February 18, 2011

Bahrain - the next domino?

Another American ally is now dealing with a popular uprising. For several days now, thousands of Bahrainis have taken to the streets of Manama, some calling for political reform, others calling for the overthrow of the royal family. Unfortunately, the demonstrations appear to be growing more sectarian in nature.

It is impossible to say how the situation will resolve itself in Bahrain, but there are signs that King Hamad bin 'Isa Al Khalifah and his son Crown Prince Shaykh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifah are willing to make compromises to end the uprising and maintain their hold on power. What happens in Bahrain will have an impact on American foreign policy in the region.

Bahrain is the home of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, the maritime component of the U.S. Central Command; it is called U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in that context.

A short history of the Fifth Fleet - In 1879, the USS Ticonderoga was the first American warship to sail through the Straits of Hormuz. In 1949, the U.S. Navy established a regular presence in the region, known as the Middle East Force. In 1971, when Bahrain achieved full independence, the U.S. Navy leased part of a former British base and named it Administrative Support Unit, Bahrain. In 1995, the Fifth Fleet and NAVCENT were commissioned to command the ships that rotationally deploy from the United States or other fleets. As Iranian influence rises in the region, the American naval presence in the Gulf remains a key part of our commitment to our Gulf Arab allies.

The king and crown prince appear to have decided to try and reach an accommodation with the people of Bahrain. I think the royal family was surprised at the size of the demonstrations and the tenor of the demands, including calls for the overthrow of the king. After initially sending in military and security forces to quell the demonstrations, the crown prince, wisely in my opinion, decided to remove the soldiers and riot police and allow the people to gather.

There will be changes in Bahrain, to be sure. The question is what kind of changes and how that affects U.S. access to the naval base in Manama. Is the base critical to American maritime operations in the Gulf? Not really. For years, the Navy operated the Middle East Force from a command ship; it can do that again if necessary. Is it preferable to have an on-shore presence? Absolutely, but let's not overemphasize the importance of the facility.

The real danger comes if the ruling family is forced to accept demands that secularize the country. Bahrain is a fairly liberal place, as Arab countries go. There are western style hotels, complete with bars and night clubs. The country is a haven for the socially-repressed Saudis who flock to the tiny kingdom on Wednesdays for the Arab weekend.

Bahrain is one of the four countries in the world where Shi'a Muslims constitute the majority of the population, and one of only two Arab countries (the other is Iraq). Conversely, the royal family and ruling elite of the kingdom are Sunni Muslims. As it has in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has sought to make a connection to the Shi'a of Bahrain, supporting their efforts to become the dominant force on the island.

Iranian support has not always been limited to political rhetoric. As far back as the late 1990's, there were reports that Iran was providing Hizballah trainers to Bahraini Shi'a groups. It helps to have Arabic-speaking trainers rather than the Farsi-speaking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that King Hamad advised General David Petraeus in 2008 that his government believed that Iran and Syria were facilitating the training of Bahraini Shi'a in Lebanon.

Iran also claims ownership of the island based on Iranian governance in the 17th and 18th Centuries, eventually losing control of the island to the British. They recently reiterated that claim, which is likely to put pressure on the Al Khalifah dynasty and express support for the Shi'a majority.

There is another party with a stake in what happens in Bahrain - Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is Iran's major rival in the Persian Gulf, and sits a mere 20 miles from the island of Bahrain. Having Iranian control over Bahrain, either directly or indirectly via the Shi'a population, would be a problem for both the United States and the Saudis.

The situation in Bahrain is just one of several flash points in the region, some involving American allies. With uprisings in Yemen, Jordan, Libya and Iran following the changes in governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain may be the next domino to fall. Which way it falls should be of concern.