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Bahraini conundrum

March 25, 2011

Unlike in some other Arab states in turmoil, the United States has clear and direct interests in Bahrain. But Washington finds itself in a tight spot with limited influence over events in the tiny kingdom.

An anti-government protester at a rally March 23 Malkiya, Bahrain as riot police fires teargas
Protests continue to rock BahrainImage: AP

After Egypt, which due to its historic preeminence in the Arab world, size, location and geostrategic importance vis-à-vis Israel, has long formed a special relationship with the US, Bahrain along with Saudi Arabia is one of the top allies in the region for Washington.

The most obvious reason why the US has a keen and very direct interest in Bahrain is military. The Gulf kingdom is home to the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy which serves as the command-and-control center for US maritime operations in an area covering five million square miles (12 million square kilometers) and 20 countries. It includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Bahrain serves as the linchpin for US military forces in the region which are comprised of an aircraft carrier group with various other assorted components. The entire US contingent varies, but according to estimates amounts up to 20,000 troops including around 15,000 at sea and around 5,000 in Bahrain.

The second obvious factor explaining US interest there is of course oil. Bahrain itself is a significant oil and gas producer, but what makes it even more valuable is its key location at the Strait of Hormuz which is the world's most important choke point for oil. Around 20 percent of all global oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

Financial hub

A lesser known reason why Bahrain matters is financial. The country's financial sector with its focus on Islamic and off-shore banking is the oldest and arguably the most important and best-developed in the region. It accounts for almost 30 percent of Bahrain's economy and is very internationally oriented, but it is the sector that is most vulnerable to instability.

As a result of the unrest, Bahrain's credit rating and those of its major banks were downgraded by global ratings agencies. According to ratings agency S&P, "protests and political instability are in our view likely to negatively affect economic performance and depress future growth prospects particularly for Bahrain in its role as an important financial center."

For all those reasons, Washington is deeply vested in Bahrain's stability.

The problem is, it can take little concrete action to guarantee that stability.

"I think as we saw in Egypt, US leverage is much less than we had supposed at least for the here and now," Graeme Herd, who heads the International Security Program at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told Deutsche Welle.

"It's very much a dilemma for the US," concurs Christian Koch, director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

Soldiers and riot police drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying a landmark square in Bahrain's capital, a day after emergency rule was imposed in the violence-wracked Gulf kingdom
Security forces brutally crushed protests in Manama's Pearl SquareImage: AP

While Washington wants stability on the island located in one of the world's key strategic regions, it has also always called for democratic reforms in the region and therefore couldn't just stand idly by as Bahraini troops brutally beat down popular unrest recently.

As a result President Barack Obama called Bahrain's monarch to express his deep concern about the use of force against protestors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's response was even stronger. She disagreed with the deployment of Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops to help Bahrain and said: "There is no security answer to this."

That rings true for a country that consists of a large Shia majority that is ruled by a minority Sunni royal family. But to simply state that violence isn't the answer doesn't solve the larger strategic conundrum for the US.

Tough sell

First, because it could be difficult for the US to convince Bahrain's leadership that reforms are in its best interest. Essentially, argues Herd, Washington might be telling Bahrain's king 'you have lost procedural legitimacy, two thirds of your population is Shia and they are hostile to you and your whole Sunni royal family and so you must move from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and become more of a republic.'

"But that's a hard sell," says Herd. "To preserve your position you must lose power. That paradox is difficult to swallow I would imagine."

What's more, notes Herd, the Bahraini royal family might now be rethinking the role of the US which has traditionally been regarded as a stabilizer and guarantor of security there. But instead of Washington, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) came to help the monarchy and sent troops that put down the unrest.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa rule over the Shia-majority nation is in dangerImage: AP

"I think if you are in that family you are making calculations that active, immediate support is not coming from the US in military and security terms now that we need it, it's coming from the GCC," says Herd.

Iranian involvement

The second factor that compounds the Bahrain conundrum is Tehran. Many experts believe that Iran has a hand in the current Shia-driven unrest in Bahrain.

While the underrepresentation and discrimination of the majority population and not Tehran's meddling is the root cause of the Bahraini unrests, Iran has both a clear rationale and the capability to exploit the situation.

"If you can cause unrest where the US Fifth Fleet is based - and a possible attack on Iran would come from those particular military assets that are there - then Iran is interested to do so," explains Herd.

He adds that particularly the expansion of the protests from mere demonstrations on the streets to the blockade of the financial district and the latest intelligence reports lead Gulf security services to believe that Iran was directly involved. One of the things that Iran could plausibly do is to provide leadership to an essentially leaderless crowd of demonstrators, says Herd.

Faced with these problems, the US cannot do much more than monitor events, conduct backroom diplomacy and hope for the best which would be a Jordan-style reform process for Bahrain, says Koch:

"If the US and its troops would ever get involved it would simply provide another focal point for protests and it would endanger the situation as a whole and further complicate issues here in the region."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge