March 18, 2011: Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf nation with a Sunni minority ruling a Shia majority, has received help from neighboring Sunni majority countries in dealing with internal unrest. Starting on March 14th, 1,600 police and paramilitary troops arrived from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The majority Shia are the poorest and least educated part of the Bahraini population, and want a democracy so that they will be in charge. The Sunni minority in Bahrain, and the Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, do not want this. Bahraini police have been unable to handle the growing number of Shia demonstrations, so the foreign reinforcements, and recruited mercenaries (who have not arrived yet) are being used to suppress the Shia unrest. This is not the first time the Shia Arabs have rebelled against their Sunni rulers, and won't be the last.
Then there's the threat from Iran, at least as far as Sunni Arabs throughout the region are concerned. Over the last few years, Iranian politicians have increasingly mentioned in public statements that Iran considers Bahrain the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing (although since all the oil money showed up, the Arabs have been trying to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf," with mixed success). There have been ethnic Iranian communities on Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969 (when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors). Iran has always been an empire, and still is (only half the population is ethnic Iranian). The way this works, you always have a sense of "Greater Iran" which includes, at the least, claims on any nearby areas containing ethnic Iranians, or people of similar religion. Hitler used this concept to guide his strategy during World War II.
Bahrain gets very upset when these claims are periodically revived. The Iranian government officially denounces such claims, but apparently many Iranians have not forgotten. Arabs are not very happy about that, and have responded by pointing out that Iran was Sunni until 500 years ago, and was forced to convert, on pain of death, by a Shia emperor (who killed about a million of his subjects in the process.) Saudi Arabia is trying, with some success, to organize Arab resistance to Iranian expansionist moves. Iran has responded by encouraging the Shia minorities on the west side of the Gulf to demonstrate their unhappiness with their minority status. Thus the recent appearance of Saudi and UAE troops in Bahrain.
The Iranian claim is based on Iranian control of Bahrain for a few years during the 18th century. After that incident, Bahrain, and most of the other Arab Gulf States, sought protection from Britain. During World War II, the U.S. joined with Britain in offering the Arab states of the Persian Gulf protection from Iranian aggression. Iran has always resented this, believing themselves to be the regional superpower, and the final arbiter of who is sovereign, and who is not.
Meanwhile, Bahrain should be, on paper, an excellent place to live for all its citizens. It isn't. The Bahrani population is only 700,000, with oil and gas providing a per-capita income of over $20,000. The oil is running out, so Bahrain has been recasting itself as an Arab playground and financial center, replacing Beirut, Lebanon (which ceased, for two decades, to play that role in the late 1970-early 80s because of a civil war). Bahrain has used a lot of their oil revenue to build infrastructure, and encouraged entrepreneurs to create shopping and entertainment facilities superior to anything available in the region. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway bridge, Bahrain does not enforce Islamic law on visitors or residents. That's nothing new. Bahrain has, for centuries, been a port of call for ships, and sailors. That means booze and women were always available. But now there are also shopping malls, a full range of hotels, brothels, clubs and bars. Most of the business for the entertainment spots, comes from Saudi Arabia, but sailors, especially those from the 40-50 foreign warships that base themselves here, come a close second. A little over half the foreign sailors are American.
While generally peaceful, the country has many unhappy, and violence prone, citizens. The problems are many. First, there is the monarchy. Although competent, many of the educated citizens would prefer a democracy. Then there's the religion angle. The monarchy is Sunni, while two thirds of the population are Shia. Moreover, about 20 percent of the population are Christian and Hindu. This offends about ten percent of the population who are Islamic conservatives. Most of these are Shia, and consider all the drinking and partying to be sinful and offensive. Meanwhile, the police have a Shia majority that is often stirred up when the Islamic radicals get violent. Then more Shia villagers will take to the streets, and riot, if they feel the police are being too hard on Shia Islamic radicals. This violence rarely gets into the urban, and tourist, areas. But at times, the police have to warn visitors going outside the city, to avoid certain towns and villages. Because so many of the police are Shia, the government cannot always depend on the cops to control large scale rioting by Shia civilians.
A long range solution to that loyalty problem is being sought elsewhere. Bahrain has recently sent recruiters to Pakistan to hire retired military personnel to staff the Bahraini security forces. The recruiters are looking to hire a thousand or more men quickly. There will be no shortage of volunteers, as the money is good, even with the risk of death or injury. Pakistan has been supplying such mercenaries to the Arab Gulf states for centuries.
Standing in the wings are thousands of U.S. military personnel, but more as potential targets than as additional security forces. Over the last few years, the U.S. has been expanding its naval base in Bahrain. The navy has taken over the Mina Salman port, which transferred all commercial operations to the new Khalifa bin Salman port two years ago. The navy has leased 28 hectares (70 acres) of waterfront space at Mina Salman. At the capital, the navy has an .4 hectare (one acre) area at the port there, and 17 hectares (42 acres) at a nearby base. The new port is large enough to berth the largest U.S. ships (the Nimitz class carriers.) The port currently supports over a dozen American warships operating in the area.
Thus the U.S. Navy has turned a minor naval station in the Persian Gulf, into one of its most crucial bases for the war on terrorism. The U.S. moved into Bahrain in 1973, when the British gave it up. The Bahrainis, like most of the other small states along the west coast of the Persian Gulf, like to have some friendly Western power in residence. This provides some insurance against Saudi Arabia to the west, and Iran to the east. Before 1918, the British presence helped keep the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire off their backs as well. All the Bahrainis ask is that the foreign troops be quiet, and discreet. Until 2002, the Bahraini base was a place where U.S. warships could tie up for repairs, or recreation for the crews. About 3,600 American military personnel were stationed there. There was an airbase for navy and air force transports and warplanes. The Bahrainis denied much of this activity, so as to avoid getting pilloried by other Arab states. But Bahrain is a small place (a 655 square kilometer island about 20 kilometers off the Saudi coast), and it's difficult for things like warships and warplanes to go unnoticed.
In the last seven years, several hundred million dollars has gone into building more permanent facilities. The trailers and other "temporary structures" were replaced by more permanent buildings and facilities. This included a new pier, just for military ships. There is a shopping center just for the military, and a lot of recreational faciliies for the troops. Until 2004, some troops could bring their families. But now it's all military, and the brass try to keep everyone happy on base. It's a one year tour for most, but Bahrain is pretty popular. Living conditions are good, and the local Bahranis are pretty mellow and friendly by Middle Eastern standards, at least most of the time.