The so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in the Middle East, which has impacted the popular perception of the Western World, particularly amongst the uninformed, seems to have hit a roadblock in Bahrain. Ironically, in India too, the revolution has caught the imagination of some people, who tend to see international events in black and white.
The sincerity of the West, particularly the US, with regard to the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is on test in Bahrain and by extension to Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia and UAE have deployed 1000 and 500 personnel respectively to Bahrain under the banner of Gulf Cooperation Council. Interestingly, the UAE has committed to deploy 12 aircraft in support of the NATO to patrol the No Fly Zone over Libya. This has been done because of the strategic importance of the Gulf Region and also because the region falls in Shia-Sunni fault line. The vital strategic interests of the US are at stake in the region. If the US and its allies in the region cannot calibrate the developments, there will be far reaching political consequences in the region and impact on the global oil prices.
However miniscule the smaller Gulf countries may be, the destabilisation of any one of them can flare up into a crisis of international dimensions, given the criticality of the Persian Gulf for global energy security.
It is therefore imperative that the dynamics of the region as such with particular reference to Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is put in perspective.
Strategic Importance of Bahrain
This 665 sq km island nation, located centrally with respect to the Arab part of the Gulf region is an ideal location for force projection in terms of air and naval power. Its strategic location in the Persian Gulf is such that it commands the sea-lanes of communication through which the region’s sea-borne petroleum exports must transit. It is for this reason that the US has maintained a strong naval presence in the country since 1949. Military bases provided by Bahrain were crucial for the conduct of the Gulf Wars by the US led coalition, both in 1991 and 2003.
On the other hand, Bahrain’s small size and large neighbours also engender a strategic vulnerability. Sunni rulers have traditionally ruled this Shia majority country. Ironically, oil reserves, discovery of which in 1932, vested Bahrain with its importance, are now past their prime, forcing Bahrain to diversify its economy in other areas like international banking and petroleum refining.
Apart from oil, processing of aluminium and provision of dry dock facilities for ships are Bahrain’s important industries. More than one-third of the island’s urban population consists of foreigners.
Bahrain: Threat from Iran
Amongst the regional maritime powers in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has historically felt most threatened by Iran, which was the main reason that prompted it to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This threat perception is not without reason. The recent deployment of GCC troops has been vehemently opposed by Iran.
Iran revived the claim to Bahrain primarily on the grounds that the majority of Bahrainis were Shia Muslims.
Iran has often laid claim to Bahrain, based on its 17th century defeat of the Portuguese and its subsequent occupation of the Bahrain archipelago. The Arab clan of Al Khalifa, which has been the ruling family of Bahrain since the 18th century, in turn pushed out the Iranians in 1780. The late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, raised the Bahrain question when the British withdrew from areas east of Suez, but he dropped his demand after a 1970 UN-sponsored plebiscite showed that the Bahrainis overwhelmingly preferred independence to Iranian hegemony.
The religious leaders of the Iranian Revolution revived the claim to Bahrain primarily on the grounds that the majority of Bahrainis were Shia Muslims. Iranian leaders subsequently renounced the claim in an attempt to establish better relations with Bahrain.
US-Bahrain Strategic Partnership
US military cooperation with Bahrain began in 1940, consequent to a US-British agreement, whereby it was permitted to avail naval facilities at Al Jufayr, a port section of the capital Manama. Immediately after Bahrain’s independence in 1971, the US leased port and docking facilities from the Bahrain Government for the US Middle East Force. The agreement disconcerted the other Gulf States who perceived it as another form of colonialism.
Moreover, given close US-Israel ties, the US was viewed with a great deal of suspicion and hostility. In 1977, Bahrain terminated the lease and the headquarters of the US Middle East Force was compelled to move aboard one of the three ships that constituted the force. However, the US naval personnel were still permitted to use Bahraini port facilities for logistic needs of the naval fleet.
During the Iran-Iraq War, when Bahrain’s oil industry and tankers were endangered, large barges were used as bases for the US attack helicopters, radars and air defence weapons. During ‘Operation Desert Shield’ in 1990, the newly constructed Sheikh Isa air base was inundated with military aircraft. There were close to 200 US aircraft (F-4Gs, F-18s, AV-8Bs, A-6Es, EA-6Bs, KC-10s) and approximately 12,000 personnel deployed at the base. In the Gulf War, Bahraini troops formed part of 3,000 strong Peninsula Shield Force of the GCC. Bahrain also served as a major coalition air and naval base.
During the War, Iraq targeted Bahrain with three scud missiles, of which only one impacted on the country. Bahrain, however, did not suffer any combat casualty in the War.
On 22 October 1991, Bahrain signed an agreement, expanding the US military presence in Bahrain. The agreement facilitated the pre-positioning of US military equipment in Bahrain, and the US consequently had several warehouses of equipment and supplies at Sheik Isa Air Base.
The close defence cooperation of these countries with the US was comprehensive as it included training, regular military exercises, pre-positioning of US defence assets in countries like Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, and provision of air defence cover.
Since 1991, UAS and Bahrain have regularly been holding joint exercises in the latter’s land, territorial waters and airspace. Bahrain’s Sheik Isa air base was also extensively utilised by the US aircraft in carrying out ‘Operation Southern Watch’ for enforcing a no-fly-zone in Iraq. Again, in the opening stages of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, Manama (Jufayr) and Sheik Isa in Bahrain served as important naval and air base respectively for the US led coalition forces. The naval base at Manama hosted the Headquarter of the US 5th fleet / USMC Pacific Headquarter.
The Shia Factor in Bahrain
The Constitution of Bahrain designates the Amir, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Traditionally, the members of Al Khalifa have held the most prominent military posts. As in other Gulf states, the ruling family exercises strong control on the national security apparatus. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the professional bias of the Bahraini Defence Force was towards internal security as the Islamic Revolutionary regime in Iran sought to exacerbate Shia-Sunni fissures.
A coup against the Al Khalifa regime resulted in the expulsion of many Shia dissidents. Allegedly, those who participated in the coup were armed and trained by Iran. Even though Shia Muslims constitute 70 per cent of the population, they are severely under-represented in the Armed Forces. There have been resentments at subterranean levels over the perceived socio-religious discrimination amongst the Shia population. The government has tried to bridge the Shia-Sunni cleavage by appointing Shias to a number of ministries and senior civil-service posts, although generally not in security related positions.
Formation of GCC
The discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932, caused the economic, social and geo-political metamorphosis of that part of the Gulf Region, which today constitutes the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It was oil, which was responsible for setting geographical limits of each of these countries. Until the discovery of oil, these states were without fixed frontiers and boundaries in which various Arab tribes felt loyalty to the tribe or Sheikh and roamed across the Arabian Desert according to the needs of their flock. Organised authority was confined to ports and oases. The tribal chiefs i.e. the Sheikhs are the present day rulers of these relatively nascent countries.
Historically, Britain exercised a protectorate over each of these states. It only abandoned its protectorate commitments in 1971. The British connection still endures in the form of institutions and military ties. The Bedouin mooring of these countries is rather strong and is evidenced in their dress, customs, and most importantly political institutions. The countries combined with Saudi Arabia to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981.
Role of Islam in GCC
Even though Islam plays a dominant role in each of the Sheikhdoms, it provides only a tenuous unifying link. These countries represent a collage of various shades of Islam. While Kuwait and Bahrain are characterised by a greater secular influence than the other states, the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni sect prevails in Qatar. Bahrain has a majority population of Shias and the people of Oman represent primarily a minor sect within Shia Islam, the Ibadi.
The US Factor in the Gulf
After World War II due to severe economic constraints, Britain had to bequeath many of its strategic interests to the US. In 1968, the British Government announced that it would renounce its military commitments east of Suez including the Sheikdoms, by 1971.
The sincerity of the West, particularly the US, with regard to the “˜Jasmine Revolution is on test in Bahrain and by extension to Saudi Arabia.
The British disengagement from the area created a security vacuum for the smaller Gulf States. Kuwait, riding high on economic success because of its booming oil industry, had declared independence in 1961, but realised its vulnerability when it was militarily threatened by Iraq, which laid claim to the entire country. The other smaller Gulf States also became extremely apprehensive regarding their independent status after British withdrawal. It was under these unsettling circumstances that Bahrain and Qatar declared their independence in 1971, and the former seven Trucial Coast States i.e. Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn joined together to form an independent state, the ‘United Arab Emirates’.
These little Sheikhdoms realised that they had very little viability to exist as a country on their own. The only country that had remained independent all through, since 1650, was Oman. The British had been closely involved in Oman since the middle of the 19th century, but were under no official obligation to defend it.
Security Imperatives of the GCC members
In the face of the Iranian revolution in 1979, all these states experienced fears for their security. These apprehensions led to the formation of the GCC together with Saudi Arabia in 1981. The limitations of the GCC were exposed during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The GCC members did provide generous moral and financial support but the military support was inherently inadequate.
Consequent to the military intervention by the US-led coalition by way of ‘Operation Desert Shield’ to protect the other GCC countries from further Iraqi onslaught, and subsequently, ‘Operation Desert Storm’ to evict Iraq from Kuwait; these countries realised that the GCC alone could not guarantee their security.
The strategic equations altered drastically after the war. Most of the GCC countries developed intimate defence relationships with the US. These countries signed new military agreements with the US in the wake of the Gulf War. The close defence cooperation of these countries with the US was comprehensive as it included training, regular military exercises, pre-positioning of US defence assets in countries like Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, and provision of air defence cover. Their enhanced defence cooperation was not confined to the USA alone, but involved other western countries like UK and France as well.
The map of the southern part of the Persian Gulf is presently dotted with US presence in terms of troops and other military facilities.
The period following the 1991 Gulf War also witnessed hectic arms purchases by the GCC countries from western sources. In some measure, strategically and logistically, the stage for a US-led coalition attack on Iraq in 2003 was already in place. The map of the southern part of the Persian Gulf is presently dotted with US presence in terms of troops and other military facilities. Some of the important US bases are Camp Doha in Kuwait, Camp Sayliyah and Al Udeid in Qatar, Manama and Sheikh Isa in Bahrain, Seeb and Masirah in Oman, and Al Dhafra and Fujairah in the UAE.
All the GCC countries are characterised by dispensations based on ruling families such as Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Khalifa in Bahrain, Al Thani in Qatar, Al Nuhayyan in Abu Dhabi, Al Nuaimi in Ajman, Al Sharqi in Al Fujayrah, Al Muktum in Dubayy, Al Qasimi in Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, Al Mualla in Umm al Qaywayn and Al Said in Oman. The heads of state of these countries, with the exception of Oman where the ruler bears the title of Sultan, are called Sheikhs, and owe their position to their leadership of various tribes, which are settled in different areas. It was on this traditional basis (tribal leadership) that the British had negotiated treaties with the tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Governmental institutions have gradually taken over spheres that previously fell under the preview of tribal councils in these countries.
In the absence of proper democratic institutions and political culture, the ruling families in each of these countries hold the most important cabinet posts and governmental appointments. The indigenous population of these countries is rather low and the majority of the work force is made up of foreigners. The low population base precludes the formation of effective Armed Forces.
The main threats to the smaller Gulf countries emanate from their larger neighbours and Islamic fundamentalists who are fiercely antagonistic towards the ruling dispensations on religious grounds. The threats posed to these countries cannot possibly be overcome individually or even collectively. However miniscule the smaller Gulf countries may be, the destabilisation of any one of them can flare up into a crisis of international dimensions, given the criticality of the Persian Gulf for global energy security.