Bahrain: Standing by an ally

This tiny island nation of one million has been a strategic ally of the US for more than 60 years. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Crowe once noted: “Pound for pound Bahrain has been and continues to be America’s best friend in the region.”

Beyond strategic considerations, friendship matters in times of crisis. Those who have stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington must receive unconditional support from the U.S. “Anything you want on land, sea or air, we can do it.” This is how Bahrain’s King Hamad summed up his support for U.S. policy when he met General David Petraeus in May 2009. 

An Islamic Republic of Bahrain allied with Tehran’s ayatollahs and de facto military junta is a real possibility if the US hesitates to extend its unequivocal support of and friendship towards Bahrain’s ruling family. While Bahrain’s mainstream Shia opposition has legitimate concerns that revolve around jobs, representation in Parliament and more transparency, the country’s more radical elements are being encouraged and financed by the religious centers of Qom in Iran. In fact, on numerous occasions Tehran has referred to Bahrain as part of Iran’s territory.

The fundamental demands of Bahrain’s Shia population that are still congregated in the Pearl roundabout may be summed up by a conversation I had with Ali, my taxi driver, when I asked him how he felt about his government. His answer was no different from what one hears in the U.S. “I want them to create good jobs for me and my family.” With eleven children to feed, Ali’s challenge is that much more difficult and is a dilemma facing Bahrain’s elected officials and its King. How Bahrain’s solves this dilemma has enormous implications for U.S. national security.

I have met King Hamad on a number of occasions. He is a thoughtful and progressive leader who was well aware of Ali’s economic dilemma when he elaborated on his reform agenda: “We need to grow our economy so as to create jobs for all Bahrainis irrespective of their background.” 

Since this reform-minded King ascended to the throne in March 1999, he has taken huge strides in improving Bahrain’s political climate by reinstating the national parliament, reaching out to marginalized Shi’a communities, presiding over an era of greater freedom of speech and government transparency and accountability, and fostering civil society growth. 

The King has set the forward-looking tone of Bahrain by promoting human rights, religious tolerance, democratic pluralism and a zero tolerance policy towards economic mismanagement. According to the US Embassy in Manama, “King Hamad is committed to fighting corruption and prefers to do business with American firms because they are transparent.”

While other leaders in the region have talked about elections, on October 23, 2010, Bahrain held parliamentary elections in keeping with the King’s agenda of participatory democracy. Despite efforts by external and internal forces to fuel fears of sectarianism by emphasizing the Sunni-Shi’a divide, Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition group, the Al-Wafaq, gained a seat by winning all contests in which it had candidates and now controls 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of parliament. 

What can we do now for King Hamad of Bahrain, our reform-minded ally who holds the key to Persian Gulf security? First, President Obama should ask Bahrain’s wealthier neighbors to put together a “Marshal Plan” for Bahrain that leads to rapid and sustainable economic growth. Second, Congress must invite King Hamad to Washington to highlight the importance Bahrain plays in U.S. national security. Third, the U.S. must warn Iran against meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain.

In short, Washington should ensure that Bahrain remains stable, prosperous and not fall into the hands of Iran or its proxies.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D. is President of Caspian Energy Consulting