Bahrain: At risk of a proxy sectarian war?

Instability in Bahrain could develop into widespread sectarian violence, with potentially disastrous consequences for regional and global security. Concessions and preventative reform can ensure such a devastating path is avoided.

By Michael Stephens for

The stability of the Persian Gulf is under severe threat following the decision, announced on 14 March by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to send troops into the Emirate of Bahrain.[1] This is a troubling development, and one that will have long-term ramifications for Gulf security. The presence of foreign troops on Bahraini soil suggests that Bahrain will form the frontline of a regional struggle between the Sunni-ruled powers of the GCC and the Shia theocratic Republic of Iran. 

Having begun on 14 February, protests against Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family have now entered their fourth week, and show little sign of abating. Worryingly, a protest movement that began as a struggle for human rights and increased civic participation has taken on the feel of a Shia uprising against the Sunni governing establishment. Seeing as the Shi'ites make up 70% of the civic population of the country, one would naturally expect that the majority of protesters in a national struggle for civic rights would be Shia. But this is only half the story. The Shia appear in greater numbers because the government actively discriminates against them, marginalizing Shia influence in politics and civic life in a way that it has never done to the Sunni.[2] Furthermore, the government's response to the protests, which led to the deaths of seven Shia citizens, has served to reify sectarian boundaries. Calls for civic equality by the demonstrators have been replaced by demands for the royal family's ousting, which has inflamed many Bahraini Sunni, who have rallied behind the Al-Khalifas and the embattled government.[3]

The Saudi Arabian Conundrum

Analysis of the depth and complexity of Sunni-Shia relations in the tiny emirate leads most to shun binary allusions. One may find Sunni who are poor, disenfranchised or religiously conservative, just as one may find Shia who are rich, influential and secular. But the sectarian drift of the Bahraini people's struggle for political freedom cannot be ignored. The domestic affairs of this state play on a greater regional stage - one which places the Sunni-Shia divide in far more binary terms than local Bahrainis themselves might do. A sixteen mile causeway connects Bahrain to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose patronage and support is a stalwart of the Al-Khalifa's regime. It is this patronage that complicates the problem, for Saudi Arabia is a theocratic state ruled by a monarchy whose legitimacy rests on a clerical establishment vehemently hostile to Shia Islam. Indeed the sheer volume of anti-Shia polemic emanating from Saudi Arabian clerics is staggering. At best the Shia are presented as apostates (mulhidun) and rejectors (râfidah) who have strayed from the correct path of Islam. At worst they are the odious descendants of Jews for whom swift execution would be too kind a punishment.[4]

The Saudi monarchy's reliance on the clerical establishment for its continued rule over the Arabian Peninsula and the two Holy Mosques places King Abdullah and his ruling circle in a tight bind. Saudi Arabia is itself home to two million Shia citizens, most of whom live in ash sharaqiyah (The Eastern Province) bordering Bahrain. The problem is further complicated by the presence of Saudi Arabia's major oil production facilities including the al-Ghawar, Manifa, Berri, and Abqaiq fields that alone are responsible for almost 9% of the world's daily crude oil production. The maintenance of stability in ash sharaqiyah is of critical importance to both Saudi Arabia and the world, and Saudi monarchs have long walked a precarious tightrope to preserve it. The placation of the Shia population, and the full inclusion of them into Saudi civic life runs the risk of angering the Sunni Clerics. Yet the Shi'ites location in a region of critical national importance demands that attempts be made.

The sectarian troubles in Bahrain have upset this balancing act, with Saudi Shia staging a number of protests in the past week. Although relatively small in number (estimates point to less than 200 persons overall) the Saudi security establishment has reacted with force, sending 10,000 troops to the region, detaining twenty-five protesters and arresting leading cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al Amir. On 5 March the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that all forms of protest were banned, and the move was backed by the country's council of senior clerics who forbade both demonstrations and opposition political parties as being contrary to the teaching of the Prophet. Riyadh's show of force may serve to quell protest but conversely serves to weaken Saudi Arabia's regional position. The use of excessive violence towards its Shia minority, or the insinuation that Saudi Arabia may go further and work to suppress Shia protests in Bahrain will begin to force the hand of Iran, its rival across the Persian Gulf.

An Enlarging Iranian Sphere?

Both Bahraini and Saudi Shia tend to view themselves as Arabs who espouse Shia Islam. They express pride in their Arab identity, and religiously are not overly fond of hard-line mullahs in Tehran. The general preference is to seek spiritual guidance from Ayatollahs in Najaf and Karbala, whose conception of clerical involvement in politics is more in support of public elections rather than militant activism and the formation of an Iranian-style theocracy.[5] Continued suppression of protest and the resumption of violence will change this orientation, with some ominous signs already in the air. Hints from Bahrain's leading Shia cleric Hassan Mushaima, recently allowed to return from exile, suggest possible Iranian intervention should Saudi forces begin to actively aid the Bahraini army against the protesters.[6] Any such retaliation would be seen by Saudi Arabia as an expansion of Iranian influence into its client state - and would hence be fiercely resisted. Should it refuse to do so, Riyadh runs the risk of encouraging both further instability in Ash Sharaqiyah and the expansion of Iranian influence inside its own borders.

Iran, itself subject to domestic instability, has watched events in Bahrain with as keen an eye as Saudi Arabia. Since the 1979 Revolution, a number of Iranian officials have explicitly deemed Bahrain an Iranian province, seeing both Bahrain and Ash Sharaqiyah as spheres of influence that must be defended from Western-backed Sunni oppression. The sight of Shia killed or imprisoned at the hands of Sunni Arabs simply for protesting their right to equality places Tehran in a corner. If it does nothing, it will appear weak, its protestations of fighting Western-backed imperialism rendered meaningless. On the other hand, should it actively assist in protecting Shia it runs the risk of dramatically escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, and potentially dragging in the United States, whose 5th fleet lies at anchor in Bahrain's capital Manama. 

A more Shia Bahrain is not a sine qua non to increased Iranian power. Nor is it likely that one of the Gulf's more liberal and tolerant societies would welcome the theocratic conservatism of Tehran's mullahs. But increased Shia influence in the Emirate is bad for Saudi Arabia, for it will compel Riyadh to engage much more fundamentally with its own Shia population. It can either maintain an increased military presence in Ash Sharaqiyah violently suppressing protests as they emerge, or it can choose to engage the Shia thereby angering the theocratic establishment so necessary to internal social stability. Neither option is particularly attractive; Saudi Arabia's hard line against Shia protestors has already attracted the ire of the West and elicited open condemnation from human rights organisations.[7] At a time when the West is struggling to be seen as a supporter of freedom and human rights in the region, Riyadh's clampdown is counter-productive, and a potential source of increased anti-Western sentiment. Long-term suppression would be even more damaging, as it will again force Iran into the picture. Should Riyadh, however, choose to empower its Shia minority in an effort to draw them away from Tehran, it could destroy one of the main pillars upon which its power and legitimacy rests. Putting aside the catastrophic loss in public support for the monarchy that this might cause, the potential for increased radicalisation and the reawakening of Al-Qa'ida inspired jihadist groups in the Kingdom is very real.

King Hamad's Options

Following the mistakes made in February, King Hamad has adopted a conciliatory tone, honouring his citizens' bravery and desire for change, and initially appeared welcome to dialogue and compromise. But the Bahrain government's welcoming of foreign intervention - in the form of GCC troops - indicates that the optimism inspired by signs of dialogue between the government and the main Shia parties may prove short-lived. This does not necessarily rule out the chance of constitutional reform, but it does indicate that the GCC will not allow Hamad to be swept out of power.

The Bahraini King's role in ameliorating the situation is now of critical importance. Should protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia continue, as seems likely, only two outcomes seem possible. In the first instance, King Hamad will continue to rule in Bahrain as King, but will have to reduce his level of influence over parliament, resulting in a greater Shia influence in Bahrain's political and institutional life. Alternatively, if Hamad does not reform adequately, and resorts to the use of force to quell protests, sectarian rifts will deepen and the battle lines of a Sunni-Shia conflict involving the patronage of Iran and Saudi Arabia could be drawn.  

It will take strength to do so, but dismissing his uncle Prince Khalifa Bin Salman from the position of Prime Minister, a post he has held for forty years, will go some way to showing Hamad's commitment to reforming the monarchy and to allowing for increased political participation. Furthermore, he must remove some of the powers that have long allowed his family to control political affairs. The Upper House Shura Council, a body solely appointed by the King and which serves as his tool for blocking legislation of the elected Lower House, must be reformed and made publicly accountable. The gerrymandering of political districts to serve Sunni purposes must be brought to an end. It can no longer be the case that the Shia al-wifaq party, the recipient of 65% of votes in lower house elections, receives just eighteen of the forty seats available. Lastly and of greatest import, the King must show trust in his Shia subjects, enough to include them in both the National Security Apparatus (NSA) and the paramilitary Special Security Forces (SSF), ninety per cent of which is comprised of non-Bahraini Sunnis.

These are big concessions, but if King Hamad wishes to regain the trust and support of his people he must set about creating a process for constitutional and civic change. He will not be able to buy his way out of the crisis, government offers of money ($2,600 per family) and interior ministry jobs have thus far only fueled protesters' anger.[8]  The reform process will need to be a carefully managed. If Hamad reforms too quickly, he risks creating further destabilization in ash sharaqiyah, angering Saudi Arabia and empowering Iran. If he moves too slowly, the protestors will view him as disingenuous, leading to further protests and increased calls for him to be removed from power. Given that the GCC have indicated their continued support for the Khalifa family, the prospect of violent suppression of Bahraini Shia by GCC forces is now very real, a fact that neither Iran nor the West can afford to ignore.

The Western Response

Although only a tiny emirate the size of Manhattan, Bahrain's domestic politics are having a critical influence on world affairs. The potential for escalation into a struggle between the Persian Gulf's regional powers is a real and deeply troubling threat. The presence of Saudi Arabian troops on Bahraini soil demands a redoubling of our efforts to ensure stability in the region, a fact that will require a lessening of the current diplomatic obsession to enforce Qadhafi-free skies over Libya. Western powers need to support King Hamad whilst encouraging him to make the concessions needed to maintain stability. The avoidance of being seen to support either the Sunni or the Shia is a cornerstone of this strategy, and the correct allocation of diplomatic and financial resources must reflect this non-aligned orientation. Continued investment in Bahrain's economy, not just in its banking sector, but also in developmental institutions that will assist with upward mobility of Bahrain's poorest, will serve Western nations well in this regard. The message should be clear: a stable, more egalitarian Bahrain, in which the have-nots are able to feel they have a stake in their nation's future, is paramount. In this way the West may assist in Bahrain's return to stability, and help to cool the sectarian tensions that have the potential to inflame the entire region.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

Main image courtesy of Mahmood Al-Yousif


[1] Ethan Bronner, 'Troops Said to enter Bahrain from Saudi Arabia', New York Times, 14 March 2011

[2] Tahiyya Lulu, 'The real story of Bahrain's divided society', The Guardian, 3 March 2011

[3] Robin Wigglesworth, 'Bahraini Leader meets opposition', The Financial Times, 7 March 2011

[4] Isaac Hasson, 'Contemporary Polemics between Neo-Wahhabis and Post-Khomeinist Shiites' Research Monographs on the Muslim World, Series No. 2, Paper No. 3, October 2009

[5] Babak Rahimi, 'Iran and the Baharaini Uprising', Special Commentary, The Jamestown Foundation 7 March 2011

[6] Ibid.

[7] 'Pressure Mounts on Saudi Arabia to ease protest ban', AFP, 9 Marcb 2011

[8] Thomas Fuller, 'Bahrain's Promised Spending Fails to Quell Dissent', New York Times, 6 March 2011


Michael Stephens

Associate Fellow

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