As I finish this article, a sequel to my earlier one, it is late Monday, February 21st, and I am heading out of Bahrain. By the time I arrive in the West, the impact of the Tuesday deadline – the demands of the protestors and the response from the royal family will be unfolding. Whatever happens will not be settled in an evening, a day or a week. Whether the prince or king release political prisoners (Shiites who likely tried to undermine the government), which I suspect that he will to a degree, or the national guard disperses the protestors (I doubt will happen on Tuesday unless true civil unrest and violence occurs), or multiple events occur through the area, is less important than how the real chess game is played. This article is about what truly underpins the events in Bahrain, and the region, as pertain to the tiny island kingdom.
Saturday, 19 February Arrival – Bahrain…what to expect
After all the pre-travel hype from the media that the Middle East was awash in revolution, and Manama (Bahrain) was embroiled in street wide protests, with tanks, police and mayhem, I half expected that my flight to Bahrain would include Soldier of Fortune instead of Flight Luxury Magazine in the seatback pocket. Thoughts turned to flight attendants announcing “We are preparing to land in Manama. In the event of an attack, reach under your seat for a Kevlar® flak jacket, grab the helmet that will drop from above your head, and, open the tray table to find a Sig Sauer with two extra clips. RPGs will be made available as we rush down emergency exit ramps that double as ATVs. Welcome to Bahrain. We hope you enjoy your stay!”
What I found instead was an uneventful landing, smiling people, and a beautiful airport that was extremely quiet, and relatively empty – uncharacteristic of Middle East airports – even the ones on the golden North Coast of the Saudi Peninsula. The airport demonstrated the almost whimsical contrasts becoming so typical of the Middle East. Consider walking off the plane towards baggage claim – a law enforcement officer stands next to a series of posters showcasing the magnificent new high rises being built in his tiny but overall prosperous island nation. And next to the posters are a display of 20 or more multicolored stuffed snakes reminiscent of the kind you would win at a carnival. Stuffed snakes, uniforms, luxury apartment buildings…welcome to Bahrain. You just instinctively, reflexively have to smile at the scene. You also have to be concerned about the lack of travelers into, and out of the airport (did most of them already bail out?)
Near the arrival gate I was greeted by my driver – a non Bahraini – who welcomed me all smiles and immediately began extolling the virtues of Bahrain – his adopted home. The usual pleasantries were exchanged; where are you from, how long will you be staying here, so on and so forth. As if it was time to name the elephant in the room, our conversation quickly turned to the protestors. Before long we were ascending the causeway – an overpass that looks out upon the Pearl Roundabout, which has been the primary site of protesting.
At the onset let us get a few things straight for accuracy-sake. The protests are taking place at a roundabout – that’s right – what we New Englanders refer to as a “rotary” – it is not a square, as the media and those trying to sensationally exploit the situation would have you believe, a la Tiananmen Square or recent events at Squares in Egypt and other Middle East nations where protests are going on. And with the exception of one tempestuous night, the crowds from insiders, and information sources, has been small to moderate. It is a relatively small area, on one side an embankment leads to a highway overpass. The rest of the roundabout is fed by a series of small streets. In usual Middle East fashion, people stop their cars on those streets, temporarily abandoning them to join the protest, or merely catch a closer glimpse of the activities. Some avail themselves of the food purveyors. I kid you not. Every manner of merchandising is present, except perhaps a custom t shirt vendor. Give them time. Hmmm, maybe I missed an entrepreneurial opportunity. Remind me to call my contacts back there and franchise my copyrighted idea “I’ve been to the Popcorn Revolution in Bahrain.”
As an aside, why did I nickname the protests as “The Popcorn Revolution?” Well for starters, at the onset, some folks had the presence of mind to bring party food. There are popcorn machines there….I kid you not! People mill about, occasionally someone yammers from a speaker. The police move traffic along without being mean-spirited or aggressive. Of note, the police drive Dodge Chargers, and several appear to be of Indian or other nationality. They are restrained, and realize cars are slowing to watch what is going on. The scene is orderly and seemingly non-threatening. But for me, this is a false image. Flashpoint could be just around the corner.
Let me interject again….’war’ and ‘peace’ are two sides of the same coin in the Middle East; either can give way to the other in a New York minute. One can enjoy the moment over here, but never let your guard down, or forget the fact that this is a volatile region, populated with a diverse, often impassioned population. Moreover, just because one neighborhood or region is in a state of mayhem, doesn’t mean the other parts of the city or country aren’t enjoying relative tranquility. This is the African way, this is the Middle Eastern way. And to some extent, it happens in the US. People don’t avoid vacationing in LA because South Central can be a war zone.
Continuing with my first evening observations….A crane is poised near the Pearl Roundabout monument (a series of semi curved supports, holding what appears to be a gigantic pearl, in honor of Bahrain’s early and once time highly lucrative commercial industry – pearls), and hoists a very large version of the red and white Kuwaiti flag. People line the side of the road wrapped in flags, cheering cars, holding hands in a “peace sign,” and generally appearing in good, and peaceful spirits. Clearly much different than the events of the night before – where police and protestors seemed to clash, and resulting in some casualties – the exact number varies, depending upon whether you are the protestors (it was a blood bath from Pearl to the hospital), to the sympathetic media who echo that chorus, to the government (few minor injuries and regrettably some deaths).
Chants of “one Bahrain, one people” fill the air as we descend the overpass towards the hotel.My driver shoots a furtive look at hearing that. I ask him, what does that mantra mean and what does he think. Given where I’m staying and my overall appearance, he considers me straight up and not a government listener. And yes, this is a kingdom, not a republic or democracy. People are spied upon – native and visitor. Moscow rules – someone is always watching and listening. Such is life. But to survive, people realize it is often as or more important to know what your friends are thinking as well as your enemies. My driver understands this. Most of us in the security arena recognize it. Never the less, he did share some interesting insights, that over my time in Bahrain, proved pretty close to the mark. “It is all a lie what they say. They are Shia, they are not Sunni. They want to remove the government. This is a good country, good opportunity. We do not support them (Shia), and have our own pro government rally later on this evening. You will see.”
“You are Sunni?” I asked. “Yes.”“What is the real grievance among the protestors?”“They want to get rid of the king and prime minister. They want to take power. They want to change how things go here. The king is a good man – he has done much for this country – new roads, jobs, better healthcare, modern housing.”How do you know this is a Shia protest and not “one Bahrain” with folks from both Islamic traditions?“Ask them their names – they will be Shia, not Sunni. Look closely – you will see black or green flags, or black bandanas. These are what Shiites do, not Sunni. Be careful as you go around the city, you will see sections that do not fly the Kuwait flag, but fly black or green flags; they are Shia and dangerous.”
Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by a variety of security professionals. My intelligence and security friends had told me certain hotel chains had hired special security in addition to their in house teams. It reminded me of the approach to Ben Gurion airport – security folks holding long armed mirrors looking under the carriage, several guards behind a gate ready to respond, others checking inside both passenger and driver side, while the last ones check the trunk. It was fast and courteous, as in Tel Aviv. In a matter of minutes we were driving up the long, palm tree lined approach to the hotel – a very short distance from the Pearl Roundabout, not that in the serenity of the grounds, you’d know that only a mile or so away were a thousand or more protestors.
This morning brought some work and a meeting with other security professionals. Then it was time for a ‘meet and greet’…so I headed to Pearl Roundabout, other parts of Manama, and the countryside to see first-hand what was going on. Over the course of my visit to Bahrain, I interacted with media folks, protestors, locals – expats from around the region, members of both Shiite and Sunni factions, and people well placed in both Kingdoms – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. What follows is my take on Bahrain and its importance to the Gulf, to Saudi Arabia and to the United States – in a nutshell, the stakes are high, and Bahrain matters to us.
At the Pearl Roundabout
After running across eight lanes of traffic to get to an easy access point, I engaged in conversation with the crowds. Many of their first names identified them as Shiites. A fact some tried to hide. The spirit of the crowd – about 1000 or so, was overall festive. I passed on the popcorn. But there was also an undertone anyone accustomed to the Middle East immediately felt. A sense that with just the right instigation or provocation – either from a trouble maker within the group looking to pick a fight, or a government misstep, this entire event could turn violent and spread throughout the capital. Which is why the US raised the threat level to a 5; hastening the cancellation of several meetings in the region, as they now posed a liability threat and such warnings portend a clear sense of risk.
I spoke with dozens of the folks there – mostly men, a few boys and some elderly, but the majority in their 20’s and 30’s. What do they want? Lots of answers – each of which could be diverted by someone more enthusiastic, or emotional. One didn’t get a real sense except for broad statements.
Then, a most telling situation. After about twenty minutes of discussion, two men approached – each carrying a photograph of someone with most of his head and face blown off – supposedly two of the victims of the police shootings the night before is what the crowd was told. Photoshop or real??? And the two men were followed by several men – older than most of the crowd, and larger. These guys were strident in their antipathy towards the police, the government e.g. the prime minister (king’s uncle), king and crown prince. Where before most of the crowd wanted the prime minister gone, more opportunity for jobs and a parliament that allowed for a greater voice for all Bahrainis, once the large guys arrived, everyone fell into lock step with the notion – the royal family must go, and democracy (i.e. majority – Shiite) rule. The folks I was speaking to, who originally were more moderate, immediately fell in line, nodding with the force of a bobble head doll in a Ferrari on the Autobahn. I almost offered neck braces for the likely ensuing injury. Although I suspect they are used to this series of behaviors and gyrations.
When I engaged one of the large men, he came close to entering my personal space as he emotionally, loudly discussed the murders, the disappearance of people over the last few days by the government, the need for a new government in Bahrain, the need to get rid of the royal family. Not exactly the popcorn Kumbaya I had experienced earlier. These guys were for real, and they had a mission. As he continued to approach me, three of the younger men I was talking with earlier, came between us, and, putting a lighter air into the conversation, interrupted the large guy, and in quieter tones tried to moderate the discussion, lest I come away with the wrong impression, which they feverishly tried to impress upon me. Very well orchestrated.
As counterpoint, it should be noted every night one also sees a counter protest by Sunni who are loyal to the king, and are letting it be known the protest at Pearl Roundabout does not represent all Bahrain. Their cars line the highways, and supporters walk the streets with their own rallies.
Interestingly many of the Pearl Roundabout protestors (Shiite), when you get them one on one, will say they like the King; it is the Prime Minister they want to go. He is holding them back. He is preventing them from getting jobs. He is the one keeping them from joining the police or military. He must go. Then, and not unexpectedly, one or two men (large men) will join in on the conversation. I’d suggest they are the enforcers – the agents provocateur who will get the crowd riled up and speak passionately about the events, take over the conversation, and burst into the rehearsed party line that many people have been killed, many more have disappeared, that the government must go – from King Hamad, to the crown prince and prime minister. They show photos of victims with their faces blown off. Photo shop or real, you decide. They emote with such force you think they will cry as they describe the plight of ambulance drivers being stopped from helping the injured. The mainstream media have picked up this rallying cry and, like a bad game of operator, promulgate the emotional narrative, lock step, chapter and verse. Regardless of proof positive.In fact, one could argue the events in Bahrain, and the rest of the Middle East have been coordinated and orchestrated.
I was correct in predicting Morocco would become another nation with protests, when the pundits said it would never happen. The problem with pundits, they rarely look in the eye of, or talk with folks in the street – the very folks who march, riot, and are influenced if not influencer of such events. I do. And looking in the eyes of the folks in the Pearl Roundabout protests, smiles and happy voices notwithstanding, there is a very real threat here that could escalate to a flash point in minutes or hours. I suspect there will be thousands protesting on Tuesday.
Why Bahrain Matters To The US
For starters geography. Look across the water and you see Iran. Imagine Iran in command, proxy or otherwise on both sides of that waterway. Our Fifth Fleet has a home in Bahrain. Our friends make up that corner of the region. Then there are the oil fields. Then there’s Kuwait and Saudi. Then the Emirates.
Then there is history – Iran claims rights to Bahrain – mind you a centuries old claim, but memories run long in the region, something the West often forgets. To many Muslims, the Crusades are still fresh in their minds.
Then there is politics – Bahrain falling, while our fleet, the Saudi national guard and close ties with the Kingdom are right there – A US and Saudi ally falling to Iran – speak about bragging rights in the Middle East. If Egypt was significant, this would be seismic.
Then there is money – Bahrain is a successful regime. Most countries that aren’t true theocratic enterprises are, and enjoy decent standards of living in the region. So while Islam and Middle Eastern nations are inextricable, Sharia is understood, if not fully implemented – religion and daily life are nearly one in the region, unlike Western nations that may be built upon some Judeo-Christian principals, but are not truly governed by religious practice or fiat. Having a Shiite control would be damaging to the economy, to our interests, oh and to women.
The Real Story
Having spent a few days in the Kingdom of Bahrain, mixing in with the protestors, wandering about Manama and other parts of Bahrain, and interviewing a wide range of people – expats, Sunni, Shia, Christian, the occasional Jew and Hindu, it becomes clear that this is a Shiite protest. Any disclaimer from the crowds, the Obama Administration, or mainstream media for that matter, to the contrary, is utter falsehood. The media, most of the Administration and the West, so badly want to believe that Iran isn’t behind this, or the protests aren’t a religion motivated movement, that the protestors are not Shiite led nor even Iran instigated nor Muslim Brotherhood assisted, that they readily embrace the deception promulgated and perpetrated by the crowds who shout “not Shia, not Sunni, we are Bahraini.” Let’s be clear…Those who are shouting at Pearl Roundabout are Shia. Not Sunni. Black flags, green flags are not being flown by Sunni. Nor are headbands in black or green being worn by anyone but Shiites.
What do the protestors want? Jobs, equality, greater human rights?
Among the loudest of chants is for jobs, equality, fairness – the putative prime motivation of the protestors (Shiites) would naturally resonate with the West, and by extension the Media. Alas, in our sound bite driven world that either plays into or fosters our superficial examination of or understanding concerning most issues, but especially the Middle East.
It is only natural, albeit ill conceived, to view the world through the prism of our own world vision and experiences. But policymakers should not have the luxury to interpret Middle East behaviors, and thus draw (erroneous) conclusions based upon how we in the West would behave given those circumstances. The Middle East sensibility is not a Western one. We are entirely different cultures. We have walked far different paths, have extraordinarily different histories and draw from far different heritage.
But let’s be frank. The Shiites have a proclivity for posing a threat to Sunni leaders – but this is only a multicentury problem; I’m sure it will go away with the blessings of 1600 and the main stream media!
So as a Sunni king, if I perceive you or your group (Shiite) as wanting to kill me, why on earth would I give such people weapons, access to the inner workings of the military, law enforcement or intelligence communities? Call me crazy, but I’d like to keep a pulse until my natural expiration date runs out, thank you very much. Duh….Of course I’m going to hire from within (Sunni) or from outside the danger zone (India, the Emirates, Qatar and elsewhere). I’m not condoning the behavior. Not condemning it either. But I’m not a Sunni monarch facing hostile, armed and traditionally adversarial people.
Remember this isn’t the US. We are a young nation. A bastard or orphan nation. Most hail from “the old world” two or more generations removed. Our religious traditions have long since ceased to be tantamount to being matches a la Manchester United versus Liverpool, as they were in the 70’s and 80’s when Catholics and Protestants had major rifts here and abroad. Tribal and religious rivalries trace back over 1000 years in the Middle East – as blood sport and grudge matches the most ardent football/soccer fanatic could barely fathom. Imposing Western sensibilities and judgments on sovereign survival, especially among our friends, is arrogant, foolhearty, and dangerous. It doesn’t promote warm feelings. To be sure, some of the choice jobs are not going to Shiites.
On the other hand, the king just authorized 1000 Bahraini Dinars (~$3000) to Bahrainis – regardless of religion. Add to this, the minimum wage in Bahrain is higher than in many other regional nations, including Saudi Arabia. Unemployment is less than 4% – for the entire island nation! There is also a safety net, which on a monthly basis is again higher than most in the Middle East. Education, housing, healthcare are advanced by regional standards. And yes, Sunni (the Islamic tradition of the ruling family) are advantaged in the security oriented job market. Why not – the old axiom “bullets change governments faster than votes” is a chilling reality to rulers.
But if you listen to the impassioned, emotional dialogue of journalists, some of whom I met over appetizers one evening, you would think Bahrain was practicing apartheid, starving children, denying jobs and indenturing the Shiites. One of my drivers was Shia. College educated, he was angry that the Prime Minister (there is no love lost with the Kings uncle – a point of common ground even for some Sunni with the Shia) hired foreigners to become police and complained that he applied but was not hired – educated and a native Bahraini. Other Shia I spoke with all were employed, most had good jobs for the region, and lived pretty nice middle class lives. Others did live in tough neighborhoods.
And most of the folks I spoke with at the Pearl Roundabout were friendly. Not anti-West, not anti-US. In fact many wanted to talk about or visit the US. Several offered to walk with me down the steep embankment (I politely declined their offer) being quite protective, expressing concerns as I made the descent. This is one, albeit likely temporary plus – the protests are about Bahrain, Shia and Sunni, not the US. But be warned – if the balance of power in Bahrain shifts, the US and our interests will face significant challenges. Remember not only is our Fifth Fleet based there, other critical assets of our security and intelligence infrastructure in the region are there.
Tomorrow Never Dies – A warning about the media
The media walk a fine line between covering the news and being the news. A new dynamic is afoot, courtesy of the digital age and 24 hour news cycles requiring constant footage and information. The media as creator of news. In the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” a media mogul would have tomorrow’s headlines ready in the wings; he’d utilized his global resources to create the very crisis he would be the first to report. If one listened to CNN and Anderson Cooper, you would get the impression Haiti would have been abandoned after the Earthquake were it not for him galvanizing global aid. The ability of the media, especially with social networking and integrated digital communications from broadcasting and telecommunications – to manipulate events towards a sensationalized endpoint is a very real danger.
While it has nearly always been the case in the post Huntley/Brinkley era of true journalism, that the line between reporter and op-ed or analyst has been blurred, never has the ability been greater to manipulate events through the media – which is perilously becoming more propaganda for an agenda than honest broker.
Where the MSM, including such venerables as the NY Times and others fail to get it right, and portray things as truly accurate through the mind set of folks living, dying, and surviving or thriving in the region, when they describe activities, they should label them with the actual groups participating, fostering, fomenting or engaged – i.e. Sunni, Shiite, Wahabist or other. Because nothing is more fundamental, essential than this concept. Nothing is more than 1 step removed from religion. A foreign concept if you will to those among us who have rarely ventured into the Middle East and have largely grown up in secular countries.
Having spoken to several media folks there, it was apparent they had made up their minds who was in the right. When I asked them if Iran was involved or if they thought Tehran planted agents in Bahrain, the universal response was “no.” They did acknowledge that Iran was exploiting it in the media, but they had their own problems with protestors at home and were too distracted to engage in Bahrain. I just stared at them and finished my lamb. Arrggghhh!!!!! Can we please have some Middle East savvy reporters show up?
Facebook/Twitter Revolution – A New and worrisome security threat
Twitter and Facebook – tools of change.
One of the most worrisome of recent events in the Middle East is the use of social networks such as Facebook and twitter. Consider the enormous power of these tools – agent provocateurs, professional protestors and rent a mobs can be organized and sent to virtually any area in near live time.
Throughout my visits to the Pearl Roundabout – almost everyone there was texting, twittering and Facebooking. Up to the minute info – invitations to come join, or move to another location were being transmitted. The ability of a select few people to mobilize large masses is a new threat to domestic security, and one we should pay attention to. Consider the events closer to home…in Wisconsin. Credit social networking for the size of the crowds.
The Geopolitical Realities of the Middle East
Bahrain we have come to fondly refer to as “the land of Islam light!” Westerners may tour the large mosque in Manama (Sunni). They are a relatively liberal nation, which means women do better here than in other parts of the region, as evidence by the easing of clothing restrictions.
To the Westerner, it is a welcoming country. A business, conference, even tourist destination. Warm waters, a pleasant climate most of the year, decent breezes contrast nicely against the backdrop of some pollution – including sand blowing everywhere. But make no mistake, it is still a Muslim nation – and while women for example, fare much better here than in many other Arab or Muslim nations, traditions – familial, tribal and religious still hold true. Never the less, it is a far more open and safe nation, except in certain areas, especially “black flag” areas.
To those living and prospering in more strict nations, Bahrain is one of the “Vegas – like” settings where one can come for the weekend (males) and enjoy some heretofore prohibited activities were one still at home – wine, women and song. Bahrain is to Saudi, and to others in the region euphemistically considered a “honey pot” and for that reason alone warrants protection!
Egypt has always been, as I mentioned in my earlier piece on Bahrain, the focal point, and de facto leader, center of the Arab world. Which is why what happened last week, symbolically was cataclysmic! While all eyes remain on that North African nation, including Israel’s, Egypt is in a state of flux for the moment.
Saudi Arabia has the distinction of being the center of the Muslim world – boasting two of the holiest sites in Islam – Mecca and Medina. It is a wealthy oil rich kingdom where many of the royal family are friendly to US interests, others friendly to the notion we will protect them. It remains the jewel in the crown in terms of business ventures in the region. The state bird is definitely ‘the crane’ as new building projects are being planned at a dizzying rate. Saudi Arabia views itself as the power broker in the Gulf. Several well placed sources in the region have told me Saudi Arabia will not allow Bahrain to be coopted, nor allow the protests to unsettle their tiny neighbor as has happened elsewhere in the region. So concerned is the royal family, that actions promoting nationalism – flags flying in honor of the king, pro Saudi rallies have all been staged. Moreover, independent sources confirmed for me elements of the Saudi National Guard have been deployed inside Bahrain – a fact publicly denied, but privately in effect. It wouldn’t be the first time Saudi has quelled internal unrest in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is not above doing its own bit of posturing. Riyadh, certainly more than Washington, recognizes that Iran is trying to challenge its leadership in the region.
Then there is Iran! Let’s look at who is on their payroll? The former head of the IAEA, rent a protestor mobs, clerics who foment disruption here and abroad, including a growing fifth column in the US that we’d better start addressing. Weapons broker to terrorists, and cause of death to some of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iran is on Russia’s payroll as favored unnerving agent of the US.
The elephant in the room is, was and will always be IRAN! And we must name it before it is too late.
Shiites and Iran – they are nearly indistinguishable in objectives and danger. There is something ominous about the black, green flags flying about the city of Manama and out into the outskirts of Bahrain. Sunni will whisper to you – beware the black flags – that is Shia area. Not safe.
The protests that have engulfed many of our allies have some common threads. Many of the nations are or were our friends, that is to say allies of the US. Some were very moderate. And a few had passable if not peaceful relations with Israel. They also contain a not insignificant Shiite population. When you think Shiite, there is no other corollary that is more important to connect than to Tehran. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of reality. Iran wants to become the new sheriff in town, a force to be reckoned with, gain respect it feels long overdue, and become the de facto leader of the Arab/Muslim world. And for the cherry on the sundae – the thorn in the West’s side, especially assaulting the interests of the US. And, the Russ-An team (Russia-Iran) is doing a bang up job of disrupting US influence in the region.
There is a global chess game going on, and we are three years or more behind it. Old line Russians have never forgiven the West, e.g. the US for undermining the Soviet Union and Russia’s global influence, if not rightful place on the world stage. We perilously underestimate Moscow. We did so under a president (Bush) who understood power and influence on a global level – and generally did a good job on that front, and are now in far worse shape under this administration that has no clue how to address the Kremlin, China, our adversaries, let alone a mass of protestors or allies for that matter. It is truly pathetic to read the exhortations coming out of Washington – admonishing Bahrain’s leaders to play nice. Really? That’s the best advice. Beyond the arrogance of such lame minded meaningless dialogue, is the notion there is no real strategy behind anything we do with the Middle East at this point. Contrast this with Russia’s leaders – Putin and Putin-Lite (Medvedev). Putin is the master and has taught his student – especially Ahmadinejad – very, very well. Iran, taking a page out of the Soviet/Russian playbook, understands the importance of proxies, agents provocateur, and a show of strength.
A few years ago Russia sent part of its navy into the Syrian region; and is committed to enlarging and modernizing some of Syria’s ports so that Moscow can turn the Mediterranean – formerly the US Navy’s private waterway, into a shared arena. Now Iran is sending two of its warships into the region via the Suez.
In the Middle East, as in global affairs, perception is power. Sending your ships into a region that has largely been the sole territory of the United States and our allies, is a significant message being sent to the US and to the Arab world. No one really paid attention to Iran until the nuclear issue. Imagine a nuclear Iran with global proxies. It is already happening. It will get worse unless we start exerting our own leadership and do a bit of effective posturing. Alas, the world knows we are a paper tiger, and are exploiting that at every turn.
Iran recognizes with the power vacuum left in the wake of Egypt’s uprising and government instability, it can now challenge the only other major power broker in the Middle East for influence – Saudi Arabia. There is a tug of war going on, and the flag is located in Bahrain, with one end of the rope in Riyadh and the other in Tehran. The tiny island nation Bahrain shares a causeway with Saudi Arabia – and many sensibilities – from a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mentality as an entertainment and play venue for Saudi men, to a strategic partnership with both the US and Saudis on common defense, to financial, oil and commercial ventures. From Saudi to the Emirates, these are critical commercial entities, and allies of both Saudis and the US. And therein Sunni’s play a leadership role, but each area has sizable Shiite populations. Saudi Arabia is one of the most important economies in the region. It is also a major customer of US arms, security, financial, oil and construction companies. If Iran can put a wedge in the middle of that northeastern crescent of the Saudi peninsula, it can exert enormous influence and have a staging ground to amass additional proxies and power. Iran already has relations with Venezuela, where agents of Hamas and Hezbollah train. Iran, through Hezbollah, runs Southern Lebanon and, now, arguably most of that nation. Iran has legitimized Syria, as evidenced by Obama reaching out to the despot president in Damascus. The tentacles and reach of Tehran is growing.
Iran has agents and cells in Bahrain. To that there should be no dispute. They are monitoring, exploiting and likely inciting much of what is going on in Manama. As I’ve written in the past, Russia is the patron of Iran. Many of their weapons, nuclear and missile technology, air defense system, back door sanction busting financial support, and gas/petro revenue is courtesy of Moscow. Wherever Iran makes a move, Russia cannot be far behind and visa versa when it comes to the Middle East.
The purported rationale for the protests, these enforcers will say is jobs, employment, equality. Unspoken but inferred – equality with the Sunni, the Bahrainis who are in power. And on the surface, sounds OK, especially to the Western mind that thinks, well sure, this is reasonable. After all, the West has evolved to enjoy some form of constitutional protections that provide for equitable treatment under the law – de jure, if not de facto. So demands for more equality surely resonate as reasonable to our sensibilities. And the MSM buy the rhetoric – dead people, bloody photos, mothers wailing, and protestors speaking in measured tones about the need for jobs and fairness. These make for sensational photos, powerful sound bites, and good copy. Every great story must have three ingredients – a victim, a villain and a hero. So when the crowd (Shiites) chant that they want a greater influence in the government, a better parliament where all people (translation Shiites) have a larger voice to make changes, more jobs (translation the ability for Shiites to have positions in law enforcement, the military and other government work) – it sounds ok. And it is easy to be seduced into believing that which, either through a sense of decency, or antipathy towards monarchs, especially those friendly to the West, words that align with ones’ own values. Too bad it is all choreographed, orchestrated, false.
In the Middle East, it is often what isn’t said, or what you don’t see that is the most telling. On the King Faisal Defense Causeway from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia – a multilane highway usually busy or congested, especially during work hours, it was a ghost ride – a handful of cars. Colleagues told me Saudi Border Guards would ask people who were about to leave the kingdom towards Bahrain if it was an emergency to go over there? If not, they were directing people to return to Saudi and not traverse the causeway. The airport was empty. I suspect my flight to the US will be the same. Corporations, even the Bahrain Race, are being cautious. Security professionals in the region recognize that Saudi Arabia will not allow Bahrain to fall without a fight. Iran will not go quietly into the good night. Nor will they squander an opportunity. Much of the major media from the West are now in Bahrain. This is a forum of inordinate propaganda value for Tehran and they are making great strides. Iran will continue to use its vaunted intelligence service, foreign agents, money, influence, weapons. No matter what happens over the next couple of days, be assured Iran is playing to win – and if we let our guard down for too long, they will in fact destabilize Bahrain, and ultimately the region.
With an ineffectual response from US leaders, who remarkably and sadly announce how stunned (translate caught off guard) they are at what is going on in Bahrain – again feeding the global notion the US is now clueless – and an emboldened Iran and Russia who as the Russ-An partnership are adding proxies all across the globe, Bahrain may be the Thermopolyae, the Battle of Britain, the place to make a stand, for the West. Are we, our partners up to the challenge? Bahrain must remain part of the US, Saudi, United Arab Emirate collective.
The US needs to be on the right side of history, and promote democracy. But the battle for Bahrain is not about democracy. It is about who wins in the Middle East. And at the end of the day, the US’s fortunes are intertwined in this winner take all battle. As long as we survive on oil, gas, and global trade, the Middle East will remain a critical commercial region for the US. We can play to win, like the Russ-An duo, or continue to watch our allies dwindle, relying upon the media to celebrate our efforts, when nothing of value has resulted.
Bahrain – the stakes are high. The popcorn revolution is not a carnival, or a festival. It is a winner take all challenge for the United States, the West, Saudi Arabia, and our allies. Are we up to the challenge, or will we add Bahrain to the list of former partners and now disrupted nations in the Middle East?