President Bush has just designated Bahrain a "major non-NATO ally," which acknowledges the country's military help to the United States in the war on terrorism. The small Persian Gulf country serves as port for the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet and as logistics center for two aircraft carrier groups. It is also making democratic progress that is welcomed by its people, some of whom were jailed or deported on political grounds in the past.
When the U.S. bombing started in Afghanistan, protests erupted in many Muslims nations, but not in Bahrain. Many were unhappy, but few took to the streets. The reason, say observers, is that people are generally happy with the way things are going in Bahrain. Their government is not their enemy.
Five years ago, that was not the case. Street clashes were frequent, sometimes paralyzing the government and driving away Western firms. Then in 1999, Sheikh Hamad bin asa al-Khalifa became the new emir and started allowing more freedom and democracy.
More than 1,000 political prisoners have been released, and many other banished dissidents welcomed back home. Sheikh Abdul-Ameer al-Jamri, for example, who was imprisoned for four years, now meets regularly with the emir to discuss national policy. His son told the Wall Street Journal, "We suddenly got what we never had before in this country."
Municipal elections are scheduled for 2002, and voting for parliament the following year. These will confirm present trends, according to Gregory Gause, director of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont. "To some extent, the atmosphere has changed more than the substance," he said. "It is promises of things that are going to come in terms of political reforms, but those promises seem pretty solid, and the process is well engaged toward a return to an elected Bahraini parliament."
Bahrain's large neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is of two minds about the changes. The Saudi royal family likes the new-found stability, but wonders if westernization has gone too far. A mere 15 minutes away by causeway, Bahrain's bars and discos draw weekending Saudis, while offending more religious people.
This reflects a tolerance well worth imitating in other parts of the Arab world, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Not just steamy night life, but all kinds of serious creative works are under prohibition in some societies.
But he cautions that the new Bahrain could be temporary. "It seems to me that most of the experiments in the Arab world in the last 13 years or so have been from the top down, and unfortunately what has been given very easily can be taken very easily as well," he said. "It is not civil society that has forced the government in Bahrain to institute some of the liberal reforms we have seen, but it is rather the new emir."
Professor Gerges says tensions still exist between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, who are dominant in the country. But Bahrain shows that bringing Islamist groups into the political system, rather than rejecting or persecuting them, leads them to support that system.