18 March 2011

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


The Gulf governments are determined to send a message that any Arab 'domino effect' will not extend to their own countries. They are making a show of force in the tiny island of Bahrain, where Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) troops were deployed in March as the government cracked down on an uprising. But Bahrain's internal problems will not be solved militarily, and the intervention of Sunni troops from overseas in a Shia-majority country will add to sectarian tensions in the wider Middle East.

Political tensions have been brewing in Bahrain for years, over issues of corruption, unemployment, perceptions of discrimination, economic inequality, and political representation. There was much optimism a decade ago when the country embarked on a process of reform, but it has stalled in the past few years. At heart, the country faces a local dispute over the sharing of political power and the distribution of wealth. However, the situation has been complicated by the use and abuse of identity politics: Bahrain's ruling family, the Al Khalifa, is Sunni, while most of the population are Shia. There are fears of foreign powers - mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia - exploiting Bahrain's local issues in a proxy conflict driven by their wider regional and religious rivalry.

The Bahraini protestors that took to the streets in mid-February were calling for political and economic reform, not for an Islamic revolution. But after the security forces shot several protestors dead, the movement became increasingly radical and three opposition groups have called for the overthrow of the ruling family. As of mid-March, 23 people (mostly protestors, but also security forces and bystanders) had been killed, and hundreds were injured. Two government ministers and nearly one-third of MPs have resigned in protest and the country is under a state of emergency.

Sectarian Divisions?

The political divisions in Bahrain have never been a simple split along sectarian lines, but the country is increasingly heading that way, in the shadow of broader regional dynamics. Many Sunnis fear that what the West sees as pro-democracy protestors are pro-Iranian activists bent on establishing a theocracy. Also, many Sunnis were alienated by the calls for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa and some resigned from opposition groups. Meanwhile, a brutal military crackdown on Shia villages, and the arrival of troops from Saudi Arabia - which marginalises its own Shia minority and which fought a Shia uprising in Yemen in 2009 - have led many Shia to believe that there is a sectarian vendetta against them.

These fears are driving increasing numbers of Bahrainis - usually tolerant and well-educated - into frightened and defensive sectarian stances. Social media networks, praised for helping the Egyptian and Tunisian opposition to organise, are showing their darker side as Bahrainis vent sectarian spleen on Twitter or circulate graphic photos of the dead on Facebook. Dialogue will be far more difficult in the future.

The ruling family may be internally divided over the crackdown. There is much speculation that the Gulf forces are there to bolster the more hawkish Al Khalifas, like the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, against the family's reformists, like the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Just before the Gulf troop deployment was announced, the Crown Prince said he was willing to discuss all the opposition's demands in a wide-ranging dialogue. One of these demands is that the prime minister should step down this year after 40 years in office.

Interfering Neighbours

Kuwait, the most democratic of the Gulf states, saw a heated debate over the deployment of troops but ultimately decided to participate. The Gulf forces are there at the invitation of the Bahraini government. But Bahrain's most popular political group, Al-Wefaq (mostly Shia), says the deployment is an invasion. Some wonder if the Saudis, which also provide Bahrain with crucial financial support, will prove hard to dislodge.