As a small country in a strategic and volatile part of the world – and with Iran just 100 miles off its eastern coast – the Kingdom of Bahrain faces an array of challenges when it comes to maintaining its security.
For more stories from ALL ARAB NEWS go to allarab.news
Yet with a courageous king, a layered internal security strategy, a close alliance with the United States, and now peace and security cooperation with Israel as a result of the Abraham Accords, Bahrain’s has emerged as one of the most peaceful, stable nations in the modern Middle East.
That is case that Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa – Bahrain’s powerful and influential interior minister – made to the ALL ARAB NEWS delegation of Evangelical business and media leaders on Sunday morning.
“Our first, our second and our third threat comes from Iran,” Al Khalifa said during a briefing.
The visit was reported by the Bahrain News Agency.
Al Khalifa described the various threats that Iran poses to the Kingdom, from the smuggling of weapons and drugs to drone attacks to the recruitment, radicalization and training of young Bahrainis.
“Being a small country, we had to invent our depth of security,” Al Khalifa said in a candid, on-the-record, 90-minute conversation with the delegation. “Our strategy is based on layers of security… That means we depend on our allies like the United States and now the Abraham Accords is another layer to strengthen the security.”
The country has built a strong coast guard and a close, enduring relationship with the U.S. that includes the presence of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet with thousands of American sailors based in Bahrain.
More recently, Bahrain normalized relations with Israel as well as part of the Abraham Accords.
Both Bahrain and Israel view Iran as their No. 1 threat. Al Khalifa is concerned that a new nuclear deal with Iran will embolden – not pacify – the terrorist regime in Tehran.
“I will not be surprised to find them more active, not only here but Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” if the deal goes through – but even if it doesn’t – he said.
Bahrain isn’t just concerned with Tehran getting a nuclear bomb. Officials in Manama are also concerned with Iranian infiltration into society as well. Iran, he said, is trying to subvert the peaceful, prosperous and unified nature of the Bahraini government and society.
“They train radical mullahs [inside Bahrain]… We have seen young ones recruited and trained and then they send them back. They know how to build bombs and are more technologically savvy.”
Building internal security has been challenging with Bahrain’s diverse citizenry. A Muslim nation with 1.8 million people, the population is comprised of several ethnic groups and both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The ruling family is Sunni but there are more Shia Muslims living in the country.
Iran used that fact, Al Khalifa said, during the Arab Spring in 2011, attempting to foment the Shia population and instigating riots in hopes of creating an Iranian fifth column in the island nation.
Al Khalifa described a difficult situation in containing the riots. As a military man he is accustomed to looking at a map with friends and foes in different colors. This was not the case during the uprising.
“My map was all blue – because there were all Bahrainis,” he said.
Despite press reports of excessive violence by security forces, Al Khalifa said that more than 4,000 police were wounded and 22 killed. The government – to this day – is still correcting the “damage” done from what he said was misreporting of the events, he said.
Nevertheless, the government of Bahrain has laid out a rare formula in the Muslim world – promoting religious tolerance, women’s rights and democracy. By embracing these the diverse composition of the country, a national identity can be forged, Al Khalifa said.
“I came to the conclusion that everyone must come on board and that will strengthen our identity,” Al Khalifa said. “We don’t have Shias and Sunnis in our Constitution. We want to say ‘We are Bahraini’ like Americans say ‘I am American.’”
There are 19 churches in Bahrain including the largest Catholic church in the Gulf. Plus the government has invested in sports and culture in order to draw Bahraini youth of all backgrounds together.
And why not, he asked.
“The Middle East has tried everything but peace,” Al Khalifa said.