In a Foreign Policy article on the unrest in Bahrain, CCAS Visiting Associate Professor Jean-François Seznec enumerated the dangers that an increasingly divided ruling family in Bahrain could cause, warning that if the Khalifa family does not open up they do so at the risk of outside intervention into the country’s affairs.
A key element to U.S. national security, Seznec recalls that Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects oil supply through the Straits of Hormuz and serves as a key logistical hub for military operations taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean.
According to Seznec, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa has emerged as the galvanizing figure for the quasi-Salafist conservative branch of the ruling family, which seeks to prevent the spread of economic and political involvement to all spheres of Bahraini society, especially the country’s Shi’i majority. The more liberal branch of the family, on the other hand, has advocated in favor of those policies in recent years. Splits among the Shi’i opposition parties complicate the situation further.
Seznec notes that, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the protest organizers used Facebook to coordinate their activities, drawing together a new generation of young people who are tired of the political battles between the Khalifas and the older Shi’i leadership. He urged the U.S. government to take their chants of “No Sunni, No Shi’a, Just Bahraini!” to heart, warning that the Khalifas’ attempts to draw on a Western fear of Iranian influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if, in the absence of meaningful reform, Shi’i leaders begin to see Iran as a protector. If that happens, Seznec suggests that a Saudi intervention in support of the monarchy is likely, which could result in serious repercussions, both for Bahrain and the United States.