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How Bahrain has become a Saudi-Iranian battleground

How Bahrain has become a Saudi-Iranian battleground

Men in Bahrain protest against the government

By Rasheed Abualsamh

THE SIGHT of smiling Saudi soldiers flashing the V-sign of peace as they rolled into Bahrain in light-armored vehicles on March 14 must have surprised many Saudis and Bahrainis who probably had never dreamed they would witness such a scene in their lives.

But King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa, the minority Sunni-ruler of Bahrain, who along with his family have been in power for the past 200 years, had called upon fellow member states of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for help in quelling the weeks-long often violent protests of the majority Shiites, which had now moved from Pearl Square to blocking the entrances to the financial district.

Bahrain has always been proud of its relative openness and ease of doing business. Having mobs of its own dissatisfied citizens turning the tiny island-state into something decidedly less than business-friendly was too much for some in the royal family. For behind the scenes a struggle was emerging between the more reform-minded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and the hardline Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. The arrival of GCC troops (the United Arab Emirates contributed 500 soldiers, as well as reinforcements from Qatar and Kuwait) and the subsequent violent removal of the protesters from the financial district left no doubt that the hardliners were winning.

“Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and an overthrow of the Al-Khalifa would open the door more widely than before for Iranian influence,” said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK, and the author of several books on the UAE. “More importantly, it’s a red line for autocratic Gulf regimes as much as a geopolitical red line: if the Al-Khalifa fall, it will break the ‘bubble of invincibility’ of Gulf sheikhs.”

The televised scenes of Shiite Bahraini protesters being shot at close range and in some cases being denied access to prompt medical care cast the conflict in a horrific way: The wealthy, Sunni elite versus the poorer and discriminated against Shiites who were asking for better jobs, a constitutional monarchy and a fully-elected parliament. At first the king made a few concessions by reshuffling his cabinet, promising new elections down the road and giving cash handouts to the people. But the Shiite opposition parties rejected these as not enough, and soon hardliners on both sides had dug in their heels. Even the Shiite opposition seemed split between the Wefaq party and Hassan Mushaima, who recently having been pardoned and let back into the country by the king, was calling for the monarchy to be abolished and a republic to be formed.

This radicalization of Shiite demands must have sent shock waves through Riyadh, Doha, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, the capitals of Gulf countries with hereditary rulers that have never had to share much power with anyone.  Mushaima and five other opposition leaders were promptly arrested and jailed.

These sad events caused Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon to hold rallies to show their solidarity with their brethren in Bahrain, and to call for Saudi troops to be withdrawn. In Iran, 700 protesters threw stones at the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad on March 18, and in Tehran last week a radical cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, called on Bahraini Shiites to “resist against the enemy until you die or win.” Iran later withdrew its ambassador from Bahrain, and the island-state then expelled Iran’s charge d’affaires.  Finally on March 20, the king of Bahrain, clearly alluding to Iran, announced that his country had foiled a three-decades long plot by an unnamed foreign nation to destabilize his country when his army clamped down on the pro-democracy protesters.

Many observers have therefore cast the showdown in Bahrain as a proxy battle between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran for influence in the region. With Shiites having come to power recently in Iraq and Lebanon, Bahrain has become a red-line in the sand for Iran’s expanding influence in the region that none of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states will allow to be crossed.

“Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and an overthrow of the Al-Khalifa would open the door more widely than before for Iranian influence,” said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK, and the author of several books on the UAE. “More importantly, it’s a red line for autocratic Gulf regimes as much as a geopolitical red line: if the Al-Khalifa fall, it will break the ‘bubble of invincibility’ of Gulf sheikhs.”

Toby Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a specialist in Saudi affairs, stressed in an interview that it was the Gulf governments that were turning the Bahrain protests into a sectarian issue and not the protesters themselves.

“None of the Arab states in the Gulf want to see a close neighbor fall, particularly with the various sectarian elements at play. I want to be clear here, though, that I think it is the Arab Gulf Sunni governments and not the protesters in Bahrain or elsewhere that are playing the sectarian card. My sense, and I know many of them, is that the protesters are serious about democracy,” Jones said.

Of the six GCC states, Bahrain is the only one with a Shiite-majority population.

Yet despite the inflammatory rhetoric coming out of Tehran, several analysts believe that Iran is being cautious in how it gets involved in the Bahrain conflict, aware that it has many domestic problems to deal with, and also because it is wary of getting into a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States.

“Despite what the Bahraini king has said, there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is arming, or is even the main factor behind the opposition. Iran’s anti-Khalifa rhetoric has, however, intensified and that is to be expected. In a moment when the Shiites in the Middle East are visibly angered by the Saudi intervention against their brethren, it is hardly an option for Tehran – the self-declared protector of the Shiites in the world – to remain silent. That said, I still see no evidence that Iran is logistically the critical force behind this unrest in Bahrain,” said Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and an expert on Iranian politics.

“One major reason why Iran would not do so is because such a move would bring it closer to a conflict with the US than has ever been the case in recent years. The US will not sit idle with its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and let Iran run a pro-Tehran armed campaign. As with Iraq, Iran might help local Shiite forces in the future but we have not reached that stage yet,” added Vatanka.

Saudi authorities have been alarmed at the possible spread of unrest from Bahrain to its minority Shiite population, which is just 22 kilometers away over the causeway that links the two countries, in the oil-producing Eastern province. Shiites have already held protests calling for the recall of Saudi troops in Bahrain, but the message coming from prominent Shiite Saudis so far has been one of restraint and dialogue.

The Saudi Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar released a statement on his website denouncing the violence in Bahrain and calling for a political solution and national reconciliation.

Nevertheless, the ironic fact remains that the arrival of Saudi and other GCC troops in Bahrain has led both sides to dig in their heels and has left much less room for compromise. How long will these foreign troops remain in Bahrain is also not sure, with some analysts predicting their stay could be open-ended, as the opposition could claim victory if they went home early.

“Saudi Arabia’s and the GCC’s exit strategy is not clear. Nor is it clear how Bahrain will define victory. It is likely that the departure in the next few weeks or even months would be perceived as an opening by Bahrain’s opposition. The Saudis and the Bahrainis know this, so my intuition is that the GCC forces will remain for some time,” said Jones.

“The Al-Khalifa are not interested in dialogue, as any concession to the protesters will be viewed as a sign of weakness. Moreover, the Al-Saud and other Gulf sheikhs will also be reluctant for the Al-Khalifa to reduce themselves to dialogue,” said Davidson.

Jones, the Rutgers professor, agrees, saying that the violence unleashed on the protesters in Bahrain changed the whole equation.

“Neither side has shown a willingness to budge. The opposition’s intransigence is a direct result of how the Bahrain regime managed the uprising and especially its resort to violence. There was a time when there was more room for compromise. Al-Wefaq seems prepared to concede some ground on this point, but whether Mushaima, Haqq and others will do the same is an important question,” said Jones.

The Obama administration has been caught in a juggling act, publicly supporting the popular uprising in Libya, and leading the Allied military attacks on the Qaddafi regime, while remaining solidly committed to supporting the Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families.

“The US has given private assurances to the Bahrainis that they want the Al-Khalifa to remain in power, making very clear that while they would not publicly support a crackdown (and have denounced its ferocity), they also would not walk away from the Al-Khalifa in the short term,” explained Jones.  “But the US has also demonstrated a double standard in how it is defining ‘just’ outcomes—by cracking down on Libya’s Qaddafi but turning a blind eye to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the US continues to project a muddled set of values to the rest of the region and the world.”

The ball is now firmly in the court of the Al-Khalifa. Do they really want to share more power with their citizens? In the past they have said they do, but more often than not that has turned out to be empty rhetoric.

“In the first two weeks of the demonstrations, the major demand of the protesters was the restoration of the 1973 Constitution which allows for a semi-constitutional monarchy. I think the feeling of betrayal on the part of the people was the major motive behind the protests. A decade ago, the king had promised a gradual transition to democracy. In reality he has grabbed all the powers and stripped the elected council from having any meaningful powers.,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, a leading Saudi Shiite intellectual in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

What began as an Arab winter of discontent in Tunisia and Egypt, now seems to be turning into a spring of discontent in Libya and Bahrain, which may well extend into the summer.




















Comments (1)

  • Rasheed

    It’s sad what is happening in Bahrain!

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