While the international community’s attention is focused on the bloody Syrian civil war and the resurgence of violence in Iraq, another cauldron of instability is simmering in the Middle East. The latest flashpoint is Bahrain, and the factors leading to trouble there are familiar ones. Bahrain groans under the rule of a corrupt, autocratic government, and public dissatisfaction has been building for years. Even more ominously, the bitter feud between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, which contributed so greatly to the worst periods of fighting in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, is an especially crucial factor in Bahrain. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa heads a Sunni political and economic elite that governs an increasingly restless Shiite-majority population. Saudi Arabia is the king’s principal foreign patron, while Iran is none-too-subtle in backing its Shiite co-religionists.
Angry demonstrations erupted in early 2011, and they might well have brought down the monarchy if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had not intervened with some 2,000 troops in March. The violence declined after that episode, but it has never gone away. At least 60 people (in a country of barely 1.2 million), have perished since the onset of demonstrations, and the government has imprisoned more than a dozen prominent opposition leaders. There have also been pervasive allegations of torture and other human-rights violations.
The latest phase of turbulence began in September 2012, when a Bahraini court upheld the convictions of 13 opposition leaders. Since then, the level of violence has increased, despite the government’s edict banning even peaceful demonstrations. On November 5, five bombs exploded in the capital city, Manama, killing two innocent civilians. The eruption of disorderly demonstrations in the early spring 2013 led to speculation that the country’s grand prix auto race might have to be cancelled, although that development, which would have been a huge embarrassment to the regime, ultimately did not occur.
Tensions have become even worse in recent weeks. Thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of the village of Diraz, west of Manama, on May 25 to protest the police raid on the home of a prominent Shiite cleric the previous week. Demonstrators hurled rocks at riot police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. The raid on the ayatollah’s home also prompted the principal opposition group, Al-Wefaq, to withdraw at least temporarily from reconciliation talks with the government. Such a withdrawal had little practical impact, though, since the talks had been making meager progress. The opposition is insisting on constitutional reforms, including free elections and the creation of a parliament with meaningful powers, which would transform the country into a constitutional monarchy. The king and his supporters understand all too well that such a change would mean an end to Sunni political domination, and they show no willingness to relinquish their power.
In the midst of the growing domestic tensions, the Bahraini government issued an order banning political groups from having any contact with Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization in Lebanon. A few days earlier, Bahrain charged that an Iranian drone had violated its airspace—a charge that Tehran vehemently denied. Saudi Arabia rejected Iran’s account and issued a stern warning to Iran to stop “fanning flames” in Bahrain. This incident underscores how Bahrain is becoming yet another theater in the Shiite-Sunni contest for influence throughout the region.
Bahrain is a powder keg that could explode at almost any time. Washington is concerned about the mounting political instability throughout the Middle East, but U.S. leaders are especially concerned that Bahrain could be engulfed. The country is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the linchpin of the U.S. naval presence in that part of the world. Consequently, while Obama administration officials have urged both the monarchy and the opposition to engage in negotiations to forge a workable compromise, Washington’s policy has a distinct tilt in favor of the government, despite its disturbing human rights record. It was revealing, for example, that the Obama administration’s criticism of the Saudi-led military intervention was so anemic as to be barely discernible.
The United States is worried about losing the U.S. Navy’s access to Bahrain and seeing that country come under control of a political movement linked to Iran. But both of those prospects are now very real, as the simmering crisis in Bahrain threatens to come to a boil.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international affairs. He is also a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Quarterly.