Bahrain: US Naval Base or Iranian Asset?

What is at stake for Americans in the Bahrain unrest?

1. Bahrain is a major center for the refining of crude petroleum, refining some 270,000 barrels a day. This amount is not large, but given tight petroleum supplies and a price of over $100 a barrel for Brent Crude, an outage there would certainly put up world prices.

2. Bahrain hosts a naval base for the US Fifth Fleet, important to the US security architecture for the Persian Gulf (the Arabs say Arabian Gulf). Nearly 2/3s of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and 45% of the world’s natural gas reserves are in the Gulf region.

3. Bahrain is an important finance center.

The Shiite majority is attempting to assert itself there. A Shiite-dominated government in Bahrain might well demand a closure of the US naval base. It would not be an Iranian puppet, insofar as Arab Shiites are jealous of their independence and most Bahraini Shiites don’t follow ayatollahs; but it would certainly have warm relations with Tehran. A Shiite victory there would politically embolden other Gulf Arab Shiites, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (Shiites are a minority in all three). Insofar as Iran enjoys soft power with the region’s Shiites, the net result would certainly favor Iran and at least somewhat disadvantage the United States, which already shot itself in the foot by helping install a Shiite government in Baghdad that has excellent relations with Iran. For the Bahrain government to become more democratic and more Shiite-influenced would annoy the Wahhabi Saudi state, which now sees the Sunni Bahraini king as a strategic asset.

Persian Gulf


Thousands of Shiite demonstrators came out yet again in Bahrain on Tuesday. They are demanding that prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa step down. An uncle of the king, Sheikh Khalifa has been appointed PM for four decades. The Shiite protesters want an elected prime minister who would reflect their demographic dominance.

The killings of two demonstrators, one on Monday and another on Tuesday, have helped to galvanize the crowds. In an unusual concession, the king, Hamad Al Khalifa, apologized Tuesday for the deaths and promised that the shooters would be brought to justice.

The demonstrators thronged into the downtown Pearl Roundabout, and some are insisting on spending the night there. The main Shiite political party, with 18 seats in the lower house of 40 seats, is Wifaq. It suspended its participation in parliament on Tuesday in protest against the killings of the two demonstrators.

Bahrain has a little over 1.2 million people, of whom 54 percent are expatriate guest workers, nearly half of them from India. I can remember, on the occasions I was in Manama, the way signs in Malayalam festooned the market and the money-changer stalls. The other 568,000 are Bahrainis. Of these, social scientists think about two-thirds, or about 374,000, are Shiites. In turn, about 100,000 of these are Ajamis, i.e. Shiites of Iranian heritage who are now Arabs. The rest are Baharna or indigenous Bahraini Shiites, who mainly adhere to the conservative Akhbari school that does not believe in following ayatollahs. Many of them live in rural villages outside the capital.

The other 187,000 or so are Sunni Bahrainis, the community to which King Hamad Al Khalifah belongs. He has reigned as king since 2002 (having come to power as emir in 1999).



In the Gulf, typically guest workers cannot vote and don’t have permanent residency or a path to citizenship, though it is rumored that the Sunni monarch, King Hamad Al Khalifa, has bestowed Bahraini citizenship on some expatriate Sunnis in a so far vain attempt offset the indigenous Shiite majority.

The Bahrain constitution lets the Sunni king appoint the 40 members of the upper house of parliament. The lower house also has 40 members, and in the 2010 election only 18 of them were captured by the Shiite religious party, Wifaq, led by cleric Ali Salman. The other 22 went to Sunnis of various stripes.

Ali Salman

Ali Salman

So, in a country where citizens are probably two-thirds Shiite, Shiites have little representation in the senate and are a minority even in the elected lower house. Not only can the Sunni-dominated upper house veto measures passed by the lower house, but the king himself can veto legislation at will and can prorogue parliament whenever he likes.

Many Shiites in rural areas are poor, despite Bahrain’s riches, derived from its small petroleum industry, its vital finance sector, and strategic rent from the US for the US naval base for the Fifth Fleet. Wifaq not only seeks more equitable representation for the Shiite majority but also a better economic deal for the poor.

Aljazeera English has video on Bahrain:


31 Responses

  1. Great post!! There’s some news coming out of saudi that a demonstration is set to take place on Thursday in the Shia town of Awamiyah. The Shiites in the eastern province of saudi arabia enjoy cultural and tribal ties with their counterparts in Saudi, and they are livid.

  2. Dr. Cole, Aren’t the security forces in Bahrain imported Pakistani Sunnis given fast track citizenship – and isn’t that a cause for friction as well?

    • Nope they are not on the fast track to citzenship … I know of many pakistanis that have been in born in bahrain and can easily blend in majority of the population but they havent been given citzenship

  3. Thanks for this insight, Prof J. Very timely and (as per usual) highly informed.

    By the way, where’s George Bush? Shouldn’t he be on live TV, cheering all these pro-democratic uprisings across the Middle East? Isn’t this exactly what he (and Cheney and Rumsfeld) wanted?

    Maybe he’s busy picking up doggy poo?

    • Monica Crowley the most conservative commentator on the McLaughlin Group and several of those on Fox News are claiming these events as vindications of Bush’s vision.

  4. Accurate facts (and well-informed comment) help: Sh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has ruled since his father’s death in 1999.

    Most Shia follow an Ayatollah (or just plain Sheikh as we prefer to call them).

    And their are pathways to permanent residency and citizenship for non-Bahrainis.

    • Hi, Gerry. Sh. Hamad has only reigned as king since 2002; before that he was emir for 3 years.

      Akhbaris do not have ayatollahs, who are not synonymous with sheikhs, and they do not do taqlid of sheikhs in the Usuli way. See my book, Sacred Space and Holy War.

      There are pathways to citizenship in Bahrain for select Sunnis favored by the ruling elite; Indian Hindus (about 10% of the population) typically need not apply.

  5. Wow, this is certainly requisite variety! A welcome change from the all too often Muslim category.

    A bit hard to remember in text format though. If possible, I’d like to see a visual, like a pie chart.

  6. Oh yeah forgot to mention that Micheal “Niger Documents” Ledeen’s mug shot was on the Iran rant that Jon Stewart gave last night

  7. Is it unreasonable or unusual for that status of citizenship to be conferred to workers who have been in Bahrain for years, have laid down roots . It reminds me of past amnesty in the U.S. for illegals. It was done. I dont think kicking out current jobholders , to be replaced by Shia to achieve political parity would go down very well..
    But I do think that the King and parliament could enact antidiscrimination employment laws, for yes, the best qualified people, and move foward from there. Reward knowledge and skill, not a religious label.Lending practices, which would prohibit the redlining of Shia neighborhoods, which I imagine occurs, allow these , and even poor Sunni neighborhoods, not every Sunni is royalty, and rich….same the chance at economic development.
    Perhaps I am too naive and unfamiliar with the tribal backgrounds and history, etc, but I think both houses of their parliament can move to do these and move beyond growing impass.
    Just my thoughts and thank you for the enlightening insight.

    • Not very many expatriate workers are given citizenship, and no Shiites; the way it is being done is invidious and highly political and polarizing.

  8. Is there any way the expatriate workers could be a factor in the Bahrain movement? For instance, could expatriate workers sympathize with the Shi’ite community due to its lack of political power and strike in solidarity? Or could the workers side with the Sunnis instead because the Sunnis pay their salaries?

    I’m most intrigued by how the protest movements will work in the context of an Arabian peninsula monarchy. Protesters are saying they want a Constitutional Monarchy, but I wonder if the monarchy can survive a democratized Bahrain. Does the Bahraini throne have any legitimacy? (BTW: Aren’t the titles “Emir” and “King” arbitrary? I don’t think it makes much difference if the Khalifas call themselves Emir or King.)

  9. Seriously all these countries should just stop it with all the Shiaa, Sunni, Wahabbi, Salafi and Sufi bullshit… Ure Muslims right so why the need to segregate instead of focusing on uniting? All these are just ploys to keep political power and greed… Simple as that… Islam and our beloved Rasul Nabi Muhammad SAW is a light of mercy unto mankind where it preaches of justice, equality and fight against corruption, violence, prejudice and oppression…. Personal beliefs varies in accordance to different mazhabs as well but most of u fail to notice is that all the great Imams till the last Imam Syafiee was from the same ancestral lineage and that they are in fact continuing on their ancestors past works so that all Muslims can get a better understanding of Islam as the world continues to develop and progress… Thats all right since it forms part of fardhu ayin anyway or personal path of worship… Fardhu Kifayah thus needs to be upheld consistently to be gracious, humble, courteous, kind and helpful with each other and strengthen the ties of kinship in the ummah… Humble apologies for any errors or insensitivity my personal opinion may cause… Assalamualaikum… ;)

  10. The map doesn’t show the causeway that connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, the human pipeling for repressed Saudis to drive over and get hammered in Bahraini night clubs and cause all sorts of mischief. More conservative elements in Bahrain have been calling for the banning of alcohol and other curbs on what they feel has become far too licentious a society, a floating whorehouse held up as a ‘model’ of a modern Muslim country.

    There are protests every day against the goverment; these have been going on for years. The ‘Anerican’ street outside the naval base has also witnessed some protests over the years.

  11. I appologize for referencing him a lot, but Angry Arab gets lots of info and rapidly posts very important details like:

    Live update from Bahrain
    A comrade who should remain anonymous: “The following numbers are straight from the hospital in Bahrain

    • 5 dead, 2000 young adults injured, 400 elderly injured, 250 women injured, 70 children injured… 300 of the mentioned in critical condition
    •Police have attacked ambulance crews
    •blood donars heading to the hospital attacked. Only people that can safely go to the hospital are doctors and nurses with IDS
    link to


    Split in the royal family in Bahrain?
    Again: I can’t reveal the source: “From people connected to high people in the government and wish to remain absolutely anonymous. Please spread the word:

    – There is a split within the royal family. Khalid bin Ahmed and Khalifa bin Ahmed are on one side and the King and Shaikh Salman on the other. The extreme violence are Khalid Bin Ahmed (head of the royal court – sectarian and racist responsible for political naturalization scheme) and Khalifa Bin Ahmed (minister of defense). Sources are saying that the King no longer has full control. There are outside forces (I’m guessing Saudi Arabia) pushing for these two to take over and for Nasir Bin Hamed (one of kings sons) to take over position of crown prince
    (again please I need to be completely anonymous if you post – sorry I keep repeating this – we now feel we are in a war)
    Thank you so much for your help”
    link to

    I can see the Saudis not wanting Shiites in charge of Bahrain, or the USA for that matter. I still feel the key is Egypt. If the Egyptiasn people can wrest total control of the country from the military and subordinate the officer corps to rule by the people, then the whole Middle East equation will greatly change.

  12. It is not fair to tar Bahrain with the same brush we apply to many of the Arab states.
    Bahrain has moved steadily towards a democratic model, has emancipated women, provided a high standard of free education and heath care and enjoys a largely independent press, though TV is heavily managed.
    Of course the Shia population wants more – including the removal of the Khalifa family- and unemployment among the young is a problem it shares with the UK. But we should be careful to support the people – and the Government – of Bahrain in ways which consolidate the democratic progress.

    • Underlying the current public awakening in Bahrain, is not only the three seperate elements that make up the public fury, the so-called guest workers mainly indentured in enslaved working conditions, the similarly the less-employed Bahraini shia co-religionists and throughout all ethnic segements the ‘next generation’ including even young Sunni boys and girls. Todays unrest is driven in Bahrain and elsewhere by the next generation who wish to aspire and share the ambitions of young people around the world, and this is an aspiration that does not include any desire for kings and Queens, monarchial or celebrity?

  13. “It would not be an Iranian puppet, insofar as Arab Shiites are jealous of their independence and most Bahraini Shiites don’t follow ayatollahs”

    That’s EXACTLY what it would be, which is why HH has been told by the Saudis to kick the Shi’a back under their rocks.

    Saudi Arabia does not want Iranian influence on its doorstep, and it certainly does not want Iranian missiles aimed at its oil installations. Both of these are inevitable if the Shi’a take over Bahrain (not to mention the imprisonment and/or execution of the few Sunni that don’t manage to escape to neighbouring countries).

    If you want to see what sort of democracy would arrive in Bahrain if the Shi’a were given power, ask the Iranians who are still wondering what happened to their election.

    And ask what sort of “democracy” has a “Guardian council” to decide whether or not you are suitable to stand for election (that’s assuming they don’t rig it, of course).

    What is as stake for America is Saudi Arabia threatening to throw a spanner into their economy. And I have no doubt Israel are “advising” America not to be too hard on Bahrain’s rulers as well.

    • but is muuuuch better for U.S. to meddle everywhere and pressure everybody all to ensure people cannot have freedom and democracy; what does US stand for, anyway????

      US only cares about oil and keeping everybody else split up and constantly at war; US does not care about peace or people or anything else. period.

  14. “guest workers” what kind of jobs, pay, conditions? How do the poor of Bahrain compete against “guest workers” for jobs?

    What is the average income? Do the Bahraiian fat cats proide any kind of services, access to health care etc?

  15. US should never have meddled in others’ business; but the results are, as the author noted, just pent up revenge against imperialists, on top of the US repeatedly shooting itself in the foot with its’ puppet governments….

    real democracy is NOT being a US puppet. period.

  16. The whole economy of Bahrain is in fact based upon “cheap labour”, Long gone are the days of the highly renowned pearl diving industry, also the previous era of an oil refinery state subcontracting oil products for Kuwait, Irak,Iran and other producers, And in a way Bahrain has attempted to rival Beirut in entrepot services and banking, all of this growth was based upon the original pearl-fishing families who sought diversification from the pearl trade. Just as relevant, Britian has always sought to be the hidden hand behind the Kingdom (as once in Lebanon its ME intelligence resources were relocated to Bahrain) and to protect its post-Suez interests it willing became secret funder and organisator of the Bahraini police and armed forces, managed by well trusted former British colony security experts from Africa and Asia. This semi-colonial approach is replicated in its labour market today.

    • Fantastic post Prof and Baldeagle! Baldeagle could you please explain a bit more about the “semi-colonial” labour market? Thanks

  17. Does anyone have any info on the participation of Guest Workers in the protests in Bahrain? I have not been able to find much information on the extent to which Guest workers are involved in the protests. Thanks!

  18. I can only the surmise that the participation of “guest workers in Bahrain” in the current popular movement for change, is subject to their individual contract status and nationality. For example for those hundreds of thousands living in crampt encampments who work in the construction and related industries, mainly orignating from Asia, will be like a similar number from that region employed in the hospitality industry (including very many home service industry workers), self-constrained to act, by fear of deportation and indebitness and worse! And the others from Europe and the west will not want to offend their Bahraini clients who pay them tax-free and retain their passport,etc, until the job is finished to the clients total satisfaction. So except a few site workers who have been able to joint the crowds and to listen to the speech-making on the streets, their participation is likely to be minimal. But not to say that such site workers have not protested publicly against their Bahrain employers in the past, but on a much smaller scale. Also but not openly discussed by the media, is the very deep general feeling among those guest workers, and the national Bahrani who are unemployed, is a yearning on the part of the shia majoritity to enjoy the same prospects and benefits of their co-religionist in Iran, by ending the artifical division of the Island of Bahrain from its original homeland Persia ( todays, republic of Iran) which less than half-a-century ago was given up to the British in a secret treaty by the monarchial userper the Shah of Persia.

  19. Since taking control, the ruling Arabs have imported laborers for both blue collar and white collar work in Bahrain. Southeast Asians even fill immigration and customs positions while native Bahrainis and Persian-speakers are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. Be “quiet” or risk deportation, imprisonment and torture.

  20. Actually, the so-called Bahrani monarchy have always been in a daze about their ascendency into’ Rulers’, even the current familiy could hardly believe their luck that they had become sheiks let alone kings? And in the current phase of popular enfranchisement, they will most likely agree to anything to maintain their previous status, except, that is the stragetic interests of the american empire which are most likely to persuaded them to adopt a ” libanise political soloution “. A soloution whereby a tri-party secular regime of business moguls are empowered to run this persian gulf strategique island and to offer a post-Beirut role in a future limited role as a tax haven-cum-trading post!

Comments are closed.