Despite Western condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown of dissent in Syria, the United Kingdom and the United States are turning a blind eye to the violence in Bahrain where the Sunni royal family is trying to crush a Shia revolt — with American and British weapons.
The United States have been formally allied to the Islamic island nation since 1991. In the aftermath of the First Gulf War, the countries signed an agreement of defense cooperation which was most recently renewed in 2002. Bahrain was declared a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States’ at the time, a designation that opened the gates for sales of sophisticated weapon systems. The Bahraini air force flies American F-16 fighter jets and Bell attack helicopters. Its navy operates a once American frigate.
The most visible sign of the American-Bahraini security relationship is the US Navy base in the northeast of the island which accommodates several thousand onshore personnel and some thirty warships which permanently patrol the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The Americans replaced Britain as the foremost naval power in the region in the early 1970s when Bahrain and other emirates became independent of it and Washington purchased basing rights in Bahrain.
Britain, The Guardian revealed this week, has sold more than £1 million worth of artillery, rifles and gun silencers to the kingdom since the unrest started there. Also cleared for export to Bahrain between July and September were naval guns and components for detecting and jamming improvised explosive devices.
With tension rising in the region as Iran has threatened to erect a blockade in the Strait of Hormuz if there is further international pressure on the regime, which Western powers suspect is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, Britain and the United States have no reason to antagonize their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
This cooperative body, which also includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Bahrain last year when the monarchy was imperiled. Some eight thousand Arab troops were dispatched to suppress the largely Shiite revolt in the kingdom. Riyadh blamed Iran for inciting the uprising.
Although there was no evidence of Iranian involvement in Bahrain’s demonstrations — the Shia majority there says it protests the systematic discrimination of the sect by a government that is almost entirely Sunni — the Saudi intervention showed just how concerned the kingdom is about Tehran expanding its influence in the Middle East.
Like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is home to a sizable Shia population which lives mostly in the oil rich eastern part of the peninsula. The Saudi royal family, which dominates national politics, is Sunni, as are the other monarchs in the Gulf.