Bahrain—Electing A New People…And Shooting The Old One
killing by government forces of five Shi`ite protestors
in the Persian Gulf statelet of Bahrain,
headquarters for the
U.S. Fifth Fleet, turns out upon examination to be
deeply intertwined with Bahrain`s
diversity and immigration.
turn out to be uncomfortably not completely dissimilar to
The indigenous population of
Bahrain is about two-thirds Shi`ite Muslim. The local
Shi`ites tend to view Bahrain`s Sunni upper class as
Johnny-come-lately usurpers (the ruling
Al-Khalifa dynasty are Sunnis from the Arabian mainland
who conquered Bahrain in 1783). The Shi`ites feel the Sunnis
against them in hiring for government jobs and that they
import cheap labor to
drive down their wages. (Over half the population of Bahrain
is now foreign-born.)
Most explosively, the Shi`ites argue that
the minority Sunni rulers of Bahrain have been trying, in
elect a new people by importing Sunni
mercenaries from poorer countries and
them on the path to citizenship. Ian Black, Mideast
editor of The Guardian
reported on February 17, 2011:
"Al Khalifa regime
hires non-native Sunni Muslims in concerted effort to swing
balance in Shia-majority Bahrain, say analysts"
Similarly, Bill Law of the BBC reported on
his 2007 visit with unemployed native Shi`ite youths in
troops fire on crowds" [February 18, 2011]:
was also told of how the government was hiring men from
Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan—all Sunni—to serve in the
police and security forces. Fast-tracked to citizenship,
they were able to
jump the queue for housing and also had voting rights
that skewed the demographic in favour of candidates
supported by the al-Khalifas."
Bahrain`s Sunnis Defend Monarchy in the
New York Times
[February 17, 2011], Michael Slackman reported on the
opinions of the well-educated Sunni minority:
"Bahrain … is divided along sectarian lines and politics is
often regarded as a zero-sum game — if Sunnis win, then
Shiites lose, in a community where
sectarian identification trumps national identity. …
[To Sunnis] a police
force staffed by foreigners is preferable to a police force
staffed by Shiite citizens."
June 22, 2009, Yaroslav Trofimov noted in the
Wall Street Journal
U.S. Navy Fleet`s Mideast Home Is Facing Rise in Sectarian
`There seems to be a clear political strategy to alter the
country`s demographic balance in order to counter the Shiite
voting power,` says
Toby C. Jones, professor of Middle East studies at
Rutgers University and a former Bahrain-based analyst at the
Group think tank. `This naturalization stuff is a time
Brian Murphy and Hadeel Al-Shalchi of the
Associated Press report in
Bahrain`s Sunni outreach fuels protests[February 19,
policies anger Bahrain`s Shiites more than bestowing
citizenship to outside Sunnis, mostly Arabs but also from
Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
“On the broadest
level, it`s a clear attempt to offset the lopsided
demographics with Shiites comprising 70 percent of the
country`s 525,000 citizens. But to many Shiites, it also
reflects a cynical view by Bahrain`s leaders that it`s
possible to buy loyalty and use that to strengthen their
grip over the country.
"The problem is that
this army is not a national one," said Sheik Hassain al-Dahi
of the main Shi`ite opposition party].
"It is made up of people
do not share our traditions or culture, and do not have
the best interest of the people at heart."
Not surprisingly, these
foreign-born Sunni gunmen appear much less reluctant to
open fire on Bahrain`s native-born Shi`ite protestors than,
Egypt`s conscript soldiers have been to shoot fellow
Egyptians in Cairo. For all of Egypt`s
severe problems, its relatively homogeneous population
has helped it, so far,
avoid the worst.
American perspective, Bahrain is interesting for two
First: Bahrain has been a
mercantile center for centuries. So, it hasn`t been
quite as indolent and backward as most of the Persian
in that region are perhaps the most stiflingly hot and humid
in the world, and most locals outside Bahrain showed
correspondingly little initiative. When Americans discovered
vast reserves of oil under Bahrain`s neighbors in the
mid-20th Century, the Bahrainis kept something of a middle
class by refining their neighbors` oil and selling them
In other words, Bahrain`s social and
political problems are somewhat analogous to our own.
Bahrain, where 54 percent of the population is foreign-born,
dystopian sci-fi novel about a future America. (In
contrast, Saudi Arabia`s problems, such as
schoolgirls being forced back into a
building by the
Immodesty Police, are kind of hard for
Americans to relate to.)
Bahrain, for instance, young men complain about a lack of
jobs. Yet there are actually, quite a few jobs in Bahrain.
foreigners have a huge share of them.
large and growing population of young people … meant that
new jobs should be created rapidly. But because foreigners
make up some 65 percent of the workforce, there has been
little room for
market growth. According to opposition sources,
unemployment was as high as 30 percent. Particular criticism
was directed against Shaykh `Isa
[father of the current king]
for continuing to allow an influx of
cheap foreign labor rather than provide jobs for
Bahrain`s citizens. In July 1994, a petition was signed by
1,200 unemployed youth requesting the government to deal
with their problems; the response was to crack down on
So the Kingdom of Bahrain isn`t that
different, after all … other than that its citizens
to be more outspoken about immigration.
Similarly, importing foreigners to do the
jobs Bahrainis just won`t do tends to turn those jobs into
Bahrainis just won`t do, just as
H-1B visas are turning
computer programming into
Americans just won`t do.
much of the Middle East, the U.S. actually does have
some element of national interest tied up in
Bahrain, where the
U.S. Navy stations
personnel ashore, a couple of miles from the clashes.
is hardly the only naval base the U.S. could use in the
Persian Gulf as its regional headquarters. But for a couple
of decades, Bahrain has suited the interests of both the
Gulf Arabs and the U.S.
An in-law of mine who was a
Naval officer was stationed in Bahrain for several
years. He says it got old fast. There are certainly more fun
Naval bases to be assigned to—oh, say,
Honolulu or Coronado Island in
Diego Harbor—but there also are worse places in the
Persian Gulf than Bahrain.
In most parts of the globe, the
widespread urge to have our military play
Team America: World Police is expensive for the
American taxpayers and hard to justify rationally. On the
other hand, policing the Persian Gulf to prevent banditry,
small and large, has clear economic logic behind it.
Strategically speaking, the Persian Gulf is
Prize" a region absurdly well-endowed with oil,
relative to the military competence of the locals.
When oil pumping got going in the Persian
Gulf in the 1940s, U.S. oil firms paid royalties that seemed
more munificent to
camel-riding sheiks than they did to the oil companies`
accountants. The American firms passed on some of their
savings to American consumers, who built a hugely prosperous
suburban economy based upon gasoline at $0.29 per gallon.
Then a savvy Venezuelan oil minister named
Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo studied how the
restricted pumping to
drive up oil prices. In 1960, he founded a would-be
called the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Eventually, the Persian Gulf potentates came around to his
way of thinking. Their oil boycott and price increases
Yom Kippur war of 1973 kicked off
The Great Stagnation in prosperity for the average
It could be worse, however. OPEC`s ability
to raise prices depends upon its twelve members,
six of them
in the Persian Gulf, agreeing upon voluntary cutbacks in
output. In the 1970s,
Arab populations were low enough that their governments,
especially the Saudis, could afford to limit their own
national production for the good of OPEC. OPEC`s huge
successes in the 1970s were dependent upon underpopulated
Saudi Arabia good-naturedly not retaliating when the
Shah of populous Iran cheated on his promises to cut
A generation and a half of
population growth, however, has made it much harder for
all of the Gulf exporters to afford to cooperate. For
example, Saudi Arabia`s
population has almost quadrupled since 1973.
policy since the 1970s has been, in effect, to pay
market prices for the oil—even conquering Kuwait in 1991 and
in 2003 didn`t lead to American appropriation of oil—but
to prevent consolidation within the region, such as Iraq`s
stickup of Kuwait in 1990. The
theory of oligopolies states that, all else being equal,
the fewer the decision makers, the more likely the cartel is
various governments of the Persian Gulf have to sell their
oil to survive economically. But the more oil exporters that
remain independent in the region, the harder it is for them
to make their cartel work to raise prices.
Going back as far as
FDR`s meeting with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1945,
the rather feckless Gulf Arab rulers have tended to prefer
the distant and powerful U.S. as their protector against
closer threats, such as the
during the Cold War, Egypt`s Pan-Arabist president
Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Iraq`s Saddam Hussein
in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Iranians, under both
the Shah and ayatollahs.
The Persians have not shown themselves to
be terribly dynamic militarily. Iran hasn`t invaded a
foreign country in at least a century and a half. And it
doesn`t seem to be gearing up to invade anybody right now.
military budget was $9 billion (compared to America`s
$663 billion). That`s only 2.7 percent of GDP (compared to
America`s 4.3 percent).
So the Iranian Shi`ite theocracy`s main
hope for extending its power in the Gulf is thus through
subversion of neighboring Sunni regimes with large
Shi`ite populations. Above all, Saudi Arabia—which is ruled
by Sunnis, but in which the main oil-producing regions are
Bahrain, along with Iran, Iraq, and
Azerbaijan, are the only Muslim countries with Shi`ite
majorities. Ever since
invasion of Iraq, which managed to replace a virulently
anti-Iranian Sunni regime with a pro-Iranian Shi`ite
government, Bahrain has been the only Shi`ite majority
country ruled by Sunnis.
Thus, Iran sponsored coup attempts in
Bahrain in 1981 and
1994. Yet both failed.
Do Shi`ites in Bahrain, some of whom are
Persian descent, some of Arab descent, look to Iran more
now than in the past? I wouldn`t think the Iranian regime is
all that galvanizing in 2011, but I really don`t know.
Would Shi`ite revolution then spread from
Bahrain to the nearby oil fields of Saudi Arabia?
Well, one advantage of being an old coot
like me is that when the latest worries come along, after a
while you remember that you already worried about it long
ago … and got bored. Folks, I was
worrying about Iran taking over the Shi`ite oil zone of
Saudi Arabia in
1979. Despite all the complex theories I constructed at
the time about how this was about to happen, it didn`t. And
it hasn`t happen over the last 32 years. Will it happen over
the next 32 years?
Theoretically, Iran wouldn`t need
ownership to exercise pumping restraint to drive up
prices—if Tehran could put the word out to the new Shi`ite
oil regimes that they were all going to cut back, a Shi`ite
consortium might be able to have sufficient market power to
But, that all seems terribly theoretical.
I strongly doubt that separate Shi`ite states would or could
coordinate that much, sacrificing their own sales because
they trust the others to cut back too. There are good
reasons that people in that part of the world aren`t very
trusting of each other.
So the U.S. may get lucky in the Gulf. But the demographic
situation is unquestionably unstable. And Bahrain is an
object lesson in how a ruling class is
can use immigration policy as a weapon against its own
people. Even the Bahraini ruling class gets away with
it, that`s no
guarantee that our American rulers will.