By Mustafa Malik
For the United States, the Bahraini uprising is more worrisome than most others now swirling in the Middle East and North Africa.
America’s stakes in Bahrain was underscored to me this past Jan. 13 by a researcher in Manama, the Bahraini capital. “The Al Khalifa rulers are sitting on a volcano,” said Numan Saleh, who was affiliated with the Bahrain Center for Studies and Research. “When the volcano erupts, would the [U.S. Navy’s] Fifth Fleet remain anchored in Juffairare [near Manama]? Would America and the West take their [Persian Gulf] oil supply for granted?” Little did I know that many of us in America would be asking on these same questions in four short weeks.
The recent Cabinet reshuffle by Bahraini regime and its gift of $2, 650 per family have been pooh-poohed by protesters; they left the monarchy with absolute power. A dialogue with the opposition, called for by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either. Yet the Obama administration is having a hard time recognizing the reality that Al Khalifa despotism is fast becoming history. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently she hoped that “a national dialogue can produce meaningful measures that respond to the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Bahrain.”
Holy cow! How would American revolutionaries have felt if Friedrich-Wilhelm III, then king of the Prussian Empire, had told them that a dialogue with the British King George III would satisfy their “legitimate aspirations”?
More ominously for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are about 15 percent of the Saudi population, living mostly in the kingdom’s eastern Al Hasa region. Al Hasa is soaked with the world’s largest oil fields and used to be part of historic Bahrain. The Shiites in Al Hasa, as elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, are systematically discriminated against by their Sunni government, and many of them nurture fellowship with the repressed Bahrain Shiites at the other end of a 15-mile causeway.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as all other west Asian states except Iran, were created artificially by British, French and local rulers less than a century ago. The citizens of these states are more deeply rooted in their old sectarian and ethnic communities than in state institutions foisted on them overnight from above. Hence the Shiites in Bahrain and the whole Arabian Peninsula feel affinity with the Shiite Iran, forming the so-called “Shiite Crescent.”
Abdul Karim al-Iryani, then Yemeni foreign minister, anticipated today’s Arab upheaval and the American dilemma two decades ago. In October 1991 al-Iryani, a Ph.D. from Yale, told me in the Yemeni capital of Saana that “when the tide of freedom and democracy comes, the current American [Gulf] security structure will become untenable.” The autocrats that were pillars of that structure would be “gone or have their wings clipped.” I asked him what the United States could do then to ensure continued supply of Gulf oil and its strategic ties to the region.
“Flow with the tide,” he replied.
The Yemeni statesman was a decade off on his prediction for the arrival of the democratic tide, but his caveat to America seems to be on target and timely for today’s U.S. policy makers. It’s perilous for the United States to be known by tomorrow’s democratic or populist Arab governments as the nation that tried to save the skin of their repressive autocrats. The administration should embrace the democratic “tide.” It should call on the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to retire; unless a democratically elected government wishes to keep him as a constitutional monarch.
The United States, too, needs to reassess its pointless confrontation with Iran. It’s clear that America (or Israel) can’t stop Iran’s nuclear program through military strikes, which, on the contrary, would trigger an anti-American conflagration throughout the Middle East. That would perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. domination of the region and send oil prices through the roof, plunging industrialized societies into deeper recession. Instead, the Obama administration should engage Tehran in a meaningful strategic dialogue with Iran, which would have the best chance of preserving much of American security and economic interests in west Asia.
■ Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is a columnist in Washington. He covered the Middle-East as a journalist and conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.