The threat of Shi’ite mobilization and U.S. strategy in Bahrain

The protest in Bahrain seems to be gathering steam even as the regime is cracking down with unusual brutality. According to Reuters

“U.S. President Barack Obama and Clinton, while calling for reforms in much of the Arab world, have also been careful not to back protests too explicitly out of concern that changes could undermine U.S. interests or pose new threats to Israel, Washington’s chief ally in the Middle East.”

The editors of the New York Times want the White House to pressure the regime to show restraint. The guys over at Foreign Policy fear that things are getting out of hand.  The Economist worries that the King is in trouble.

The overwhelming consensus across the spectrum of the policy making elite is that the United States has to support the monarchy at all costs. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. According to this interesting Factbox on the Reuters website, with its aircraft carrier groups and responsibility for the entire region, the fleet is at the absolute core of US power projection capabilities in the Middle East. The Kingdom is also home to the land-based Patriot missile installations and looks across the Gulf to Iran. It happens to be 70% Shi’ite but dominated by a tiny ruling Sunni elite centred around the royal family.

This is not unusual, authoritarianism is the norm in all the Shi’ite majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. Most Arab dictatorships have significant Shi’ite minorities – Saudi Arabia 10-15%, Yemen 35-40%, Turkey 10-15%, Syria 15-20%, Kuwait 20-25%, Qatar and the U.A.E. 10%.

This is a seen as a potential source of unrest and instability. The big threat is of course the Islamic regime in Iran which sponsors Hezbollah, the gang of radical clerics who control much of Beirut. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’ite are concentrated in the South along the border with Yemen with its large restive Shi’ite minority. Crucially, just like Iraq, the Shi’ite majority areas in Saudi Arabia are precisely where the major oil fields are.

Shi’ite political mobilization is seen as the primary threat to the Arab petro-dictatorships that flourish under the umbrella of U.S. power. It is feared that Shi’ite dominated regimes, or even those responsive to Shi’ite political demands, will be friendlier to the Islamic regime in Iran and antagonistic to the West.

The Persian Gulf is home to 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves. According to declassified NSC documents, Washington planners recognize it as a “stupendous source of strategic power”.  The idea is not just to ensure Western access to oil and ensure global oil supply on which the world economy depends so critically. If a potential challenger (China) threatens US interests, then its access to this oil can be cut off and its military and its economy would grind to a halt. It gives the United States unprecedented leverage over allies and enemies alike. It is effectively a veto. This is at the heart of global US hegemony. There is overwhelming consensus among corporate and policy elites that the United States must underwrite the global economic order with the force of its arms.

Given the imperatives of US power in the Persian Gulf, the perceived threat of Shi’ite mobilization and the distrust of democracy, the US will not allow the Bahraini regime to go the way of Egypt and Tunisia. All we will hear are calls for restraint.

Of course, this just demonstrates the elite contempt for democracy and lingering orientalism. The protestors in Bahrain may be mostly Shi’ite, but this is not a case of Shi’ite nationalism. They are demanding secular, political rights that have been denied to them by the regime. If the West continues to support the regime and ignore the legitimate political demands of the people, it will antagonize the population, making this a self fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s just say US policymakers are not very good at game theory.

2 thoughts on “The threat of Shi’ite mobilization and U.S. strategy in Bahrain

  1. US is ignorant of how involved Iran is. US handed Iraq to Iran, now they are about to turn bahrain over to stupid. Iran is the threat to US in the region, yet american policy makers seem to be played by the shiits in bahrain. Over the centuries shiits dream is to dominate and rule the rest of muslims in the area. They have political plans, and radical plans to extend the extermist thingking of mulaas of Iran to the region…US it is time to wake up… you gave up on support the shah, and what did you get instead…powerful, nuclear weaponed, shiits only iran..

    1. It seems far fetched to claim that the Shi’ite dream of dominating the Islamic World or the Persian Gulf. Are you sure you are not mistaking Persian nationalism for Shi’ite nationalism? The former is based on narratives of ancient Persian glory, while the latter has quite distinct Islamist connotations.

      One would think that the current wave of pro-democracy protests are as threatening to the Islamic regime in Tehran as they are to the Arab petro-dictatorships. And perhaps even more threatening to US dominance of this strategic region.

      Do you think the US should try to resist democratic change in Bahrain because it is majority Shi’ite?

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