Recently Bahrainis filled streets across the country to protest the sentencing of the Al-Vafak opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman. It’s reported that civil unrest broke out in some neighboring countries. It should be noted that since the events of the Arab Spring, all across the region and in Bahrain in particular, Shia parties have started opposing anti-democratic reforms. The most famous protest was organized by the above mentioned Al Wefaq party. Pro-Iranian Shiite majority, which constitutes almost 70% of Bahrain’s population wants to force the pro-Saudi king Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa into changing the constitution in order to grant Shiites more power and rights.
In general, the situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where a population of one million inhabitants is scattered across 33 islands in the Persian Gulf, can be characterized as a deep political crisis that is being aggravated by worsening economic and social conditions. For four full years Bahrain’s government has been confronting opposition forces, and more often than not these confrontations are becoming increasingly violent considering police and security forces are generally formed by Sunnis who are abusing their authority, shooting protesters at point-blank range or beating them in broad daylight. Dozens of people have already been killed and hundreds more injured. But this brutality is of little help since Bahrain’s opposition forces are capable of bring even more people on the streets with each passing year.
The protest movement is led by the largest and most influential Shia political group – the Al Wefaq. This group has been advocating the creation of a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, along with demanding a thorough investigation of all cases of torture. However, lately supporters of this group have been particularly vocal about the abolishment of the monarchy in this Persian Gulf country.
Bahraini forces, with an extensive amount of support from Saudi security agencies, have managed to suppress a massive uprising back in December 2014. However, since then local authorities did nothing to overcome prevailing divisions in society. Instead they decided to destroy ten Shia mosques which has intensified the confrontation with the Shia majority even further. We’re de facto witnessing a civil war in the making. Bahrain’s king – Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa relies heavily in his policies on the support of Riyadh, which is turning the country into the center of a growing Sunni-Shia face-off in a desperate attempt to prevent the growth of Tehran’s influence.
However, one should not forget that the chief supporter of Bahrani royal family is the United States. After all, Bahrain is the most important stronghold of the US in the Persian Gulf by far. Through Bahrain, Washington controls the oil flows due to the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of world’s oil is being transported.
In addition, Bahrain agreed to allow an enormous US military base to be built in its territory that houses up to five thousand marines. No wonder that the Fifth Fleet feels pretty much at home in Bahrain. A total of 30 naval ships are being stationed in the area and they often come to Bahrain to obtain supplies and give rest to their crews. Moreover, despite the ban on alcohol that can be encountered in the vast majority of Muslim countries, US sailors have little troubles buying alcoholic beverages in Bahrain. Washington has even launched a special program “cab for a drunk”, which allows intoxicated sailors to obtain a free taxi ride to return back to base.
As for European countries, the main partner of Bahrain here is the United Kingdom which signed a an agreement with the Persian Gulf Kingdom back in 2014 on the supply of weapons and, at the same time, on the expansion of its military facilities in Bahrain. In particular, the Royal Navy wants to build an operational base in the Mina Salman port that is to store equipment and British personnel. It’s clear that London plans to expand its military presence in the Persian Gulf.
However, while Washington was busy supporting its satellites in various regions of the world in the name of achieving its short-term gains, Gulf monarchies had a chance to witness how the focus of Washington was shifted from Saudi Arabia to Iran. A similar signal has recently been sent to Bahrain. According to Reuters, the United States Congress has sent a letter to Bahraini authorities advising them to undertake serious political reforms if they want to retain the presence of five thousand US marines.
What can one do? Such is the fate of any puppet of Washington that is being supported by the White House for as long as it needs them. In this regard the attempt to use a familiar pattern of using petrodollars to bribe the US Congress, which has been launched by Bahranian authorities is all but fruitless and the US lobbying firm DLA Piper will ultimately fail to lift the ban on arms supplies to Bahrain.
Like other Gulf monarchies, Bahrain has faced a tough challenge today: should it carry on down the road to nowhere, while craving foreign aid, or launch a dialogue with the opposition in the name of the future and the preservation of the government?
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.