2.1 The Issue
In the small island country of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf (sometimes known as the Arabian Gulf), government and security forces have clashed with protesters seeking democratic reform. Bahrain’s leaders belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, a minority in the country; the majority of Bahrainis are Shiite. There is a history of Sunni-Shia tension in Bahrain, but that tension is only one dimension of the current situation. Broader societal stresses—including repression, disenfranchisement, and limited economic opportunity for the country’s majority—also drive calls for reform.
Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in the capital, Manama, in February 2011, to demand reforms from the government. These reforms included a new constitution that provides for an elected parliament and independent courts, the release of protesters arrested in police crackdowns, and freedom of expression. Some opposition groups made more forceful calls for Bahrain to become a true constitutional monarchy and for an end to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s rule. The ruling Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests.
Bahrain’s primary importance to the United States is its strategic location as the base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Persian Gulf helps ensure the free flow of oil from the Middle East. As a result, the United States has formed close economic and military relationship with the kingdom. However, the continuing unrest raises the question of whether the United States, as a democracy, should support calls for democratic reform in Bahrain, even if doing so damages the government-to-government relationship and threatens U.S. strategic interests in the country.