Bahrain Uprising: High Stakes for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia

A revolution in the tiny island kingdom would be a nightmare for other Gulf monarchs, says former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, handing Iran a potential ally and straining U.S. allegiances.

A revolution in the tiny island kingdom would be a nightmare for other Gulf monarchs, says former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, handing Iran a potential ally and straining U.S. allegiances. Plus, The Daily Beast answers six key questions about the uprising.

As the winter of Arab discontent turns more violent and desperate, the unrest in Bahrain challenges American policy in complex ways. Bahrain is at the heart of the Sunni-Shia divide in Middle East politics and has long been an epicenter in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What happens on this small island, just three times the size of the District of Columbia will have ramifications far beyond its own future.

Photos: Bahrain Protests

With only a half million natives (and another half million foreign workers) Bahrain is a pygmy in Arab politics. Osama bin Laden famously once derided it by noting that the Saudi royal family has palaces whose grounds are larger than the entire Bahraini nation. Portugal ruled it in the 16th century as a base on the way to India. It has been the property of the al Khalifa family since 1783, when they invaded from neighboring Qatar and seized it from the Persian Qajar empire. The British ruled it as a protectorate from 1868 until 1968 and dominated the security services for decades afterward.

The Khalifas are Sunni Muslims but at least 70 percent of Bahrainis are Shia. Protests by the Shia majority have been a feature of Bahraini politics since the Iranian revolution in 1979. I recall an evening of tear gas, helicopters, snipers, and stone throwing around my car during a visit to the island in 1994. King Hamad bin Isa bin Khalifa promised reform and pluralism when he ascended to the throne in 1999 but progress has been very uneven. To keep the Shia suppressed the rulers have imported Pakistanis and other Sunnis to man the riot police to ensure their loyalty is only to the throne.

The Saudis watch Bahrain like hawks. The 16-mile-long King Fahd causeway that links the two is also a military highway built in 1986 to facilitate a quick Saudi intervention if needed to keep the Khalifas in power. Saudi National Guard units have practiced for such a crisis. Saudi Arabia's own Shia minority is nearby in the Eastern province, home of the kingdom's oil deposits.

The Saudis have watched the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. As an absolute monarchy there was comfort in an Arab world of other autocracies. Revolutionary change and democracy leaves the kingdom increasingly isolated. For most of the 1950s and 1960s the kingdom fought an inter-Arab cold war against revolutionary Egypt led by Gamal Nasser and was the target of repeated coup attempts. From Riyadh's standpoint revolution in Arab states is dangerous; revolution in one of its fellow monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula is a critical danger.

I recall an evening of tear gas, helicopters, snipers, and stone throwing around my car during a visit to Bahrain in 1994.

Karen Leigh: Inside Bahrain’s UprisingFor Saudis, a Bahraini uprising is especially dangerous; it is inevitable that such a revolution would benefit Iran. The Khalifas have cried wolf about Iranian involvement in Shia protests in Bahrain for years with little hard evidence to back up their claims. But Iran does aspire to hegemony in the Persian Gulf and did not give up its claim to Bahrain until its independence. From time to time commentators in Tehran have revived Iran's old claim to the island, sending tremors across the Gulf. The Saudis' nightmare is a Shia republic in Manama that tilts towards Tehran and encourages Shia unrest in the Eastern province. Most of the rest of the Gulf monarchs will be in the same anti-Iran boat.

To complicate matters, the House of Saud is in the midst of change itself. King Abdullah is in Morocco recovering from surgery in New York. Crown Prince and Defense Minister Sultan is ill as well and only nominally in charge. The hardliner Interior Minister Prince Nayif hates reform, unrest and Shia. He is running the kingdom on a day to day basis for his older brothers.

Bahrain has been a loyal U.S. ally for decades, hosting naval and air bases and supporting U.S. military operations against both Iraq and Iran. At our request the U.N. staged the weapons inspections of Saddam's Iraq from a headquarters in Manama. Today the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet is based there.

The Saudi royals were shocked that America urged Hosni Mubarak to quit power. For well over a half century the Saudis have based their security on alliance with America. The alliance was made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Saud in 1945. In the 1950s and 1960s we backed them against Nasser; in the 1980s we fought the Soviets together in Afghanistan and elsewhere, then Saddam's Iraq in the 1990s. Revolutionary Iran has been a joint enemy since 1979. The Saudi military is made in America and trained in America, just like Mubarak's Egyptian military.

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The challenge facing Obama and his team is to balance our commitments to democracy with our commitments to allies who control the world's oil reserves. Change needs to come to Bahrain. The prime minister, who is notoriously corrupt and a virtual racist when it comes to the Shia, needs to go after 40 years in power. The king and crown prince need to live up to their promises to open up the political process. But it won't be easy. Revolutions are not a tea party and dialogue is difficult when martyrs have died.

The stakes go far beyond this little island monarchy and the neighbors are not kind and gentle. For America the historic changes in Arabia are going to be hard to manage, easy to fumble.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.