Since World War II Bahrain has continuously hosted naval facilities supporting U.S. activities in the Middle East. Today Manama houses the Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain), the base where both the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) naval activities and the U.S. Navy 5th fleet headquarters are located. The headquarters are next to a Shiite suburb not far from Pearl Roundabout, the main site of the Bahraini protest. At the heart of the Persian Gulf, the base is a key strategic asset for U.S. presence in the Middle East. Besides overlooking the Persian Gulf's oil fields and trade routes, Manama represents a fundamental outpost facing Iran. The operations supporting the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are also directed from the NSA Bahrain. Moreover, the 5th fleet is in charge of the anti-piracy efforts off the Somali coast, since its operational area cover also the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Last year the U.S. provided Bahrain with $21 million in military assistance[i]. Moreover, the base itself and the services linked to its daily activities are a source of income for the local economy.
However, the long-standing alliance between the U.S. and the Al Khalifa house - which rules Bahrain - could now endanger this privileged position in the Gulf. The possibility of an overthrow of the current Bahraini regime can cause a domino effect on other states of the Arabian peninsula, all involved in a regional security system backed up by the U.S. Besides, Iran is eager to take advantage of this new dynamic developing and welcomes the deterioration of the situation in order to play a major role in the Arab world. The Bahraini uprising could serve as a good moment for Iranian ambitions, particularly due to the Shiite religious link. Actually, 70% of Bahrain’s population is Shiite. Shi’ism was introduced in 1602 after the Persian conquest of the island and Bahraini Arab Shiites consider themselves the true original inhabitants of Bahrain. Nevertheless, the island has been ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa house since 1783. The political and socio-economic marginalization of the Shiite population has grown after the Iranian Revolution in 1978/79, since the Sunni government has been challenging their loyalty. Moreover, the security forces are almost exclusively Sunni; many of them have been recruited outside Bahrain and granted Bahraini citizenship. This clear sectarian division between protesters and security forces is unlikely to produce a situation similar to Egypt or Tunisia, where the military finally identified itself with the crowds[ii]. However, if the security forces' loyalty strengthens the regime, a strong repressive response can exacerbate the protest and its claims. In case of a radicalisation of the protest Iran is ready to support the Al Khalifa's overthrow. The risk of a Shiite revolt is also a matter of great concern to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. major military ally in the region and the main supporter of the Sunni Al Khalifa family. Between 10 and 15 per cent of Saudi Arabia's population are Shiite Muslims and like the Bahraini Shiites they suffer from a similar marginalization under the Al Saud regime. A large majority of them live in the Eastern Province, which produces most of the country's oil and they have close cultural and historical[iii] ties with neighbouring Bahrain[iv].
At this very moment of the protest, neither a sectarian claim has been manifested nor has a praise of the Iranian model been propagated by the Shiite opposition. The protesters have been careful to describe their revolt as non-sectarian and the leading Shiite party al-Wefaq maintains an attitude open to dialogue[v]. Until now the protesters’ demands have addressed the resignation of the government, the release of political prisoners and the investigation over the deaths of protesters[vi]. Dialogue with the Shiite opposition and a process of reforms are two long-time options favoured by the U.S. in order to get over the potentially dangerous sectarian divide and to keep in power a friendly regime[vii]. The appointment of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa as broker of dialogue with the country's opposition after the heavy crackdown of the first days seems to be a first step into this direction.
Nonetheless, the situation in Yemen is more complicated. ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih has ruled the unified country since 1990; he was also the former President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990. The need for a strong government in Sana'a, wh ich is able to face Al Qaeda’s proliferation in Yemen, assured Salih U.S. military support[viii]. The overthrow of his regime is the common goal that unities the heterogeneous Yemeni opposition. Yemeni society is very fragmented and divided by deep internal divisions and the escalation of the ongoing protest is only the latest incident of the country’s long-lasting internal conflicts. While the students of the University of Sana’a ignited the protest, which was inspired by the popular uprising in Tunisia[ix], the opposition parties and movements soon started leading the demonstrations. A heterogeneous political opposition to Salih's regime has coalesced leftist, secular liberal, nationalist and various Islamist trends into the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) since 2002. In the southern provi nces, which used to be the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the al-Harak movement has been asking for greater autonomy[x]. Over the last few days, protesters in Aden protesters have been calling for secession and a separatist leader was arrested[xi]. South Yemen concentrates the nation’s hydrocarbon industry and its ports and thus its secession would lead to a lack of resources and possibly to the collapse of the regime in Sana’a. Another secessionist threat comes from the north. It is the conflict between the central government and the Houti clans, in the north-west governorate of Sa'da at the border with Saudi Arabia, which has caused between 20,000 and 30,000 casualties since 2004. The rivalries and clashes among the clans are another factor of societal fragmentation in a society where personal ownership of small arms is widespread and which is still not very urbanized. The Houti's revolt is both political and cultural in nature. Historically, the Sa'da region enjoyed a great autonomy before the proclamation of the North Yemen Republic. The fact that Sa'da's population is mainly Zaydi Shiite strengthens its feeling of marginalization inside the Yemeni State. The Zaydis, whose political theology is different from the Twelver Shi’ism, represent another Shiite minority in the Arabian peninsula. Sana’a has accused Iran of supporting the rebellion but the lack of evidence seems to exclude any Iranian implication[xii].
If the Yemeni government continues to focus on its internal unrest while striving for its survival, the main concern for the U.S. and the international community will be Al Qaeda’s proliferation in the country[xiii]. Certainly, the internal conflicts can cause the collapse of the weak Yemeni State. Hence, Sana’a considers these menaces as the main goal of its security efforts. On the other hand, the U.S. -but also Saudi Arabia and the E.U.- demand that a strong government in Sana’a must deal primarily with counter-terrorism. The Houti war absorbed the greatest part of U.S. military and intelligence aid ($150 million in 2010, up from $5 million in 2005). This aid was assigned mainly to fight the Al Qaeda infiltration in the country[xiv]. The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active node of the terrorist organization. Besides, there is also a great risk that Al Qaeda will establish tactical alliances with some of the forces fighting the Salih regime. A long-standing regime with no real alternative for its replacement. If in Bahrain the resolution of the crisis relies on the real will and capability of the Al Khalifa family to meet the protesters' demands, the Yemeni societal fragility leads to more concerns about the future of the country. What is at stake here is not the chance of having to deal with a new even hostile regime, but the real risk here is another Somalia leaning on the Arabian Sea.
[i] Janine Zacharia, “Bahrain demonstrators return to protest site in capital after military withdraws”, The Washington Post (19/02/2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/18/AR2011021805589.html?hpid=topnews (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[ii] Bernard Guertzman, Is Bahrain's Regime Next to Fall?, Council on Foreign Relations, (18/02/2011), http://www.cfr.org/bahrain/bahrains-regime-next-fall/p24169 (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[iii] The historical region of Bahrain stretched from the south of Basra along the Persian Gulf coast and included the regions of Kuwait, Al-Hasa, Qatif, Qatar, and the Awal Islands (present-day Bahrain). The name "Bahrain" referred to the eastern mainland Arabia until the 16th century at least.
[iv] Jim Lobe, “Bahrain unrest tests US diplomacy”, Al Jazeera News (18/02/2011), http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/02/2011218152740793787.html (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[v] BBC News, “Bahrain opposition set demands for talks with royals”, (20/02/2011), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12517291 (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[vi] Caroline Hawley, “Bahrain opposition set demands for talks with royals”, BBC News (20/02/2011), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12517291 (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[vii] Elizabeth Dickinson, “Cables illuminate U.S. Relations with Bahrain, potential for unrest”, Foreign Policy (17/02/2011), http://wikileaks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/02/17/cables_on_bahrain (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[viii] Steven Erlanger “In Yemen, U.S. Faces Leader Who Puts Family First”, The New York Times (04/01/2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/05/world/middleeast/05saleh.html (accessed on February 19, 2011)
[ix] Isobel Coleman, “A Day in the Life of a Yemeni Revolutionary”, Council on Foreign Realtions (20/01/2011), http://www.cfr.org/democracy-and-human-rights/day-life-yemeni-revolutionary/p23845 (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[x] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean”, Middle East Report Online (09/02/2011), http://merip.org/mero/mero020911.html (accessed on February 20, 2011)
[xi] Reuters Africa, “Thousands of south Yemen protesters demand secession”, (February 11, 2011), http://af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE71A0TW20110211?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0 (accessed on February 21, 2011)
[xii] Barack Salmoni, “Yemen's Forever War: the Houti Rebellion”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (20/07/2010), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3228 (accessed on February 19, 2011)
[xiii] Al Jazeera, “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, (29/12/2009), http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/12/2009122935812371810.html (accessed on February 19, 2011)
[xiv] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean”, Middle East Report Online (09/02/2011), http://merip.org/mero/mero020911.html (accessed on February 19, 2011)