MANAMA, Bahrain — Just outside the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in this Persian Gulf oil emirate, teenagers throwing rocks recently clashed with police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. The disturbances and police roundups lasted for days. But throughout it all, not one brick was hurled in the direction of the American base.
That is among the incongruities in this small but strategic country. It has been shaken by 17 months of anti-government protests led by militant Islamic clerics. But during the tumult, the large U.S. military presence that helps support the government has rarely rated a mention by dissidents.
"As long as they do nothing to me, I have nothing against them," said Ibrahim, 15, a Shiite Muslim who took part in the battles with police next to the 5th Fleet administrative headquarters. The Navy personnel who jog on the narrow streets of his poor neighborhood do not provoke even mild resentment, he said, noting, "Anybody is welcome in our land, as long as the government agrees to the demands of the people."
Will that always be true? U.S. officials are increasingly worried about Bahrain's growing problems. Stability and cooperation in the gulf are top U.S. strategic goals--to ensure a steady supply of fuel to the West--and Bahrain more and more looks like a crumbling house in a tough neighborhood.
One of the United States' strongest allies in the region, this country of fewer than 600,000 people has been the scene of steadily escalating violence since December 1994 pitting the Sunni Muslim-led government against members of the Shiite community. Shiites make up 70% of the population and are demanding greater democracy and the restoration of the parliament dissolved by the emir in 1975.
The fight has spiraled into bombings and fatal arson on one side and mass arrests and alleged torture on the other--all over an island group, a little over half the size of Los Angeles, that is fast running out of the oil that underpins its economy.
That reality is the heart of the problem: Bahrain is the first gulf producer exhausting its oil supply. Its output of 42,000 barrels a day is a fraction of a percent of the world's production. But by 2020, if projections hold, its supply will be depleted.
Like other gulf states, Bahrain is desperate to diversify economically. Already it hosts a string of international banks whose gleaming offices line the waterfront; it has become a major aluminum smelter; it has developed a small but significant ship repair industry. It is experimenting with tourism, building posh beach resorts aimed at wealthy Arabs and Europeans.
But can Bahrain shift to a post-petroleum economy while coping with what amounts to a popular insurrection?
Clashes with police occur almost nightly. And a rash of bombings has targeted hotels, restaurants and other sites across Bahrain since July.
In the worst such incident, seven Bangladeshi guest workers died in the firebombing of a restaurant just outside Manama in March. The death toll from the unrest since 1994 is now at least 28.
Opposition leader Sheik Abdul Amir Jamri has been imprisoned since January. Houses and fences across Bahrain are covered with graffiti demanding his release.
So far, the planted bombs have been primitive and placed for psychological effect more than harm. "The idea is to tell the government, 'We could close this country down if we wanted,' " according to one diplomat.
The U.S. Embassy has warned Americans to exercise caution when moving about Bahrain, and several foreign banks have been shifting operations to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain's principal economic rival.
The government of Sheik Isa ibn Salman Khalifa, the emir, would like to portray the uprising as the thin edge of an Iranian wedge that wants to extend Ayatollah Khomeini-style fundamentalism to the oil states of the gulf. While it is true that Shiite religious leaders at the forefront of the protests are trained in the Iranian holy city of Qom, most diplomats and political analysts regard Bahrain's unrest as a home-grown affair.
Shrinking oil revenues have nearly halved per capita earnings since the early 1980s, hitting hardest at the Shiite underclass, hungry for jobs and political influence denied by the Khalifa dynasty that has ruled for 213 years. Young Shiite protesters have seized on the demand for a return of the parliament dissolved after only one year in existence, and they say they will fight to the end.
"We call it a new intifada," said Ibrahim, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. (Because of his fear of police informers, the youth insisted on being interviewed in a car parked behind an apartment building rather than in his own neighborhood.)