America Blows It on Bahrain
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Editor's note: On March 15, Bahraini King Hamad, declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law to quell weeks of protests. Meanwhile, over the objections of Washington, forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain to help prop up the beleaguered ruling al-Khalifa family.
The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama -- like Tahrir Square in Cairo -- has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.
Understanding the pro-democracy struggle unfolding in this tiny island nation requires putting into context the country’s unique history, demographics, and its historically close relations to the United States.
Though Bahrain has a long and rich history, the modern state did not receive full independence from Great Britain until 1971. This is the same year the British withdrew their security commitments from the area and the United States stepped in as the major foreign power. Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East, located on an island of only 290 square miles (smaller in area than New York City) in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Its population is only 1.2 million (smaller than San Antonio, Texas). More than half of that total consists of foreign guest workers, primarily from India and other South Asian countries. The small size of the country belies its perceived importance by the U.S. government.
The Ties that Bind
The fortress-like U.S. embassy in Manama is probably the largest embassy relative to the population of the host country of any in the world. The U.S. military in Bahrain, which directs the Fifth Fleet and the U.S. Naval Central Command, controls roughly one-fifth of this small nation, making the southern part of the island essentially off-limits to Bahrainis. For more than 20 years, approximately 1,500 Americans have been stationed at the base (which the U.S. government refers to as a “forward operations center”), supporting operations and serving as homeport for an additional 15,000 sailors. As University of California–Irvine Professor Mark LeVine describes it, “If the United States is Egypt's primary patron, in Bahrain it is among the ruling family's biggest tenants.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe once told me in an interview that Bahrain was “pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world.”
Unlike in other Gulf states, where Americans have traditionally kept a low profile, the U.S. presence is quite visible in Bahrain as a major port of call for sailors on leave. Just prior to my last visit, the government threw a big Christmas party for American military personnel, even bringing in Santa Claus riding on a camel. This is made possible thanks to its U.S.-friendly dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The prime minister is Prince Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle and reputedly the richest man in the Bahrain, who has governed for nearly 40 years. Both are firmly committed to a close strategic alliance with the United States. And close economic ties as well.