Bahrain. A Pawn Between Saudi Arabia’s Insecurities and Iran’s Shiite.

Bahrain, known in Babylonian antiquity as Dilmun, is a small island Kingdom. It is in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on June 5 interrupted relations with Qatar accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and interfering in their internal affairs.

Later similar measures were taken by Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania. Jordan and Djibouti, which have put an end to diplomatic missions in Qatar. Senegal, Niger, and Chad have announced the call of their ambassadors. Bahrain, the weakest ring of the anti-Qatar coalition, whose kingdom survives thanks to the military action of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
The decision was motivated by the Emirate’s accusation of supporting and protecting “numerous terrorist groups that undermine the destabilization of the region, such as Muslim Brotherhood, Isis and Qaeda” and to spread “through its media the vision and Projects of these groups, the activities of groups supported by Iran in the Saudi region of Qatif and Bahrain, destabilizing in this way the whole Middle Eastern area”. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has threatened Qatar’s “extreme regional interference” if Doha does not respect the agreements with the countries in the region.

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The decision by the Arab countries to stop diplomatic relations with Qatar was adopted after attempts failed to put pressure on Doha to withdraw its support to terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt broke up reports Diplomats with Qatar, accusing the country of destabilizing the region. Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania and the Libyan East Government have announced similar measures against Doha. Bahrain also expelled Qatari troops present in the country, serving in the US-led coalition against ISIS, to leave the state within 48 hours. They had been in Bahrain since 2014 under the guidance of the United States Naval Central Command (NAVCENT) to participate in military missions as part of the international coalition against the Islamic State/Daesh.

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The economic blockade has little chance of success. That is Qatar won’t concede to the demands that the Saudi led boycotters have placed. Rather, it’s likely to strengthen the Iran-Qatar relationship, one of the key motives of the diplomatic rift in the first place. Indeed, the decision of the four countries (Saudi Arabia, Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain) to ostracize Qatar betrays many Gulf States’ inexperience, if not incompetence, in managing their international and strategic relationships. Thus, Bahrain and the others have little to gain. There’s no ‘winning’ strategy and no treasure chest of benefits if, and when, it concludes. Still, the underlying motives that have led to this crisis reveal some regional problems that have fallen in the shadows of the more recent Middle Eastern crises.

Arab petromonarchies

The most fascinating consideration stems from the probability that for Bahrain and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Qatar’s proximity to Iran is more an excuse than a motivation to boycott Qatar. In other words, for as much as the analysis has focused on Iran and its strategic rivalry with the Arab petromonarchies, and Saudi Arabia, it fails to reveal the main cause of the crisis. Yes, Qatar maintains relations with Iran as do Oman and Kuwait. The United Arab Emirates themselves have become one of Iran’s key trading partners while Iranian citizens have played a key role in making Dubai what it is today. Therefore, had Qatar’s ties to Iran been a crucial concern, the anti-Qatari ‘league’ would have, at a minimum, encouraged Oman and Kuwait to cut their ties to Iran as well. Rather, the main cause of the crisis has a more ‘familiar’ nature: it is more intra-Arab than anti-Persian. It’s also anti-Turkish, given Ankara’s role in encouraging the Arab revolts in 2011 in which the Muslim Brotherhood – held in contempt by the Saudis and vice versa – were protagonists.

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The core of the problem rests in the regimes’ insecurities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain (which claims to be a Constitutional Monarchy) and Egypt see democracy as a political threat and, more importantly, an existential threat. While Qatar and Turkey have supported various expressions of this political Islam, especially in Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia, where Muslim Brotherhood party affiliates won power through flawed but generally democratic elections, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates have done everything to resist this experiment. Thus, Qatar’s boycott has emerged from the geopolitical power struggles for the Arab region’s guidance and the search for the security of the regimes in play. Of course, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies share, to one degree or another, a Wahhabi legacy and mission. They are no less fundamentalist than the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood promotes and needs a democratic consensus. It may have encouraged revolutionary tactics to overthrow governments, but it does not exude a democratic process as Egypt has demonstrated with Mohammed Morsi and Tunisia with Rachid Ghannouchi.
Thus, the Brotherhood poses a grave threat to the Royal Families of the Gulf. They too promote a form of Islamic politics, but they occupy an oligarchic role and do not want to share power in temporal and religious matters. Nonetheless, since becoming fully independent in 1971, Bahrain has feared Iranian influence over its majority Shiite population. This fear reached a peak in the early 1980’s in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s Legacy in Bahrain

Bahrain, as well as other Gulf states, has a Persian past. In 1602 the Portuguese were driven out of a revolt and Bahrain became a direct dependence of Persia. Between 1717 and 1735, due to the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, the archipelago was subjugated to Persian domination and remained independent under the Huwala tribe. In 1736 the new Persian dynasty of the Qajars regained Bahrain and in 1753. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in 1916, Bahrain became a British protectorate and remained until 1971. This is the date of Bahrain’s definitive independence. In 1981, Bahrain had attempted to organize a coup d’etat two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The revolt was repressed and since then the Bahrain regime has accused Iran of interfering with its internal affairs. It was Bahrain that encouraged, in 1981, the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in order to share intelligence, military forces and economic resources to secure collective interests and security in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution.
The Persian and Shiite legacy is key to understanding Bahrain’s present risks and concerns. The fact that Bahrain granted the United States use of a naval base certainly reflects the Manama government’s Iranian concerns, clearly marking where its geopolitical alliances rest. In March 2011, the current King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, declared a state of emergency of three months after many Shiites took to the streets to demand greater influence in political and social matters. The Saudis sent tanks and troops across the causeway that joins Bahrain to the Kingdom to help repress the demonstrations. Numerous clashes and casualties resulted.

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The revolts were presented as sectarian, pitting Shiites and Sunnis. But, wat followed and how the Bahraini royal family responded suggests that the revolts were more about basic human and political rights. There was no sense the protesters had a particular affinity or solidarity with Iran, even if Shiites were the most active protesters.
Following the 2011 revolution, the human rights situation in Bahrain has deteriorated dramatically. Hundreds of human rights defenders – Sunni and Shiite – and defenders have been threatened, arrested, tortured or forced into exile. Many, to save themselves, had to interrupt their public activities.
Yet, the international community, unlike in Syria and elsewhere, has made little fuss despite obvious violations of human rights. Rather, Bahrain continues to be a crucial political and commercial ally for the great Western powers. It’s home for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. It has drawn harsh criticism from international human rights groups for its crackdowns on protesters.
Bahrain, especially since 2011, has become well-known to international aid and human rights agencies. Among the numerous human rights activists in jail is also Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He was arrested on April 9, 2011 in the campaign to repress ‘pro-democracy’ protests. In 2011, the United States had temporarily halted the sale of weapons. Yet, President Obama lifted the embargo in 2015.

Alessandro Bruno



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