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Middle East Protests Force US on Defensive

The spread of protests to strategically vital countries such as Bahrain has put the US on the back foot after years when Washington appeared to overestimate the impact of local leaders’ reform efforts.

A Bahraini flag flutters as anti-government protesters gather at Pearl Square in Manama for a demonstration calling for a regime change on February 16, 2011.
Joseph Eid | AFP | Getty Images
A Bahraini flag flutters as anti-government protesters gather at Pearl Square in Manama for a demonstration calling for a regime change on February 16, 2011.

Bahrain, which again sawwidespread demonstrations on Wednesday, is not just the home to headquarters of the US fifth fleet, the key source of US naval power in the Gulf region and beyond.

It is also nervously watched by Saudi Arabia and other US allies in their constant efforts to check the influence of Iran.

The Obama administration has sought to strike a middle course in reaction to the unrest, declaring its support for the rights demanded by the protesters and urging local allied governments to do more to meet their demands.

“You can’t just maintain power through coercion,” Barack Obama, US president, said this week, emphasizing the importance of improving the economic outlook for the region’s young people. “As a consequence of what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt, governments in that region are starting to understand this.”

A series of WikiLeaks cablesreleased this week highlight Bahrain’s military importance to Washington and positive US evaluations of the reforming zeal of the country’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Those cables, dating from 2008 and 2009, argue that “if Iran became embroiled in armed conflict, Bahrain’s Shia [the majority of the country’s citizens] would be sympathetic”.

They also praise King Hamad as “personable and engaging”, a “corporate king” rather than an absolute ruler, who has met many demands for reform.

“I don’t know we underestimated discontent; we may have exaggerated the degree of reform,” said Elliott Abrams, a top adviser to George W Bush, former president, during the time of many of the cables.

The documents reflect Washington’s priority of maintaining the safety of US personnel and call for military aid to the country to be increased beyond its 2008 level of $4 million.

It is now $19 million a year.

They also note that Bahraini officials were unable to substantiate claims that Iran backed Shia opposition politicians.

The US has been bolstering its presence in the island kingdom, beginning a $580m modernization of the headquarters of the fifth fleet last year.

Mr Abrams said that if the US were ever forced to relocate from Bahrain, it would be seen as “a very great achievement for Iran ... [and] a sign of US decline in the region”.

A more immediate concern was the Saudi response to the prospect of greater power for Bahrain’s Shia.

He said: “Were there to be a revolution and Shia rule in Bahrain the Saudis would be very nervous about [Saudi Arabia’s largely Shia] eastern province, particularly when they are already nervous about Yemen. That’s the larger problem.”