The unprovoked killing by government forces of five Shi'ite protestors in the Persian Gulf statelet of Bahrain, headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, turns out upon examination to be deeply intertwined with Bahrain's troubles with diversity and immigration.
And they turn out to be uncomfortably not completely dissimilar to ours.
The indigenous population of Bahrain is about two-thirds Shi'ite Muslim. The local Shi'ites tend to view Bahrain's Sunni upper class as Johnny-come-lately usurpers (the ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty are Sunnis from the Arabian mainland who conquered Bahrain in 1783). The Shi'ites feel the Sunnis discriminate against them in hiring for government jobs and that they import cheap labor to drive down their wages. (Over half the population of Bahrain is now foreign-born.)
Most explosively, the Shi'ites argue that the minority Sunni rulers of Bahrain have been trying, in effect, to elect a new people by importing Sunni mercenaries from poorer countries and putting them on the path to citizenship. Ian Black, Mideast editor of The Guardian reported on February 17, 2011:
"Al Khalifa regime hires non-native Sunni Muslims in concerted effort to swing balance in Shia-majority Bahrain, say analysts"
Similarly, Bill Law of the BBC reported on his 2007 visit with unemployed native Shi'ite youths in "Bahrain troops fire on crowds" [February 18, 2011]:
"I was also told of how the government was hiring men from Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan—all Sunni—to serve in the police and security forces. Fast-tracked to citizenship, they were able to jump the queue for housing and also had voting rights that skewed the demographic in favour of candidates supported by the al-Khalifas."
And in Bahrain's Sunnis Defend Monarchy in the New York Times [February 17, 2011], Michael Slackman reported on the opinions of the well-educated Sunni minority:
"Bahrain … is divided along sectarian lines and politics is often regarded as a zero-sum game — if Sunnis win, then Shiites lose, in a community where sectarian identification trumps national identity. … [To Sunnis] a police force staffed by foreigners is preferable to a police force staffed by Shiite citizens."
Back on June 22, 2009, Yaroslav Trofimov noted in the Wall Street Journal in U.S. Navy Fleet's Mideast Home Is Facing Rise in Sectarian Tension:
" 'There seems to be a clear political strategy to alter the country's demographic balance in order to counter the Shiite voting power,' says Toby C. Jones, professor of Middle East studies at Rutgers University and a former Bahrain-based analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. 'This naturalization stuff is a time bomb.'"
Brian Murphy and Hadeel Al-Shalchi of the Associated Press report in Bahrain's Sunni outreach fuels protests [February 19, 2011]:
"Few policies anger Bahrain's Shiites more than bestowing citizenship to outside Sunnis, mostly Arabs but also from Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
On the broadest level, it's a clear attempt to offset the lopsided demographics with Shiites comprising 70 percent of the country's 525,000 citizens. But to many Shiites, it also reflects a cynical view by Bahrain's leaders that it's possible to buy loyalty and use that to strengthen their grip over the country.
"The problem is that this army is not a national one," said Sheik Hassain al-Dahi [leader of the main Shi'ite opposition party]. "It is made up of people who do not share our traditions or culture, and do not have the best interest of the people at heart."
Not surprisingly, these foreign-born Sunni gunmen appear much less reluctant to open fire on Bahrain's native-born Shi'ite protestors than, say, Egypt's conscript soldiers have been to shoot fellow Egyptians in Cairo. For all of Egypt's severe problems, its relatively homogeneous population has helped it, so far, avoid the worst.
From an American perspective, Bahrain is interesting for two reasons.
Summers in that region are perhaps the most stiflingly hot and humid in the world, and most locals outside Bahrain showed correspondingly little initiative. When Americans discovered vast reserves of oil under Bahrain's neighbors in the mid-20th Century, the Bahrainis kept something of a middle class by refining their neighbors' oil and selling them stuff.
In other words, Bahrain's social and political problems are somewhat analogous to our own. Bahrain, where 54 percent of the population is foreign-born, resembles a dystopian sci-fi novel about a future America. (In contrast, Saudi Arabia's problems, such as schoolgirls being forced back into a burning building by the Immodesty Police, are kind of hard for Americans to relate to.)
In Bahrain, for instance, young men complain about a lack of jobs. Yet there are actually quite a few jobs in Bahrain. But foreigners have a huge share of them.
"The large and growing population of young people … meant that new jobs should be created rapidly. But because foreigners make up some 65 percent of the workforce, there has been little room for labor market growth. According to opposition sources, unemployment was as high as 30 percent. Particular criticism was directed against Shaykh 'Isa [father of the current king] for continuing to allow an influx of cheap foreign labor rather than provide jobs for Bahrain's citizens. In July 1994, a petition was signed by 1,200 unemployed youth requesting the government to deal with their problems; the response was to crack down on protesters."
So the Kingdom of Bahrain isn't that different, after all ... other than that its citizens tend to be more outspoken about immigration.
Similarly, importing foreigners to do the jobs Bahrainis just won't do tends to turn those jobs into ones that Bahrainis just won't do, just as H-1B visas are turning computer programming into a job Americans just won't do.
Bahrain is hardly the only naval base the U.S. could use in the Persian Gulf as its regional headquarters. But for a couple of decades, Bahrain has suited the interests of both the Gulf Arabs and the U.S.
An in-law of mine who was a Naval officer was stationed in Bahrain for several years. He says it got old fast. There are certainly more fun Naval bases to be assigned to—oh, say, Pearl Harbor in Honolulu or Coronado Island in San Diego Harbor—but there also are worse places in the Persian Gulf than Bahrain.
In most parts of the globe, the widespread urge to have our military play Team America: World Police is expensive for the American taxpayers and hard to justify rationally. On the other hand, policing the Persian Gulf to prevent banditry, small and large, has clear economic logic behind it. Strategically speaking, the Persian Gulf is "The Prize" a region absurdly well-endowed with oil, especially relative to the military competence of the locals.
When oil pumping got going in the Persian Gulf in the 1940s, U.S. oil firms paid royalties that seemed more munificent to camel-riding sheiks than they did to the oil companies' accountants. The American firms passed on some of their savings to American consumers, who built a hugely prosperous suburban economy based upon gasoline at $0.29 per gallon.
Then a savvy Venezuelan oil minister named Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo studied how the Texas Railroad Commission had restricted pumping to drive up oil prices. In 1960, he founded a would-be cartel called the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Eventually, the Persian Gulf potentates came around to his way of thinking. Their oil boycott and price increases following the Yom Kippur war of 1973 kicked off The Great Stagnation in prosperity for the average American family.
It could be worse, however. OPEC's ability to raise prices depends upon its twelve members, six of them in the Persian Gulf, agreeing upon voluntary cutbacks in output. In the 1970s, Gulf Arab populations were low enough that their governments, especially the Saudis, could afford to limit their own national production for the good of OPEC. OPEC's huge successes in the 1970s were dependent upon underpopulated Saudi Arabia good-naturedly not retaliating when the Shah of populous Iran cheated on his promises to cut back.
A generation and a half of population growth, however, has made it much harder for all of the Gulf exporters to afford to cooperate. For example, Saudi Arabia's population has almost quadrupled since 1973.
U.S. policy since the 1970s has been, in effect, to pay market prices for the oil—even conquering Kuwait in 1991 and Iraq in 2003 didn't lead to American appropriation of oil—but to prevent consolidation within the region, such as Iraq's stickup of Kuwait in 1990. The economic theory of oligopolies states that, all else being equal, the fewer the decision makers, the more likely the cartel is to succeed.
The various governments of the Persian Gulf have to sell their oil to survive economically. But the more oil exporters that remain independent in the region, the harder it is for them to make their cartel work to raise prices.
Going back as far as FDR's meeting with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1945, the rather feckless Gulf Arab rulers have tended to prefer the distant and powerful U.S. as their protector against closer threats, such as the Soviets during the Cold War, Egypt's Pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Iranians, under both the Shah and ayatollahs.
The Persians have not shown themselves to be terribly dynamic militarily. Iran hasn't invaded a foreign country in at least a century and a half. And it doesn't seem to be gearing up to invade anybody right now. Its 2009 military budget was $9 billion (compared to America's $663 billion). That's only 2.7 percent of GDP (compared to America's 4.3 percent).
So the Iranian Shi'ite theocracy's main hope for extending its power in the Gulf is thus through subversion of neighboring Sunni regimes with large Shi'ite populations. Above all, Saudi Arabia—which is ruled by Sunnis, but in which the main oil-producing regions are heavily Shi'ite.
Bahrain, along with Iran, Iraq, and Azerbaijan, are the only Muslim countries with Shi'ite majorities. Ever since Bush's invasion of Iraq, which managed to replace a virulently anti-Iranian Sunni regime with a pro-Iranian Shi'ite government, Bahrain has been the only Shi'ite majority country ruled by Sunnis.
Thus, Iran sponsored coup attempts in Bahrain in 1981 and 1994. Yet both failed.
Do Shi'ites in Bahrain, some of whom are of Persian descent, some of Arab descent, look to Iran more now than in the past? I wouldn't think the Iranian regime is all that galvanizing in 2011, but I really don't know.
Would Shi'ite revolution then spread from Bahrain to the nearby oil fields of Saudi Arabia?
Well, one advantage of being an old coot like me is that when the latest worries come along, after a while you remember that you already worried about it long ago ... and got bored. Folks, I was worrying about Iran taking over the Shi'ite oil zone of Saudi Arabia in 1979. Despite all the complex theories I constructed at the time about how this was about to happen, it didn't. And it hasn't happen over the last 32 years. Will it happen over the next 32 years?
I don't know.
Theoretically, Iran wouldn't need ownership to exercise pumping restraint to drive up prices—if Tehran could put the word out to the new Shi'ite oil regimes that they were all going to cut back, a Shi'ite consortium might be able to have sufficient market power to boost prices.
But, that all seems terribly theoretical. I strongly doubt that separate Shi'ite states would or could coordinate that much, sacrificing their own sales because they trust the others to cut back too. There are good reasons that people in that part of the world aren't very trusting of each other.
So the U.S. may get lucky in the Gulf. But the demographic situation is unquestionably unstable. And Bahrain is an object lesson in how a ruling class is can use immigration policy as a weapon against its own people. Even if the Bahraini ruling class gets away with it, that's no guarantee that our American rulers will.