Middle East could pivot on Bahrain protests

A confluence of big-power influence runs through the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain. The outcome of protests there are critical to the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Obama needs to act boldly but carefully.

Tiny in both territory and population, the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain is now a big battleground for the future of the Middle East – and America’s role in the region.

The drama began Feb. 14, only three days after Egypt’s revolution, when protests erupted against the absolute monarch, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who rules an oil-rich island of only half-a-million citizens. On Thursday, the government launched a brutal crackdown on protesters in the capital’s Pearl Square, shocking the world and perhaps energizing a wider rebellion.

The stakes are now rising for neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the US, which relies on the Navy’s Fifth Fleet being stationed in Bahrain (whose name means “two seas” in Arabic). The US Navy guards the Gulf’s oil exports and keeps Iran’s military in check.

The outcome of Bahrain’s crisis may also influence Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East. The country is ruled by a minority Sunni elite that holds much of the nation’s wealth and high positions. Most of the protesters are poorer, less educated Shiites who resent their lack of power.

If Shiites do take power, however, there are fears that the sizable Shiite population in Saudi Arabia might rise up. It might also give Shiite-ruled Iran more clout in the Gulf. And the Fifth Fleet could be booted out, too.

What happens in Bahrain in coming days may also influence how other rulers in the Middle East react to the wave of enthusiasm for democracy among Arabs after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Will the region’s autocrats hang tough, rapidly reform, or flee their country?

All these factors make it imperative that President Obama act carefully but boldly to events in Bahrain, starting with a stronger demand for no use of violence by the regime (or protesters). A peaceful but swift move to some sort of power-sharing rule in Bahrain is needed, one that would play down the country’s religious differences.

Many of the protesters simply want a constitutional monarchy. And indeed, the US-educated king has made limited political reforms since taking power in 1999. But he may be thwarted in part by his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister for four decades.

The US has relied on Bahrain as a key ally since the 1991 Gulf war. As with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, such reliance on an autocrat is not a good long-term prospect. America’s strategic interests are better served in alliances with governments that reflect the will of the people.

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