Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why Does America Hate Sunnis?

(The above map of the "New Middle East" was prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006. Though it does not represent official Pentagon doctrine, it made headlines especially for its depiction of the "Arab Shia State" engulfing southern Iraq, a portion of Kuwait, Al-Hasa, and Bahrain. Of course, this is precisely the sort of regional realignment feared by Sunni Gulf Arabs, and thus leads nicely into our discussion here.).

As chronicled in our previous post of a week or so ago, "Obama ♥ Iran: A Love Story," pro-government folks in Bahrain have increasingly--and especially so since Obama's speech on the Middle East--adopted the opinion that the United States, for all its outward support for the Al Khalifa over the previous months, in fact is engaged in a duplicitous policy serving to undermine the stability of Bahrain.

Evidence of this growing opinion is multifarious, but it is perhaps best summarized in the series "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain" authored by Yusif Al Bin Khalil, a (ghost-)writer for the Al-Watan newspaper, which is closely linked to the royal court. In these daily articles, extending back more than a month to April 24, Al Bin Khalil outlines what he sees as a U.S. policy that not only backs Bahrain's opposition but, more generally, favors Shi'i Iran (and Iraq) at the expense of Sunnis across the Arab world.

If one would wonder why we should pay such attention to a single author of a pro-government newspaper, one recent Al Bin Khalil article may offer some indication. In it, he accused the University of Bahrain's American Studies Center (ASC) of being a bastion of government opponents and would-be revolutionaries. (Among others, Maryam al-Khawajah and her sister had studied there.) But a few days later, the ASC's long-time director had resigned and the Center itself was "reorganized" (whatever that means) according to the UOB president. Other former and current ASC students have been summoned by the military prosecutor.

As Bahraini contacts have noted, then, Al Bin Khalil is more properly thought of as the pulse of the royal court rather than as an individual with a private opinion. Indeed, they say, it is widely assumed that the articles in Al-Watan come directly from higher up. Whatever the case, the anti-U.S. series in Al-Watan is but one facet of a larger trend.

Notable as well is the quiet departure some weeks ago of former Political Officer Ludo Hood from Embassy Manama after he and his wife were threatened by pro-government Salafis. Though the State Department is now denying this in the Bahraini press, the Miami Herald offers a good overview of what happened. (We also discussed this here a while ago.)

Now, I suspect that, for most of us, this argument that the U.S. is favoring Iran at the expense of Arab Sunnis, particularly as it relates to Bahrain, is a difficult one to follow. As one commenter here recently put it:
I still don't understand what interest the USA would possibly have in seeing a Wilayat Faqih in Bahrain where their 5th fleet is based. Surely if there was an Islamic state loyal to Iran the base would be the first thing to go, these articles seem to be suggesting that the USA wants the overthrow of the regime precisely to pave the way for an Iran style theocracy.

Can anyone enlighten me as to what the actual argument is? I've read through most of the articles but must be missing something pretty fundamental as it just doesn't seem to make any sense to me at all.
Well, thankfully, Al Bin Khalil has taken it up himself to answer this question. In a May 25 post titled "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: A Dangerous Reason," he tackles precisely this issue. He begins,
We have talked a lot, and we have presented various opinions, and I think the time is right to examine the most important aspect of the analysis toward which this long series has striven, which is the reason why Washington has been pushing to abandon its traditional allies in the Gulf and Bahrain in particular, whether they be the royal families or the Sunni sect. Of course the reasons are many and we may agree and disagree about some of them, but ultimately these reflect the reality of Washington's relations and views toward its traditional allies, and its seeking to abandon them and find new allies.
The rest is rather long and rambling, but the jist of it is that the U.S. prefers the Sunni community to remain in a state of "disintegration" and, conversely, is afraid of "Sunni solidarity," for concerted Sunni Arab action would put Israel at risk, put the world's oil supplies at risk of 1970s-style supply manipulation, and upset America's strategy of pitting Iran against the Arab states as a way of guaranteeing continued arms sales to the latter. On this last point, Al Bin Khalil says that the U.S. is "striving for nuclear balance between Sunnis and Shi'is." Finally, he says, he will offer more details in a future article so as to be more clear.

One of these "future articles" apparently came on May 30. It is titled "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The International Sunni Alliance" and, as one might guess from the title, elaborates on the point that "Sunni-Sunni solidarity would threaten the interests of Washington." He continues, "[I]t is logical for the U.S. administration to derail any attempts at closer relations between [the Sunni] countries" because the combined political, economic, and military might of the latter would challenge America's dominance of "the Middle East and the region east of it." (Evidently, once the U.S. is out, China and India will be pushovers for the International Sunni Alliance.)

Thus we have at least some measure of explanation for the popular conception today among Bahrain's government supporters that the U.S. is no longer on their side. Certainly it smacks of Arab Nationalism mixed with Islamic Renaissance, and may even be meant to drum up support for the GCC expansion idea floated in the days before the articles appeared. It also reflects 8 years of anger over the U.S. empowerment of Iraq's Shi'a, and a few months of anger over its abandonment of Husni Mubarak.

Whatever the cause, such an outlook underlines what is perhaps the most far-reaching of the regional transformations occasioned by the Arab Spring: the U.S. is losing the GCC, or rather vice versa. Even in Qatar I heard similar arguments to the one voiced by pro-government Bahrainis, namely that the U.S. is attempting to achieve some balance between Iran and the Arab states, fearful of allowing either to become too strong. The suspicion of U.S. intentions in the Gulf, then, is not limited to Bahrain, and it is unlikely to soon fade.

Update: presumably to try to defray some of the pressure now on the Embassy, Chargé d'affaires Stephanie Williams (whom al-Manbar MP Muhammad Khalid recently referred to as "Embassy Barbie") sat for a 75-minute interview with BTV in Arabic. The video is below, and the BNA has a (selective) summary here.

Update 2: The NYT has yet another summary of the Ludo Hood affair here.


  1. If your insinuating that the USA would "give" Bahrain to the Shia to balance the power in the middle east i think this is a conspiracy theory. While its true that balancing power is a good thing on paper it seems unlikely they would be willing to face the backlash from Saudi and the UAE if it were to do so.

  2. You may wish to re-read the article, my friend. I am not insinuating anything but summarizing the argument of someone else.

  3. Americans are surely looking forward to balancing power in the middle east with both Sunni and Shia not gaining the upperhand. This is for the fear as said in the article that Sunni solidarity will invite China and India to take advantage and also it will increase the threat level in Israel. But Americans supporting Iranian Shia is laughable. Americans are pretty sure if they allow the Iranian regime to influence the region they have a bigger threat. So how do you keep a balance is through undermining every arab state both Sunni and Shia. American policy will vary from country to country and they will play with every opposition rebels with the purpose of not helping them but to weaken the ruling regimes. Americans will difinitely not allow more than one country at a time to switch religious affiliation. Arab nations are a small bunch and can be easily pitted against each other. But any underlying agenda by the Iranian shia or the Saudi Sunnis to gain prominance will be undermined.

  4. JG: Your sarcasm and mock outrage -- while laudable given the irrational thought processes among the "loyalists" in Bahrain -- is going to be altogether lost on most Bahrainis. You're better off keeping your language au point.

  5. If you're referring to the first anonymous commenter here, actually s/he is from the U.S.

    More generally, the intended audience is not Bahrainis specifically (and less than half of the daily visitors here are from Bahrain). In any case, you'd be surprised how well sarcasm translates. My Bahraini (and especially Yemeni) friends are among the most sarcastic people I know.

  6. @Anonny above me: You give us Bahraini's very little credit :<

  7. Prof. G: Here's a delicious example of an angry pro-gov: re-tweeted by a Bahraini diplomat in the US, Aisha Al-Khalifa (@Princessssss):

    @laylaanwar Layla Anwar
    Will Uncle Tom of your Black House utter anything on #Iraq's Human rights violations ?
    11 Jun via web
    Retweeted by Princessssss

  8. and Obama as potus has nothing to gain by a shia controlled Bahrain?