This weekend, the world's best drivers will rev their engines on April 21 at Bahrain's Grand Prix -- the island kingdom's premier sporting event and one that signals its good standing within the international community. But just like every year since protests rocked Bahrain in 2011, the domestic opposition and international media will use the event to vilify the government and royal family. During my visit in March, I found a situation far more complex than the partisan portrayals.
Western media reporting on Bahrain has resulted in a one-dimensional understanding of a complex situation, with little comprehension of realistic policy choices that the United States faces in the region. It has characterized the situation as a Tunisia-like struggle of people vs. regime, a Shiite underclass vs. a Sunni elite, with a focus on abuses by government forces against civilians. Let's be clear: Most of the opposition is Shiite, and yes, there have been abuses.
But the calls for reform that began in 2011 have a long history in Bahrain, and almost everything else over the past couple of years is as disputed as it is complicated. There are disputes over whether the government was sincere in offering negotiations led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Did the opposition miss its best opportunity by rejecting talks and demanding that the government make extensive advance concessions? Or were the negotiations a government ploy to justify forceful suppression? The government's narrative notes that it released prisoners, allowed exiles to return, and withdrew its forces from the streets until the demonstrators tried to close down central areas of the capital, Manama. The opposition notes deaths of protesters, claims it wants only democratic reform, and says that human rights violations continue in nightly raids on Shiite villages. But one thing is for sure: Bahrain differs markedly from other "Arab Spring" countries with which it is frequently lumped.
First and foremost, the divide in Bahrain is between the Sunni and Shiite communities -- not between the people and the government. There is now a large Sunni movement that styles itself as an opposition and is almost completely ignored in Western reporting. Some of its members want political reform; many are adamantly anti-Shiite and opposed to concessions. This movement's most distinguishing feature is that it exerts pressure on the king and government to not yield to Shiite dominance.
Bahrain's government also can call on advantages that the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya could not. The support of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, gives Bahrain's government financial and military depth to resist pressure. Many in the Bahraini Army are non-Bahrainis from Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen -- they are not likely to develop sympathies with the protesters. And Bahrain is a small place that makes insurgency or lengthy protests relatively easy for the government to control.
Revolution is not coming to Bahrain. Yet though the government can maintain itself in power, it cannot regain calm or stability without reform. But what does reform mean -- and how hard should the United States press the government to change?