A polished silver Spitfire on the desk of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa recalls two centuries of close and cordial ties between Britain and Bahrain.
But even its most powerful friends cannot guarantee the security of this strategic island caught in the Gulf between worsening Iranian threats and “deadly serious” talk of a US military strike.
It is not a position from which to mince words. In an interview with The Times the Crown Prince has become the first Arab leader to jettison the language of diplomacy and directly accuse Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons.
“While they don’t have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it,” he said – the first time one of Iran’s Gulf neighbours effectively has accused it of lying about its nuclear programme.
The Crown Prince also gave a blunt warning that “the whole region” would be drawn into any military conflict and called on India, as well as Russia, to help find a diplomatic solution. “There needs to be far more done on the diplomatic front,” he said. “There’s still time to talk.”
If there is a front line in the looming confrontation between Iran and the Arab world, Bahrain is on it.
The US Fifth Fleet is based here, its main carrier battle group tasked with securing the Strait of Hormuz. The King Fahd causeway to Khobar makes Bahrain a gateway to the richest oil reserves on Earth in eastern Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian coast is ten minutes away by fighter or medium-range missile. And this week a senior Iranian general said that suicide bombers were ready to strike at targets throughout the Gulf “if necessary”. Such rhetoric will focus minds in Qatar, Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates. But its effect is especially chilling in Bahrain as the only Sunni-led country with a Shia majority that is not at war or on the brink of war.
“We are a country like Iraq and Lebanon, and we are the only one that is functioning properly,” said Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, the Foreign Minister.
Bahrain’s Shias – and the carnage in Iraq to the north – make the kingdom a vital experiment in sectarian coexistence. So far the Shias have repaid the Royal Family’s efforts at political reform with consistent professions of loyalty. That could change overnight in the event of an attack on Iran.
Already, large-scale demonstrations are not unusual. When the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed by al-Qaeda in Iraq last year, and again when Israel invaded Lebanon, “Bahrain turned yellow with Hezbollah flags”, according to one Western diplomat.
Since then a reform process that started with the release of all political prisoners in 2000 has largely stalled and leading Shia figures have complained about “systematic discrimination” by the Sunni Establishment. A scandal over alleged plans to end the Shia majority by granting fast-track citizenship to tens of thousands of foreign-born Sunnis has proved so inflammatory that an otherwise relatively free press has been banned from covering it.
The Crown Prince rejected claims of discrimination but acknowledged that the broader sectarian issue had become “so politically charged that nobody is really willing to have a rational discussion about it”.
Iran has not helped. In a newspaper editorial this summer, a close associate of President Ahmadinejad rekindled an old claim on Bahrain as Iran’s 14th province, with echoes of Saddam Hussein’s designs on Kuwait in the late 1980s that were picked up from London to Washington. The claim “touched on the legitimacy of our country”, the Foreign Minister said.
There is no suggestion – yet – of an Iranian invasion of Bahrain. But even as the kingdom throws up skyscrapers to compete with Dubai and Abu Dhabi for regional financial dominance, its security forces are on high alert for evidence of Iranian-backed “sleeper cells” that could bring them all tumbling down.
Between Bahrain’s two tallest office towers three giant wind turbines are suspended in a brave vote of confidence in a future of eco-friendly peace and prosperity. Without a diplomatic end to the Iran crisis, that confidence may soon look misplaced. But the alternatives – a military strike on Iran and a regional nuclear arms race – are too bleak to contemplate.