Saturday, 19 February 2011

Choppy water in the Kingdom of Two Seas

Map courtesty of
Its a pity they can't spell 'Arabia' though. They also
use the term 'Persian Gulf'  but in this part of the world
its called the Arabian Gulf.
SMS  from a friend in Bahrain: "...its complete madness here! We r home bound and embassy's have advised us to stay indoors. Never seen anything like it. There was a run on the banks and ppl panic buying from the shops. Tanks on the streets and choppers flying past 24-7. If things continue I may get a flight out!"

Many of the non-Middle East based readers of this blog may be asking "So where is Bahrain anyway?' Others may know the kingdom as Michael Jackson's home in 2005, albeit briefly, after his US trial.  Geography 101: Bahrain is a group of thirty-three islands located 24kms from the coast of Saudi Arabia and 28kms from Qatar and is connected to KSA by the King Fahd Causeway.  The word Bahrain/Bahrayn is derived from the Arabic words "itnain bahr" meaning "two seas' and is the name of the largest island in the group.  The nation's 'full name' is 'Mamlakat al-Baḥrayn', Kingdom of the Two Seas.
While Bahrain is an Islamic country, the ruling family belongs to the Sunni minority of the population while the majority of the population is Shia. For those unfamiliar with Islam, the Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that the majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni with only 10%-13% being Shia. The largest Shia country is Iran which has, in the past, laid claim to Bahrain.  This claim was tit-for-tat following Bahrain's support of the United Arab Emirates in a squabble with Iran over 3 small islands no bigger than a sneeze.
The current ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa ('bin' means 'son of'') is a member of the Al Khalifa family that has ruled Bahrain since 1782.  King Hamad came to the throne in 1999 instituting a programme of political and social reform which has gone some way towards reconciliation with the Shia majority.  He restored the Bahraini parliament which had been suspended in 1975 giving a public forum for the opposition Shia Wefaq party to voice its opinions.  

The current protests in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, started as a demand for equality for all citizens, The military have moved in to confront the protestors, bullets are flying, people are dying, and the 'if we don't look they'll go away' divisions in Bahraini society are deepening by the hour.  However, the largely nationalistic nature of the protests gives a glimmer of hope to the government that 'outside influences' will not prevail (let's not be coy, they mean Iran). However, the actions of the military also signal the likelihood of a power struggle within the ruling family stemming from the 'dissatifaction' of the Prime Minister (the King's uncle) at being passed over for the role of Crown Prince in favour of the current King's son.  King Hamad has shown himself open to dialogue whereas his uncle the Prime Minister supports a hard line response.  If the actions of the military are a guideline, then it would appear that the PM has prevailed, initially at least. 

Sky News reports that UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has revoked 44 individual and open licences for the export of hundreds of cartridges of tear gas and other riot control equipment to Bahrain.    Bahrain, as one of the Trucial States, was originally within the British 'sphere of influence' and a close relationship remains.  The US also has a vested interest in ongoing stability in Bahrain due to its strategic location and the extensive US military facilities in the country. The Fifth Fleet has a large facility  in Manama now something like 62 acres onshore plus offshore.  This is centred around what was originally the British naval installation, HMS Juffair, which dates from 1935.  The British left Bahrain in 1971 following the granting of independence, the Americans leased part of HMS Juffair and renaming it 'Administrative Support Unit Bahrain'.  An agreement was signed between Bahrain and US in 1991 granting US forces access to Bahraini facilities and air space to 'ensure the right to pre-position material for future crises' though the US Navy has been a permanent fixture in the Gulf since around 1949. 

With continuing protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan and escalating violence in Libya the old curse 'May you live in interesting times' has never seemed more appropriate.

No comments:

Post a Comment