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A Shift of Focus: Bahrain and the Future of Security in The Gulf

By Paul Sullivan

Bahrain has massive untapped economic potential. Its population of about 1.2 million is comprised mostly of expatriates. It has a small land area and small offshore claims, and its bloated bureaucracy eats two-thirds of its government budget and subsidies eat up much of the rest. However, Bahrain has brilliant potential strategic rents and their impact reverberates through the northern Gulf and beyond.   

Bahrain plays host to the United States’ projection of force in the region. Naval Support Activity Bahrain is NAVCENT and is the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s central base.  It, along with other activities on the island for which the U.S. is a part, is vital for the protection of not only Bahrain, but also for a good chunk of the Gulf, parts of the Indian Ocean, and a territory stretching as far as Somalia, Kenya, and beyond. Yet, the base has more meaning than just an American presence in the Gulf. Bahrain has been a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. since 1991. The Naval Support Activity in Bahrain is a strategic part of the U.S. presence and staying-power in the Gulf. The Iranians recognize this U.S. threat to their ambitions for sovereignty in the region and are not pleased.

The Iranians have been trying to gain control of Bahrain since Bahrain gained its independence 1783 from the Persians who dominated the island. The Khalifas made deals for protection from the British as early as 1820. Even when the British moved their major gulf base to Bahrain in 1935, the Iranians regularly made claims on the island and even stated that the King had no right to agree to a base given that Bahrain was a part of Iran. There were also times when the Iranians even stated that visas to Bahrain had to be obtained in Iran. 

There is no doubt that a stable and more Iran-independent Bahrain is crucial for the stability, peace, and prosperity of the region. If Iran gained control of Bahrain, it could use it as a leverage point against Saudi Arabia. As with Iraq, if an Iran-friendly Shia group took over in Bahrain, this would effectively hand leverage over Bahrain to Iran. It is also clear that the many parties involved in the strife in the country need to find some common ground and get to “yes” on some important issues.

Indeed, Iran is only part of the challenge of ensuring a peaceful, stable Bahrain. Much of the responsibility also falls on the Bahraini government and the actions of Western states.

First, the government of Bahrain should put more efforts toward building up soft power by developing stronger ties with its Shia citizens. This is important for Bahrain as it is important for Saudi Arabia and others in the region. The Shias are there to stay. This cannot be a continuously confrontational process that might allow Iran greater and more open access to play some political, intelligence, military, and economic games either directly or indirectly. Done correctly, these efforts should be part of a more inclusive process that weakens the appeal of Iran in the western part of the Gulf. Iran’s siren song to the Shia in the Bahrain will get stronger in its attraction the harsher they are treated. 

From an international perspective, Bahrain’s internal struggles between the potential reformers and the khawalids have to be handled quite creatively. For the U.S., threatening Bahrain with an annulment of their free trade agreement is not an appropriate action. The U.S. is not a large trading partner with Bahrain. The agreement was designed to help Bahrain move into better frameworks for trade, investment, and, yes, labor, and other economic relations. Placing too much emphasis on one side of the agreement could damage overall relations with Bahrain—and possibly the stability of the region.

The West may also want to start thinking about its lost clout in the region and what has caused that change. These countries would find that a lot of it was affected by their responses to the 2011 protests in Bahrain. The U.S. and European states should take care regarding its holier-than-thou attitude toward the Bahraini’s strikes and rebellions.

This reevaluation of the West’s strategic priorites in the Gulf requires the recognition that the movement of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the UAE police, and others into Bahrain was no ad hoc accident. The response of force was part of the Peninsula Shield agreement amongst the GCC states. While this framework is rarely applied, the threats to Bahrain at the time seemed severe enough to its leadership to ask for the GCC intervention—the Bahraini security services were overwhelmed at that time by demonstrators in the financial district.

I wonder what would happen in some of these Western states if a large proportion of dissidents in the population went on strike or hit the streets in protest.  We had our tough times in the past. Think of the 1960s. Think of the National Guard at Kent State. Think of some African-Americans killed during marches and strikes in the American South. Think of what America was like not so many years ago with our segregated schools, work places, army units, and even water fountains.

What did we learn from our movements, from the times when an African-American woman could not sit in the front seat of a bus to the time of an African-American President named Barack Hussein Obama? Positive change is possible, but it is not easy nor immediate.

How can we forget our own histories when in our arrogance we dare to look down at the Bahrainis and others? If we are going to try to help them move toward more peaceful solutions to their issues, we must work quietly and in creative ways that should supersede our normal instincts toward condescension and cowboy behavior. The West needs to remember that it is up to the Bahrainis. It is their country. 

Soft power and economic and social development are the keys to success in any attempt to move from extremism. Fair economic and social development can also deflect and even nullify the leverage Iran could have in Bahrain. Strategic realignment of interests will take time.

Bahrain is worth the effort, the hard work, and the creativity this will need on all sides. The sectarian clashes are an opening for Iran, and the rise of Salafis and other extremists in the region is becoming increasingly dangerous for Bahrain’s security. The West should not fall into a strategy that only polarizes the country. 



Paul Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and an adjunct senior fellow for Future Global Resource Threats at The Federation of American Scientists.

[Photo Courtesy of Al Jazeera English/Flickr]

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