Bahrain: A New Front in the Battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims

By Tallha Abdulrazaq

The wave of popular unrest sweeping across the Middle East is paving the way for opportunistic power politicking. In Tunisia, decades of oppressive rule combined with corruption, lack of jobs, and increased food prices began this chain reaction of events that has led to the downfall of several of the Middle East’s old guard, including Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, we can now see from the UN Security Council sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya that the old Arab regimes are beginning to crumble one by one. It is in this sort of environment that players interested in exploiting the chaos are attempting to expand their influence and power via the use of religious ideology.

One case in point is the revolt in the Kingdom of Bahrain; the Shia who, depending on which figures and sources are consulted, represent 50-70 per cent of the population, began to protest against perceived state prejudice and lack of effective representation. This gripe surprisingly managed to manifest itself despite elections in 2010 that saw the Shia Al-Wefaq Party win a majority of 18 seats in the Bahraini Council of Representatives. The Shia demands began by articulating greater political freedoms without regime change, but that swiftly changed once the Bahraini government attempted to clear Pearl Roundabout, killing three protesters. As the government security apparatus is dominated by Sunni Arabs, this violent response was then capitalised on by the Shia opposition, who started to use sectarian rhetoric. Since then, the Bahraini Police and Army have advanced and retreated in turn, before the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad requested the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to send troops to help guard key strategic sites.

Whilst it is obvious that the Bahraini government is not entirely democratic – by virtue of the fact that it is a monarchy with a Consultative Council appointed by the King himself – it is still more politically open than the absolute monarchy of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The Consultative Council even has representatives of Jewish and Christian backgrounds, as well as a sizeable Shia presence. Although a state is not just and fair merely because its neighbours are far worse, there is clear evidence in Bahrain of progressive and incremental democratic change within state institutions. The Al-Wefaq Party recently won a majority in the elections for the Council of Representatives in 2010, which are decided by universal suffrage. It is surprising indeed that in less than a year, and after winning such an election, the Shia have decided that the democratisation process is taking too long, and that the next step should be to come out in mass demonstrations rather than to capitalise on their political victories. There appears to be a not-so-subtle prodding of the Shia population to revolt from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and arguably the protests have very little to do with democratic change and everything to do with Iran’s power projection and sectarianism. Evidence of this can be found in the burning of several Sunni mosques and attacks on the Sunni population who have, by and large, not taken to the streets.

Iran has been keen to expand its influence, especially within countries that have large Shia populations, via the use of religious and ideological infiltration. There are many potential strategic gains that Iran could make by supporting the Bahraini Shia in their uprising. Geographically, by securing Bahrain via Iran’s ideological dominance over Shia society and politics, Iran would gain a strategically positioned island, which would give it commanding presence over the Arabian Gulf, potentially threatening oil shipping of other oil rich states. Moreover, it would then gain a better location from which to place its missiles and potentially its armed forces in order to more effectively coerce other GCC countries, particularly its regional enemy Saudi Arabia. Finally, the US 5th Fleet, currently stationed in Bahrain, would either have to find a new home, or else barter with the Iranians. The lack of response in Washington over the GCC intervention and the visit of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates just prior to the decision speak volumes about American interests in the region.

While Iran is keen to gain a stronger position in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are just as eager to see them fail. The Saudi’s problems with Iran are primarily sectarian in nature. After the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini began to actively criticise and attack the Saudi Arabian authorities, going so far as to question their religious credentials in being the custodians of the Two Holy Mosques. Saudi Arabia, in turn, supported Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s, and this only served to further deteriorate ties. In the present day, Iran is considered a threat by Saudi Arabia because of its religious influence over Saudi’s Shia minority, who reside in the Eastern Provinces, and also the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Additionally, while states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have large Iranian migrant populations, they also have territorial disputes with Iran over the islands Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb. This all serves to encourage GCC action against any possible Iranian power projection in Bahrain.

The GCC were therefore all too happy to provide aid when the Bahraini Crown Prince requested it. Saudi Arabia has deployed about 1,000 soldiers to Bahrain and the UAE has also lent the aid of 500 policemen. Their mission is not only aimed at protecting key Bahraini state facilities and infrastructure, but also at preventing an uprising in Saudi Arabia’s primarily Shia, and oil rich, Eastern Provinces. If a secessionist movement were to arise there, it could potentially turn to Iran for weapons. Iran could now more easily supply them via Bahrain. Iran has had great experience and previous successes in funding and supporting dissidents in rival states. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tehran provided military and financial support to Kurdish Iraqi rebels, leading to the Iraqi capitulation and signing of the Algiers Accord in 1975. With regard to the UAE, even with their strong economic ties to Iran having been considered, it is not in their interests to have Iran strengthened by making Bahrain another one of its seemingly growing number of proxies, and yet another island to add to their collection. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the Iranian government denounced the deployment of GCC troops by calling it an invasion of Bahraini sovereignty. This was then echoed by the Bahraini Shia in several interviews on Arabic news media, such as Al-Jazeera. Clearly, one cannot consider the deployment of GCC troops to be an invasion and violation of Bahraini sovereignty, as they only deployed at the behest of the rulers of Bahrain. Thus, it becomes ever more apparent that sectarianism fomented and encouraged by Iran is the primary factor behind the Bahraini revolt.

With the deployment of a primarily Saudi force, the Iranians are now hard pressed to respond. However, they have limited options. They could arm the Bahraini Shia to encourage violence against the Al-Khalifa, but this is unlikely as the Bahraini Shia would potentially run the risk of being isolated on the small island state. It is doubtful that they would be prepared to die en masse just to increase Iranian influence. The Iranians could also directly intervene, but this is even more unlikely as the world would perceive Iran as a true occupying force rather than the current Bahraini government sanctioned GCC deployment. Also, it would mean the use of naval forces. This would more than likely engage the US 5th Fleet, who are unlikely to sit idly by. The most plausible option is that the Iranians will retreat and wait for a better opportunity, which would inevitably mean the continued preservation of the Al-Khalifa dynasty and the end of the Bahraini Shia revolt, at least for now.


Tallha Abdulrazaq was born and raised in the UK to Iraqi parents of mixed Arab and Kurdish descent. He is currently based in London completing his final year in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and also blogs at War-Journal.


4 April 2011


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