When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Kingdom of Bahrain in December, she lauded the tiny Gulf island as “a model partner” and noted that she was “impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path.” The 10,000 protestors currently camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square would beg to differ.
On Monday, “The Revolution of 14th February in Bahrain” organized demonstrations throughout the capital city protesting the Sunni regime. Bahrain’s Shia majority are demanding an end to their marginalization, including better employment opportunities, education and housing as well as a new constitution and the release of political activists imprisoned last year.
The protests were symbolic, as February 14 is the anniversary of the 2002 constitution, which instituted democratic reforms including an elected parliament. Despite Bahrain’s steps toward democracy, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, has been in office for 40 years and the majority of Parliamentarians are Sunni, despite the fact that 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia.
While the demands for democratic change toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, not everyone in Bahrain shares the same fondness for democracy. The elite Sunni population could quickly see their position in society downgraded if the Shia majority gains more representation in government. This is an unsettling possibility not only for the current government but for one-third of Bahrain’s population.
Even more cause for concern is the Shia community’s close ties with Iran. Bahrain is a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and countering Iranian influence in the Middle East. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is also stationed there to monitor and defend the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports are transported. If the Shia opposition gains more influence in government, Bahrain’s relationship with the United States could be altered.
The protests in Bahrain are not a new phenomenon. The Shia majority has frequently demonstrated its demands for a more equal governmental system, and yet Secretary Clinton failed to sufficiently acknowledge this in her last trip to the island. Clearly the Administration underestimated the will of the people and saw only the strategic advantage of having the Bahraini leadership as a strategic regional partner. With the momentum of recent revolutions behind the protestors, the monarchy will need to reconsider many of its current policies.