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Is Bahrain's Regime Next to Fall?

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Interviewee: F. Gregory Gause III, Professor, Political Science, University of Vermont
February 18, 2011

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Tensions in Bahrain escalated (BBC) on Friday with reports of troops firing on anti-government protesters. But unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the unrest in Bahrain is unlikely to lead to the collapse of the regime, says F. Gregory Gause III, an expert on the Gulf states. Gause notes that in Tunisia and Egypt, security forces identified with the protesting crowds, while in Bahrain there's a "strong sectarian division" between the Sunni monarchy's security forces and the crowds, which are largely Shiite. Gause says Saudi Arabia, which has a direct causeway to Bahrain, is worried about the potential security situation and notes there are rumors some Saudis may already be in the Bahrain security forces. Gause also says that the situation in Bahrain poses a serious dilemma for the United States. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the king of Bahrain and his reforms when she visited just two months ago, now the White House is rebuking the government (MSNBC) for using force. But if the regime fell and the United States was forced to give up its Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain, "the idea that you would sacrifice the headquarters of your Naval forces in the region at a time when your foreign policy goal is to contain Iran would certainly be seen as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States," says Gause.

What's behind these troubles in Bahrain?

The immediate spark of the protests was the example of Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the toppling of the heads of state in both cases and to a contagion throughout the Arab world. But the deeper cause is the profound sectarian split within Bahraini society between a majority of the citizen population, which is 70 percent Shiite Muslim, and the other 30 percent, the ruling elite and the ruling family, which is Sunni. There has been a persistent feeling among Bahraini Shiites that they don't get their fair share of their country's wealth, jobs, and political power.

How did the 70-30 split develop?

The indigenous population of Bahrain by the eighteenth century was Shiite. Southern Iraq, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have been Shiite areas for a while now. So, when the Al Khalifa family came across from Qatar from the Arabian Peninsula and captured the islands of Bahrain and set up their rule back in 1783, they found a majority Shiite population.

Bahrain is across from the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the primary Saudi oil region. So, it's of crucial security interest for the Saudis, isn't it?

The Saudis built a causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which is a collection of islands, back in the 1980s. So, you can drive to Bahrain, and many Saudis do, for the weekend, to get away from the strict no-alcohol regime in Saudi Arabia. But there is also a security element in having that bridge.

Have the Saudis said much about the protests?

They've been much quieter about Bahrain than they were about Egypt. But there are unconfirmed reports that Saudi security forces are part of the security force in Bahrain in dealing with the protests.

This is a regime that has a security force that is almost exclusively Sunni, many of them recruited outside Bahrain and given citizenship, so they're extremely loyal to the ruling family.

Explain Bahrain's relationship with Britain.

Bahrain was part of the British maritime protectorate system that the British instituted in the Persian Gulf between the 1820s and the 1880s. They didn't receive their independence until 1971.

When did the United States get involved militarily in Bahrain?

We've had a naval facility at Bahrain since World War II, but it was extremely small. Back in the 1960s and 1970s there were three old ships docked in Bahrain, and we had a command called the Middle East Force. But with the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the increase in the American military presence in Bahrain, the number of ships increased; the force was given fleet status as the Fifth Fleet. The headquarters in Bahrain came on land and became much bigger.

When you say the majority of the population is Shiite, that immediately raises the specter of Iran. How much Iranian influence is there in Bahrain?

There's considerable Iranian influence in Bahrain. Many of the Shiite clerics in Bahrain have been trained in Iran. The Iranians have claimed it as a province of Iran based on control of Bahrain by Iranian dynasties in the past. But in 1971, as part of Bahrain's independence negotiations, the Shah of Iran officially renounced the Iranian claim on Bahrain. But since the Iranian revolution in 1979, every once in a while you will find a journalist, or an official, or somebody in one of the official newspapers in Iran, or a cleric raise the issue of Iranian claims to Bahrain. This is not done by the Iranian government itself, but there are people in Iran who hold that view.

For the U.S. government, this unrest in Bahrain makes a difficult situation, doesn't it?

Extremely difficult.

If you were asked for advice, how would you handle this?

This is a real tightrope that one has to walk. One doesn't want allies who are unstable, because then they become more trouble than they're worth. The Al Khalifa government and the Al Khalifa family have ruled Bahrain for more than two centuries. The idea that you would sacrifice the headquarters of your Naval forces in the region at a time when your foreign policy goal is to contain Iran would certainly be seen as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States. But if you really believe that this is a turning point in the Arab world, and you've counseled the Al Khalifa family and leaders not to use force and to institute political reforms, it places some hard decisions in front of you. I would probably lean more toward maintaining the relationship and work on them in the long term for better governance.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there last December, and praised the king and the government for the parliamentary elections they had this fall and for the political reforms that had been instituted.

What is it that the protestors want?

The longer these kind of things go on and the more violence that's used, the more extreme the demands get. At the beginning, you could probably say that the majority of Bahraini Shiites would be happy with political and economic reforms that gave them a bigger stake in the country and a bigger say in what was going on. That of course means a parliament that reflects the majority of the population, but the seats there are gerrymandered so there's a sitting majority in the parliament of Sunnis. It would mean a government that was responsive to the parliament, which would mean that a lot of the Al Khalifa clan that hold these cabinet positions would lose their jobs. So that's difficult, and that's the simplest kind of reform. Now, of course, after the violence, we're hearing that a number of the protestors are calling for the downfall of the ruling family.

There is no one there who would replace the ruling family, is there?

There is no obvious candidate, but there are political groupings that are the equivalent of political parties in Bahrain. The largest Shiite one is called Al-Wifaq, and Wifaq means agreement or concord.

They have eighteen of the forty seats in the lower or elected house of parliament. But they all resigned as a result of the violence. There are other Shiite groups that have boycotted the elections because of irregularities and the gerrymandering and all that. But these groups could probably come together in a political crisis to oppose the regime. This is a regime that has a security force that is almost exclusively Sunni, many of them recruited outside Bahrain and given citizenship, so they're extremely loyal to the ruling family. One of the big differences between Bahrain and Tunisia or Egypt is that the security forces, when confronted with crowds in Tunisia and Egypt, said "those people are us." But when you have this strong sectarian division and the security forces are composed of a minority group, they look at these protestors and say, "Those people are them, not us--if they win, we lose."

The causeway is there in some large part to facilitate the movement of Saudi security forces if they think Bahrain is going under.

What are the Shiite/Sunni proportions in the other Gulf states?

In every other state the Shiites are a minority. You can hear estimates in Kuwait as high as one-third, but I think the 20 to 30 percent range is probably pretty accurate. In Qatar, there is an extremely small Shiite population. I don't think the Shiite population even gets to 10 percent of the United Arab Emirates population, but there are no reliable numbers on that. In Oman, the Shiite population tends to be of Indian origin; they're a distinctive minority that does not have much political power.

If you were parachuted into Bahrain during a time of calm, how would the capital Manama compare, say, with Cairo?

It's richer. It's certainly less crowded. You could take the whole population of Bahrain, and it would be a neighborhood in Cairo. You would be impressed by--for lack of a better term--how Western it looks. It has a Western-style consumer culture, high-rise buildings downtown. It is a city that has very few of remnants of its pre-oil past, and it's a modern urban area.

Do women have to wear the scarf?

No. One consequence of Bahrain being in the forefront of social change as the first oil state in the Gulf is that the role of women in society is not nearly as circumscribed as, say, Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of women who do cover their hair, some of whom use the full face veil, but there are also women who don't cover at all. The women's participation in the labor force is pretty high by Gulf standards. There are women activists who have a very public role. Women run for parliament, but there is only one woman in parliament, Latifa al-Qouhoud. She won in an uncontested seat as a government candidate.

Do the Shiites have unemployment problems? In Egypt there was a lot of talk about unemployment and wages propelling the unrest.

Certainly the employment picture for Shiites is worse than it is for Sunnis. Some of the Shiite villages give the impression of poverty, as opposed to downtown Manama. One of the major complaints from the Shiite political activists is "we don't have jobs and we look at all these foreigners working in the country."

When they talk about foreigners, are they talking about South Asians primarily?

Yes. In the last twenty years the foreign labor flows in all the Gulf states have mostly been from South Asia.

How do you think this will resolve itself?

This is a regime that's proven it's willing to be brutal to stay in power. It certainly has the support of the Saudis, who would see any collapse of the Al Khalifa regime as a serious threat because the Saudis would perceive a Shiite government coming to power and they would see it as being aligned with Iran. That causeway is there in some large part to facilitate the movement of Saudi security forces if they think Bahrain is going under.

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