The Persian Gulf island of Bahrain was Thursday’s geopolitical focal point. The day began with domestic security forces storming an encampment of protesters in a central square in the capital of Manama — an operation that left five people dead and another 100-200 reportedly injured. While the army is trying to ensure against further protests, more unrest in the coming days cannot be ruled out. Manama’s trepidation can be gauged from the fact that Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa chaired an extraordinary session of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) foreign ministers.
Bahrain is unique in that it is the only country among the mostly wealthy Arab states on the Arabian Peninsula that is experiencing public unrest. However, public agitation is by no means new, as it has a lengthy tradition of pro-democracy mass risings. But in the wake of the toppling of presidents who long ruled Tunisia and Egypt, this latest wave of unrest in Bahrain is seen with a greater sense of urgency.
“From Riyadh’s perspective, the empowerment of Shia in neighboring Bahrain could very likely embolden its own Shiite minority…”
In addition to being the only GCC member state to experience demonstrations, the country’s location and sectarian demographic sets it apart from every other Arab nation. An overwhelming Shiite majority seeks a greater say in the country ruled by a Sunni royal family and in close proximity to Iran. Thus, the demand for democracy, which in the case of other Arab countries is seen by many around the world as a positive development, is a cause of regional and international concern for Bahrain.
This would explain why U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked by phone with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa (also deputy commander of the country’s armed forces) to discuss the security situation. Washington is not only concerned about security and stability because it is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, but also because of the fear that Iran could potentially exploit the situation to its advantage. As it stands, Iran already has the upper hand in its struggle with the United States over Iraq and Lebanon.
The potential for the al-Khalifas to make concessions to the Shia is a frightening prospect for the Saudis, who are already trying to deal with the Shiite empowerment in Baghdad and Beirut. From Riyadh’s perspective, the empowerment of Shia in neighboring Bahrain could very likely embolden its own Shiite minority (20 percent of the kingdom’s population, concentrated in the kingdom’s oil rich Eastern province, which is in close proximity to Bahrain).
Even before the outbreak of regional unrest, Saudi Arabia has had a difficult time in light of the pending transition of the geriatric king and the top three princes. But now with the contagion that began in North Africa engulfing Saudi Arabia’s immediate neighborhood, there is a sense of alarm in the Saudi capital. A senior member of the House of Saud, Prince Talal bin Abdel-Aziz, who is close to King Abdullah, told BBC Arabic that the regional unrest threatened the kingdom unless it engaged in political reforms and the only one who could initiate the process is the country’s 86-year old ailing monarch.
But now with Bahrain in play, the Saudis are not just concerned about calls for democracy, but also the rise of Shia on the Arabian Peninsula and with it, a more assertive Iran.