Normally, an island country with an area a quarter of the size of Rhode Island and a native population roughly the size of Oklahoma City would be a triviality in international politics. It's been a while since Trinidad and Tobago consistently made international headlines. But Bahrain is not a normal county.
For starters, the island is located in the Persian Gulf, right along one of the world's two most important shipping lanes. Since the 1990's the island has housed the U.S's Fifth Fleet, which helps the U.S control the shipping of petrol from the oil rich Gulf region. This is particularly important given the island's proximity to Iran.
The island is important for another reason as well. Shia Islam is followed by only about 15% of Muslims. However, in the Persian Gulf region, Shiites form the vast majority of the population. Iran is Shiite, Iraq is majority Shiite, as is much of Kuwait, and the oil producing regions of Saudi Arabia. Shiites have an expression that God must look favorably on the Shiites, because wherever there are Shiites, there is also oil. Of course, while the population may be Shiite, the oil producing regions are ruled by Sunnis.The royal families of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.A.E, and Qatar are all Sunni. So is Bahrain's ruling Khalifa clan. Like much of the rest of the Gulf, however, the population is overwhelmingly Shiite.
Needless to say, having a Shiite majority ruled over by a Sunni elite has created tensions. Major, protracted, and widespread protest movements are a periodic feature of the island's politics, and the government is adept at repression. For thirty years, the government retained Ian Henderson, a British torture expert, as head of National Security Agency. Torture, massacres, police repression, assassination, kidnappings, and indiscriminate violence are all instruments of government policy. During the protests of the Arab Spring, the King even outsourced this work to the security forces of other countries, and invited foreign armies to deploy to the island to repress demands for democracy and equality.
The regime is brutal, sectarian, and undemocratic. It is also enthusiastically supported by the United States, which has designated the country a Major non-Nato Ally, and supplied it with weapons, training, and diplomatic support.
The U.S has a very serious concern that, should democracy take hold in Bahrain, it would set an example for other Shiites of the region, which would jeopardize the U.S allied despot who control the region's oil resources, and also strengthen the hand of Iran. Victory for democracy in Bahrain would also likely lead to the expulsion of the U.S's Fifth Fleet, which would be a significant setback to control of the Straits of Hormuz.
So, while human rights activists are being abducted and tortured by the police, as prisoners of conscience are fasting to the death, as security forces and foreign armies are massacring demonstrators, as half the country's population has taken to the streets to demand democracy, only to be attacked by the police, as the doctors and nurses who treat injured protestors are put on trial before military courts, and thousands of activists are being abducted for torture. As the specter of a government at war with its own people rises over this small island kingdom, the American government remains adamant in its support for the ruling family. The closest the White House has come to criticizing the government, is to condemn the violence from "both sides", and then consider selling additional weapons to the government. As France's former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner advised, "there is a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state."
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