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.
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.
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.
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.