Danger in the Arabian Gulf: The Fires of Protest Spread to Bahrain

Protesters attacked in Bahrain (AP Photo)

It is weird when you see a place that you have been many times explode into massive protests, violence and potential revolution. That I have been to Bahrain many times and it is strange to see what is going on there. My first couple of times I was assigned to a ship, the cruiser USS HUE CITY on port calls while deployed in the Arabian Gulf. Later I would make frequent trips there as chaplain for the Marine Security Forces.

In the days following the downfall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak the flames of revolution have spread across the Middle East. Protests have taken place in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain and the situations have become violent as security forces attempted to put down the protests. Even Iran is beginning to boil over as protestors who feel cheated by the results of the contested 2009 elections rise up against the Iranian regime. However, the situation in Bahrain is the most troubling if one looks at the potential impact on US strategy in the Arabian Gulf and always tense situation with Iran.

Bahraini Shia women with black flags. The Black flag is commonly flown in Shia neighborhoods and villages in Bahrain (AP Photo)

As I said before I have been to Bahrain many times. It is one of the most socially progressive countries in the Middle East and unlike most other Arab nation’s alcohol can be purchased in stores and not just upscale hotels that cater to foreigners, businessmen, military personnel and diplomats. It is a wealthy nation which though not prosperous as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has managed to diversify its economy with a per capita income of $25,420.  It is a frequent vacation destination of many well off Saudis and has over 230,000 expats from other countries who call Bahrain home. According to a United Nations report Bahrain has 807,000 residents including the expats.

One thing that I remember about Bahrain is that the wealth is not very evenly divided. For the most part the Shia population is incredibly poor and their villages stand in stark contrast to the wealth of the Sunni. This is one of the biggest causes of the tensions which have brought about the protest movement which was ignited by the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain Army units deployed in Manama (AP Photo)

The population of Bahrain is divided between the Sunni ruling class which comprises approximately 30% of the population and a less well off Shia population. The Khalifah family has ruled the country since driving out the Persians in 1783. It became a British protectorate in 1861 and the Kingdom attained its independence in 1971 and became a constitutional Monarchy in 2002 with some elected representatives.  The current King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah is a graduate of Cambridge University and the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. He has reigned since March of 1999 when his father died.

Iran considers Bahrain a rebel province and is viewed as a threat by Bahrain has sought over the years to foment dissent in Shia community which believes that it is discriminated against by the Sunni rulers.

NAVCENT Headquarters in Bahrain (Navy Times Photo)

Bahrain is a vital part of the U.S. strategic presence in the region as a counter to the Iranian threat. It hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT). It is a frequent port of call for U.S. and Allied Navy ships that operate in the Arabian Gulf.  As such the current instability and violence is a matter of grave concern for the United States and its Allies in the Gulf.

As I said I have been to Bahrain numerous times in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. I would stay in hotels with the best security which happened to be the 5 Star locations and dine at various Irish, British or Arab restaurants mostly with fellow Marine or Navy Officers or expats.  The difference between that world and the Shia villages and neighborhoods is amazing the contrast between the vast wealth of some and the absolute poverty of the other troubled me because I could see that it was a ticking time bomb. The Shia population also has limited political rights and is often targeted by the police.  They are certainly infiltrated by Iranian agents who I would guess are helping to stir things up.

The violence that has overtaken Bahrain does not surprise me. The Bahraini military is primarily composed of Sunnis from other Arab countries and has little love for the Shia. They are basically a mercenary force absolutely loyal to the government. There will be no Egyptian style coup in Bahrain. Since the population is small and the Army, police and other security forces wedded to the government I expect that the protests will be put down and that the regime will survive.  It will not be pretty and could well have an impact on U.S. Forces in Bahrain.

Back after 9/11 military dependents were sent home and force protection increased. A couple of years ago dependants were allowed back in but I think that we will see them extracted again. The security forces at the base are robust and work closely with the Bahraini security forces. I would expect that whatever Marine Expeditionary Unit is in theater will be on alert and that additional Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams could be flown in to reinforce the base.

The broader ramifications of a continued violent crackdown on the protestors will be felt throughout the region. With the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts people in many parts of the Arab World are now boiling over as protests and revolts against the old authoritarian regimes spread. As the situation continues to build I expect the probability of more regimes being overthrown with very unpredictable consequences. What may be true for Egypt may not be true anywhere else. What is for sure is that the Middle East that existed in December will look far different by the end of this year and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on just how it all shakes out and the possible impact on American and NATO operations in the region as well as impact on American overseas counter-terrorism operations especially in Yemen.

We can only wait and see and hopefully influence peaceful and democratic change in the area, but revolutions in countries that repress their populations tend not to be peaceful.  Egypt so far is an exception to that. If you believe in prayer I recommend that we pray hard my friends.


Padre Steve+



Filed under Foreign Policy, History, Military, national security

11 responses to “Danger in the Arabian Gulf: The Fires of Protest Spread to Bahrain

  1. John Erickson

    The US is in an uncomfortable position in all these countries. All our defence arrangements are with the prevailing government – the same governments their own people are trying to overthrow. Unfortunately, as you suggest, Padre, we’ve seen the last of the “easy” revolts where the military will side with the people or simply stand aside. While a revolution in Iran or Libya would truly be a blessing (in many ways), the US military stands in a lose-lose position elsewhere – we’re the enemies of the people if we’re pro-government, and enemies of the governments (who may renege on their agreements with us) if we support the protesters. As of this morning, the military had not recommended evacuation of dependents in Bahrain, but I’m almost certain we’ll see that by Monday morning. I’m reminded of the old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times.” The next few days and weeks will be VERY interesting.

  2. Your analysis on Bahrain is spot on. The only positive part of this development is that Iran is too distracted with its own unrest to take advantage of Bahrain’s situation.

    The spark of all this unrest was likely rising food prices (e.g., wheat was up 73% last year and corn was up 94%). The other shoe that will likely drop is unrest outside of the region.

    Time to hold your breadth.

    • John Erickson

      Sean- Sorry for this late reply, my computer decided to scramble its’ brains, just for the heck of it. I assume you’ve heard of the goings-on in China. That, though, isn’t the area outside the Mid-East that scares me. It’s the mess that is East Africa and mid-sub-Saharan Africa. With the disaster that is Somalia, the unrest in Ivory Coast (both major French banks had pulled out, last I heard), southern Sudan voting to be a separate country, and the uncertain state of Nigeria, the entire center of the continent, plus the Horn, is about to dissolve. Compared to that huge powderkeg, I think whatever problems China and the former Indo-China might be having are minor by comparison. Minor, that is, provided that the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese arguments over islands (south for China, the northern Kuriles for Russia) don’t boil over into war – though I think all 3 countries have enough of their own problems without going to war over lumps of volcanic cones poking out of the China Sea.

  3. John Erickson

    If I may hijack your blog for a moment, Padre. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news reports or YouTube footage of CBS reporter Serene Branson having an attack of some sort during a broadcast. She suffered a particularly virulent form of migraine – the very condition that bedevils me. In this form, it causes stroke-like symptoms – gibberish, slurred speech, drooping facial muscles. I suffer from a lesser, but still aggravating, form of this condition. I ask that your readers educate themselves, as this can happen to anyone, but especially women, especially in their 30s. Be aware of this, for the women (and yes, men) in your lives.
    Thank you, Padre. I appreciate your understanding and patience. I now return the reins to you with most sincere gratitude. Have a good evening, and God Bless You.

  4. William Aker

    My question is, “Are we right in a wait and see position, or should we be be saber rattling as the religious right is so heavily condemning the president for not doing with vigor?” It is hard to deal diplomatically with people who fight each other as much as they would a common enemy. I was invited to speak at a small Baptist church in an adjoining town this past Wednesday night and I was amazed by a lady who during individual prayers, asked God to intercede and bring war and destruction down on the Middle East (actual quote: “them Arabs…”) , so that Jesus would return “as foretold by the prophets.” Believe me that was a hard act to follow. In my closing prayer I prayed that peace would come to all our troubled masses and ended with God’s will be done. I wonder if she thought that was a contradictory prayer.

    • John Erickson

      The problem, Bill, is the “darned if we do, darned if we don’t” conundrum. We make our agreements with the rulers, so for selfish interest, we should support the rulers. But if we support rulers who are killing their own people and denying them freedom, then we lose respect. If we support the freedom-seeking populace, we aggravate the rulers who abrogate our deals. And it’s difficult to sit on the sidelines – we get EVERYBODY mad at us that way. I don’t have the answer – I wish I did, I could sell it for big bucks! 🙂 With the brutal way future protests are likely to be met (witness today’s mayhem in Bahrain), silence on our side may be the only real option – a morally objectionable option, but the only politically workable option. In my opinion – for what little that’s worth! 😀

  5. William Aker

    John … allow me to push the edge of the bubble. In the shape the US is in right now (right-vs-left, blue-vs-red, talking heads -vs-everything) do you think we have a snowflake’s chance in Hades of having diplomatic influence with anybody over anything? Ev en while ducking rubber bullets and choking on tear gas they’re watching us on Fox and CNN. I don’t have the answer to the conundrum either . I’m just glad that at least I have you and Padre Steve to talk to. These days its hard to have a civil discourse. By the way, John. I am not published but I have made the rounds over the years of both Civil War and WWII reenactments. And during my distant youth, in the days of the typewriter, I actually self-published a sci-fi fanzine. Never been to a real big con but we have a small one at the local college and I’ve attended the medium sized one at Roanoke Civic Center, Roanoke,Va. a couple of times. always good to hear from you!

    • John Erickson

      Bill- Do you remember the name of the zine? I’ve run enough dealers’ rooms at enough conventions, I’ve probably handled your work! Always great to hear from a fellow fan. 🙂
      Wow – do we still have influence in the world? Great question, actually. I can’t vouch for how much of the zoo-that-is-Congress gets outside of the States, though I have friends in Canada, Britain, and Germany who have heard at least the basics of the “debate” (to be VERY kind). At the risk of sounding rather crass, I think our influence is still the dollar – or at least, all the nifty toys you can buy from us. (I’m sure Padre Steve played with a few of those 5.56mm and 9mm “toys”.) We may also have some influence through bases and their attendant value (as in Bahrain). Unfortunately, those kind of influence tend to only work on governments – I have problems believing that the protesters in Cairo were considering what tank upgrades to buy once they were in power, in between bouts of protesting. And since the people are attempting to chuck their governments, that kills our chance at direct influence. We might be able to gain some ground by standing back, but a respectful distance a spineless pullback tend to look alike when somebody’s shooting at you and you yell for help. As I said, we’re pretty much in a no-win situation – we just have to figure out which “lose” is the smallest “lose”, and I realise that’s far from simple. It sounds wishy-washy (good grief, does anybody actually SAY “wishy-washy” anymore?), but I think our least objectionable position is to push a lot of vague talk about democracy, not invite any leaders being protested against to the White House, and pray for as little bloodshed as possible. Is that a respectable position? Heck, no – it’s weak, it’s disingenuous, and it does nothing to prevent militaries in the protested countries from massacring their own people. But like I said, it’s the smallest “lose”, in my humble opinion.
      Typewriters, eh? How about an Underwood, fully manual? I moved up from that to an Apple II in high school, which I still have. Also worked on a Model 33 Teletype – the kind you see in “Good Morning Vietnam, spewing out paper that Robin Williams rips off to read. And for your antique tech, I have about a dozen EE-8 field phones from WW2, and an 8 line switchboard with a pedal generator. Ancient, but indestructible! 😀

  6. Greg

    Fr Steve,

    One slight item of correction…MARCENT’s headquarters is at Camp Pendleton, California, much like CENTCOM’s headquarters are in Florida. Bahrain only hosts MARCENT Forward from time to time. There is no need to post this on the site.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s