Bahrain 101: Putting the Unrest in Context

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A Bahraini boy with his face painted in the colours of his national flag flashes the victory sign as he takes part in a demonstration calling for a regime change at Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowSteve LeVine who runs "The Oil and the Glory" blog at Foreign Policy, gave a primer on why Bahrain is so strategically important.

Here's what we learned:

What is happening there right now?

Following last night’s brutal crackdown on protesters, the latest reports from the Associated Press now indicate that the military has taken control and banned protests, saying “key parts” of Bahrain are under military control. Four people were killed in the raid last night, and a leader of the Sunni opposition says 18 parliament members have resigned in protest.

What and where, exactly, is Bahrain?

Bahrain is a tiny country of only 800,000 people located next to Saudi Arabia. LeVine explained that Bahrain became a country during the British division of the Middle East following the two World Wars only by virtue of it being its own kingdom at the time.

What is their role in the world economy?

While oil is important to the economy, LeVine explained that Bahrain is not a major oil producer.  

It's not really an oil kingdom, it only produces 40,000 barrels a day, which.. is really small, but that’s enough to fund sixty percent of the government’s income. The most growing part of the economy is banking. [Bahrain] is where people go for their offshore banking needs.

What is the United States interest?

The United States is especially deeply involved in what happens in Bahrain because it has a major naval fleet — the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet — located there. The fleet serves as the main US Naval force for the Persian Gulf. LeVine said that when the United States uses force to protect the sea lanes that act as the main source of oil for the world, that force is based out of Bahrain.  

It’s very, very important. The stability of the kingdom is important for the United States. Even President Obama, though he’s worried about what’s going on there, is probably cheered that none of the protests, so far at least, have targeted the US presence there.

Why such a heavy US presence there, of all the many countries on the Gulf?

 LeVine said Bahrain’s US military presence is partially a result of its relatively liberal government.  

There’s very few of the monarchies there, of all the gulf monarchies, that.. are willing to take the risk of being very, very close to the United States. A lot of them would face serious internal unrest and dissention if they did so. The second thing [is that] King Hamad is more liberal compared to the other monarchs there, so he’s embraced the United States. He’s a more liberal leader, he’s been willing, for example, to host bars, where — unlike in Saudi Arabia — a sailor can get a beer. So because of all these welcoming reasons, Bahrain was chosen as the place for the base.

Is the monarchy particularly oppressive?

Actually, recent documents made public through WikiLeaks indicate that the US ambassador to Bahrain had a rather high opinion of King Hamad as relatively progressive, but LeVine thinks that progressiveness may have actually contributed to the situation.

This is one of the paradoxes of dictatorships, that the ones that are comparatively more liberal than others tend to have trouble… So here you’ve got a state which is ruled by a minority, the Sunni minority (the king is Sunni), the population is mostly Shiite, so you do have the formula there for trouble, but he’s granted more than one-third of the seats in the parliament to the Shiite majority. However, that hasn’t completely satisfied the population, and so you see these uprisings.

The protests are more about an imbalance of representation.

LeVine said one thing to keep in mind is that this is not new to the region. The imbalance faced by Shiites, as a majority of the population but a minority politically, have been driving the protests.  

There have been uprisings, unrest, protests in the street from time to time by the Shiites in the state… This is something goes on all over in that region — the monarchs in general, don’t reflect the majority of the population. It’s one of the flash points.

Lauren Vriens, a New Yorker and Fullbright scholar living in Bahrain, phoned in to join the conversation. She said opinion was mixed on what the protests may mean for the country but an outcome like what was seen in Egypt was unlikely.

One school [of thought] says it is impossible for this [protest] to have any sort of effect because the military and the police forces are all non-Bahraini… In Egypt the police force did not want to attack the protesters because they [the police] were Egyptian as well, and they understood [protesters’] grievances, but here you don’t really have that.  The police force has a complete loyalty to the government and not to the people… You also have a divide in the country itself because it’s Shiite and Sunni, with 75 percent Sunni and the rest Shiite, but the Sunni have most of the wealth and most of the education. They’re the people in the higher echelons of society.

LeVine said the recent events certainly demonstrate that the king is taking the situation seriously. 

These crackdowns don’t look good for such a strong US ally, but in the end, King Hamad obviously feels mortally threatened, and he’s going to do what he thinks is necessary to keep power.

What response can we expect from the United States?

Publicly the United States certainly is urging that there be tolerance there, but I think quietly… the US is also worried about if [King Hamad] falls than that is going to cause a lot of trouble in the neighboring oil-laden monarchies, so the US probably is telling him [to] just keep it as bloodless as possible.

Vriens thinks that Bahrain is important to the US more for its strategic location between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which makes it an importance intelligence gathering point. She said the US sees King Hamad as a vast improvement over his father, who cracked down similarly on protests in the 90s. The current king instituted reforms and appeared to be more progressive a ruler. 

In the US’s eyes, [King Hamad] has been an improvement. I think actually [the US] is taken aback by this… I think the US thought King Hamad would be much more lenient.

LeVine diagreed. He sees oil as driving US interest in the region. While he agreed with Vriens that the naval fleet was probably paramount to the US, he doesn’t think it is in any way threatened. He said there is a little possibility of the US calling out the fleet to protect protesters.

I think the US is going to everything it can to keep a distance on many levels. It’s not going to get personally involved in the security in any of those countries, not in Bahrain, Libya Yemen. It’s simply not going to get involved. It doesn’t want to have the image of an outside force causing the disruption in any of these countries. I really think that they are on their own.