Bahrain is an archipelago made up of 33 natural islands and a number of man-made ones. Last weekend thousands of foreigners gathered there to see a Formula One race or Grand Prix. The government used the event as a proof of stability. But how could a state where the government practices bloody crackdowns against opposition be stable?
«As the world’s eyes fall on Bahrain during the Grand Prix this weekend, few will realize that the international image the authorities have attempted to project of the country as a progressive reformist state committed to human rights masks a far more sinister truth», said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. «Four years on from the uprising, repression is widespread and rampant abuses by the security forces continue. Bahrain’s authorities must prove that the promises of reform they have made are more than empty rhetoric».
The opposition against the government spread among the Shia majority – 700 thousand out of one million. 300 thousand Bahrainis are Sunni Muslims. King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa relies on the support of Sunnis who make up a predominant majority in military, police and security services ranks. Torn by strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Bahrain fell prey to the influence of «Arab Spring». The Shia 2011 uprising was brutally quelled by Persian Gulf monarchies joint force. Back then the West turned a blind eye on bloodshed and protests put down by the Peninsula Shield Force. Since then the situation has been shaky. The calm won't last for long. The government has not done anything to overcome the schism in society. The repressions against Shiites continue. Last year ten Shia mosques were razed to the ground. Bahrain risks to follow the example of Yemen with religious strife turning into a civil war and then growing into a regional armed conflict. Amnesty International calls on international community, especially the Unites States and the European Union, to step in and exert pressure on Bahrain to prevent an explosion. The government cannot stop pursuing the religious minority.
To large measure Bahrain relies on Saudi Arabia support. Actually the country has become a springboard for Saudi forces fighting Shiites seen as a force backed by Tehran. Yemen is an example. Since the 1970s, Bahrain and the U.S. have maintained a close military partnership. Following 9/11, the Bush Administration elevated Bahrain to «major non-NATO ally» status. The U.S. Fifth Fleet (headquartered in Bahrain) is responsible for the American naval forces throughout the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and part of the Indian Ocean. Bahrain served as an important base of operations during the 1991 Gulf War, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 war in Iraq. As the U.S. military conducts operations against the «Islamic State» (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the Fifth Fleet continues to play a crucial role in America’s strategic posture in the Middle East. A forward headquarters was established in 2002 at Camp Sayliyah in Doha, Qatar, which in 2009 transitioned to a forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to serve American strategic interests.
The naval base at Manama has been greatly expanded recently. The US Navy is planning to expand its Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain, with a senior official reiterating the importance of the Gulf island state and dismissing speculation it was looking at potential alternative Gulf sites for the base as a result of the country’s ongoing political unrest. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the US armed forces, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, emphasized the importance of the Navy’s Middle East presence and said Bahrain remains the best option for operating out of the region. «Bahrain is going to suddenly emerge» in the eyes of the public and the Defence Department, Greenert was quoted as saying, telling personnel the base would continue to be its «centerpiece.» But will the US forces remain neutral in case their presence is threatened?
The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the First Deputy Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bahrain, blasted U.S. foreign policy in an interview and warned that its «schizophrenia» will lead the Arab world to ally with Russia. Using unusually hostile language, al-Khalifa said American policy is «transient and reactive», and «America seems to suffer from schizophrenia when it deals with the Arab world. He said the US foreign policy depends on forthcoming election in two years and there is no long-term policy. He expressed doubts that that Arab states could rely on the West.
Bahrain does not trust Obama and strives to get US Congress backing. The Bahrain’s embassy in Washington uses the true and tries principle «petrodollars make everything possible». Bahrain hired the lobbying firm DLA Piper to «advise, assist and represent the Kingdom of Bahrain in the United States in connection with obtaining support for anti-terrorism efforts to be undertaken by and in the Kingdom of Bahrain.» In reality Bahrain wants to acquire US weapons. The Manama's embassy in Washington is circulating a letter in the House and Senate that highlights the Gulf island kingdom's role in the international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The letter, which is addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, also highlights the need for «unity and cohesiveness» amid nuclear talks with Iran that have put the Arab Gulf countries on edge. «I'm very concerned about Iranian penetration into Bahrain; that's their next target», said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. «There are several things I'm not happy about that [Bahrain's] government has done, but they need to be able to defend their country. There's no doubt that Iranian weapons are coming into Bahrain. We should give them weapons and we should continue to pressure them to respect human rights-both.» Senate Foreign Relations Near East panel Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and shared similar thoughts. «Yes, I'd like the Bahrainis to do some things differently», Risch said. «But how can you have somebody in the coalition and say, 'OK, fight, but we're not going to sell you any weapons?»
Great Britain is the leading Bahrain’s ally in Europe. In the margins of the 10th IISS Manama Dialogue in December, 2014, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond signed a new defence arrangement with His Excellency Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister and in the presence of HRH Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and first Deputy Prime Minister and UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. The arrangement will improve onshore facilities at the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, where the UK has four mine-hunter warships permanently based and from where British Destroyers and Frigates in the Gulf are supported. Under the arrangement, the UK is planning to bolster the existing facilities at the Port, providing the Royal Navy with a forward operating base and a place to plan, store equipment for naval operations and accommodate Royal Navy personnel.
As experience shows, not a single Arab country has ever succeeded in managing internal conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis with the help of outside interference.