Former Nato deputy commander Lieutenant General Peter Pearson (retired) argues that the Arab Spring ignored the importance of stability in the region, including Bahrain. The following article appeared in British newspaper The Telegraph yesterday and is reproduced here in full.
AS the so-called Arab Spring gives way to the month of Ramadan, perhaps now is the time to inject some realism into what some of the consequences are likely to be and their implications for the interests of Britain and the West. In particular, what of Bahrain – a long-standing friend of Britain whose strategic importance has, if anything, grown over time?
Britain’s links to Bahrain go back over two hundred years. Our alliance with the ruling Al Khalifa family makes them Britain’s oldest ally in the Gulf with a shared interest in containing Persian influence in the region. For many years, Bahrain was a British protectorate, serving as a vital staging post to India and the Far East.
The relationship continued after Bahrain became independent in 1971. The most Anglophile country in the Middle East, Bahrain has always given unstinting support for the UK’s military activities, most recently during the war in Afghanistan. As the base for the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain provides a key military facility in containing Iran.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to downgrade the merits of stability. The benign outcome from the fall of Communism across Eastern Europe in 1989 was a product of a unique set of circumstances in nations that had previously been more democratically advanced than their Soviet oppressors.
Moreover, the newly liberated countries had as their model decades of democratic successes in the western half of the continent. By contrast, religion remains the most potent political factor in the Middle East.
When the Shah fled Iran in January 1979 after months of demonstrations and civil disobedience, the result was – to the astonishment of virtually all observers – the world’s first theocratic Islamic republic.
The Iranian revolution led to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the post-Second World War era. Neither side got what it wanted. Since then, Iran has pursued its interests in the region with more subtlety, recognising the sensitivity to Arab feeling of Persian power, but with considerable determination and ruthlessness.
One unintended consequence of the removal of Saddam Hussein has been increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, through Hizbollah, Iran has become the most powerful external power in Lebanon. And, there is little doubt that it is actively assisting the Assad regime to hold on to power in Syria. As President Barack Obama observed in his speech on the Middle East two months ago, Iran stands up for the rights of protesters elsewhere yet represses its people at home.
That applies particularly to Bahrain, which, together with Iraq, is unique in the Arab world in having a Shi’ite majority, where Iran has most to gain from instability. The ruling Al Khalifa family has, for the most part, managed a difficult balancing act, perched just off the shores of the leading Sunni power in the region and across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran. In many respects, Bahrain is the most progressive of the Gulf nations. It has led the way on freedom of worship, women’s rights and establishing a welfare state.
Politically, Bahrain has representative institutions, but power is concentrated in an appointed upper chamber. One of the uncomfortable features of democratic politics in countries with sectarian division is that it creates incentives to deepen those divisions. The United Kingdom found this true for a number of decades in Northern Ireland.
It is still not widely appreciated how close Bahrain came to falling into a sectarian abyss earlier this year. In February, after protesters were forcibly removed from the Pearl Roundabout, during which three protesters and one policeman died, the Bahraini government made an unconditional offer of political dialogue.
Security forces were withdrawn from the streets and talks led by the impressive Crown Prince began. On the ground, radical elements, sensing the opportunity to overthrow the regime, exercised an effective veto, by erecting roadblocks manned by armed vigilantes across the capital’s main streets.
There was an uncanny similarity to the so-called ‘No Go’ areas in Northern Ireland in the early 70s. The Sunni community felt itself under siege. Sunni gangs put up road blocks in Sunni areas. Bahrain was on the brink of disintegration. It was only after four weeks of concerted negotiations, which failed to achieve a solution, that the state of emergency was put into effect.
It gave the vast majority of law-abiding Bahraini citizens renewed confidence that their freedom of movement would no longer be impeded and that they could live their lives without threat.
At this point, it’s worth considering what would have been the consequences if Bahrain had deteriorated into civil war: Iran would have been emboldened; Sunni Arabs in Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, would have felt increasingly insecure and almost certainly taken action; the world economy would have taken a knock from the impact of higher oil prices; the West would have lost a firmly Western-looking ally; and extreme Islamist elements in Pakistan and around the world would have felt emboldened.
Instead, Bahrain’s security forces intervened and other Gulf states, led by the Saudis, occupied key strategic installations. Even as order was being restored, sadly at the cost of two dozen lives, the reality of sectarian violence loomed.
Reporting was one-sided. For example, it never reached the public domain that Sunnis needing medical treatment at the Salmaniya hospital were pre-screened out. Some arriving in ambulances were attacked. Sunni migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent were also attacked. Four were killed and one had his tongue cut out.
With a Shi’ite population on its Gulf coast, there was and remains little prospect of Saudi Arabia acquiescing in the establishment of a Shi’ite-dominated state on its doorstep. A transition to full democracy would in reality be a transition to something very different.
In his brilliant book on the art of war in the modern world, General Sir Rupert Smith argued that the paradigm of industrialised warfare between nation states has given way to what he called “war amongst the people”.
Igniting Shi’ite-Sunni tensions in Bahrain would inevitably have repercussions across a region that is geo-strategically the most fragile and dangerous in the world. Once started, it could be years and more probably decades before a new equilibrium is found. As Clausewitz wrote, the only decisive victory is the last one. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s more prudent to hang on to what you have and make the best of it.
Bahrain’s rulers will have learned the lessons from the earlier part of the year and will, no doubt, reflect during Ramadan on how best to take forward their country. In the future, it will be seen as a major watershed in that nation’s history from which there was no going back.
Its government has taken the unprecedented step of inviting UN human rights experts to find out what happened at the Pearl Roundabout and afterwards, learn from the mistakes of the past and turn a new page. A stable Bahrain with laws and practices that are fair and acceptable to all bar the extremists would not only be in the interests of all the Bahraini citizens but, clearly, of the wider region and beyond.
l Lieutenant General Peter Pearson (retired) served in the Far East, Northern Ireland, Europe, Bosnia, Kosovo and Cyprus before becoming deputy commander of Nato’s Southern Command in Italy.
Gulf Daily News