Iranian-Saudi tensions are played out in Bahrain
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
In the aftershocks generated by the so-called “Arab Spring,” Bahrain, homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, also became the target of turmoil and social disorder. The ruling Sunni al-Khalifa royal family has coped since February 2011 with a popular uprising led by Iranian-inspired and manipulated Shiite political movements fed by decades of political and social discrimination. They demanded a more equitable distribution of roles according to the relative representation of Sunni-Shi’ite divide of the Bahraini population and subsequently a bigger share in government.
While the Saudi originated al-Khalifa family and its Sunni tribal allies rule Bahrain, 60 percent of Bahrain’s population are Shiites deeply connected with Iran. Shiites in Bahrain are divided between those of Arab origin (Baharna) and those of Iranian descent (Howala or ‘Ajams). On the surface, most observers perceive the crisis in Bahrain as a clash between Sunnis and Shiites and as a logical projection: an expression of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Gulf area.
However, it appears that the deeper reasons are three factors combined: modernization, British and American colonialism, and globalization.
For almost two and a half centuries, the British and then the Americans have supported the al-Khalifa Sunni tribe knowing that Sunnis represented barely 40 percent of the population. It was clear from the very beginning that the special affiliation between the Bahraini Shiite majority and Iran could only be controlled through the encouragement of sectarian divisions, which became a paramount tool for sustaining a power structure that was favorable to western strategic interests. This situation could have lasted long had it not been for the consequences of Bahrain’s economic boom. Migrants began flocking in Bahrain by the thousands, and today they account for nearly half of Bahrain’s population, the largest expatriate demographic presence coming from Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Migrants are less expensive, easier to manage, and most importantly do not hold any political agenda. Their presence in the labor market is such that in 2009 foreign workers accounted for 75 percent of the total workforce in Bahrain. More important is the fact that Bahrain is one of the most liberal countries in the Gulf area, allowing the importation and sale of alcohol and pork. Its hotels and nightclubs are a camouflage for daring night spots, which attract mostly Arabs from the Gulf area and visiting foreigners. In a sentence: for better or for worse, Bahrain is the casualty of its own consumerism, its liberalism, and its emancipation of women. It is a country in which the use of information and communication technology is the highest in the Gulf region – a real challenge for a society shaped by Islam.
Since the late 1990s, successive riots initiated by the economically disfavored Shi’ites and conducted mostly in the expats’ parts of the island and near the fancy malls (2001, 2004, 2007, and 2008) forced the king to promise fundamental reforms that government critics continue to demand today. In fact, the present King Hamad Bin Isa Bin Salman al-Khalifa, the heir of the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain since 1783, has allowed Shi’ites into positions in the government. However, scrutinizing the composition of the Bahraini government, one can easily see that the al-Khalifa family is in charge of most governmental portfolios such as the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain Economic Development Board, and Supreme Council for Women.
Pro-Assad journalist, Shirin Sadeghi, wrote in a 2011 article, “Native Bahrainis of Iranian ancestry or who are Shi’ites are prohibited (with a few exceptions) from serving in the government or in the military and security forces. They also face discrimination in education and employment opportunities – all this in a country where they are in fact the majority.” She continued, “Furthermore, the al-Khalifa ruling family has promoted a policy of “importing” large numbers of Pakistani Sunnis of Baluchi descent into the country who are automatically given citizenship and installed in the military and security forces. They are given jobs and houses to live in – always bypassing the queue of native Bahrainis who wait decades to be given houses by the government. Sunnis from other countries, as well, have priority in Bahrain. Syrian imports, in particular, are on the rise."
The Bahraini scene has been shaken from time to time by subversive acts, terrorists cells uncovered and public protests. A few months before the huge protests of February 2011, the Bahraini government accused 23 Shi’ite Bahraini citizens of forming a terrorist cell linked to Iran with the intention of overthrowing the regime and planning terrorist attacks. Opposition parties (Shi’ites) denounced the accusations as mere propaganda.
The political unrest culminated in February 2011. The Shi’ites in Bahrain initiated protests, which triggered the Bahraini king – incapable of controlling the demonstrations – to call for Saudi help. The rebellion was finally quelled with the military assistance of troops dispatched by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has kept a military presence in the kingdom and assisted the al-Khalifa family to maintain its throne. As a result, the Bahraini Government has been successful in monitoring the opposition and maintaining control in the country even though the situation crystalized as a low-intensity conflict. Instability still prevails in the kingdom rocked from time to time by terrorist acts and the uncovering of subversive cells manipulated and instructed by Iran and its regional offshoot, Hizbullah.
However, without the dramatic events that took place in neighboring Saudi Arabia in 2015, no major change in the political arena in Bahrain could have occurred. On September 24, 2015, a stampede caused the deaths of at least 2,236 pilgrims who were suffocated or crushed during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, Mecca, making it the deadliest Hajj disaster in history. Iran blamed the Saudis for the stampede and announced that 465 of its citizens died. Some Iranian media accused Saudi Arabia as being behind the abduction of an Iranian diplomat, former Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, who was among the missing Iranian pilgrims following the stampede, until his body was finally identified on November 25, 2015. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, threatened Saudi Arabia with “harsh” measures. Menacingly, Khamenei declared, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far showed self-restraint, observed Islamic decency and brotherly respect in the Islamic world… But they should know that Iran’s hand is superior to many others and has more capabilities.”
Events took a worsening turn in January 2016, heating the already tense Saudi-Iranian relations. Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a leading Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia, was convicted of terrorism and was among 47 people executed on January 2, 2016. Immediately afterwards, the Saudi embassy in Teheran was set on fire by angry protesters with a Molotov cocktail. Following the attack, Saudi Arabia announced the break of diplomatic relations with Iran, recalling Saudi diplomats from Tehran and ordering Iranian diplomats in Riyadh to leave the kingdom within 48 hours.
Bahrain immediately followed the Saudi steps. However, Bahrain’s decision to sever its diplomatic relations with Iran generated protests among the Shi’ites in Bahrain. Hundreds of people held a protest rally in the Bahraini capital, Manama. Demonstrators chanted slogans against Saudi Arabia and the ruling family of Bahrain.
The Bahraini regime met the dissent with a series of punitive measures targeting the Shi’ites in Bahrain, most probably with Saudi acquiescence. In May 2016, a Bahraini appeals court doubled the prison term imposed on Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of the al-Wefaq society (no political parties are allowed in Bahrain), to nine years instead of the four originally decreed. Following an appeal in court, the Bahraini appeals court confirmed on December 12, 2016, the nine years jail sentence against Salman “for inciting hatred and calling for regime change by force.” Exactly a month later (July 2016), the Bahraini government, invoking the safeguard of the security of the Kingdom, suspended all activities carried out by al-Wefaq, with its offices closed and its assets frozen. On July 17, 2016, Bahrain’s highest court announced the dissolution of al-Wefaq and liquidated the group’s funds. The government’s decision was made public after the human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, had been detained by police for tweets allegedly made about Bahrain’s prison system and its involvement in the war in Yemen. Another leading activist, Zaynab al-Khawaja, fled to Denmark a week earlier after being threatened with imprisonment.
Punitive steps against the Shi’ites continue to be adopted by the Bahraini government. On June 18, 2016, an investigation by the state media and local newspapers of two Islamic charities showed they were linked to al-Wefaq and a bank account with some $10 million dollars in the name of
Ayatollah Isa Qassem, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shi’ite community. The move immediately sparked a protest by Shi’ite supporters who warned against any attempt to crack down on the two Islamic charities that could undermine one of the main pillars of Shi’ite faith – the Khums tax. Senior Shi’ite clerics, including Ayatollah Isa Qassem, warned the Khums tax (one-fifth in Arabic) is a tax that goes back to early times of Islam collected for centuries to be disbursed for humanitarian purposes by the Shi’ite clergy.
On June 21, 2016, the Bahraini government stripped Ayatollah Isa Qassem of Bahraini citizenship, further aggravating the situation with Shi’ite majority in Bahrain and triggering threats and warnings from Iranian officials. According to press reports, a crowd of 4,000 supporters of the ayatollah, gathered outside his home, some of them wearing white shrouds, a signal of their readiness to die. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards issued a statement saying, “There is no doubt that the unwise decision of the al-Khalifa against Ayatollah Isa Qassem would add to the flame of an Islamic revolution movement in Bahrain and will form a devastating rebellion against the dependent rulers of this country.”
Escalating Iranian Threats against Bahrain
Reacting to the Bahraini decision of stripping Ayatollah Isa Qassem of his Bahraini citizenship, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “This is blatant foolishness and insanity…attacking Sheikh Isa Qassem means removing all obstacles blocking heroic Bahraini youths from attacking the regime.” Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds division in the Revolutionary Guards, was less diplomatic. Soleimani bluntly warned the Bahraini government it would pay a dire price for its decision while suggesting that the response by Bahrainis would be with armed action. Soleimani continued: “The al-Khalifa surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassem is a red line and that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance… Bahrain’s rulers should know that insulting Sheikh Isa Qassem and administering disproportionate pressure on the Bahraini people will be the start of a bloody uprising.” Hizbullah, Iran’s operative arm in the Middle East, also joined the condemning chorus, calling the Bahraini decision “extremely dangerous” and adding that “the authorities with their stupidity and recklessness are punishing the Bahraini people to difficult choices, which will have severe consequences for this corrupt dictatorial regime.”
Undeterred by the Iranian threats and criticism expressed by the UN and the U.S. administration, the Bahraini government has been preventing opposition activists from traveling outside the country and putting the most prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, on trial with a possible jail sentence of 15 years.
Furthermore, the Bahraini government announced on July 16, 2016, that Ayatollah Isa Qassem will go on trial on charges of money laundering and illegal fund raising However, the Sheikh’s trial was adjourned several times and was supposed to begin in December in order to allow hearing of defense witnesses, while protests kept on taking place outside the Sheikh’s house in Diraz, Isa Qassem’s hometown which was kept under tightened security measures. On December 21, 2016, Bahraini and Gulf riot troops clashed with the protesters outside the Sheikh’s house in a failed attempt to arrest and incarcerate the Sheikh.
What Lies Ahead for Bahrain?
The sectarian divide between Shi’ites and Sunnis has been commandeered by the two foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the patrons of Bahraini Shi’ites and Sunnis. Iran and Saudi Arabia have transformed the Bahraini scene into another area where they battle one another through proxies, duplicating what is happening in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran is actively promoting subversive activities in Bahrain while Saudi Arabia has been present militarily on the ground in response to a request by the ruling family to advise and assist the Bahraini government in quelling the Iranian-inspired rebellion.
The United States for its part, whose Fifth Fleet is docked in Bahrain, is well aware that the fall of an ally could be replaced by Iranian manipulated political forces. This is the main reason for the relative silence of the U.S. administration towards the punitive decisions made by the Bahrain government, the lack of its democracy, and its disproportionate retaliatory measures against the Shi’ite population. However, on the other hand, the Obama Administration was interested in a rapprochement with Iran and could have easily “sacrificed” the al-Khalifa family (like it did with President Mubarak of Egypt) if it was replaced by a local political faction favorable to the continuation of the American presence in the Gulf.
It appears most likely that Iran will continue its subversive, covert activities meant to destabilize the kingdom with a mounting intensity and escalation of terrorist acts perpetrated in Bahraini territory – especially if the Bahraini regime incarcerates or deports the Shi’ite spiritual leader Ayatollah Isa Qassem. Saudi Arabia, in countermeasures, will continue to promote anti-Shi’ite “clients” in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, targeting Iranian interests and hegemony in the Middle East. The low-intensity military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue for the time being with no foreseeable end on the horizon.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.