Attrition: Bahrain Hires Pakistani Nukes

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August 9, 2011: In the last five months, Bahrain has recruited over 3,000 Pakistanis to serve in the Bahraini security forces. That’s because Bahrain is a small (population 1.2 million) Persian Gulf monarchy with a Sunni minority ruling a Shia majority. For the last six months, the country has been wracked by interminable demonstrations by angry Shia, and an increasingly violent crackdown. This is not the first time the Shia Arabs have rebelled against their Sunni rulers, and won't be the last.

The Bahraini government blames the violence on Iran, but it appears to be more a matter of the native Shia wanting a better political and economic arrangement. The king has made concessions, and neighboring Arab nations have agreed to provide more economic aid (the 2008 global recession hit Bahrain particularly hard). It appears that the government will be able to outlast this latest Shia outburst. It hasn't been easy.

The problem is that, while Shia is the majority of the native Bahraini population, they are a minority of the overall population. Like most oil-rich Arab countries, an enormous number of foreigners have been brought in to do the dirty work. Actually, the foreigners end up doing most of the real work, with the locals taking cushy government jobs, or equally stress-free non-government jobs. Thus about half the people in Bahrain are foreign workers, and about 40 percent of these are non-Moslem (half are Christian and half Hindu). Nearly all the foreign Moslems are Sunni. Thus the overall population is 35 percent Shia, 45 percent Sunni (mostly, plus other Moslem sects) and 20 percent non-Moslem.

For centuries, Pakistanis have worked in Arabia, as mercenaries and in many other specialties (as technicians, artisans, merchants and experienced officials). This influx grew enormously once oil became a more valuable export during the last century. In the last half century, millions of Pakistanis have come to Arabia to work, although fewer of them came as mercenaries. The newly rich Arab countries sent most of their Pakistani mercenaries home, and tried to recruit locals to be police and soldiers. But the locals were not as enthusiastic about their military duties as the Pakistanis were.

This became an issue last February, when about ten percent of the population (nearly 100,000 people and nearly all Shia) was out on the streets on some days, demanding an end to the monarchy. The army and police increased the force used to disperse the crowds. The king then dismissed many senior officials and made other good-will gestures. But the protests continued, and on March 3rd, Sunni civilians began forming groups and fighting with Shia demonstrators. On March 8th, three protest organizations united to call for a republic (a democracy, and deposing the monarchy and Sunni rule). The king refused to concede.

The Shia majority is the poorest and least educated part of the Bahraini population, and wants a democracy so that they will be in charge. The Sunni minority in Bahrain, and the Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will not tolerate this. Bahraini police have been unable to handle the growing number of Shia demonstrations, so the foreign reinforcements were sought. Officials went to Pakistan to recruit men with military experience to serve in the Bahraini security forces. In mid-March, 1,600 police and paramilitary troops arrived from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Eventually, over 4,000 foreign troops and police came in, plus over 3,000 Pakistani mercenaries. On March 15, the king declared a three month state-of-emergency. This made it easier to arrest people and carry out searches. The demonstrations continued, and on March 25th the government complained to the UN about the Lebanese Hezbollah groups assisting the Shia in Bahrain. The government went after known protest leaders, arresting them, and prosecuting some. Several have since been given long prison terms.

Bahrainis (both Sunni and Shia) get very upset when these claims are periodically revived, but the local Shia wants an independent Bahrain run by the majority. The Iranian government officially denounces such claims, but apparently many Iranians have not forgotten. Arabs are not very happy about that, and have responded by pointing out that Iran was Sunni until 500 years ago, and was forced to convert, on pain of death, by a Shia emperor (who killed about a million of his subjects in the process.) Saudi Arabia is trying, with some success, to organize Arab resistance to Iranian expansionist moves. Iran has responded by encouraging the Shia minorities on the west side of the Gulf to demonstrate their unhappiness with their minority status. Thus the mid-March appearance of Saudi and UAE troops in Bahrain.

The Iranian claim is based on Iranian control of Bahrain for a few years during the 18th century. After that incident, Bahrain, and most of the other Arab Gulf States, sought protection from Britain. During World War II, the U.S. joined with Britain in offering the Arab states of the Persian Gulf protection from Iranian aggression. Iran has always resented this, believing they were the regional superpower, and the final arbiter of who is sovereign, and who is not.

Meanwhile, Bahrain should be, on paper, an excellent place to live for all its citizens. It isn't. The Bahrani population is only 1.2 million, with oil and gas providing a per-capita income of over $26,000. The oil is running out, so Bahrain has been recasting itself as an Arab playground and financial center, replacing Beirut, Lebanon (which ceased, for two decades, to play that role in the late 1970-early 80s because of a civil war). Bahrain has used a lot of their oil revenue to build infrastructure, and encouraged entrepreneurs to create shopping and entertainment facilities superior to anything available in the region. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway bridge, Bahrain does not enforce Islamic law on visitors or residents. That's nothing new. Bahrain has, for centuries, been a port of call for ships, and sailors, which means booze and women were always available. But now there are also shopping malls, a full range of hotels, brothels, clubs and bars. Most of the customers for the entertainment business come from Saudi Arabia, but sailors, especially those from the 40-50 foreign warships that base themselves here, come a close second. A little over half the foreign sailors are American.

While generally peaceful, the country has many unhappy, and violence prone, citizens. The problems are many. First, there is the monarchy. Although competent, many of the educated citizens would prefer a democracy. Then there's the religion angle. The entertainment business offends about ten percent of the population who are Islamic conservatives. Most of these are Shia, and consider all the drinking and partying to be sinful and offensive. Meanwhile, the police have a Shia majority that is often stirred up when the Islamic radicals get violent. Then more Shia villagers will take to the streets, and riot, if they feel the police are being too hard on Shia Islamic radicals. This violence rarely gets into the urban, and tourist, areas. But at times, the police have to warn visitors going outside the city, to avoid certain towns and villages. Because so many of the police are Shia, the government cannot always depend on the cops to control large scale rioting by Shia civilians.

A long range solution to that loyalty problem is being sought elsewhere. Bahrain sent recruiters to Pakistan to hire retired military personnel to staff the Bahraini security forces. The recruiters mainly took men from Baluchistan (the southwest). Baluchis have been the preferred mercenaries in Arabia for centuries. They are skilled, steadfast and loyal. There was no shortage of volunteers, as the money is good, even with the risk of death or injury. Iran leaned on Pakistan to ban this recruiting. Pakistan said it would look into it, and the recruiting went on. Bahrain has long offered citizenship (and access to generous social welfare programs) to Sunni migrants (who fill many civilian and military jobs). The local Shia resent this.

Standing in the wings are thousands of U.S. military personnel, but more as potential targets than as additional security forces. Over the last few years, the U.S. has been expanding its naval base in Bahrain. The navy has taken over the Mina Salman port, which transferred all commercial operations to the new Khalifa bin Salman port two years ago. The navy has leased 28 hectares (70 acres) of waterfront space at Mina Salman. At the capital, the navy has an .4 hectare (one acre) area at the port there, and 17 hectares (42 acres) at a nearby base. The new port is large enough to berth the largest U.S. ships (the Nimitz class carriers.) The port currently supports over a dozen American warships operating in the area.

Then there's the threat from Iran, at least as far as Sunni Arabs throughout the region are concerned. Over the last few years, Iranian politicians have increasingly mentioned in public statements that Iran considers Bahrain the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing (although since all the oil money showed up, the Arabs have been trying to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf," with mixed success). There have been ethnic Iranian communities in Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969 (when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors). Iran has always been an empire, and still is (only half the population is ethnic Iranian). The way this works, you always have a sense of "Greater Iran" which includes, at the very least, claims on any nearby areas containing ethnic Iranians, or people of similar religion. Hitler used this concept to guide his strategy during World War II. The Arabs fear the Iranians, who were always big admirers of the Nazis, will try and blitz their Arab neighbors.

Bahrain hopes to halt the Iranian storm troopers by not only importing Pakistani mercenaries, but by increasing the number of Pakistani contract workers in Bahrain. This large Pakistani population in Bahrain makes it more dangerous for Iran to attack Bahrain. That’s because the Pakistani media back home would demand that nuclear-armed Pakistan do something. Thus does Bahrain obtain the benefit of nuclear weapons, without the expense and diplomatic hassle.

 

 


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