Stanford Progressive

Supporting Bahraini Apartheid Is Not in America’s Interest

By Shadi Bushra, published June, 2011


Protestors Outside the White House

Bahrain, unlike most countries experiencing political unrest is a wealthy, developed country due to its oil and natural gas reserves. The United States’ support of the Sunni monarchy is the latest in a long history of Western approval of apartheid-like policies to keep the Shiite majority in check. While the percentage of Muslims is often cited as 75% Shiite and 25% Sunni, ambitious naturalization programs (where Sunni immigrants are given citizenship) have shifted the ratio closer to 60:40 through what many have termed “demographic engineering.” The Shiite majority is barred from employment in the police, military, security services, and the Foreign, Defense, and Interior Ministries, as well as facing broader discrimination in public-service employment. Because Bahrain hosts the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to this year’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. However this only perpetuates the perception of the US as a supporter of corrupt, discriminatory and violent regimes – exactly the story Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have been preaching for decades.

The Historical Roots of Minority Rule

Before its recognition as an independent nation-state in 1971, Bahrain was a part of the Persian Empire from the 6th century BC until the spread of Islam in the 7th century AD. The currently ruling Al Khalifa family were one of the many Sunni families from the mainland of the Arabian Peninsula that moved to the island of Bahrain in the eighteenth century. They came to power in 1820 and immediately cemented their security on the throne by concluding a treaty agreement with the British – the dominant naval power at the time.

Ever the shrewd strategists, the Khalifa clan declared their allegiance to Iran in 1830 to protect against Ottoman encroachment. The Egyptian Mohammed Pasha had just captured the Arabian Peninsula for the Ottomans, and Bahrain’s position right off of the coast and its abundance of precious pearls made it an easy target. With Britain vying for more influence in the kingdom’s affairs the Khalifa declared themselves and the people of Bahrain Iranian subjects. But in due time the British government in India conquered the island and made it a protectorate. Part of the agreement included a promise to support Khalifa rule of Bahrain, again giving the ruling family security on the throne.

Before the end of the nineteenth century Bahrain was transformed into the leading center of trade in the Gulf. Merchants from the mainland, Europe, and southern Asia flocked to the islands. Bahraini demands for limits to British influence led to leading merchants being exiled to India in 1911, then Sheikh Issa Ben Ali was deposed for being too warm to Iran in 1923. Iran’s simultaneous renewal of its claim over Bahrain was met with wide approval or ambivalence on the part of most Bahrainis. Had the international community truly believed in Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of self-determination, Bahrain would now be a province of Iran or a Shiite-ruled country.

British ‘advisers’ to Bahrain’s rulers encouraged repression and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Bahrainis to prevent a unified opposition from coalescing – very much the same strategy the ruling family has employed in recent decades. Individuals, families, and entire tribes were exiled to the mainland if they opposed British social and economic changes, which included the abolition of slavery. Polls at the time indicated most Bahrainis were receptive to the idea of becoming part of Iran. But, afraid to let the first domino fall in their Arabian empire, Britain was determined to keep control of Bahrain at any cost.

As so often happens, the discovery of oil in 1932 intensified the tug-of-war for power. Among other things, Bahrain’s new economic and military importance caused Britain to try to shift the country’s demographics by moving Sunni Arabs to the Shi’a-majority island. This may have staved off an overthrow of the regime, but it only increased Shi’a resentment, which in turn led to an even more discriminatory set of policies favoring Sunnis, especially for positions in the government bureaucracy and security services. Clearly the current regime’s tactics are based on the British precedent.

This longtime Sunni domination ultimately led to the 1994 Bahrain Intifada, where a wide array of opposition groups joined forces to demand a restoration of parliament and the suspended constitution. Leftists, Sunni and Shiite Islamists, and liberals came together to demand democratic reforms. Unsurprisingly, the government responded by unleashing their security services, which targeted Shiite areas and immigrants. The unrest largely subsided when constitutional rule was restored in 2001.

Bahrain and the “Arab Spring”

The examples set in Tunisia and Egypt encouraged Bahrainis to reignite their calls for equal opportunities for Shi’a and the opening of the political space. King Hamad al Khalifa attempted to buy off the protestors with generous social welfare packages, but that only insulted those on the streets. Like Tahrir Square in Egypt, the iconic Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the capital, Manama, became the nucleus of the protests. Demonstrators camped out for days, leading many to prophesize a Mubarak-like fall of the Khalifa regime.

But unlike in Egypt, the Obama administration did not give Bahrain’s rulers any indication that repression would damage the US-Bahraini relationship. This implicit acknowledgement of the royal family’s legitimacy and the few half-hearted calls for restraint, gave Bahrain carte blanche in crushing the unrest. To prevent a protracted war they risked losing (a la Libya), after a month of protests the Khalifa regime called for armed intervention on its behalf by the Gulf Cooperation Council. Four thousand troops and heavy armor arrived from Saudi Arabia and 500 police from the UAE on March 14th to protect oil, gas, and financial institutions.

This freed up Bahrain’s security forces for an early morning raid on the protestors in the Pearl Roundabout. Having declared martial law on March 15th, government forces mercilessly attacked men, women and children in Manama. Tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters supported security forces using live ammunition and teargas, while some demonstrators attempted to resist with homemade petrol bombs. During and after the raid government officials blocked access to doctors and medical assistance, going so far as to shoot suspected demonstrators in the hospitals. Similar offensives were carried out throughout the country and door-to-door raids resulted in mass arrests. The Pearl Monument was destroyed days later due to its role as a symbol and rallying point for protestors.

Since Shiite Bahrainis were not trusted to be in the security services, many of the agents were Pakistanis and others of South Asian descent. This prompted a backlash against foreigners by some, who accused them of acting as the government’s mercenaries and taking jobs from Shiites. After this massive crackdown, rights groups worldwide denounced the unchecked use of force against civilians, the farcical trials that followed, and the use of torture on those in detention.

After arresting the leaders and instigators of the protests, the government wants to bring the opposition to the negotiating table this summer. However, there are indications that opposition leaders are in no mood to sit at the same table with the people who ordered their arrest and death only months ago. More importantly, it is unlikely that the ruling family will offer serious concessions that may threaten their monopoly on power.

Sectarian Fears Play Into Iran’s Hand

To underscore the sectarian nature of the crackdown, Shiite mosques were destroyed in restive areas – a process the government initially denied, then justified by claiming the mosques did not have permits. This disrespect for what is supposed to be a sacred space enraged Muslims worldwide, but especially Shiite populations in neighboring Gulf countries.

Although Bahrain is unique because a Sunni minority rules a Shiite majority, most countries in the Gulf have substantial and often restive Shiite minorities: Saudi Arabia (10%), Kuwait (40%), UAE (6%), Qatar (25%), Oman (17%). These six countries make up the Gulf Cooperation Council that authorized armed intervention in Bahrain. Iraq and Iran have Shiite majorities, estimated at 65-70% and 90%, respectively. Shiites are the largest of Lebanon’s eighteen recognized sects, estimated at 28- 49% of the population. The inverse of Bahrain, Syria has a Shiite minority (13%) ruling a Sunni majority (73%).

These numbers above have long led Western analysts to come to the conclusion that Iran would use the idea of secular solidarity to support Shiite movements (especially anti-Saudi or anti-Western ones). Indeed, Iran has strong ties to Shiite groups in Lebanon and its strongest ally is the Shiite-ruled Syria. For decades, this concept has been used to justify American alliances with unsavory regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, among others. American regimes would rather support these West-friendly dictators than allow Shiites to come to power and possibly ally themselves with Iran, or so the argument goes.

However, this logic is not only inconsistent with America’s repeated declarations of support for democracy, but also serves to strengthen Iran’s hand. Iran’s theocracy has long used examples of American aggression (arming Saddam Hussein), occupation (Iraq, Afghanistan, some say Saudi Arabia), and support for corrupt and unrepresentative regimes (take your pick of Arab states). By allowing the Bahraini regime to use such a heavy hand in order to continue discriminating against the majority of the population, Iran now has evidence of its longtime claim: that the US is more concerned about its own interests than the safety and rights of Muslims, and especially the Shiite world.

This is especially disconcerting given that studies have noted that Bahrain’s Shiite population is actually less interested in Islamic government than the Sunni minority. Contrary to the Khalifa regime’s beliefs and the West’s fears, Shi’a in Bahrain are not looking to Iran as an example.

Another argument is that the United States can’t simply make the Bahrainis change their ways. This is even easier to refute; the US is the protector of Bahrain. Just as the naval power two centuries ago had a strong hand in maintaining the Khalifa family’s supremacy, the preeminent naval power of the last 120 years has quite a say in the ruling regime’s choices. The US Fifth Naval Fleet is stationed on Bahrain’s shores and serves as a counterbalance to Iran. But our military presence not only gives us the ability to influence Bahraini affairs, it is the reason we refuse to do so.

The West fears that Shiite rule in the Gulf will lead to anti-Western sentiment, but it is at least as clear that this fear of Shiite rule is itself contributing to anti-Western sentiment. No one expected the US government to call for complete democracy right on Iran’s doorstep. But the fact that the Obama administration gave its consent (implicit or explicit) for a deadly and widespread crackdown implicates us in the deaths, injuries, and detentions.

If there is anything the last decade of the “war on terror” should have taught us, it is that military power alone will not stop anti-American sentiment. So long as we are perceived as the reason governments like Bahrain’s can oppress their people, young Muslims will sympathize with extremist organizations.

I am not optimistic about the United States supporting democracy in Bahrain, and just as cynical that reforms will be substantial or sufficient. Perhaps unwittingly and without realizing the consequences, the United States has put itself on the side of a country where a minority rules a majority with the threat (and use) of force while hoarding opportunities for economic advancement. The world knows what such a system is called: apartheid. The only difference between South African and Bahraini apartheid is that the divide is religious rather than racial. However, I’m certain that history will judge Bahrain – and the United States’ support of the regime – equally harshly.


1 Comment »

  1.  Flash Bailbonds, September 7, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    Taking this into consideration the US most likely will not want to interfere with what the Bahraini government is doing through the possibility of losing that established offshore base. The fifth fleet is the hold of power for America in that part of the world. Bahrain houses many US bases and Command points within its borders.


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