Funerals of Bahrain Protesters Possible Flashpoints

“Anything you want on land, sea or air, we can do it.” This is how Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa summed up his support for US policy when he met General David Petraeus, one of the top US army officers, in May 2009.

Bahraini army tanks take position near Pearl Square in Manama.
Joseph Eid | AFP | Getty Images
Bahraini army tanks take position near Pearl Square in Manama.

Diplomatic cables from US officials in Bahrain obtained by WikiLeaks and seen by the Financial Times describe how King Hamad, dressed in military uniform, recounted his time in the US Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

Underlining the close relations between the US and Bahrain, which could be shaken if his government is overthrown by protests, the king ordered some prime beachfront land to be made available to the US army for family recreation.

“It’s the least we can do for these men and women who work for the security of the region,” the king is quoted as saying.

Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet, the central source of US naval power in the Gulf region, and officials said Bahrain’s king had relied heavily on US equipment and training to build up its own defence force.

US diplomats in Manama seemed to underestimate the potential for political unrest. One cable said: “The Bahrain of today is a far cry from the Bahrain of the 1990s. Political parties operate freely ...street protests are significantly fewer and less violent.”

There is little doubt about the benefits for the US of its friendship with Bahrain.

“King Hamad is committed to fighting corruption and prefers doing business with American firms because they are transparent,” said one cable.

US companies have won a string of contracts in the country, including Gulf Air’s purchase of 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

Bahrain’s decision to unleash tear gas and rubber bullets on sleeping demonstrators could indicate the rising power of the ruling family’s more reactionary faction, analysts say.

Though outwardly more unified than many Gulf royal families, there are different camps within it who differ on how to deal with the “Shia problem”.

The reformist camp is said to include the jocular foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, and the Cambridge University-educated crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Though also concerned about the possible Shia ties to Iran and Iraq, and extremist groups such as Hezbollah, the reformists have in general favoured engaging with the moderate Shia parties.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the prime minister for 40 years, has long been seen as the head of the family’s reactionary, pro-Sunni wing. Though some observers say he has been sidelined somewhat in recent years.