- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2001

When President George Bush sits down today with the emir of Bahrain at the White House he will be meeting with the ruler of a tiny island nation, but nonetheless a country with enormous geopolitical significance to Washington.
Although oil-poor, with a mere 210 million barrels of proven reserves, Bahrain is at the epicenter of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The U.S.-Bahrain relationship is vital to Americas energy security and those of its allies. Fully 67 percent of the worlds proven crude oil reserves are situated in the Persian Gulf and approximately 20 percent of daily global crude oil exports pass through the territorial waters of Bahrain on the way to consumers worldwide.
By 2020 global oil consumption is expected to rise from the current level of 76 million barrels per day to 115 million barrels per day, of which approximately 41 million barrels per day, or nearly 35 percent, will be exported from the Persian Gulf.
U.S. petroleum demand is estimated to grow to 25.8 million barrels per day in 2020 from 19.5 million in 1999. Most of this demand will have to be met by imports from the Persian Gulf. Maintaining close ties to strategically situated Bahrain must therefore remain a foreign policy priority for Washington.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Gulf Naval Force, the Fifth Fleet, which is tasked with the strategic goal of maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil. As such, the linchpin of U.S. Gulf security is Bahrain, which has remained one of Washingtons strongest allies in the region for decades. This security relationship has stayed strong for the past 50 years, but Bahrain has paid a heavy price for shouldering this burden.
The Al-Khalifa family has often come under criticism from and is a frequent target of Iraq and Iran for its strong ties to the United States. The intimidation of pro-Western Bahrain has increased recently as both Baghdad and Tehran have pursued their quests for weapons of mass destruction.
Bahrain is important to Washington for more than its role in U.S. energy security. Unlike most of its neighbors in the region, Bahrain is not a closed society. Instead, the charismatic and Western-educated ruler, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who ascended to the throne in March 1999 following the death of his father, has based his rule on the principles of democracy. Contrary to some of the more aloof and isolated leaders of the region, the emir meets with his subjects every other Saturday for consultation and the exchange of ideas.
At a recent visit to Sitra, the Sunni emir was received with overwhelming warmth and support by the Shiites, who comprise the majority of the population of Bahrain. The support the Amir received was because of what is perhaps the boldest move of any ruler in the region the introduction of a charter, drafted by both Muslims and non-Muslims, as the first step toward a progressive constitution. It is described by the state minister for foreign affairs, Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, as Bahrains "Bill of Rights," calling for "equality, justice and equal opportunity" as the "core principles of Bahraini society."
The best guarantor of U.S. interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf is an open, participatory democracy. This is why U.S. -Bahrain relations are so significant.
One of the top priorities of the new administration will be the security of the Persian Gulf. As such, Bahrain will play a critical role and should be rewarded for its bravery, steadfastness, friendship and pursuit of democracy. The Bush foreign policy team might consider adopting one or all of the following policy options:
First, make Bahrain the hub for refueling of all U.S. naval vessels in the Middle East. With no history of anti-Americanism, Bahrain, not Yemen, would have been the ideal choice for refueling the USS Cole.
Second, encourage U.S. direct investment in Bahrains petroleum, Internet, telecommunication, tourism and banking sectors. This will assist Bahrain in realizing its main goal of job creation. Furthermore, there is no taxation of foreign entities and foreign ownership of businesses is both permitted and encouraged.
Third, encourage Congress to provide foreign aid to Bahrain to help the emir complete the reform process. Bahrain has a transparent economy with strict banking regulations that prevent money-laundering. Therefore, unlike in Russia where billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers money was stolen, a four-year assistance program of $100 million per year would be justified.
Last, assist Bahrain in building the multi-billion dollar causeway between Qatar and Bahrain. This will make Bahrain the hub linking Americas allies in the region Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
As the traveller who leaves the lights of Bahrain behind on the causeway to Saudi Arabia cannot help but be reminded they have just visited an island of stability in a sea of volatility.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.


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