Security or Democracy

Bahrain is at the brink of civil war, but international players are shaping the agenda

With a full half of its 1.2 million residents foreign born, Bahrain was, until recently, seen as a model of cosmopolitanism in the Gulf Region. Few people outside of the country were aware of the turbulent relationship between Bahrain’s Shia and Sunni communities, which is at the root of the current social unrest. But communal tensions in Bahrain themselves have an international dimension, placing crucial responsibility for the future course of events in the hands of foreign actors in the Gulf and beyond.

Since 1820, when the British-backed Al-Khalifa Royal Family came to power in Bahrain, the Shia community has been oppressed. For the last decades, Shiites have been excluded from the political scene, and faced job discrimination in the military, police, and even the private sector. Their right to protest has been repeatedly curtailed, leading to increasingly high levels of tension.  These circumstances have pitted two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, head to head against one another.

When Bahraini authorities, unable to control escalating Shia protests, appealed to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for help on Mar. 14, Saudi Arabia and the UAE promptly answered the call. According to Dr. Mehdi Ali, a Middle East expert and former World Bank Director for Africa, “any concession towards [the Shias] by the ruling family would also help the Iranian agenda – which is why Saudi Arabia was so quick to rush in.”

Indeed, a failed coup d’état attempt in Bahrain in 1981 sought to achieve a Shia religious revolution based on the Iranian model, explains Dr. Gudrun Harrer, Middle East correspondent of the Austrian daily Der Standard.

The Saudi response in 2011, therefore, has two main reasons: First, it is a sign of strength and decisiveness towards its own Shia minority. Helping quell the rebellion in neighbouring Bahrain sends a clear message about the Saudi stance on disobedience to the Shia community back home. Second, it signals to Iran that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate Persian influence in its backyard.

All of this is taking place within the context of diminishing American presence in this volatile region. President Obama has promised that American troops will leave Iraq by this summer. However, Bahrain will continue to host the United States 6th Fleet, albeit at the discretion of the Royal family. This is important considering an increasingly defiant Iran and the threat it poses, at least from a North-Atlantic perspective, to the balance of power in the region. If the West-leaning regime in Bahrain were to be toppled and replaced by a more “independent minded” geopolitical player, the consequences could be unpredictable.

The U.S. – and its European allies – have a vested interest in ensuring the royal family’s survival. But, at the same time, they risk looking hypocritical if they decide to turn a blind eye to the Shia population’s grievances.

Is democracy a universal value, or is it culturally relative? Is it hypocritical of Western powers to promote the values of freedom of expression and assembly when it suits their strategic interests, but not when it becomes a “threat to security”? The answers the West gives to these questions in Bahrain will define the way it will be perceived in places far beyond Libya, Egypt and Iraq.

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