Risking the radicalization of Bahrain’s Shiite community may be a very bad idea. Worries on that score are what led Vice President Joe Biden to ask again in a phone call Sunday to the king of the island nation for a negotiated settlement between the Sunni monarchy and his repressed Shiite majority. Meanwhile, as Iraqi Shiites demonstrated in favor of their coreligionists in Bahrain, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned somewhat apocalyptically this weekend that Saudi intervention against Bahrain’s Shiites could ignite a “sectarian war” in the Persian Gulf region.

Bahrain’s protest movement, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, began Feb. 14. The Bahraini crowds demanded the resignation of the prime minister, whom they accused of ordering severe and persistent human rights abuses. Khalifa Al Khalifa, the uncle of the king, has held the post since Bahrain became independent of Britain in 1971. The largely Shiite protesters, led by the Wifaq Party, also insisted that the constitution be altered to give more power to the Shiite majority, and that the country become a constitutional monarchy. Three small parties (including al-Haq, which had split from Wifaq), began calling in early March for an outright republic, and of course they frightened the Sunni monarchy and its Saudi backers most of all.

After a month of rallies and protests at the Pearl Roundabout in downtown Manama, the beleaguered Bahraini monarchy brought in a thousand Saudi troops to disperse the protesters on March 14. The action drew a sharp rebuke from Iran, where Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani warned that the Saudi invasion would not pass without a reaction from Tehran. The next day, emergency laws were imposed in Bahrain, including a ban on further large public rallies and a curfew. Manama, the capital, has gradually returned to a semblance of normality, but Shiites in 12 small towns near the capital defied the state of emergency to stage protests last Friday. They were met with a harsh reaction from security police.

Among the Middle East protest movements, that in tiny Bahrain is one of the more momentous. Manama hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which provides security to a region that has nearly two-thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. Bahrain has a citizen population of nearly 600,000 and about two-thirds of those are Shiite Muslims. The monarchy, which is close to being an absolute monarchy, is Sunni and has traditionally given the Shiites little respect. There are another 600,000 or so guest workers in Bahrain, probably a majority of them Sunni Muslims from India and Pakistan, though there are also substantial Hindu and Christian populations. Expatriate Sunnis are employed as police and in the army and security forces, and are sometimes given citizenship in a bid to offset the demographic weight of the Shiites.

The current king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, came to power as emir in 1999 and declared himself monarch in 2002. He promulgated a constitution that created a toothless legislature. He appoints the 40 members of the upper house, while the 40 seats in the lower house are filled on the basis of elections. Electoral districts are gerrymandered, however, to prevent the Shiites from gaining their rightful majority there. In the current lower house, the Shiite Wifaq Party held 18 seats before its members resigned en masse after the crackdown in early March. The lower house can be overruled by the upper house, and the legislation of both can be struck down at will by the king, so the Shiite majority remains effectively powerless.

Many of the discontents of Bahraini Shiites have to do with employment discrimination. They maintain that they are underrepresented in government jobs because of a regime preference for Sunnis. Many Shiites are from rural villages, and they find it difficult to compete for private-sector jobs with expatriate Sunnis, who often have skills and a knowledge of English that give them an edge with corporations.

Most Shiite clerics in Bahrain reject the Iranian doctrine that clerics should rule, as a 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks makes clear. Many look to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf in Iraq as an opinion leader. Only a small group is oriented to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Sunnis often unfairly depict Bahraini Shiites as a fifth column for Iran.

Shiite moderation in Bahrain may well be threatened, however, by the uncompromising attitude of the king and his prime minister. Their security men have fired on protesters, killing altogether about 20 since the rallies began and wounding more than 500. The Pearl Roundabout was forcibly cleared. Wifaq alleges that more than 100 protest leaders have been arrested and are being held incommunicado.

Those who compare the crackdown in Bahrain to that in Libya are exaggerating, since the loss of life in Libya has been hundreds of times greater. Those who blame the United States for hypocrisy in demanding that Moammar Gadhafi step down, and intervening militarily in favor of democracy while coddling the Bahraini king, have a point. Fear that the lease of the U.S. naval base will be summarily revoked if Washington pushes Manama too hard probably plays a part in the Obama administration’s timid statements on the island’s crisis. Likewise, fear of provoking sectarian conflict in the nearby oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally dominated by Shiites, and thereby sending oil prices spiraling still farther upward probably adds to the caution.

But Washington’s tendency to handle the Bahraini monarchy with kid gloves and to defer to the Saudis is ill serving the stability of the Persian Gulf. Angry and hopeless Arab Shiite youths, deprived of political opportunities and of a fair share of oil wealth in a generally affluent region, could turn to Iran for succor if they think the U.S. and the West in general have abandoned them. Bahrain is not a candidate for outside military intervention, since it is not rolling tanks on crowds. But it is a candidate for some tough love from the world community lest its unwise policies ignite an armed struggle that could set back human rights and democracy in the region and endanger the global economy.


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