Bahrain: In the Middle of Sunni and Shia

The first week of 2016 saw sectarian tensions in the Middle East reach dramatic, new heights when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric critical of the regime. What followed was  a series of escalations that will have dire consequences for Middle East stability and any prospect for peace negotiations in the region. First, a fiery condemnation by Shia clerics and Iranian government officials led to an actual conflagration at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran where angry protesters attacked the diplomatic building in revenge for the execution. Next came a massive diplomatic fallout – Saudi Arabia and a number of its allies severed ties with Iran, the Iranians accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately targeting their embassy in Yemen, and sectarian rhetoric across the Middle East intensified. The stage has been set for a Sunni vs Shia showdown in the context of a regional power struggle not seen in hundreds of years. Caught squarely in the middle of this conflict, geographically and demographically, is the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The Pearl of the Persian Gulf

The small island nation of Bahrain sits just a few miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Connected by the King Fahd Causeway, the two countries share close relations. In fact, Bahrain was one of the first aforementioned Saudi allies to cut off diplomatic relations with Iran. Yet, just 124 miles to the north of Bahrain sits Iran. This strategic position, as well as its famed pearl fisheries, has seen it jostle between covetous empires throughout history. In antiquity, Bahrain was controlled by the Assyrians, the Sumerians, the Persians Achaemenids, briefly by Alexander the Great, then by the Persian Sassanids until the rise of Islam and the Arab empire. In the 16th century, the Portuguese seized the island. The next century saw Persian Safavid rule until instability led to an Arab takeover. The al-Khalifa family emerged victorious from a brutal power struggle in 1797 and have maintained power ever since, even through a period of British control.

The modern state is ostensibly a constitutional monarchy but in reality the al-Khalifa dynasty maintains absolute authority. Its unelected prime minister, Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, is the longest serving in the world and is the uncle of the current king. The period that followed Bahrain’s formal independence from Britain in 1971 is infamously known as the State Security Law era. During this time the National Assembly was dissolved and massive human rights violations were used to suppress unrest. This era lasted until 2001 and reached its brutal peak in the 90s. Yet, these bitter memories are not the only reason for resentment of the al-Khalifa family from their subjects, which brings us to the Sunni / Shia conflict. 75% of the Bahraini population are Shia Muslims, while the al-Khalifa family is Sunni and originally from Kuwait. This sectarian divide has been at the heart of recent protests and the exacerbation caused by the Saudi execution of al-Nimr makes Bahrain a time bomb and potential flashpoint for the Middle East. However, in order to predict what will happen in Bahrain in 2016, it is important to examine events of 2011 and their lasting consequences.

The Arab Spring Gets Too Close for Comfort

Thousands of anti-government protesters march Tuesday, March 15, 2011, to the Saudi embassy in Manama, Bahrain. Frenzied clashes swept Bahrain Tuesday, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured by shotgun blasts and clubs, a doctor said. The yellow sign center foreground reads: “The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation” and the banner at right says: “The Saudi army’s entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept.” (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

In 2011, a wave of revolutionary protests rocked the Arab world. Drawing inspiration from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, young Shia Bahrainis started taking to the street and eventually gathered in the Pearl Roundabout. There they demanded the removal of the al-Khalifa dynasty and greater freedom for the country’s Shia population. Bahraini security forces could not handle the swelling crowd and further inflamed the demonstration in the “Bloody Thursday” incident in which four protesters were killed – over the next few days over 150,000 protesters arrived at the Roundabout. Soon violence began to escalate and moderate concessions from the government failed to stem the tide. The al-Khalifa family felt threatened enough to call in support from the Gulf Cooperation Council and declared martial law. Troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE crossed the King Fahd Causeway and mercilessly dispensed with the protesters. A brutal crackdown across the country from the Bahraini government featured massive human rights violations, including systematic torture and arrests, effectively ending the uprising.

A Sectarian Conspiracy Deepens

While the protests may have failed in their objective, the grievances of the Shia population remain especially prevalent. Discrimination remains commonplace and for years they have watched the al-Khalifas accept Sunni immigrants from South Asian countries in a concerted effort to naturalize them as citizens and buttress the Sunni population in Bahrain. This sectarian conspiracy goes as far as gerrymandering districts to ensure a majority Sunni electorate and disenfranchising Shia dominated areas. The uprising of the Arab Spring was not the first protest against such government actions, the period of 2007 to 2010 saw failed democracy movements and small scale protests, and it certainly was not the last. Tensions have been running high ever since and they were just immensely compounded by the fallout between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Bahraini Shias can now view their struggle in the larger context of a Sunni-Shia showdown and this is reviving their passions. Protests have resumed.

On January 8, 2016, over 200 demonstrators brandishing the image of the executed al-Nimr clashed with Bahraini police in the city of Sitra, south of the capital Manama. Armed with molotov cocktails, the protesters shouted “Death to Al Saud, Death to Al Khalifa” – clearly the ruthless Saudi intervention has not gone unforgotten. The situation remains fluid but the tensions are running high and things could get out of hand very quickly.

The prospect of these protests escalating into another uprising is a daunting prospect and it is not clear that Bahrain or Saudi Arabia are in a position to handle it effectively. The Gulf Cooperation Council is extended militarily in Yemen and Syria, so a military response in Bahrain might not be as swift as last time. The economic situation is another big part of the problem. Falling oil prices has forced Saudi Arabia to make hard spending cuts. This could mean the end of the popular subsidies and benefits that Saudi citizens have become so accustomed to, as well as higher domestic fuel prices. This is a recipe for unrest at home, which would further complicate the Saudi security calculus. Bahrain has more of a diversified economy than Saudi Arabia, but are reliant on their neighbor’s economy for stability in their financial market. In addition, Bahrain’s deficit has ballooned to $4 billion since the 2011 uprising, mostly due to a shift to more military spending. Protesters in Bahrain have consistently cited income inequality and high unemployment for Shia workers as one of their main grievances and with the economic situation worsening there will be all the more reason for them to take to the streets. The Saudi and Bahraini ruling elite should also fear a partnership between the Shias of Bahrain and their counterparts in Eastern Saudi Arabia, where al-Nimr was from, who can find solidarity in this new, ultra-sectarian climate. The Shias of Saudi Arabia live cloistered in the area where most of the country’s oil fields are. An uprising there is the last thing House Saud needs.

Iran in the Shadows

All of this spells opportunity for a lurking Iran. It is no secret that the Islamic Republic seeks to establish itself as a regional power, reclaim the glory of the Persian Empire and undermine their adversary, Saudi Arabia. We have already seen their success in using their religious connection with Arab Shias in Lebanon and Iraq to extend their influence. With the Sunni-Shia divide further emphasized by recent events, the tensions in Bahrain will be easy to exploit. The Iranians will seek to encourage protests and highlight Shia suffering in Bahrain. In fact, Bahrain has already accused Iran of inciting protests in the past. If Shia political forces are able to mobilize against the al-Khalifa government, Iran will surely provide arms and support like they are in Yemen. For now, they will wait to see how events unfold and hope for instability to engulf the island.

If the trends we are seeing continue, Bahrain could very well be the next hotspot for the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States, whose 5th Fleet is located at a base on Bahrain, must watch these events carefully. The Saudis fear the US is waning in their support for the Gulf States after the Iran Nuclear Deal and this may be behind their reasoning for escalating sectarian tensions. The US must assure Saudi Arabia of its sustained military support, but in the long game cannot get too involved in this conflict. America should fully pivot to Asia, not get stuck in the Middle East for another generation. This Saudi Arabia – Iran conflict has been brewing since the US removed the only power keeping the two in check, Saddam Hussein. Now, the United States can only mitigate the fallout to its own interests in the region. As for Bahrain, an island that has been controlled by both Arabs and Persians throughout its history, the future looks tumultuous. With a rash Saudi prince who has shown his willingness to use military force in the region on one side and an expansionist Iran with Shia fraternity on the other, who knows which empire will end up clutching the pearl of the Persian Gulf.


Michael Petilli is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on Asian politics, religion, and global development. He has a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and spends his time traveling across the US and around the world making connections and finding solutions.


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