Bahrain, a postage stamp-sized kingdom roughly four times the size of Washington, D.C., has had protests for weeks calling for King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to step down or transition to a constitutional monarchy. What does the unrest mean for U.S. interests and the region, especially with the recent influx of 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates? Two experts weigh in.
Shadi Hamid is the director of research at Brookings Doha Center. Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Q: Is this primarily a Sunni-Shi’a rift in Bahrain, or a pro-democracy push?The Khalifa family has ruled since the 18th century—why the escalation now?
Shadi Hamid: The Shi’a population is … up to 70 percent of the population. It complicates the whole situation because you have a minority rule over the majority and of course most of the protesters are Shi’a and most of those who support the ruling family are Sunni. The Shi’a majority is significantly poorer than the Sunni minority. The ruling family deliberately stoked sectarian tensions for decades—prohibiting Shi’a from serving in the security forces and the military and … [employing] a concerted government strategy to deny Shi’as government posts.
Bahrain has seen regular protests for more than 15 years and was the scene of unrest, violence, and rioting through parts of the 1990s. It was inevitable that something would break out in light of Egypt and Tunisia.
Q: King Khalifa had offered some concessions—offering food subsidies and money for families, and then promising to free prisoners, and sacking cabinet members and replacing them with Shi’ites. What do you think about these moves?
SH:It was remarkable how out of touch and tone-deaf those so-called concessions were. People were protesting for greater rights and freedom, and for them to demand that and then be given what amounts to bribes … people see right through that. The furthest ‘concession’ was for Khalifa to say the parliament would have more power. Some are calling for the downfall of the regime, but the mainstream majority opposition is calling for constitutional monarchy, which is something that the Khalifa family has not even suggested it would consider.
Q: 1,200 troops from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates went into Bahrain on Monday and violence has escalated. What is Saudi Arabia’s role?
Elliott Abrams: I think it’s a disaster that Saudi troops are there. There has to be a political solution here. In the long run the kind of Bahrain cannot be maintained in power with Saudi bayonets—it’s not going to work. My fear is that the Saudis will counsel him [King Khalifa] against compromise because they don’t seem to believe in it. They seem to believe … this is all a big Iranian plot and that if you were to move towards a constitutional monarchy you are moving towards making Bahrain an Iranian colony. I don’t believe that.
SH: The Saudis have been the most fervently anti-democracy of any of the Arab countries since these uprisings began. The others may pretend to care about the democracy movements, but the Saudis don’t even pretend. Essentially they’re the leaders of the counter-revolution. They’re developing massive aid packages to countries in the Gulf to stave off revolution.
Q: So where do the protests go from here?
EA: The on-the-ground reality right now is violence and jail—every day that goes on, it makes compromise harder. But I don’t see any better way out of this for us than to keep pushing everyone to get back to the table and try to work this out. It does mean reforms and concessions by the King, this cannot be an absolute monarchy.… The optimistic theory would be—I’ve heard it from some Gulf officials—is that troops are there to restore order and once order is restored, political negotiations will begin. But the protesters seem to be divided between a leadership that wanted a constitutional monarchy and younger demonstrators who wanted the end of the monarchy. There are probably more people who want the end of the monarchy today than were a week ago—which is why the king made a gigantic mistake.
SH: There’s no clear end game anymore for the protests, because no one can talk seriously about a national dialogue when foreign troops are in your country. More people will move to hard-line positions. What are moderates going to say to their base? That they’re going to talk to people that brought in foreign troops and are oppressing you? This is just a recipe for growing radicalism in Bahrain.
Q: In what position is the U.S. administration?
EA: The U.S. role should be to push everyone—the King and the Shi'a community—for a compromise. I would hope in this we might get some help from Iraq where there are both Shi'a and democratic leaders … the U.S. has denounced this violence and said very clearly that we were not in favor of foreign troops moving in and we’ve certainly called for compromise. I think we’re going to have to push harder. The time to do that is after we take a stand on [Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi] … then it's time to reassert.
SH:Libya has sucked most of the attention of the Obama administration and shifted the conversation from democracy promotion to military intervention, which is an arena the Obama administration is much less comfortable in. This casts everything no longer about promoting Arab populations but about the use of force in foreign lands. Mubarak was a close ally but Tunisia and Egypt’s leaders were ultimately expendable. The U.S. has much more difficulty contemplating life without the ruling families of the Gulf. Bahrain brings together a number of U.S. security concerns, namely oil ... the U.S. Fifth Fleet is there. In the Gulf the U.S. has made it clear it is backing the Bahraini government and talking about friendship and partnership with them.… But this puts the U.S. on the opposite side of the protesters. The U.S. seems to have drawn a red line around Bahrain and its broader interest in the Gulf region.