That Bahrain has been able to weather the turmoil that has brought down other authoritarian rulers in the Arab region may be explained by two characteristics in the Bahraini situation.
The first is the different position taken by the U.S. administration toward popular protests against authoritarian regimes in the Arab region. The U.S. role has been crucial in shaping the outcomes of the popular protest in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Its active role in the militarization of the popular protests in Libya facilitated the fall of the Libyan dictator. The U.S. political and logistical support remains crucial to sustaining the Syrian opposition groups.
It is a different story in Bahrain, which also happens to be the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The Obama administration, fearful of alienating Saudi Arabia, has not offered protesters in Bahrain the level of support it has given to Arab protesters elsewhere. The resumption last May of American military supplies to the Bahraini government has hardened the regime’s intransigence.
The second feature relates to the role military and security forces have played once the protest started. In Tunisia and Egypt, the military and security forces rapidly distanced themselves from the regime, thus facilitating their rapid fall.
Unlike the rest of the Arab region, the rank and file in the Bahraini military, police and security forces consist almost entirely of foreign recruits. Most of its officers and noncommissioned officers are members of the ruling family and its allied tribes. Bahraini Shias, two-thirds of the indigenous population, are generally excluded from serving in these forces. These arrangements allow the Bahraini regime to remain confident that its military and security forces will remain loyal no matter how high the civilian casualties are. Unlike Libya and Syria, sectarian and tribal identities will not tempt soldiers in Bahrain to defect.