I've spent the last several days in Bahrain, meeting with both government officials and members of the opposition. While I began my trip expecting protests on February 14, the anniversary of last year's demonstrations and crackdowns on the Pearl Roundabout, I am leaving more pessimistic.
This was my first trip to Bahrain in 18 years, since I lived in the tiny Persian Gulf island nation for a summer. Since that time, the development in Bahrain has been astounding. What once was a dusty backwater with a very limited amount of oil has seen massive development. Alas, this has not trickled down to the population—with its sectarian divisions—evenly. I am not one who believes wealth must be distributed equally; what disturbs me more is the opportunity gap.
Even members of the royal family acknowledge that opposition grievances are real, and some are perhaps more sincere in their desire for reform than many oppositionists realize. Others are not, however, and while some opposition parties are more secular and liberal, and others are more religiously-oriented, there seems to be a consensus which has formed that compromise is impossible. The opposition accuses security forces—often manned by non-Bahraini Arabs and those with origins in South Asia—with using tactics which have worsened the situation. Bahraini authorities acknowledge there has been torture; the opposition distrusts the declaration of both the government and its appointed commission that they will address the problem seriously.
Within a five-minute walk from my hotel in central Manama is graffiti calling for the ouster of King Hamad, who has been a staunch ally of the United States. Within a shadow of the capital's skyscrapers, the graffiti calling for the ruling family's ouster, revolution, and even the king's death is ever present (though the latter slogan is relatively rare). Cars honk their horns in a cadence with the four-syllable slogan calling for the king's ouster. I attended a meeting with a more religiously-oriented group in which speakers called for the end of the Khalifa dynasty. To the credit of the Bahraini government, officials knew in advance I would be meeting with oppositionists, though they did not know with whom I would meet (nor, frankly did I), and the government did nothing to hamper me. To the credit of the American embassy, some of the opposition leaders spoke highly of their interaction with American diplomats. To the embassy's discredit, others said they had never met a single American diplomat.
In Ma'amir, a village near the opposition stronghold of Sitra, I walked with protesters as they demonstrated behind hastily erected barricades to prevent security force vehicles from running them down. I witnessed the ensuing clash—getting my fair share of tear gas (the most potent and strangest smelling tear gas I have ever encountered)—in the process. The protesters, as best I could see, were unarmed though at least one protester threw a Molotov cocktail. Following the clash, I visited a hospital—well-guarded as the police reportedly try to stop the treatment of protesters—to confirm the death of a Bahraini oppositionist that day, who allegedly suffocated on tear gas. Perhaps the opposition wanted to create martyrs, perhaps they did not. But the fact of the matter is that going into the anniversary of last year's shooting, there is no shortage of victims in whose memory the opposition will rally.
To the opposition's credit, there have been no attacks, let alone threats, to my knowledge ,on Americans. It is in this context the U.S. embassy in Bahrain's decision to withdraw Americans living in largely Shi'ite areas along the Budaiya road is a mistake. I wrote about that here, and received a thoughtful response from an anonymous blogger on Foreign Service affairs, here. While I am not sympathetic to the argument that the ability to go to Pizza Hut trumps a diplomat's responsibility to report as broadly as possible, and I am not sympathetic to the argument that meetings with officials at sterile locations can ever substitute for observing on one's own, a far greater concern is that with American diplomats evacuated from the area in which clashes are likely to occur, and with Western journalists unwelcome until after the anniversary passes, there is no incentive for either the government or the opposition to restrain themselves. As the opposition escalates their demands not simply to dismiss the government but also to rid Bahrain of monarchy, and the government hunkers down to restore order by whatever means necessary, the outlook for later this month is dire indeed.
There are other issues relating to American policymakers: Bahrain hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet and so is of incredible strategic importance. Allegations of Iranian influence are also of real concern to American policymakers. But, with a plane to catch, these thoughts will have to be explored over subsequent days.