Hotspot of the Day: Bahrain

Egypt is on the west side of Saudi Arabia, across the Red Sea.  Yemen, which is looking pretty rough these days, is to the south.  Jordan, where the pro-Western king has been trying to head off an uprising, is to the north.  Now the island nation to the Saudi’s east, Bahrain, is rocked by demonstrations, and a government that has long been closely allied to the Saudi monarchy is imperiled.  I doubt anyone in the Saudi security apparatus is sleeping well at the moment.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small place.  The population is less than a million souls, of which about 70% are Shiite Muslims… but the Sunni minority runs the country.  Shiites complain of being kept out of the government, while the Sunnis accuse them of being in thrall to Iran.

Protesters are now working on their own scaled-down version of the Egyptian riots.  According to an Associated Press report, they’re digging in with tents and supplies in the main square of the capital city.  (I wonder how many despots across the world are looking pensively down from the windows of their palaces and wondering if having a main square close to the seat of power is such a hot idea.)  There have been clashes with security forces, and two deaths have been reported.

The king of Bahrain has gone on television to apologize for the fatalities and promise reforms.  The protesters have not yet called for the elimination of the monarchy, although they would like to get rid of the current Prime Minister, who happens to be the King’s uncle.  They also want “the release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected Cabinet.”  It sounds as if there might be room for the King to make a deal, although the AP notes that he generally prefers a good crackdown.

Besides its proximity and alliance to Saudi Arabia, two other factors give Bahrain great strategic significance: it’s crucial for refining and shipping oil out of the Persian Gulf, and it’s home to the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet.  Time magazine notes there are up to 30 Navy vessels docked there at any one time, along with a large Air Force base.  These will be important bases if the Air Force should ever decide to fly over Iran for some reason or other.

 Before we get another dose of ridiculous “we have always been on the right side of history” rhetoric from the Obama Administration, it should be noted they were completely “blindsided” by the Bahrain uprising, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl.  Just two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced herself “very impressed” by the “strong signal of progress” represented by their “free and fair elections.” 

Human rights organizations, and even the American ambassador to Bahrain, have been singing a different tune for a while, but Clinton blew them off and said she “sees the glass as half full.”  Of course, as with every other catastrophic mistake of this inept foreign policy team, she had no idea what it was half full of.  CIA Director Leon Panetta is in for a big surprise when he flips on the news tonight and learns what is going on in Bahrain.