Another Powder Keg in the Persian Gulf

Graham E. Fuller, the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, has recently completed a book on the Arab Shia

The ongoing agonies of Indonesia bring home once again the dangers of complacency in watching authoritarian regimes violate political and human rights over the years, eventually resulting in an explosion that can hurt everybody. Bahrain is another such case waiting to happen.

While the emir of Bahrain, Sheik Isa ibn Salman Khalifa, is in Washington this week for a state visit, what kind of message will he get? Unlike Indonesia, Bahrain is only one smallish island, sitting in the middle of the Persian Gulf. But its deteriorating situation deserves attention by Washington policymakers. Stronger action now in favor of reforms may avert a more serious explosion later in that critical region.

Bahrain matters to the U.S. because it is home base to the Fifth Fleet. It is also a major offshore banking and financial center; it has always been one of the more liberal and open Arab states toward foreigners. Its population is two-thirds Shiite. But Bahrain is dominated by a Sunni Muslim ruling family that runs the country like a personal fiefdom. Because all news coming out of Bahrain is subject to tight government control--most foreign correspondents have been expelled--it is not widely known that Bahrain is undergoing its own mini-intifada, a smoldering ongoing revolt of the majority of the population who happen to be Arab Shiite Muslims.

Since the invasion of the Sunni Khalifas in the 18th century, the Shia have largely been treated as a subclass, even though occasional tame Shiite ministers are brought into the Cabinet in nonsensitive positions. In 1975, the Khalifas decided that the elected Parliament was flexing its muscles too vigorously in trying to hold the ruling family to the constitution. The Parliament was closed and never reopened. As the U.S. State Department 1997 Human Rights report on Bahrain indicates, “Citizens do not have the right or ability peacefully to change their government or their political system, and political activity is strictly controlled by the government.”


Shiite grievances have been building for a long time. The government allows rich Sunni merchants to import tens of thousands of cheap laborers from South Asia, taking jobs away from native Shia. There is no freedom of the press to write about these grievances. In 1991, the Shia combined with Sunni liberals in a petition campaign to ask the Khalifas to reopen the 1975 Parliament and implement the constitution. The Khalifas quashed the campaign and played on Sunni fears by calling it “Shiite extremism.” Inevitably demonstrations and disorders broke out, which the regime attempts to stifle but has never contained.

What is striking about this intifada is the relative lack of bloodshed due to a basically moderate political culture of Bahrain over the years. Stones, Molotov cocktails and burning tires, not firearms, have been the main weapons, and only 40 people have been killed since the intifada began four years ago. Inevitably there have been a few Shiite radicals who have gone off to Iran for ideological training, but most of the Shiite opposition movement, including its clerics, do not associate with Iran and have called strictly for the secular goals of reopening the Parliament and the holding of elections. A number of Sunni liberals who have not been sufficiently intimidated by the government support the call.

In the meantime, efficient British (usually ex-colonial) security officers serve to keep the political lid on for the Khalifas, with the help of imported police and militia members who have few compunctions about publicly cracking heads of Shiite protesters. Large parts of the island are under virtual garrison rule to keep political protest limited to Shiite ghettos and out of the international spotlight. Economic conditions in these areas are poor.

So far, the Shia of Bahrain have not been anti-American, despite U.S. public support for Bahrain’s rulers. But U.S. public disregard for violations of this sort surely will lead the Shiite movement in the direction of greater radicalism. Is it subversive to call for restoration of a once free Parliament? If the U.S. does not live up to its democratic ideals, how will the Shia react when they do eventually gain power as the majority?


The visit of the emir is a good time to address this question. We can’t let every authoritarian ruler in the region simply invoke the word “terrorism” as the catch-all label for any political opposition. Serious violations of democratic and human rights are involved with real consequences for U.S. interests and regional stability. U.S. pressure has brought dramatic and encouraging liberalization in Kuwait over the past six years. Let Bahrain be next or else face an inflammatory Gulf.