The Middle East has changed appreciably since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The overthrow of the Saddam regime set in motion a protracted period of sectarian competition that only intensified eight years later during the Arab Spring. The United States tried to use the differences between the region’s Shia and Sunnis to create a new regional balance of power but now finds itself entangled with both sides.
The consequences of that entanglement are already starting to show. On July 7, Bahrain declared US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski persona non grata. The Bahraini government claimed that Malinowski was meddling in its affairs by meeting with the head of the country’s largest Shiite group, Al Wefaq. The next day, Malinowski tweeted that he was expelled because Manama wanted to undermine the dialogue between the Sunni-led government and the largely Shiite political opposition.
His removal is no ordinary move. Bahrain is a close ally of Washington, and the US 5th Fleet is stationed there. Moreover, Malinowski is not even a diplomat stationed in Bahrain; he is an assistant secretary of state on an official visit to the country.
According to the State Department, Malinowski’s meeting with Al Wefaq had been arranged through the appropriate Bahraini authorities. For their part, the Bahrainis claim that Malinowski violated protocol.
Either way, it is unlikely that this kind of meeting would take place without Manama’s knowledge. It would entail exhaustive preparation and coordination between the US State Department and the Bahraini Foreign Ministry. Security considerations would require Diplomatic Security Service personnel to work with their counterparts at the Bahraini Interior Ministry. So while it is possible the meeting was conducted secretly, it is more plausible that something happened in the meeting that angered the Bahraini government.
Manama could have quietly relayed its anger to Washington. It also could have disallowed the follow-up meeting that was supposed to take place today. Instead, it went public with its condemnation and took an unprecedented action against a visiting US official.
Given the otherwise amicable relations between Bahrain and the United States, Manama probably would not do something like this on its own. More likely, it did so at the behest of its patron in the region, Saudi Arabia. The island nation has come to rely more on the Saudis since the political uprisings of 2011. In fact, Riyadh sent in its own troops to quell the political unrest in Manama.
More important, Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States have sharply deteriorated over the past year. Washington declined to overthrow the Syrian region and is still trying to mend ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective, the Americans can no longer be trusted on regional matters, particularly those involving Iran and its Shiite allies.
The meeting with Al Wefaq certainly fits that description. Malinowski’s chief responsibility is promoting democracy, which runs counter to Saudi and Bahraini government interests because it would benefit the majority Shia. It is unclear which specific issue compelled Manama to kick out Malinowski, but clearly the talks threatened the government.
But the issue here is not just about this single meeting, Bahrain’s domestic political situation or even a Saudi attempt to relay Riyadh’s anger to the Americans. Instead, it is about the security fears of Sunni Arab states, particularly those in the Persian Gulf that find themselves trapped between jihadism, democratization and growing Shiite influence. As Saudi Arabia struggles to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, where the United States has proved to be uncooperative, it does not want Washington to create an opportunity for Iran on the Saudi side of the Persian Gulf. Riyadh and its allies wanted to send a strong message to the United States: The Arabian Peninsula is off-limits to their balance-of-power policy.
Washington is having a hard time handling the Middle East’s sectarian politics. Diplomacy with Iran is encouraging, but it remains a work in progress. And the United States is still running into problems with the Sunnis, even those among its oldest allies.
© 2014, STRATFOR
Publishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary is with the express permission of STRATFOR.