- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two weeks ago, as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was lobbying our allies in the Persian Gulf to assist in a containment policy for Iran, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California was hosting a delegation from Bahrain to discuss good governance and democratic reform. While lobbying for containment grabbed the headlines, it is the support of good governance that should be the focus of America’s long-term strategy toward the Persian Gulf. Supporting experiments in democratic reform like those taking shape in Bahrain will have a far more important impact on our national security than dancing around the 30-year-old problem of Iran.

Home to the U.S. Gulf Naval Force - the 5th Fleet - Bahrain is a small island nation of 1 million sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The 5th Fleet is tasked with the strategic goal of maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil, which accounts for 67 percent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves. Approximately 27 percent of daily global crude oil exports pass through the territorial waters of Bahrain on the way to consumers worldwide. Understandably, Bahrain is a critical link in the stability of the energy-rich Persian Gulf and has been a strategic ally of the United States for more than 55 years. As former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. William J. Crowe once noted: “Pound for pound, Bahrain has been and continues to be America’s best friend in the region.”

Of equal importance to Bahrain’s geographic location are the changes taking place inside the country. 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 the Arab world is capable of democratic reform.

This was not always the case before King Hamad. Bahrain was plagued by many of the problems afflicting other Arab countries: poor government transparency and accountability, uneven economic and educational development, limited avenues of free speech, a weak civil society and limited political representation.

Over the past decade, the country’s reform-minded king has taken huge strides in allowing for political development as well as economic development. King Hamad reinstated the national Parliament, reached out to marginalized Shia communities and presided over an era of greater freedom of speech, government transparency and accountability, and civil society growth.

At Mr. Rohrabacher’s recent hearing, for example, a noted Jewish lawmaker from Bahrain stated: “One of the most remarkable things about Bahrain is that everyone is permitted to maintain their places of worship and display symbols of their religion.” The tone and tenure of this emphasis on religious tolerance is set by the king.

The king also has laid out an ambitious, 20-year economic plan for his country that aims to double national income by the year 2030 and more evenly distribute the nation’s development projects. Longtime observers of Bahrain understand that one of the key complaints of the majority Shia population - governed by a Sunni ruling family - has been a sense that they have unequal access to education and economic development. The plan, Economic Vision 2030, tackles this issue head-on by resolving to “embrace the principles of sustainability, competitiveness and fairness to ensure that every Bahraini has the means to live a secure and fulfilling life and reach their full potential.”

King Hamad recently passed his 10-year mark as ruler of Bahrain. It has been a remarkable decade that has witnessed transformative changes in the kingdom building the foundation for a more just and prosperous society, a more transparent polity, a sustainable and dynamic economy and a reclamation of Bahrain’s role as a regional pioneer. As the hearing audience listened, another Bahraini shared her observations with members of the U.S. Congress: “The reforms since 1999 have positively affected the lives of every Bahraini man and woman and heralded a new way of life where democracy is a meaningful word and where freedom is a true way of life.”

In addition to democratic reforms, the recent signing of a free-trade agreement has introduced a new dimension to U.S.-Bahraini relations. Bahrain is now open for business with the United States. In fact, Bahrain’s recent decisions to invest in game-changing U.S. high-technology companies and import solar-energy expertise will mean job creation for both sides.

Oftentimes, in the headline-grabbing media of today, deliberate but necessary steps at political and economic reform rarely get attention. In Bahrain, these steps are laying the foundation for a stable and prosperous American ally well into the 21st century. In the interest of national security, Washington should continue to encourage the leaders of Bahrain in their reform agenda.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.

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