by Cinzia Bianco and Giorgio Cafiero
The Saudi government’s execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in early January met with an angry response from Shiites in Bahrain, where protestors and police engaged in violent clashes. The Saudi-Iranian diplomatic spat that followed on the heels of the cleric’s execution, as well as the violence waged against Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, have caused the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to feel the heat of the Middle East’s escalating geo-sectarian tension.
Predictably, Bahrain has sided entirely with its neighbor and close ally Saudi Arabia in the Riyadh-Tehran diplomatic crisis. Of the five smaller GCC states, Bahrain alone completely severed diplomatic relations with Iran. Two days after the world learned of al-Nimr’s fate, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior declared that the authorities in Manama would take all legal actions deemed necessary against Bahrainis who voiced criticism of Saudi Arabia’s court rulings. Days later, Bahrain’s official news agency reported the arrest of several members of Basta—a terrorist organization which allegedly received financial support from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, including $20,000 from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Since all six GCC states declared Iran-allied Hezbollah a terrorist organization in March, Bahraini authorities have deported a number of foreign Shiites from the Gulf state on charges of having Hezbollah affiliations.
As the only Shiite-majority nation in the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain has been a flashpoint in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s geo-sectarian cold war since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Since then, the ruling Al Khalifa family has worried about Iran inciting Bahrain’s Shiites (who comprise 70 percent of the population) to revolt against their Sunni rulers. Indeed, few officials in Manama or Riyadh fail to recall the Islamic Republic’s efforts to orchestrate a coup d’état in Bahrain in 1981 when Manama backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Still today, Bahraini authorities frequently claim to have foiled numerous Iran-linked terrorist plots. To counter such allegedly hostile intentions from Tehran, the Al Khalifa family has persistently closed ranks with the biggest Sunni power, and Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia.
In the eyes of Saudi and other GCC officials, any signs of a grassroots Shiite movement calling for political reforms and taking any possible inspiration from Iran represent a threat to the region’s status quo. When the “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011 and Shiite Bahrainis challenged the ruling family’s legitimacy, Saudi Arabia feared the potential political and social implications for other Sunni-ruled states with large Shiite communities. From Riyadh’s vantage point, a Shiite-led revolution in Manama threatened to add momentum to Saudi Arabia’s Shiite protesters on the other side of the 16-mile causeway linking the Eastern Province (EP) to Shiite-majority Bahrain. Indeed, Saudi Shiites, inhabiting the kingdom’s oil-rich EP, largely share the demands of Bahraini protesters and frequently express their solidarity. For this reason, only one month after the protests began, Riyadh led an intervention of Saudi and Emirati security forces to suppress Bahrain’s Shiite opposition.
Although Manama and Riyadh’s vested interests seem to be largely convergent, the question of Bahraini independence from Saudi Arabia will likely become increasingly sensitive. GCC interlocutors maintain that Riyadh officials have come to consider Bahrain not as an independent nation-state, but essentially as a Saudi archipelago province. Since the 2011 uprisings, authorities in Manama have come to see Iran as a graver threat to Bahrain’s national security, a fear that has unquestionably aligned Bahrain with Saudi Arabia more than ever. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Bahrain, Abdulla bin Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh, went so far as to declare last month that “Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are one country, sharing history, heritage and deep-rooted social bonds.”
In the context of Bahrain’s domestic challenges, continuing social tensions and economic stagnation have made Bahrain’s Sunni rulers increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia for security and financial assistance. Although Bahrain has diversified its economy away from oil more than other GCC members have, the 70 percent slide in oil prices since mid-2014 has severely damaged the island kingdom’s state finances. Reliant on oil revenues for over 80 percent of the national budget, Bahrain expects its budget deficit to reach nearly $5.8 billion this year. To counteract this crisis, officials in Manama have implemented austerity measures, including the cutting of gas subsidies and the removal of meat subsidies. Amid economic stagnation, Manama had to appeal to Saudi Arabia (which manages Bahrain’s largest oil field, Abu Safa, through ARAMCO) for financial support. Saudi Arabia promptly pledged $1 billion in annual assistance for the next decade.
Given the region’s geo-sectarian tensions, Manama’s alliance with Riyadh may seem inevitable. In light of the kingdom’s socio-political and financial troubles, however, its probable implications deserve thoughtful consideration. Should Saudi-Iranian geopolitical and sectarian tensions escalate further, the Manama-Riyadh alignment risks exacerbating Bahrain’s own sectarian issues even further if Bahraini Shiites view their government as a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia.
The most important political consequence might be the ultimate failure of a national reconciliation process between the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers and its native Shiite opposition, subjecting the nation to prolonged instability. Once-promising initiatives such as the National Dialogue, a project encouraged by King Hamad in 2011 to promote reform and inclusive discussions on the governance of Bahrain, have failed to ease the country’s political and social unrest. Although the project developed interesting perspectives on Bahrain’s future, progress has fallen prey to the region’s rising sectarian temperatures and, arguably, to Saudi/GCC pressure.
Bahrain’s continued exclusion of popular, youth-led Shiite groups such as the February 14 Coalition, which Manama recently labeled a terrorist organization, and the arrest of several opposition leaders including Ali Salman, the prominent leader of al-Wefaq (the country’s dominant Shiite opposition faction), will substantially undermine the process. Reversing this trend will be possible only in a truly independent Bahrain.
Photo: High-level Saudi delegation arrives in Bahrain in 2008 (courtesy of Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Flickr).
Cinzia Bianco is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics. Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.