The Volcanic Island in the Persian Gulf

Bahrain may be a dot on the map but the island kingdom happens to have implications for the entire region.

Manama, Bahrain at night, November 5, 2008
Manama, Bahrain at night, November 5, 2008 (Philippe Leroyer)

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are usually described in the press as the “big” American allies in the Middle East — the countries that hold the most geostrategic weight and the ones whose leaders are most willing and able to help the United States in the region when it cannot help itself. Before Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of his palace, all three states were also seen as the most politically stable, at least in the short term when compared to the tinderbox that is Lebanon and the young Iraqi democracy.

This line of thinking has guided American foreign policy in the Middle East for the last three decades. Saudi Arabia is used by the United States to counter the influence of Iran in the Persian Gulf while Egypt in the Mubarak era was a key (if not the key) partner in counterterrorism missions. But with Arabs now waking up to anew reality — a reality that clearly exhibits the strong and windy force of “people power” — Barack Obama’s administration has rightly begun to rethink the myriad that is the American foreign policy status quo.

Putting aside Egypt’s young transition to democracy for a moment, no other country today is more emblematic to America’s predicament in the region than the tiny kingdom of Bahrain; that little known island smack in the middle of Iran and the Sunni Arab world.

Ask a typical American or European on the street and most would probably be unable to locate Bahrain on a map. It is easy to miss, considering its size, its young history as an independent country (Bahrain only gained independence from Britain in 1971), and its modest population (a little over one million people). In fact, Bahrain is best known for something that has nothing to do with the country itself — the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is located off Bahraini shores.

Despite this modest record, it would be silly for anyone to ignore Bahrain and label it as some kind of inconsequential player, for the Bahraini government is dealing with many of the problems that spurred the popular demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia only weeks ago: economic inequity, rigged elections and political repression. Indeed, the Bahraini government is the definition of nepotism, with the ruling Al Khalifa family controlling all of the country’s power, including the most significant position in the cabinet, which has been filled by the king’s uncle, Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, for the past forty years.

Yet there is also a dimension that is entirely different from the protests that are spreading from Egypt into Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Algeria. That dimension is none other than the traditional fault line of sectarianism.

70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia, yet the institutions and people that matter are held entirely within the white knuckle grasp of the Al Khalifa family and its Sunni allies. Shiites have been complaining about discrimination in employment and documenting civil rights abuses ever since the Al Khalifa family conquered the island in the eighteenth century. Over the last decade, the complaints have resonated increasingly from the economic to the political realm: the lower house of parliament is a largely ineffective institution with few powers while the upper house is appointed entirely by the royal family, ensuring that loyalists of the regime balance Shia politicians who are elected at the polls.

Just last summer, members of Bahrain’s Shiite opposition were detained for months on national-security charges, thwarting any attempts to credibly challenge the ruling party. And as this Al Jazeera article makes clear, Bahraini Shiites have long suspected that the Sunni-led government deliberately grants citizenship to Arab foreigners in order to tilt the demographic balance in their favor.

With centuries of repression pending, Bahraini Shiites are fed up, poised to use the Tunisian and Egyptian examples as their own. More than 6,000people have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of the king’s uncle as prime minister, along with the release of prisoners that were jailed for questioning the very legitimacy of the centuries old monarchy. The main Shiite opposition party, Al-Wafaq, has withdrawn itself from parliament and will not return until the monarchy is transformed into a constitutional democracy with a greater legislative role.

The protests have already resulted in the deaths of numerous demonstrators from security services, two of whom were shot in the back on the first day of the protests, according to The New York Times. Far from deterring the protesters, the state-sponsored violence has only enraged the crowd and strengthened its determination, enough for King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa to appear on state television himself.

Add the historical schism that is the Sunni-Shia divide and the reasonably orderly demonstrations could spiral out of control. Lebanon has shown how politically chaotic the sectarian issue can be and Iraq has revealed to the world how the slightest act of provocation can build up into an increasingly deadly civil conflict.

Bahrain, of course, is neither Iraq nor Lebanon; the al-Khalifa administration has had the luck of governing a small population with a large American protectorate on its shores.

It is a situation that the White House should be, and most likely is, monitoring. While purely hypothetical, it is not unreasonable to conclude that both Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia could exacerbate sectarianism within Bahrain in order to achieve their own interests. The Saudi government has indeed interfered in Bahrain in the past, pouring cash and other financial resources into the hands of the royal family to preserve their rule and keep the opposition at bay. Tehran carries its own historical claims to the island (which were only disavowed by the Shah with the help of the British), as well as an interest in ensuring that the demands of Bahrain’s Shia population are addressed.

Combine these factors with the mutual suspicion and enmity that has existed between Iran and Saudi Arabia since the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the small island nation of Bahrain is no longer viewed within such a lighthearted prism.

Today, Tehran and Riyadh continue to engage in a zero-sum foreign policy toward one another, prompting both countries to become stakeholders in the affairs of Iraq and Lebanon. Who is to say that Bahrain, with a Shia majority ready to explode, is immune?