Today's date:
Spring 2011

Bahrain: The Next Hotspot in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Kabul and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, is author of The Future of Political Islam.

Where’s the next place to blow in the Arab revolution countdown? Candidates are many, but there’s one whose geopolitical impact vastly exceeds its diminutive size—the island of Bahrain.

This is a place run by an oppressive and corrupt little regime, long coddled by Washington because the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered there. The future of the base is far from secure if the regime falls.

A few hard and dramatic facts about the island that should give pause for thought:

First, Bahrain is a Shiite island. You won’t see it described that way, but it is—70 percent of the population, more than the percentage of Shiites in Iraq. And like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, these Arab Shiites have been systematically discriminated against, repressed and denied meaningful roles by a Sunni tribal government determined to maintain its solid grip on the country. The emergence of real democracy, as in Iraq, will push the country over into the Shiite column—sending shivers down the spines of other Gulf rulers and especially in Riyadh.

Appearances are deceiving. Go to Bahrain and on the surface you won’t feel the same heavy hand that dominates so many other Arab authoritarian states. The island is liberal in its social freedoms. Expats feel at home. You can get a drink, go to nightclubs, go to the beach, party. In fact, it’s the pressure-relief valve for neighboring Saudi Arabia, just a few minutes over the causeway to the mainland. When the Wahhabi austerity of Saudi Kingdom gets too overwhelming, Saudis pour over the bridge to lax Bahrain. But if you look behind the Western and elite-populated high rises, you’ll encounter the Shiite ghettoes—poor and neglected, high unemployment, villages that are a cauldron for anti-regime feeling, walls smeared with anti-regime graffiti.

Free market? Sure, except the regime imports politically neutered laborers from passive, apolitical states that need the money: Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and other South Asians who won’t make waves or they’re on the next plane out. But with the low wages paid to the imported, virtually indentured foreign laborers, Bahraini Shiites (or poor Sunnis) can’t find work. That means no untidy little labor strikes that could turn political.

The regime also imports its thugs. The ranks of the police are heavily staffed with expat police who often speak no Arabic, have no attachments to the country and will beat, jail, torture and shoot Bahraini protesters with impunity. In fact, the regime promotes lenient terms of citizenship to Sunni foreigners who can help shift the demographic balance against the Shiites.

Like other Shiite populations, clerics figure heavily among the community leaders. But they are not all beetle-browed ayatollahs Khomeini-style. Many are liberal and open, reflecting the culturally open character of the island. Most Bahraini Shiites would look to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq rather than to Iran for religious guidance. Typically however, just like most other tyrants across the region, the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain will whip up anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian fears to gain Western backing for preservation of their power—and they usually get it. And despite al-Khalifa propaganda, there is no serious evidence to suggest that Iran can control these events, although it could probably help exacerbate discontent if the al-Khalifas escalated their crude and shortsighted policies.

It’s not just that the majority is Shiite. From a Saudi perspective, the Bahraini Shiites maintain close family and cultural ties with Shiite families just across the water in neighboring Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Shiite minority, probably even more oppressed, is already restive and would be responsive to Shiite political unrest nearby. This is Riyadh’s ultimate nightmare—a further strengthening of Shiite political power in this oil-rich region. Saudi troops marching across the causeway to crush Shiites in Bahrain is hardly a far-fetched scenario. Is the permanent solution, then, never to permit democratic representation of the Shiite voice?

The Sunni minority of Bahrain is in a difficult position. They worry about the rise of the Shiite majority that makes up the oppressed class. Sadly, regime policies also deliberately work to deepen the Shiite-Sunni divide. But liberal Sunnis are also highly discontented with the al-Khalifa regime itself and seek political reform. Many work with Shiite leadership to attain secular reforms, but the regime has repressed them as well and brandishes fear of Shiites to help keep them in line.

There has been relatively little actual bloodshed—at least compared to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and other neighboring states—in the decades-long story of Shiite resistance to the authoritarian ruling family. If the al-Khalifa thugs are let loose, that could change quickly. The temperature is rising.

Washington is now faced with another hard choice—the legacy of shortsighted decisions made over decades. Continue to go with local repressive regimes out of misguided sense of “American interests”? Hold on to unpopular military bases at all costs—thereby deepening local anger and perhaps giving Iran ultimately a greater voice in events? Or should it quietly drop support to this repressive little regime, allow events to take their course, and accept that long-overdue change is coming? How long can we hold on to another ugly status quo? It’s really about how bad the change will be the longer we wait.