My former life as an Army officer afforded me a myriad of opportunities to travel and see the world. My journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan may have added to the rich tapestry of my life experience, but they are far from what I would consider “enjoyable” adventures. Despite these experiences, I continued to immerse myself in the culture, language, and political affairs of the Arab World. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the opportunity to travel the middle east and work with the State Department for over a year. Digging through my records, I’ve uncovered some of my older pieces of writing on the matter (circa 2013-2014). Hopefully, it provides some interesting insights into the region.
Objectives of my Trip:
The purpose of my trip to Bahrain was to assess the Sunni-Shia Dynamic within the kingdom. I chose as my central research question: What is the dynamic between Persian-Arab relations in Bahrain and how does the country balance those concerns?
I coordinated with [the US Embassy] in Manama, Bahrain. In order to prepare for my trip, I read the Congressional Research Service’s Papers: “Bahrain: Key Issues for U.S. Policy” (March 24, 2005)” and “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” (November 6, 2013).
Note: The article, “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” has since been updated. Current issue is April 13, 2017.
Despite my readings prior to trip, I entered Bahrain under a misconception that Bahrain maintains a close relationship with Iran. This is not true. When examining the Sunni-Shia issues that still plague the country I arrived at the perfect time: during Bahrain’s National Day (think: “Bahraini July 4th”). In order to contrast the jubilation many Bahrainis were happy to display in the streets and on the roads, the prevalence of Bahraini Security Forces emphasized the presence of the disenfranchised shia majority in the country.
It was emphasized to me in my [meetings with U.S. Embassy personnel] that the Bahraini government possesses an extremely paranoid outlook towards the “Iranian Threat.” The local Shia represent (to the Bahraini government at least) the persistent threat of Agents of the Ayatollah seeking to overthrow the sunni government or annex the nation entirely. This is a dangerous outlook, which has led the Bahraini government to adopt a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia. This relationship is also an essential element in Bahrain’s economic survival. While travelling along the causeway leading to Saudi Arabia, one is struck with the distinct feeling that it is the purest representation of the umbilical that sustains the Bahraini economy.
The US Government presence in Bahrain will endure. Our naval presence in the Persian Gulf is of strategic value. Though there have been attempts to [seek alternative deep-water ports elsewhere in the region], such new harbors would merely facilitate the wide-range of missions undertaken by our naval task forces (primarily that of the counter piracy task force). Ultimately, the requirements for an enduring presence in the Persian Gulf would necessitate the presence of a Naval Command in Bahrain.
As a result of the harsh crackdowns that the Bahraini Government has perpetrated against the Shia Population and the allegations of human rights abuse in the country, the US Government has imposed some hefty restrictions on Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Funding, lifting those restrictions is contingent on the improvement of human rights conditions in the country. This has created some consternation and frustration among embassy personnel and their Bahraini Counterparts. The lesson to be learned, is that despite our own frustrations and setbacks which we might perceive as a result of U.S. Political Policy, we are ultimately Americans and public servants and it is our duty to support the policy of the US Government has towards our Host Nation Counterparts despite any of our personal feelings, and continue to execute the mission to the best of our ability.
Note: If you reference an article in Bloomberg (dated March 29, 2017), you will read that Trump has decided to drop the requirement for Bahrain to improve it’s Human Rights status so that a multi-billion FMS deal can be finalized and F-16’s can be sold to the island nation. Additionally, to add more context; our State Department and Military Officers are empathetic and human individuals. When I say, this restriction causes them great “consternation,” it’s because within the field of diplomacy in the Middle East, FMS and Funding are invaluable tools in this quid-quo-pro relationship, and is often times the ONLY carrot the United States has to offer some nations when confronted with the Question: “Yeah? You want more collaboration? You want a better relationship? You want us to dialogue about Human Rights? What do we get out of it?” General Joseph Votel said it best in the Bloomberg Article (and even though it seemingly contradicts my above statement, I agree with everything said – welcome to the Middle East: a world of contradictions).
Using military sales “to achieve changes in behavior has questionable effectiveness and can have unintended consequences,” Votel said. “We need to carefully balance these concerns against our desired outcomes for U.S. security assistance programs” and “we should avoid using the programs as a lever of influence or denial to our own detriment.” — General Joseph Votel, CENTCOM Commander.
Finally, when discussing the National Dialogue that the Bahraini Government is attempting to settle the internal unrest in the country, I came to realize that the cultural environment is one that hampers solutions to the government’s efforts. At present, the opposition, in protest, has withdrawn from the dialogue, and what little discussion there is revolves around the formation of committees and how these committees will function. As a result, the National Dialogue has stalled. This strikes me as emblematic of how government officials in the middle east think; form takes precedence over function – the facade of efficiency and officiousness. I observed this phenomenon among my [Arab Military Counterparts] where many hours and days were spent fussing over format rather than content. We have also seen how ineffective, withdrawals in “protest” can be when approaching important political dialogue. The result of a this withdrawal is that if you do not participate in “protest” then no dialogue and no discussion will occur; or worse yet the discussion will continue…but without you present. We saw a similar “protest” during the elections in Iraq when Sunni’s did not participate “in protest.” As a result the Sunni opposition remains disenfranchised in a largely, Shia-run government.
Note: Great resource from Foreign Policy at Brookings. If you wanted more reading, check out this concise 16-page policy paper (March 2010) on how political boycotts don’t work.
“The Sunni community’s decision not to participate in the historic elections of January 2005 is now viewed as one of the great strategic blunders of the post-Saddam era…The boycott also deprived them of a fair share in the constitutional drafting process, and without adequate representation in Parliament, the Sunnis were unable to prevent the new constitution from passing…The Iraqi example is illustrative of the thesis of this paper: electoral boycotts rarely work, and the boycotting party almost always ends up worse off than before…” — Matthew Frankel, Foreign Policy at Brookings
Regional and Cultural Knowledge
Bahrain was an excellent opportunity to observe a Gulf nation that is neither the wealthiest nor the most stable when compared to its counterparts in the region. Fortunately, no major demonstrations occurred during my travels, but the persistent presence of Bahraini Security Forces reminded me of the possibilities for such an event to occur at any given time. From my treks around the island, I received the impression that it is a nation grasping at straws; that somehow Bahrain had not capitalized on its industry in ways that the UAE or Saudi Arabia had and as a result this has led them into a dependent relationship with Saudi Arabia.
I would best describe Bahrain as a client state of Saudi Arabia. While perhaps this is unjust, Saudi Arabia is so intertwined with Bahrain’s economy it is hard to not view Saudi Arabia as patron to Bahrain. This involvement is the result of the Shia population that makes Bahrain one of the more unstable nations in the Gulf. The U.S. naval presence headquartered in Bahrain will remain an integral part of regional security; activities which extend their activities extend beyond the gulf and support anti-piracy operations near Somalia.
Travel Tips for Bahrain!
The Grand Mosque in Manama is a good tour to receive and have an engaging conversation about Islam with the guides. When bringing family to the mosque women will be required to don an Abaya and Hijab. So keep that in mind if you averse to covering your head or wearing the loose, shrouding robes of conservative Islam.
If seeking out the Tree of Life, utilize your GPS or Google maps to direct yourself there, as signage is rare. One sign will direct you to the tree of life from the Highway leading south, but after that you will be on your own…but it can provide an opportunity to drive through the Bahraini Oil Fields on your quest for this large Mesquite Tree in the middle of nowhere.
Disclaimer: These writings constitute my own observations, opinions and viewpoints seen through the lens of a military veteran and shaped through my interactions with my professional colleagues. It in no way reflects an official statement by the US Government nor are any details being revealed that could constitute a breach in confidence or security.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you liked this light departure from current US Domestic Affairs ravaging our country. More will follow as I continue to unearth my old records. Please comment, like, and share at your leisure. You can, as always, also follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82