- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

"You are either with us or against us." One of the first countries to join President Bush in the war against international terrorism was Bahrain. Under the courageous leadership of its visionary monarch, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Bahrain has been cooperating with the United States on all fronts since September 11.
Bahrain has worked closely with the U.S. Treasury Department to track the assets of those who finance international terrorism. It has provided invaluable information on the movement of al Qaeda sympathizers in the Persian Gulf region. Furthermore, Bahrain has provided military support to U.S. forces in Afghanistan to assist in tracking down Osama bin Laden and his fellow murderers. And, when Mr. Bush gives the green light to remove the cancer of Saddam Hussein from the Persian Gulf, Bahrain will be side-by-side with us.
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. In fact, this tiny island nation has been a strategic ally of the United States for more than 50 years. Pound for pound, the United States has no closer friend in the Arab world than Bahrain.
Yet, beyond its strategic partnership with the United States, Bahrain is "with us" on a far more fundamental shared objective; namely, to foster democratic reform in the Arab world. "I don't feel like a loser. This was a great experience." The experience that Fawzia Al-Ruwaie, a 41-year-old military nurse, is referring to is the recent historic elections to Bahrain's 40-seat parliament. Ms. Al-Ruwaie was one of two women who made it to the second round of voting but failed to win a seat. These elections and the impetus behind them have enormous geopolitical significance to Washington.
Since ascending to the throne in 1999, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, has placed social, economic and political reform at the top of his agenda because he believes that the Arab world is capable of democratic reform. The rationale behind King Hamad's decision to bring about democratic change to his nation of 400,000 is the empowerment of all Bahrainis irrespective of their ethnic or religious differences to control their own destiny. Therefore, if Arab countries like Bahrain embrace pluralism and open legitimate outlets for political expression, this will expose the bankrupt ideologies of Islamic hard-liners in Bahrain and the rest of the Arab world who insist that they have all the answers to the socioeconomic problems facing them.
The United States has a vested interest in the success of King Hamad's reform movement because tiny Bahrain can become a model for the rest of the Arab world, especially in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Shi'a comprise a majority in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where 25 percent of the world's remaining oil reserves are located. Therefore, Bahrain should be rewarded and singled out for its bravery, friendship and pursuit of democracy. Mr. Bush might consider adopting one or all of the following policy options:
First, ask Congress to appropriate a one-time aid package to Bahrain of $400 million to help King Hamad complete the reform process. Although located at the epicenter of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Bahrain is oil-poor and relies on Saudi Arabia's Abu Safa oil field for the bulk of government revenues. Beyond sending a clear message to the people of Bahrain, this aid package symbolizes America's commitment to countries that stand "with us" in promoting democratic pluralism.
Second, Washington must send a clear, overt and strong message to the Islamic Republic of Iran not to meddle in the internal affairs of Bahrain. Now that the Shi'a, who are a majority in Bahrain, have been empowered, it is important that the ayatollahs of Iran do not take advantage of these new liberties in Bahrain to undermine King Hamad.
Third, ask America's close friend and ally in the region, Qatar, to take the lead and help expedite the building of a causeway connecting the island of Bahrain to Qatar. This will allow unemployed Shi'a from Bahrain to work in Qatar during the day and return to their homes in Bahrain at night. It is hoped that gainful employment will keep these Shi'a from becoming disruptive pawns of the increasingly meddlesome and hostile Iranian regime.
Last, encourage companies like BP to relocate some of their solar-energy plants to Bahrain, thus turning that country into a mecca for alternative energy experimentation. What better place to start the move away from oil dependence than in the heart of oil-rich Persian Gulf?
One of the best guarantors of U.S. success in winning the war against terrorism is to encourage open, participatory democracies in the Arab world. Bahrain's first steps in this direction must be lauded.

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


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