Bahrain: America’s reliable partner

As one drives around this vibrant island an immediate question comes to mind: what is it about Bahrain that distinguishes itself from the rest of its neighbors in the combustible Persian Gulf?

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet., whose job is the strategic goal of maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil. As such, the linchpin of U.S. Persian Gulf security is Bahrain, which has remained one of Washington’s strongest allies in the region. This security relationship has stayed strong for the past 60 years; but Bahrain has paid a heavy price for shouldering this burden. The Al-Khalifa family has often come under criticism from, and is a frequent target of, Iran for its strong ties to the United States. While the Islamic Republic of Iran threatens the West with blockades of the Persian Gulf, through its alliance with Washington, Bahrain has committed itself to the uninterrupted flow of oil from the Middle East.Not withstanding the bullying tactics of the mullahs in Tehran, Bahrain just authorized the expansion of the facilities that host the U.S. Fifth Fleet by an extra 75 acres.

Unlike some of its neighbors in the region, Bahrain is governed by a thoughtful and progressive leader. The present king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, ascended to the throne in March 1999, following the death of his father, Sheikh Isa Al-Khalifa, who had ruled since independence in 1971.  The king sets the forward-looking tone of Bahrain by promoting human rights, religious tolerance and democratic pluralism.  In recognition of his pioneering role as a champion of political, religious and individual freedoms, King Hamad was invited as a guest to the G8 summit in 2004. The king’s dedication to these ideals was on display when in 2008 in a historic move he announced the appointment of the Arab world’s first Jewish ambassador who happens to be a woman.

On Oct. 23 Bahrain will hold parliamentary and municipal elections as a means towards advancing the king’s agenda of participatory democracy.   Unfortunately, not everyone in the region wants Bahrain’s democratic venture to succeed.  External and internal forces within the country are trying to fuel fears of sectarianism by emphasizing the Sunni-Shi’a divide despite the fact that all Bahrainis enjoy equal rights under their constitution. For example, members of the Shi’a Wafaq Party are participating but others like the Al-Hag party and its leaders such as UK-based Abduljalil al-Singace have preferred disruption to debate.  In fact, this past August innocent bystanders were killed by these so-called “democratic activists.”  Members of Congress who will be monitoring these elections  should be aware of the fact that the mullahs in Iran and their paid agents in Bahrain do not want the king to succeed. In fact, under the guise of “human rights advocacy” these groups get funding from theological centers in Iran.

Beyond the military and political ties, that connect the two countries, the signing of a Free Trade Agreement has introduced a new dimension to U.S.-Bahrain relations. Bahrain is now open for business with American companies willing to take advantage of Bahrain’s free market economy. Under King Hamad Bahrain has made the transition from red tape to the red carpet of commercial opportunities for American investors. U.S.-based companies in the alternative energy field, cyber-security, and entertainment can now easily begin operations in Bahrain and even register a company on the Bahrain stock exchange in order to raise capital. This is very good news for American start-ups or even mature companies because liquidity from surplus oil and gas revenues within the region is now close to one trillion dollars. In fact, Bahrain is the most open and liberal economy in the Persian Gulf and has been a leader in economic reform.

In recognition of Bahrain’s strategic significance to the U.S. there are two policy options President Obama and the U.S. Congress may consider. First, the president should invite King Hamad to the White House to highlight the importance Bahrain plays in U.S. national security. Second, the U.S. Congress should invite King Hamad to deliver a speech to the Joint Session highlighting his vision for democratic reform and religious tolerance in the region. In short, Washington should keep U.S. Bahrain relations a top priority.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D. is President of Caspian Energy Consulting and author of two books about the Middle East.