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What Is At Stake in Bahrain?

What Is At Stake in Bahrain?

The tiny island nation—where major powers like the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia battle for influence—is a bellwether for the entire Gulf region.

Bahrain is a small island nation with a population under a million—a land historically more adept at pearl diving and banking than oil production. It has never even had a true dictatorship. Still, in The Devil We Know, Robert Baer's book about US-Iran relations, the author makes clear just why the little country is so important: "As Bahrain goes, so goes the Persian Gulf."

When it began, Bahrain's current uprising looked like it might end peacefully; after two Bahrainis were killed during the first night of protest in mid-February, the crown prince offered his "condolences" on television for all to see. If the status quo still had a chance, so did meaningful reform. Unlike other revolts throughout the region, however, Bahrain's seemed to be happening nowhere in particular. Egypt is Egypt. Tunisia has tourism. Libya has a certain Gadaffiness. Bahrain? Bahrain is just an island in the Persian Gulf—or the Arabian Gulf, if you prefer—somewhere between Al Jazeera and Dubai.

Bahrain, where the GDP per capita is about $40,000 per year despite its lack of oil, has seen a great deal of low-level violence since protesters first gathered at Pearl Roundabout in Manama on February 14. Dozens have been killed and hundreds have been wounded, while others have been chased off only to return to the revolution's holy sites, now facing police barricades and checkpoints staffed by mysterious thugs.

Much is at stake in Bahrain, despite its seemingly marginal position in Gulf affairs. The country's revolution is about more than the right to assemble without getting shot by the government, an end to corruption, real representation in parliament, or, for the country's vast Shia majority, a better deal from the country's Sunni monarchy and ruling elite.

All revolutions have two parts, it has been argued, and the one in Bahrain is no exception. "The first is genuine grievances by the majority Shiite population—the local issues and divisions. The second is the interests of foreign powers in Bahrain. It is not one or the other. It is both," according to Stratfor, an American consultancy. To which we might add that the survival of the Khalifa monarchy is also on the line, as protesters everywhere—not just in the Shia slums of Manama, the capital—stand up to the violent tactics deployed against them, now by foreign troops.

In a country as small as Bahrain, the big picture's never far beyond the frame. Also at stake, perhaps, is what to call the surrounding waters. Are we talking about the Arabian Gulf, over which Saudi Arabia presides, or the Persian Gulf, under Iranian sway?

Saudi Arabia exports eight million barrels of oil a day and recently pledged its populace $36 billion in inducements not to go the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. The deal includes housing stipends, public sector wage increases and unemployment insurance. "Dealing with Saudi jobs and protest problem by putting everyone on Interior Ministry payroll does have its own perverse brilliance," wrote scholar Marc Lynch on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia gives Bahrain a modest $1 billion annual stipend, too. Meanwhile: "To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s," reads a Wikileaks cable. But Iran has successfully taken advantage of chaos before, in places like Lebanon and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia is likely concerned it could to the same in Bahrain.

The Saudis have another fear: that protests in Bahrain could spread to oil-bearing Shia areas in Eastern Saudi Arabia. A twenty-two-kilometre causeway connects the two countries. Saudi Arabia's ruling bargain with its own Wahhabi clerics means that movie theatres are banned and foreign bootleggers must provide the alcohol at expat compounds, but the causeway doesn't just give Saudis a chance to drink (and solicit prostitution) in Manama. It also makes peremptory military intervention easier. That may have been the plan all along when it was completed in 1986. It goes without saying that the causeway is named after a Saudi monarch, King Fahd.

On March 14, 1,200 Saudi soldiers and eight hundred counterparts from the United Arab Emirates rolled into Bahrain. They are nominally operating under the command of Bahrain's King Hamad and the banner of the Joint Peninsula Shield, the defense arm of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (Iran is not a member). But the incursion marked the first time that the GCC has intervened to protect a state from its own people. The US praises the virtues of "dialogue" when it comes to Bahrain—this while 120 US Tomahawk missiles fell on Libya during the first day of UN bombing last weekend—because the US Navy's Fifth Fleet moors off the Bahraini coast. On Wednesday, Bahrain used American-made Cobra helicopters against its citizens in what Time called "the most violent crackdown yet."

Bahrain's rebels don't seem to care about the monarchy's deal with the Americans. According to the bin Laden method, you focus on the "far enemy" that keeps the local regime in power: America. But the Arab Spring's rebels are attacking the "near enemy" first. Still, an intra-Gulf fight, with America in the middle, could emerge between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While the Saudis have the causeway, some Iranian officials have called Bahrain Iran's "fourteenth state," and Bahrain's Shia dissident clerics and opposition parties often look to Iran for inspiration. For Iran, the chance to stir up some trouble in Bahrain means a chance to stir up more in eastern Saudi Arabia—at which point the majority of the world's oil supply comes into play. So what is Iran's plan, and what do neighbours like Qatar—home of Al Jazeera—think about the revolution right next door?

Bahrain and Qatar go way back. They also took each other to the International Court of Justice in the 1990s over ownership of two small islands—this after Qatar kidnapped some Bahraini labourers working on a coast guard station. In a 2001 ICJ decision, Bahrain got to keep an island. This may be one small reason why Al Jazeera has championed protesters throughout the Arab world, but has been considerably softer on the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain. Realism.

Although Bahraini protestors have downplayed sectarianism, Iran can still position itself as the defender of the Shia. The Saudi-Emirati invasion drew the usual disapproval from the usual Shia quarters—"fiercely criticised by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the radical Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr"—whether Bahrain's protesters choose to employ that criticism or not. Plus, Iran has been around for about three thousand years and has a real military. "Iran could occupy Bahrain in an hour," Baer writes in The Devil We Know.

Bahrain was part of Persia for centuries, until the al-Khalifa clan that rules Bahrain (for now) expelled the fading Qajar Dynasty in 1782. Though ancient grievances are easy to blame, such disputes do tend to linger. In the 1800s, when the United Kingdom was busy turning the Gulf into a "British lake," the Khalifas gained further control of Bahrain through treaties with the British. From the Iranian perspective, Baer writes, the Bahraini-British deal represented "the worst kind of colonialism," as if "during the Civil War, Canada had seized the state of Maine."

Delusional or not, Iran's policy today may amount to a statement made in 2007, in the official newspaper of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini: "The public demand in Bahrain is the reunification of this province with the motherland, Islamic Iran."

The subject came up in Tehran again recently, according to an AP report on Friday: "'Brothers and sisters' in Bahrain should 'resist against the enemy until you die or win,' Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told worshippers at Friday prayers at Tehran University, a nationally televised forum seen as expressing the views of Iran's ruling Shiite clergy."

Though Wikileaks suggests that Iran probably isn't behind the uprising in Bahrain, and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently seconded the point, Washington has accused Iran of manipulating the revolutionary moment throughout the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate Committee that Iran is in contact with opposition groups in Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt, adding, "[The Iranians] are doing everything they can to influence the outcomes in these places." Meanwhile, King Hamad's son, the reigning intelligence chief, "unabashedly positions his relationship with the U.S. Intelligence Community above all others, insisting that his key lieutenants communicate openly with their U.S. liaison partners and actively seek new avenues for cooperation," according to Wikileaks.

The US has backed Bahrain since 1971, when Britain left the Gulf to its own devices and the island nation quickly signed on with Washington to keep Iran at bay. Some of the proceeds of that cooperation are being deployed against Bahraini protesters. The government spent $386 million on US defense "items and services" from 2007 to 2009. Meanwhile, whether the Khalifas want US naval protection from Iran or not, they seem to have little choice in the matter. As Baer writes, there really isn't anywhere else for the Fifth Fleet to go besides Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean.

The Gulf is a strange place. Abu Dhabi may be the world's richest city. The GDP per capita in Saudi Arabia has dropped by half since the 1970s, despite record oil prices in recent years. In Dubai, I recall seeing two Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants on the same block. Nobody knows what will happen in the region next. "For the moment, the Saudis have the upper hand," Stratfor writes. "But the Iranians are clever and tenacious. There are no predictions possible. We doubt even the Iranians know what they will do."

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Being Muammar Gaddafi
—Iraqi Kurdistan: The Middle East's Next Uprising?
—Cairo: A Memoir

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