The New York Times has just announced from Manama:
The Bahrain military, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, took control of most of this capital on Thursday hours after hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers fired shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades to break up a pro-democracy camp inspired by the tumult swirling around the Middle East.
Interesting, you might say. But not important, not like Egypt. Well, if you live in the US think again. I’ll go into a bit of detail about Cold War Bahrain in a minute, but for now it’s important to point out a very important Cold War residual.
Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the future of the base is far from secure if the regime falls.
This means that even though Bahrain is a small Persian Gulf state, it has considerable strategic value to the United States. American officials rely on this base to assure the continued flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf and to protect the interests of the US in a 20-nation area that includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.
Here are some facts about Bahrain with emphasis on the Cold War timeframe.
— Oil was discovered in 1932.
— About the same time, the pearl diving industry collapsed. It had been Bahrain’s main source of income, but the industry could no longer compete with cultured pearls from Japan.
— During World War II, Bahrain fought on the side of the Allies. It was a key base for the Allies to safeguard oil supplies in the Persian Gulf.
— After WWII ended, Bahrain became the center for the British administration of the lower Persian Gulf.
— The National Union Committee (NUC), a Leftist Nationalist movement associated with the country’s labor unions, was formed in 1954. It called for the end of British interference as well as for political reforms.
— The NUC and its offshoots were declared illegal after the 1956 Suez Crisis.
— Strikes and riots continued during the 1960s, led by underground cells of the NUC, the Communist National Liberation Front, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain.
— In March 1965, an uprising called the March Intifada broke out against the British presence in Bahrain. Hundreds of Bahraini workers at the Bahrain Petroleum Company subsequently lost their jobs.
— In 1968, the British Government announced that it was ending treaty relationships with Persian Gulf sheikdoms.
— Under British protection, Bahrain joined with Qatar and the seven Trucial States (now the United Arab Emirates) to form a union of Arab emirates.
— On December 16, 1971, Bahrain became formally independent as the State of Bahrain.
— With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Bahrain offered itself as a new location at the center of the Persian Gulf with a large educated indigenous workforce and sound fiscal regulations. This opportunity bolstered the development of the middle class.
— Large numbers of immigrants from countries like the Philippines, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran were attracted to Bahrain by the high salaries they could earn there.
— In 1973, Bahraini men elected the first National Assembly. Women were prevented from participating.
— Soon after the election of the Assembly, things became contentious. The biggest clash was over the State Security Law.
State Security Law
The Assembly and the (then) emir, Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifa quarreled over several issues including foreign policy, the US naval presence, and the budget. Push came to shove, though, over the State Security Law (SSL).
The Assembly refused to ratify the law, which allowed, among other things, the arrest and detention of people for a period of three years (renewable) without a trial.
On August 25, 1975, the emir dissolved the Assembly and ratified the State Security Law by decree. He suspended articles in the constitution dealing with the legislative powers of the Assembly.
In 1975, also, the emir established the State Security Court, whose judgments were not subject to appeal.
— In 1981, an Iranian front organization, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup d’etat. The aim was to install a clerical leadership, but the coup was a failure.
— The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War — and the failed coup — led to the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bahrain joined along with Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
— Growing frustration at the lack of democracy exploded into an uprising in 1994.
According to Graham Fuller in the International Herald Tribune:
Bahrain is a Shi’ite island.
Shi’ites comprise 70% of the population. They have been systematically discriminated against, repressed, and denied meaningful roles by the Sunni minority government.
Bahrain is liberal in its social freedoms: you can get a drink, go to nightclubs, go to the beach, and party.
Behind the surface, there are Shi’ite ghettoes with high poverty, high unemployment, and walls smeared with anti-regime graffitti.
The regime imports apolitical ‘guest workers” from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian countries. If they make waves, they’re on the next plane out.
The ranks of the police are heavily staffed with expatriate police who often speak no Arabic. They will beat, jail, torture and shoot Bahraini protestors without a second thought.
There are many clerics among the leaders. But they tend to be liberal and open.
The regime readily whips up anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iranian fears to gain Western backing.
Bahraini Shi’ites maintain close family and cultural ties with Shi’ite families in nearby Saudi Arabia.
Update (Thursday 6:17 PM EST): A colleague now living in Bahrain tells me that the country is split down religious lines. 100% of the Sunnis support the government; 100% of the Shi’as are opposed to the government.