When President Barack Obama gave his Middle East speech last week, I was listening to hear what he would say about Bahrain. I know that Bahrain is way down on the list of exciting Arab conflicts, but it poses a peculiarly excruciating problem for American policymakers: the problem of the autocratic ally. It was easy for Obama to praise the protesters who toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, or to condemn the brutal crackdowns in Libya and Syria, where regime change would now serve U.S. interests. But Bahrain is a key U.S. ally and the host of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, which enables the United States to project power in the Persian Gulf.
Obama, to his credit, faced the issue squarely and said the right things. He rejected a policy based upon the "narrow pursuit" of national interest, insisting that American support for "universal rights" will be "a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions." He decried the "mass arrests and brute force" used by the Bahraini regime against peaceful protesters and added -- to applause from his audience of State Department officials -- that "you can't have real dialogue when parts of the opposition are in jail." Several days later, the president backed up his words by designating Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg as presidential envoy to Bahrain and dispatching him and a team of other officials to Manama, where they relayed the administration's concerns to King Hamad al-Khalifa and his most senior advisors. But what will Obama do if the king calls his bluff? Nobody knows, including the administration itself.
Like the other oil states in the Gulf, Bahrain is ruled by a conservative Sunni dynasty with scant regard for democracy or human rights and sufficient wealth to buy social peace. Bahrain, however, has less oil than the others, which has made it more restive; the Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled the kingdom since the 18th century, has responded to the unrest with slightly more political experimentation than its brethren (which is not saying much).
But what also makes Bahrain distinctive is the fact that at least two-thirds of the population is Shiite, which has given a distinctly sectarian cast to the protest movement. Bahrain's Shiite population suffers from political and economic discrimination, including exclusion from government posts, gerrymandering that has reduced their political representation, and high unemployment. But both the ruling family and their vastly more powerful patrons, the Saudis, have demonized the critics as agents of Iran, seeking to extend its influence in the region through local Shiite populations. An indigenous protest movement has thus been conflated with a (very real) regional threat, thus making political compromise look like an act of surrender.
When discontent began sweeping the Arab world earlier this year, Bahrain already had a long history of protest, limited reform, and repression. King Hamad, who ascended to the throne in 1999, had first raised hopes among both Sunni and Shiite critics, and then disappointed them. The king largely reneged on promised constitutional reforms in 2002, prompting violent demonstrations and a harsh response by the security apparatus. This February, protesters occupied Pearl Square to once again demand an accountable state and a representative and empowered parliament. The regime was unsure how to respond, first forcibly clearing out the demonstrators in a sweep that lead to seven deaths, then offering negotiations with the crown prince, the leading "moderate" among the royal family. But the talks collapsed over demands that Bahrain's hated prime minister step down, and on March 14 the king "invited" a Saudi-led force to enter Bahrain to help suppress the protests.
The Saudi intervention marked the decisive end of discussion, as well as the beginning of a period of unprecedented brutality. Hundreds of opposition leaders have been jailed, and many have offered credible accounts of torture. Security forces have attacked doctors, hospitals, patients, and ambulances thought to be assisting protesters. Students at the University of Bahrain have been forced to sign a loyalty oath; those who refuse must leave the university, as hundreds have. Astonishingly, Bahrain is now the most repressive and violent state in the Gulf.