If you’re having a backyard barbecue and your neighbor shifts the conversation from Ozzie Guillen’s affection for Fidel Castro to the brouhaha over the Formula One race in Bahrain, you might need a tutorial. Everyone is not up to speed on the mess there.
In other words, it’s time for another Middle East Q&A.
Q. Where is Bahrain and why do they have a Formula One race on such a tiny, weird island in the middle of nowhere?
A. Bahrain is an archipelago in the Persian Gulf. Oil has made it a very wealthy place. Like its neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it lures celebrities and sporting events by dangling lots of money in front of people.
Folks in the Gulf love Formula One racing. They would sneer at Daytona Beach International Speedway. Formula One is sexy and has those handsome European drivers.
Q. Why did they almost cancel the race last month?
A. Bahrain has caught a case of the Arab Spring. It’s low grade but complex.
It's different than in Egypt because Bahrain has money. Even the poor people in Bahrain are doing OK. The issue here is power: Sunni vs. Shiite. They are different strains of Islam and they often don’t like each other. Most of the Arabian Peninsula – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, etc. – is Sunni.
But in Bahrain, which is ruled by Sunnis, roughly 70 percent of the Muslim population is Shiite.
Q. Why are there so many Shiites in a Sunni kingdom?
A. Over the centuries, Bahrain has had close ties with Iran, which is the center of the Shiite universe. If you Google the Persian Gulf on your iPhone, you’ll see that Iran is as close to Bahrain as Miami is to the Bahamas.
When the rest of the Arabian Peninsula was a wasteland 100 years ago, Bahrain was a thriving commercial center. It’s been a significant city for a long time. And during much of its history, it’s been either an ally or enemy of Iran.
Q. So, what does that have to do with the Formula One race?
A. Well, the Bahraini Shiites got on the Arab Spring train in 2011. They started protesting. It got so bad in 2011 that they had to cancel the race, which was a great embarrassment to the Sunni rulers.
This year, the rulers simply used brute force to keep the protesters far enough away from the track that the well-heeled race fans could remain oblivious and enjoy the high-pitch whine of the Formula One cars in extravagant peace.
Q. Well, Tom, why should I care?
A. I wouldn’t start digging a nuclear bomb shelter yet, but this tiff in Bahrain is really a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between the Sunni world and the Shiite world.
Saudi Arabia is next door to Bahrain. In fact, a few years ago they built a huge causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain so the Saudis could easily get there on weekends to party.
You see, the United States has its huge 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain. And the Bahrainis are smart and fairly tolerant so they have allowed a nightlife to develop.
That keeps the American sailors amused and lures thousands of Saudis across the causeway in search of the kind of fun you can’t get in Saudi Arabia.
Q. But what do drunken Saudis and sailors have to do with me?
A. Saudi Arabia is so upset by the protests in Bahrain that it is talking about annexing Bahrain. The assumption is that the Saudis would put a quick end to the protests. That would really upset the Iranians, who, as you know, are close to joining the nuclear-bomb fraternity. Irate Iranians would make this volatile part of world even more unstable.
I think the fallout might even rival Ozzie’s “I love Fidel Castro” gaffe.
A former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post, Tom O'Hara is a senior editor with The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi and a Middle East columnist for Florida Voices.
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