MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama is just beginning his second term in office and we've been looking at some of the unresolved issues and unfinished business from his first four years. This week, we're turning our attention to foreign policy. Yesterday, we talked about the conflict in Syria. Today, we want to focus on another country where the Arab Spring uprising was not successful. It's a small island that often does not get a lot of attention, but plays an important geopolitical role in the Middle East. We're talking about Bahrain.
Joining us once again is Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera Internation and he speaks with us from time to time to talk about events in the region.
Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Great to be here.
MARTIN: So, for those who haven't been following events in Bahrain, what's been happening there and why is it so important to the region?
FOUKARA: First of all, Bahrain will be celebrating the second year anniversary of these protests and, initially, the government cracked down. Since then, various attempts at dialog between the government and the opposition - that dialog has not always been successful. The opposition has called it a PR exercise, but more recently, an opposition group has come up with what it calls a plan for breaking out of the deadlock and the plan calls for various options. One of them is to have a direct dialog with the government, come up with a plan to have an election that would be much more inclusive that would make the government much more inclusive than it is now.
I have to add that, initially, the protests were for democracy. The government has been building up this argument that it is a Shia protest and that it is stoked by Iran in an effort to gain influence in that part of the Gulf.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that, because just as you were telling us yesterday about Syria - that Syria's conflict started as a conflict, you know, between people who wanted to change the country from within, sort of an internal, you know, movement to achieve more democracy, more freedom within the country, and that that conflict's become internationalized.
You know, Bahrain is located between, you know, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are two major regional powers and there are those who are arguing that this is, in fact, a proxy war being fought out in Bahrain. Do you give any credence to that argument?
FOUKARA: Well, the International Independent Commission concluded that it didn't find any evidence that the Iranians were involved in these protests in Bahrain. Nonetheless, the sectarian divide has become part of the problem in Bahrain. You have the majority Shia of the population versus a Sunni government. And the majority, Shia - they want to change that. They say they want more say in running the affairs over the country. They want more seats in the parliament.
One of the main problems, originally, in Bahrain was the economic situation. Unemployment was very, very high and, because the majority of the population is Shia, obviously, unemployment affected them more than anything else. Bahrain is not a rich country compared by other Gulf states. It doesn't have a lot of oil. It's a financial center, so these protests have affected it tremendously.
MARTIN: We're speaking with Abderrahim Foukara. All week, we've been talking about unresolved foreign policy issues carrying over from President Obama's first term. Today, we're talking about the ongoing discord in Bahrain.
What's been the Obama Administration's posture toward this particular conflict? I mean, it was an issue during the campaign season. You know, his Republican critics would say that they didn't feel that he had been supportive enough, or vocal enough or assertive enough in supporting the democratic aspirations of people in this part of the world. What's been their posture, toward this country in this conflict?
FOUKARA: Well, it has to be said that Bahrain is crucial to U.S. security, and given all the ongoing trouble in that part of the Middle East, Iran, Iraq and so on, that presence is very important, not just to the United States, but to some of its allies, such as Saudi Arabia.
The Obama Administration has, on numerous occasions, called on the government of Bahrain to be a little bit light-handed in dealing with the protests, you know, the jailings and the killings and so on. But it has also been critical of the opposition, because sometimes, the Obama Administration says that the opposition has resorted to violent means. But what is for sure is that Saudi Arabia, which is a very important ally of the United States, does not want to see the government in Bahrain topple, because in the Saudi estimation, then that would spell trouble for Saudi Arabia itself and the rest of the Gulf states.
MARTIN: You know, one of the things I think many Americans might find puzzling about Bahrain is that, you know, as you said, it's a financial center and you do see celebrities there doing their thing, doing business. And, recently, Kim Kardashian was there promoting her milkshake shop, and I'll just play a short clip.
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KIM KARDASHIAN: (Unintelligible), Bahrain. What a crowd. I love just how glamorous all the girls are here. I mean, your makeup and your hair and your clothes. You guys are beautiful.
MARTIN: Abderrahim, what's going on there? I mean, I'm not saying with Kim Kardashian because no one can figure that out, but I mean, what is that?
FOUKARA: Well, that's a Kardashian moment in the middle of a disturbing situation in Bahrain, but I mean, on a serious note...
MARTIN: She's not the only one.
FOUKARA: She's not the only one. These events are obviously - regardless of who organizes them - are huge PR for - not just for the government of Bahrain, but for the image of Bahrain, internationally. It helps attract foreign investment to a country which is not doing very well economically. You have the Kardashian visit, you have the Formula One and, since the protests started in Bahrain about two years ago, the image of a stable country has obviously been shattered and that's had implications for the economy. So, for them to have somebody like a Kardashian visit Bahrain is obviously very important for trying to restore the image and the standing of Bahrain. Whether they'll succeed, given that the protests are still going on, is a different issue.
MARTIN: Finally, the uprisings in Egypt, which also was seen as sort of the stable ally in the region. Finally, the uprisings came to a point where the administration sided with the mass movement. Do analysts in the region envision something similar happening here or is it just sort of a very different situation?
FOUKARA: It's - in many ways, it's a different situation and I think that the Obama Administration has got one thing right from the start, which is to say that you have this stuff happening in so many different Middle Eastern and North African countries, but each country has its own unique, specific character.
In the case of Bahrain, Bahrain is part of the Gulf region, a region which is rich in oil and which supplies a lot of oil to the world market. It's crucial to economic well-being of the United States and, therefore, for countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, they don't see it as being in their best interests for this situation in Bahrain to drag on. Whether they'll be able to resolve it soon or not, we don't know, but we know that the king of Bahrain has announced another initiative to try and resolve this situation. Whether the opposition will be convinced that it is done with good intention and that the ultimate goal is really to shake the country out of its deadlock remains to be seen.
MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was nice enough to join us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Abderrahim, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOUKARA: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: Just ahead, reality TV can be trashy fun, especially when you realize what it really is. But what if you don't?
JEANNINE AMBER: These shows are billed as reality and, when you're 12 and you don't work in the real world and you don't actually interact with women in these kind of situations, you have nothing telling you this can not possibly be real.
MARTIN: We'll ask if some of these shows are actually affecting the way adolescent girls think about and treat each other. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: The fact that President Obama's second inauguration took place on the same day as the Martin Luther King holiday felt just right to many of the people who headed to Washington for the festivities, but some say the comparison is all wrong. We'll ask the Barber Shop guys to weigh in on that and other news of the week. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.
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