America may resemble an island, but Bahrain really is one.
It’s a tiny little country in a rough neighborhood, ancient enough to be referenced in Gilgamesh, colonized by the Portuguese, taken by the Persians, liberated by locals, handed to and decolonized by the British, and ruled today by a Sunni monarchy established the same year that concluded the American Revolution.
So they know how to stick around.
Keep that in mind as you read this article (which you really must) about recent happenings in Bahrain by a former U.S. Ambassador to this fair country. Namely, a prominent Shi’a political party, Al Wefaq, was banned. This has caused some unrest.
Why Bahrain is acting in this way has mystified most observers. Western media reporting on Bahrain has been superficial. It tends to portray the situation in black-and-white terms: people versus government or democracy versus repression. In fact, the politics are more complicated than this because of a deep communal split on the island. The Shi‘a are a majority of the population, but there is a large Sunni community that, with the exception of a radical fringe, strongly supports the monarchy and even more strongly opposes Shi‘a domination. Both Sunni and Shi‘a in have their own internal divisions. The Sunni community also includes a radical, anti-monarchical fringe that has sent fighters to join the Islamic State. Although it has been largely overlooked in the Western press, the Bahraini authorities do continue to crack down on Sunni extremists as well as Shi‘a. On June 23, 24 Sunnis received sentences for ties to the Islamic state and attacks on Shi‘a. Thirteen were stripped of their citizenship.
The government held elections in 2014, which Al Wefaq tried to boycott (without much success), as they saw elections as simply a way to legitimatize their marginalization. Turns out, the U.S. isn’t the only country that knows how to gerrymander. Fast forward to this summer:
Over the past year, demonstrations have continued in the smaller villages, but the overall level of violence has dropped (though there have still been some fatal incidents). Controversy flared again in June 2016. On June 14 the government closed the offices of Al Wefaq, and on June 20 human rights leader Nabeel Rajab was arrested for “spreading false news.” At the same time, the government revoked the citizenship of the leading Shi‘a cleric on the island, Shaikh Isa Qasim. Ali Salman’s prison term was extended from four years to nine. The confirmation of Al Wefaq’s dissolution by a Bahraini court took place on July 17, 2016.
There is, of course, a U.S. angle:
Some observers call on the United States to move its naval base in Bahrain as a way of pressuring the government to reform. The location of the naval base, however, is truly important for maintaining freedom of navigation, the free flow of oil, and support for the U.S. Navy inside the Persian Gulf. Moving the base isn’t possible—it would cost billions of dollars, which Congress is unlikely to provide. Nor would the gambit work even if it were. The other Arab Gulf states have banded together in solidarity with Bahrain, and there is no reason to believe that any of them would provide an alternative location in order to help the United States pressure the Bahraini government.
One could legitimately ask whether the United States should mortgage so many security interests in order to press a friendly if autocratic government to alter its internal policies. Even if the answer is “yes,” one would still have to ask whether such pressure would likely bring about the desired change. Since the Bahraini government believes that its survival is at stake, it is doubtful that even extreme U.S. pressure and criticism would accomplish much. The regime’s real dependence is on Saudi Arabia. And nothing suggests that the Saudis intend to use strong pressure in the interest of greater rights for the Bahraini Shi‘a.
Bahrainis will talk the ears off any Westerner they can find about the Jewish woman they appointed Ambassador to the U.S. But whatever their progressive credentials – and, for this region, those credentials are many and real – they still have to survive.
And that is a tall order.
A Westerner is never well-served by defending authoritarianism, but nor is he well-served by ignoring certain regional and cultural realities. An anonymous Sunni leader puts the situation succinctly:
“I would prefer democracy but I would take dictatorship over theocratic rule.”
Well… when you put it that way…