Bahrain – Start of the Real Battle in the Middle East?

Bahrain, a relatively tiny island country of 1.3 million people exploded this week.  By almost every quantitative indicator, the protests in Bahrain should be considered as minuscule relative to the problems in Egypt. The entire Middle East is in an uproar from Algeria to Libya to Yemen. These are larger countries that have major stakes in the region.

But, in our opinion, to dismiss the protests in tiny Bahrain could be like dismissing the killing of a single Austrian archduke in 1914 as a solitary event. Below, we lay out our reasoning.

We believe the central struggle in the Middle East is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both are extremely oil rich. Both are first and foremost deeply religious regimes. Both survive because they feed, nurture, protect and control the religious groups in their countries. Both regimes are inherently stable and unstable at the same time. Their stability arises from their deep support from the religious groups and their religious majority. Their instability arises from the educated urban middle class and the college-educated but unemployed youth, the same groups that protested in Cairo.

Iran is a Shia regime and Saudi Arabia is a Sunni regime. The conflict between Shias and Sunnis began in 632 CE, or so we are told. The conflict rages on today. Every few weeks, one reads about another attack on Shias in Sunni Pakistan. Osama Bin Laden has said that the Shia regime in Iran is a greater enemy for Al Qaida than both America and Israel.

The Shias are about 10-20% of the Muslim world, a small minority. But look at the following statistics – Iran is about 95% Shia, Iraq is about 60-70% Shia, Bahrain is about 70% Shia, Kuwait is about 30-40% Shia and Saudi Arabia is about 20% Shia.

Iraq was ruled by its Sunni minority with an iron hand until the Liberation of Iraq by President George Bush. We don’t mean to upset readers by calling it “liberation” because many consider it to be an outright invasion under a false pretext. But the reality is that the regime change in Iraq did really liberate the Shia majority in Iraq from Sunni rule. Since the first elections in post-Saddam Iraq, the Shia majority has ruled Iraq. This transfer of power from the Sunnis to the Shias was not tame. We all recall the horrific bombings by Al Qaida and other Sunni groups in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the regime change in Iraq was the ascendancy of Iran. A Shia-led Iraq may not be a suzerain of Iran but there is no doubt that Iran exercises significant influence in today’s Iraq.

This brings us to the next majority-Shia oil-rich state in the Persian Gulf – Bahrain. The ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa Royal family understands that its minority rule over 70% of Bahraini Shia population is a problem. This is why the Bahraini security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni. The regime has encouraged Sunni Muslims from other countries like Pakistan to migrate to Bahrain and dangled the prospect of Bahraini citizenship if they join the security forces.

This fear of the Shia majority was a big reason behind the brutal crackdown by Bahraini security forces on the peaceful protesters in the capital city of Manama. Like in Egypt, this brutality was covered by American, European Television and of course by Al Jazeera. The Obama Administration expressed its deep unhappiness at the use of force against peaceful protesters and Secretary Clinton spoke to the Bahraini Foreign Minister. American values are at stake and so is President Obama’s reputation. And of course, there is the tiny matter of the US Fifth Fleet being headquartered in Bahrain. The UK, America’s faithful ally, has stopped military aid to the Bahraini regime.

The Shia protesters initially wanted a dialogue with the Sunni Royal family and its regime. Now they seem to want regime change. President Obama has publicly called for “a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis.”

This sounds a lot like Iraq just after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with the Shiite majority becoming more and more vocal in pursuit of their democratic rights and the Sunni minority in power digging in its heels. In Iraq, the Bush Administration came down in support of the democratic rights of the Shiite majority. The Obama Administration seems to be coming down in support of the democratic rights of the Shiite majority in Bahrain. By delivering power to the majority Shia in Iraq, the Bush Administration kept Iraq in the US camp. By acting in the democratic interests in the Shia majority in Bahrain, the Obama Administration thinks it can keep Bahrain in the US camp. The reality is that, despite the best efforts of the Bush Administration, Iran slowly but surely built substantial influence in Iraq. Today, it seems hard to imagine the Iraqi Government taking an anti-Iranian step. 

The Arithmetic in Bahrain is simple. Democratic rights to 70% of the Shiite majority eventually means Shia rule and transfer of power from the Bahraini Sunni Royal family. But the concept of Bahrain’s Sunni Royal Family transferring or sharing power with Bahraini Shias is frightening to the Saudi Royal Family.

The Geo-Strategy in Bahrain is complex. Bahrain is adjacent to Saudi Arabia and connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Faud Causeway. The 20% Shia minority in Saudi Arabia lives in provinces adjacent to Bahrain. If the Shia in Bahrain get rights and a piece of real power, would the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia demand greater power? That is the trillion dollar question. 

If this is not bad enough, look at the map below of the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia, the largest conventional oil field in the world. Ghawar, like most Saudi Oil fields, is located near the Saudi border with Bahrain, in the Shia areas of Saudi Arabia. 

                        (src – Wikipedia)

Remember the creation of Pakistan, the breakup of Yugoslavia? The ostensible reason for these was the concept of a religious or ethnic homeland. Is it possible to imagine the persecuted Shia minority in Sunni Saudi Arabia demanding its own homeland? Is it possible to imagine peaceful protests by the Saudi Shia for their own homeland or at least for the control of oil resources in Shia territories of Saudi Arabia? Isn’t a similar demand for greater share of oil & gas revenues creating a religious civil war in Nigeria and a movement for separation of Baluchistan from Pakistan?

How would the Saudi Royal Family react to these demands and to peaceful protests by its Shia minority? How would the Obama Administration react if the Saudis were to use force as the Bahraini Royal Family did? After supporting the peaceful protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, could the Obama Administration take a stand in favor of Saudi crackdown on peaceful Shia protesters for basic democratic rights? Possible but difficult.

This is what King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sees from his royal palace in Riyadh. He sees Lebanon slowly falling into the control of Hezbollah, a force dominated if not controlled by Iran. He sees Iranian influence growing in neighboring Shia majority Iraq. Now he sees a real prospect of adjacent Bahrain delivering greater power to its Shiite majority. He sees his greatest Arab ally against Iran, President Mubarak of Egypt, hounded from power and exiled. He sees the USA, his greatest ally, acting against the core interests of Saudi Arabia.

Who can King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia count on? The only power that sympathizes with him and can help him is Israel. But Israel is an unacceptable ally, at least publicly.

Just a year and half ago, the Iranian regime seemed to be on the ropes while Saudi Arabia seemed secure and strong. It had Egypt, the largest and oldest Arab country, as its core ally against Iran. Israel was its tacit ally and Saudis were considering allowing Israeli air force to fly through the Saudi airspace to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors. The new American President was committed to the Saudi-American alliance and he had bowed before King Abdullah in deference to the King’s age.

Today, the picture looks radically different. Iran’s influence is growing all around Saudi Arabia and the potential rise of Bahraini Shias might finally put the Saudi Shias in play.

This is why the events in tiny Bahrain might prove far more significant than those in much larger Egypt.

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