Bahrain is a small (population about 1.2 million) Persian Gulf monarchy with a Sunni minority ruling a Shia majority. The Shia are demanding democracy, but this would mean the end of Sunni rule and the Sunni minority are not willing to pay that high a price for peace. The violence has waxed and waned over the last two years but never really gone away. At least 50 have died, most of them Shia, and thousands have been injured or arrested. Over 400 Shia are being prosecuted. The king has offered some concessions that fell far short of real democracy. While the Sunni government finds all this unrest bothersome and embarrassing, it's not creating enough pressure to force fundamental change. The government sees the protest movement weakening but so far the opposition can still mount large demonstrations.
The Shia protest leaders do not have time on their side. All the unrest and lost income erodes enthusiasm for the cause. The government has supported the use of Sunni civilian counter-demonstrators. These groups are protected by the police but are not given a free pass when it comes to violence against Shia. But these Sunni mobs are another reminder to the Shia that being a majority is not a decisive advantage. It's not lost on the Bahraini Shia that it took an American army to remove the Sunni minority government in Iraq and that was followed by a Sunni terror campaign (unofficially supported by Sunni nations in the region) that killed over 50,000 Iraqi Shia.
The Bahrain unrest is causing the government to spend about a billion dollars more than it takes in each year. That is easily covered by borrowing, and Saudi Arabia is the ultimate source of financial and military support. The Saudis have a restive Shia minority and increasing friction between more secular Saudis and the Islamic conservative old guard. Because the Saudi family justifies its rule via its role as protector of the most holy Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina, Islamic conservatives have a lot of clout. Technically, Shia are heretics to Sunnis, but the Saudis have managed to prevent much public discussion of that in Saudi Arabia. Privately, many Saudi clerics have harsh things to say about Shia and non-Moslems (infidels) in general. Saudi Arabia is actually the source of much of the Islam based hatred and radicalism. The Saudi government keeps it under control at home and blocks the larger private efforts to support Islamic terrorism abroad. But Saudi Arabia continues to supply recruits for Islamic terror groups throughout the world. The Saudis have been under growing pressure (from Islamic and non-Islamic nations) to suppress the many Islamic radical clergy and their followers in the kingdom. But those radicals have been part of the Arab culture since the founding of Islam in the 6th century. The Saudi leadership considers themselves heroes for controlling their Islamic radicals as much as they have. For example, Saudi radicals would prefer to apply a lot of deadly force (as in mass murder) against Shia protestors. The Saudi king draws the line at that, but many other forms of physical and economic coercion are used. Same deal in Bahrain, where the Sunni minority considers the Shia ungrateful and untrustworthy. There is an Islamic conservative branch of the Bahraini royal family that is being accused of blocking some kind of compromise with the Shia majority.
Meanwhile, this is not the first time the Shia Arabs have rebelled against their Sunni rulers in Bahrain, and it won't be the last. The latest bit of violence has involved destroying nearly a hundred mosques and other Shia meeting places. There have been over 4,000 arrests and tighter control of the media, especially the use of the Internet. The Bahraini government blames the violence on Iran but it appears to be more a matter of the native Shia wanting a better political and economic arrangement. The growing violence by security forces has left over a thousand dead or wounded. Meanwhile, neighboring Arab nations have agreed to provide more economic aid (the 2008 global recession hit Bahrain particularly hard). It appears that the government will be able to outlast this latest Shia outburst. It hasn't been easy.
On some days about ten percent of the population (nearly 100,000 people and nearly all Shia) have been out on the streets. 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, will not tolerate this. Bahraini police were eventually unable to handle the growing number of Shia demonstrations, so the foreign reinforcements and recruited mercenaries were used to suppress the unrest. Some 1,600 police and paramilitary troops arrived from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Eventually, over 4,000 foreign troops and police came in.
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.
Bahrainis (both Sunni and Shia) get very upset when these claims are periodically revived but the local Shia want an independent Bahrain run by the majority. 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 were 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 mid-March 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 about a million (lots of illegal foreign workers are not counted, which makes it possible to keep the economy going without a lot of Shia), 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 most of the population is Shia. Moreover, about 20 percent of the population is 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. Thus over the last year a new, entirely Sunni, security force has been created.
A long range solution to that loyalty problem is being sought elsewhere. Bahrain sent recruiters to Pakistan to hire retired military personnel to staff the Bahraini security forces. The recruiters hired more than a thousand men quickly. There was 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. Iran has leaned on Pakistan to ban this recruiting. Pakistan said it would look into it and the recruiting went on. Bahrain has long offered citizenship (and access to generous social welfare program) to Sunni migrants (who fill many civilian and military jobs). The local Shia resent this.
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. Navy 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 three years ago. The navy leased 28 hectares (70 acres) of waterfront space at Mina Salman. At the capital the navy has a .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 nine 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 facilities for the troops. Until 2004, some troops could bring their families. But now it's all military and the brass tries 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 Bahrainis are pretty mellow and friendly by Middle Eastern standards, at least most of the time.