THE oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Bahrain - an important cornerstone in American strategy in the Gulf and a site of major US naval installations in the area - has been engulfed in violence for the past six months.
Civil unrest could have serious implications for the stability of the rest of the Gulf. Unfortunately, American and European responses to this crisis reveal a limited understanding of both the seriousness of the threat and its implications for regional stability.
Street riots, the periodic bombing of hotels, and thousands of people attending the antigovernment rallies of Shiite clerics (especially the charismatic Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh al-Jamri), are ominous signs pointing to the potential collapse of the Al-Khalifa regime.
The power of these clerics first became apparent when Sheikh Salman convinced 20,000 Sunni and Shiite activists to sign a petition urging the emir to reinstate parliamentary and constitutional rule in Bahrain.
In fact, the briefest glance at the demographics and recent history of the country reveals the extent to which the blunders of the unrepresentative Bahraini government have fostered the very opposition that it now uses foreign help in quelling. Bahrain is a country of little more than half a million people. Seventy percent of the population are Shiite Muslims. The ruling class is a minority Sunni group headed by the royal family of Al-Khalifa.
It's misleading, however, to portray the conflict in Bahrain as the result of tension between a dominated Shiite majority and a dominant Sunni minority. Casting the power struggle there in sectarian terms is counterproductive. To do so helps consolidate a Shiite identity and widespread sympathy among Shiites in the Gulf. This will fuel further unrest and add to the power of the Shiite opposition.
Saudi Arabia could face a similar situation. It has a significant Shiite minority (10 percent), which live in the nation's eastern province, a region of oil fields close to Bahrain. In fact, Saudi and Bahraini opposition leaders have met in London to coordinate their efforts against the family-ruled Gulf states. Meanwhile, Shiites in Iraq also constitute a majority of the population. The Shiite factor in the Gulf, in light of the current US understanding of the problem and its obsession with Iran, may prove to be a dangerous challenge to US policy in the region.
A host of political, economic, and constitutional issues drives this resistance to the ruling family in Bahrain. The opposition in Bahrain consists of four major groups. Two of them are Shiite (the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and the Bahrain Freedom Movement), and two are liberal groups with mixed Shiite and Sunni membership. The latter three call for peaceful change of the status quo in Bahrain by petitioning the emir of Bahrain to reactivate the constitution, which was suspended in 1975. Since then Bahrain has been ruled by decree.
The constitutional crisis began in 1974, when the emir wanted to enact laws to deal with worker riots. When parliament refused to go along with the emir's wishes, he dissolved it. Neighboring states in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, supported the emir's decision, since these governments view any populist or democratic institutions in the region as a threat to their own stability.
In addition to demanding a return to parliamentary representation in Bahrain, the opposition is calling on the emir to improve conditions in Shiite areas, and to remove foreign security forces from the country. Currently, Shiite areas are the worst in term of economic development, and the unemployment rate among Shiites in general exceeds 20 percent.
Much of the security apparatus of Bahrain is foreign. The top security officer, Ian Henderson, is a British national who supervises a force comprised of Pakistani and Indian mercenaries. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, accuse these forces of using torture to gain confessions from their political prisoners. Also, the Bahraini government recently asked for assistance from Saudi riot police to quell demonstrators. The Bahraini government appears not to trust Bahrainis to act against their fellow-citizens, suggesting how little popular backing the government has.
Not only Islamists and liberals are trying to convince the emir to restore parliament. Some 300 Bahraini women recently petitioned him to release political prisoners, allow freedom of speech, improve economic conditions in rural areas and Shiite communities, and restore parliamentary and constitutional life in the country.
So far, the emir has not listened to domestic or international voices, including some members of the United States Congress and 45 British members of Parliament. Many in the region have appealed to the emir to take reasonable measures toward reconciliation with the opposition. That included 96 Kuwaiti parliamentarians and many human rights and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
However, like a number of Arab governments threatened by an economically and politically disaffected public, Bahrain blames Iran for its domestic troubles. Some members of the Clinton administration, obsessed with Iran's threat to the oil of the Gulf, seem ready to believe this and to relieve Bahrain (and other Arab states allied with the US) from any accountability to the rule of law or respect for human rights.
Opposition groups in the Gulf are calling for an overhaul of medieval regimes and an end to the rule of quasi-feudal families in favor of a more democratic and accountable form of government. If the US does not support democracy and human rights in Bahrain, it will be exposed to charges of hypocrisy. On a more practical level, continued US support for the regime could drive the Bahraini opposition to target US Navy installations. This could embolden opposition in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to do the same.