charter aimed at quashing dissent by enacting limited political
reforms. Bahrain’s Health Ministry estimates seven people have been killed since
security forces opened fire on the protesters who first took their grievances to
On Wednesday, King Hamad Al Khalifa ordered the release of
more than 300 prisoners, including 23 Shi’ites who had been accused of trying to
topple him. The release was one of the major demands of the opposition, and
underscored the regime’s desire to get reform talks going before stability is
Hassan Meshaima was one of two exiles pardoned in the
deal. On Wednesday he was already making his way back to Bahrain, but was
detained in Lebanon because of a preexisting international warrant for his
arrest on charges of subverting the monarchy.
Meshaima leads the al-Haq
political group, considered more radical in its views than the more moderate
Shi’ite groups that have so far led protests. His return could provide an
opening for more radical elements – in the government and in the opposition – to
stoke sectarian tensions between the Sunni ruling class and the Shi’ite
BAHRAIN LIES in a strategic position in the Persian Gulf,
through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies pass, and is one of
Washington’s closest regional allies.
The country hosts the headquarters
of the 6,000-member US Navy Fifth Fleet – responsible for all naval forces in
the Persian Gulf and as such, Bahrain served as a launch pad in both Iraq wars
and would likely do the same in any future conflict with Iran.
kingdom’s envoy to the US, Houda Ezra Nonoo, is the first Jewish ambassador of
an Arab state and the third woman ambassador in Bahrain’s history. Safely
ensconced in Washington, she has generally remained quiet throughout the recent
Economic and political discontent are one element of the Bahrain
protests, but the rift that runs most deeply through the country is religious.
Shi’ites account for about 70 percent of its 525,000 native-born citizens, and
have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni monarchy,
including being denied important political and military posts. The Sunni Al
Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since the early 19th century, and King Hamad
took the throne in 1999.
To try to offset the Shi’ite majority, the
regime has for years offered citizenship to Sunnis from Arab nations and
elsewhere, notably South Asia, and many of the new citizens are given state
jobs. Some victims of police brutality reported of their assailants bantering in
Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.
Bahrain is one of the few Gulf
nation’s with a popularly elected parliament, but its powers are limited.
Protesters want to end the monarchy’s ability to select the prime minister and
other key political positions, and the leading Shi’ite political bloc has pulled
its 18 lawmakers from the 40-seat parliament.
Analysts say the White
House’s ability to calm the turmoil in Bahrain will be key to stabilizing the
Persian Gulf and checking Iran’s influence.
In 1981, the Iranian-backed
Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup, but Bahrain’s
Shi’ites have long said their protests have nothing to do with Iran and
everything with wanting to be accepted as full Bahraini citizens. They accuse
the ruling family of waving the specter of Iranian expansion to stop the West
from supporting them.
Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of
Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post that if free and fair
elections were held in Bahrain, the Shi’ite majority could be expected to vote
in a pro-Iranian government.
“Shi’ites are 70 percent of the population,
and they’re certainly not in favor of the regime,” he said.
have extensive contacts there – Bahrain is its backyard.”
In 2009 a
commander of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards caused a diplomatic incident
between Tehran and Manama by describing Bahrain as Iran’s “14th
“We all remember what happened when Saddam Hussein declared
Kuwait the seventh province of Iraq,” Bar said.
EARLY THIS week The
Washington Post reported that US officials are trying to convince their Gulf
counterparts that the greatest danger in continuing violence would be a
radicalization of Shi’ite elements of the protest movement.
of the United States to back the protests will fuel anger against the US
government and drive the Shi’ites toward Iran,” a former official said. “Someone
will step in to exploit this situation, and Iran is already moving to do
“If the Iranian plans to oust the Bahrain government and appoint a
loyal head of state in his place succeed, their multiple goals would be achieved
without any military movement,” Haggai Carmon, an international attorney and
author based in Israel and New York, wrote in The Huffington Post on Monday.
“The Iranians will cause the ousting of the threatening Fifth Fleet from Manama
port. They will hold a strategic point near the straits of Hormuz where 20% of
the US oil supply passes and they will signal to the other Gulf states with
Shi’ite population – such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to get in line with Iran,
But a 2008 diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks
offers a different perspective. In it, the US Embassy in Manama relayed warnings
the Khalifa family had aired to US officials over Iran sowing dissent among
Bahraini Shi’ites. “Some Bahraini Sunnis, in and out of government, suggest to
foreigners (and may even believe themselves) that Iran is behind Shi’ite
discontent here,” the cable said.
US officials, however, seemed
skeptical: “In [diplomatic] post’s view, there is not convincing evidence of
Iranian involvement here since at least the mid-1990s...
stems chiefly from their lower standard of living, unofficial exclusion from
sensitive government positions and Sunni domination of parliament.”
REGION’S volatility renders predictions of any kind hazardous. But analysts at
home and abroad are united in the belief that the influence of Bahrain on the
future of the Arab world will far outweigh its size. Asked if he was hopeful
about Bahrain’s prospects, Bar took a deep breath. “I’m a realist,” he said. “A
pessimist is an optimist with experience.”