Bahrain at the heart of Middle East tensions
Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain's crown prince on April 23, 2009.
September 13th, 2011
12:15 PM ET

Bahrain at the heart of Middle East tensions

Editor’s Note: Rabah Ghezali is a member of the Transatlantic Network 2020.

By Rabah Ghezali – Special to CNN

Bahrain’s uprising did not receive the same attention as other revolts in the Arab awakening, but it was perhaps the most strategically significant. The protests against the Bahraini government began on February 14, 2011. In response, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared a state of emergency and called on his allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to suppress the uprising.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar intervened to curb the spread of the so-called “Arab Spring.” These other monarchies wanted to staunch the spread of uprisings because they threatened their regimes too. But even more was at stake for them. Bahrain is where the tension between the Gulf monarchies and Teheran, between Riyadh and Washington and between the traditionalists and the reformists played out.

Bahrain’s geopolitical significance

Bahrain is of real strategic significance for Riyadh in its power struggle against Iran. The Bahraini population is predominantly Shia and maintains a close relationship with Iran. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni regime and Saudi Arabia wants to ensure the continuation of this regime.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia has been living with the threat of Shia revolutions in regional countries that would upset the balance of power. Riyadh sees Shia revolts as attempts by Tehran to increase regional influence. This happened before in 1981 when the Iranian regime orchestrated an attempted uprising in Bahrain to overthrow the ruling  ( Teheran still officially claims Bahrain as part of its historic territory emphasising the Iranian identity of 75% of the Bahraini Shias).

It’s important to note, however, that Bahrain confronted Iran with its own contradictions: how to support the uprising there while keeping silent on the bloody repression in Syria and of its internal opposition.

Saudi Arabia, which witnessed the political rise of the Shia communities in Lebanon and Iraq, would like to avoid having to face a similar scenario with Bahrain. Despite what Riyadh says, however, religion is not driving the revolts in Bahrain.  Protesters in the capital city of Manama call for social equality, the end of discrimination and the democratization. Unemployment is close to 20% and affects mainly the Shias, which are barred from part of the public services such as the police and the army. This feeling of discrimination has been reinforced by the naturalization of Sunni immigrants. The disillusionment of the Shia has been magnified by the security crackdown, which has been perceived as a collective punishment.

However, playing the religious card allows the Saudis to “ideologize” the conflict. What would happen if Iran were to invoke a "responsibility to protect" to intervene militarily in Bahrain? Saudi Arabia and its allies are engaged in a dangerous game and that could lead to a military escalation between Riyadh and Tehran and to the crystallization of the tensions between Sunnis and Shias in the region.

Saudi Arabia counted on the restraint of its Western allies when it led the “counter-revolution”. Indeed, the measured critics of the United States before the Saudi-led operation contrasted with the firmness displayed against Libya. The tense relationship between Riyadh and Washington has been reinforced by the Obama administration turning on Hosni Mubarak. Washington was confronted with a tricky decision, scrambling to strike a balance between its support for allies in Manama and Riyadh and its pledge to back the Arab people in their pursuit of freedom. If Washington seemed in favour of political and social reforms in Bahrain, however, it did not necessarily want the fall of the regime. Bahrain is a traditional ally of Washington and home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait of Hormuz through which 40% of the world’s oil passes.

Inside Bahrain

Inside the regime, the gap has widened between reformists led by Crown Prince Salman and hardliners grouped around the Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The conservatives gained the upper hand after attempted negotiations in March between the Prince and the opposition were derailed by radicals of both sides. Since then, the Prime Minister is Bahrain’s strongman to the dissatisfaction of the reformist and the Shias.

The King of Bahrain recently called for a national dialogue and lifted the state of martial law. Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s main Shia opposition party, welcomed King Hamad’s call but the changes al-Wefaq is seeking such as a constituent assembly to write a new constitution designing a parliamentarian monarchy would certainly not be accepted by the King. However, the negotiation could perhaps focus on giving more powers to the Parliament and on a redrawing of the constituencies, which today are designed to ensure that the Shia party remains permanently in opposition. Any changes to the King’s power or the removal of the Prime Minister are red lines.

On both sides of the divide, the next months are critical as the results of the negotiations and the findings of the human rights commission emerge and the trials of activists, politicians and doctors resume, all of which could lead to a deepening of internal tensions. Having little hope of change, the youth may soon assume that only street pressure will make the regime listen, recalling the promise of reforms made a decade ago in the National Action Charter of Bahrain, which ended the 1990’s popular uprising. To avoid such a deadlock and help move this divided society away from recriminations towards a constructive dialogue, the underlying causes of February’s protests – unemployment and discrimination – must be solved. Failing that, a new outpouring of protest may overwhelm the region.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Rabah Ghezali.

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Topics: Iran • Middle East • Saudi Arabia

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Delex.

    Bahrain is a glaring manifestation of the U.S hipocrisy. Why can't the so called apostle of freedom, human right and democracy maintain a consistent stand n be impartial.

    September 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      All because of Iran, America's threat in the region and Saudi Arabia's nightmare. We can't ignore Iran's interest in Bahrain, which came under Persia's influence as earlier as during the 4th century A.D. Bahrain was part of the Caliphate for a while before Persia took over again.
      The only way for America to get by were to hope for a change of course in Iran and Saudi Arabia. It looks as if Ahmadinejad wants to come in from the cold again, by releasing the two Americans – on bail.

      September 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • jackson

      I blame Kate Goesslin myself. AND her evil children. When Islam realizes SHE and SHE alone is the great Satan, then and only then will their woes cease.

      September 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • Sharm

      I agree with the reply of Good Joke, I lived in this beautiful island for 19 years. Even long before all this "uprising" began, shias were openly displaying thier loyality towards Nazrella/Iran. The world media is exaggertating the situation, statistics & events! You have to see with your own eyes to believe!

      September 15, 2011 at 7:43 am | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    I get quite nauseated every time I hear people tout what a "great man" this King Al Khalifa of Bahrain is. If he is so "great" then why are the Bahrainis rebelling against him? And why did he have a 14-year-old boy shot down in cold blood? But then again it shouldn't be so surprising to hear all this bla-bla-bla about this King given the number of right-wing fanatics controlling the airways!!!

    September 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Reply
    • Good Joke

      I live in Bahrain, It is a great place, the people should not be revolting. They have exaggerated statistics and made a small minority seem like a majority. The gatherings in which over 500,000 people gathered in support of their king got no coverage at all....that is almost half of the population here. While the gatherings of a few thousand against the government get coverage. Many doctors have confirmed that the death of the boy was not by tear gas to the face as demonstrators claim. learn the truth

      September 14, 2011 at 6:06 am | Reply
      • larvadog

        I'll bet you're Sunni.

        September 14, 2011 at 6:39 am |
      • Sharm

        I agree with you 100%!!!!!!!!!! I lived there for 19 years, and just returned from Bahrain after 6 weekks stay.

        September 15, 2011 at 7:46 am |
      • Mohammed Mohiuddin

        Well Said..I agree with your comments as most of the uprising are sposored by evil powers. The Bahrain King is one of the best ruler who has done a lot for the nation. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kingdom of Bahrains contribution to the humanity is well known fact. We salute USA contribution in building Middle East which has naurished not only Arab world but whole south asia.

        Thanks...again to American People and their leaders.

        November 23, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  3. HNZ

    This is the height of hypocrisy by US and the rest of the world. Saudis are the axis of evil and if we can control them, this world would be a much better place to live.

    September 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • DWebb

      I couldnt agree more. Saudi Arabia is the root of the problems and it makes me sick to see how much we support them.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:52 am | Reply
  4. A

    Bahrain really unveils the true agenda behind US and Western power claims. It shows how double standards are working in action and how these powers are just a bunch of lairs.

    September 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite true A, quite true. If this King Al Khalifa of Bahrain was in truly danger of falling, we'll just how quickly the U.S. and NATO send in troops in order to save the day for him!!!

      September 13, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
      • John

        Contingencies of US troops are already i country and larger numbers are within hours away.

        November 27, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  5. drsmabbas

    al khalifa' no non muslim country will allow killing and molesting its women by hired soldiers of other nations. what is ur arab nd muslim dignity?

    September 13, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  6. drsmabbas


    September 13, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  7. Kailim

    I really don't know. Is the present Iran government, an anti- US government, considered to be a democratically elected one by the West standard ? They did hold elections and have opposition party.

    September 13, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Reply
    • JFH

      True, the Iranian President is voted into power by the Iranian people. However, ultimate authority over the Iranian govt rests with the Supreme Leader. To become the Supreme Leader, one must be recognized as "God's Representative on Earth" by a council of elite Shia clerics known as the "Assembly of Experts." Therefore Iran is not a Democracy but rather a Theocracy (which also happens to be quite totalitarian).

      September 14, 2011 at 5:14 am | Reply
  8. HananAlBuflasa

    The author clearly is very fond of the Iranian regime, showing throughout the article how the Arabian gulf state are fighting back the Iran and the spread of Shia. First of all shia represent less than 38% of the total population of Bahrain and less than 10% in Saudi Arabia. And AlWefaq is another Hezbollah cell in Bahrain and a small search on Google will reveal the relation between Ali Salman the head of AlWefaq and Nasrallah and the regular meeting that been going on between them for years.
    In my opinion announcing the Islamic republic state of Bahrain during February unrest is not within my understanding to what democratic civil country should be.
    All the media propaganda about the imaginary crackdown in Bahrain is led by mainly Iran and Hezbollah and it is clearly how they keep silent about Syria and on the other hand deploy all their media power to attack Bahrain and spread false information about the actual political situation in Bahrain.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:38 am | Reply
    • jackola

      Did you forget to take your medication today?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:43 am | Reply
      • TruthSpeaks

        No he didnt but Did you forget to take your medication today?

        September 14, 2011 at 4:24 am |
    • JLS639

      The United States government and world business groups think there is a Shia majority in Bahrain. Iran's population is overwhelmingly Shia. Where are you getting your information?

      September 14, 2011 at 8:29 am | Reply
      • HananAlBuflasa

        Glad to find someone finally questioning the sunni-shia ratio, officially there are no statistical study done in Bahrain regarding the ratio, and hence USA or the rest of the world won’t be able to provide evidence for their claims, however, I will refer you to a link which will give in detail the percentage of Sunni and Shia in Bahrain based on the elections table 2010

        September 14, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • HNZ


      I am not sure what is your source of information is. In reality, Bahrain is 85% Shia; please go and visit Bahrain to see the reality and not to believe Wahabi propganda.

      September 14, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
      • HananAlBuflasa

        Actually I live in Bahrain, I am a university professor, and I welcome you and many others here in Bahrain to see the real situation and judge yourself.

        September 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
      • HananAlBuflasa

        Please check this source

        September 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
      • Sharm

        Well said Hanan!

        September 15, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Wisdom

      Do you know how silly your ideas sounds! (Typical Arab conspiracy theorist).

      September 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Reply
    • OilMan

      I lived in Bahrain for 35 years. Yes 35. I was born there. I was denied any sort of citizenship. I was never given a right to vote, never given a right for free speech. I was never promoted above the alJowders, alBusheeries and all the other favoured families of Bahrain. I resented this. The Bahraini government is based on a tribal system: it works on unquestioned loyalties from the families and tribe. It worked in the past but in the time of rising tide of democracy, HH the King must recognize that it's time for change. Although I was not part of the growth in Bahrain due to my nationality, I loved the Bahrainis I knew and still do. I worked for and sincerely admire HE Prince Salman. The tribal formula was never going to last long. Bahrain is a prototype to what will happen to the neigboring Sheikdoms. Personally, Iran is just after a trophy. It does not need Bahrain. This is an opportunity for Bahrain to LEAD and show that they are stronger still in the face of adversity. Inshallah.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • uhadit

      Hanan Al Buflasa stop your bluffing the whole world knows that Shias are in majority in Bahrain, when all over the Arab world people want freedom from Dictators & Tyrants & the socalled champions of human right & freedom USA supports other freedom movements so why not In Bahrain & Saudi Arabia, this two timer USA is the biggest Terrorist & Fraud Nation in the World

      February 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  9. TruthSpeaks

    Bahrain Has No OIL thats why

    September 14, 2011 at 3:53 am | Reply
    • Blah

      Yes they do lol... go to Sitra...

      November 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  10. Jagan

    True article which describes exactly what happened. Iran will always play their role and they want to bring Shia people on power. If Shia is getting power, while US is returning back from GCC area, Iran will be the power in GCC.

    September 14, 2011 at 6:21 am | Reply
  11. bailoutsos


    September 14, 2011 at 7:01 am | Reply
  12. WWRRD

    The US once again is stuck between standing for our democratic ideals or supporting repressive regimes that generally favor the US. One of the problems with Democracy is that a democratic country just might vote against US interest. That said, is there any real chance that any Islamic government would truly be democratic. If the Shiite population won an election or displaced the Sunni government, wouldn't they be just as discriminatory as Iran is to their dissidents? Most likely. In that case I guess you go with the villain that you know which seems to be where we are at.

    September 14, 2011 at 7:59 am | Reply
    • JLS639

      The behavior of nearly every United States presidential administration says the US is no pro-democracy. The US is only pro-democracy when a democratically elected government in another country is favorable to what the United States wants.

      "That said, is there any real chance that any Islamic government would truly be democratic."

      Bangladesh is. Indonesia seems to be doing a fine job. Lebanon has an odd kind of democratically selected government. Turkey is.

      "If the Shiite population won an election or displaced the Sunni government, wouldn't they be just as discriminatory as Iran is to their dissidents?"

      Maybe, but maybe not. I have seen no indication the Bahraini want an Iranian-style theocracy.

      September 14, 2011 at 8:35 am | Reply
  13. Adel

    Unemployment rate in Bahrain is around 4% only & not "close to 20%" as mentioned here.. Thank you..

    September 14, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply
    • OilMan

      Try including the jobs that Bahrainis refuse to do and you get more than 20%.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  14. mohamed

    The sunni are 50 % same with shiaai

    September 14, 2011 at 9:28 am | Reply
  15. Ali

    Bahrain is a great place. It is sad to see how such authors and most international coverage fabricate stories and facts of this great kingdom.. The people in Bahrain live in high peace and harmony unlike anywhere else in the world! Ask anyone who visited (obviously not a journalist who tries to make a buck by false information off course). Bahrain's government provide Free healthcare, schooling, housing and is a tax free country. Food, drinks, gas and rent are really cheap and really affordable. The standard of living in Bahrain is high and Bahrain has less than a 4% unemployment rate.
    The so called "protests and anti-government people" are rioters back from the 60's, 70's,80's and 90's ( read Bahrain's history) these people (around 10% at TOPS) are trying to change this kingdom into a 'welayat al faqeeh state' (again read about it for more info) that kind of state is when 'shia oppressors' make the country/overthrow the country/regieme in order to have this country to be a shia country to please the great 'wali al faqeeh' who is kumaini (read again for more info) these protestors or oppressors will not stop at any point till that favor or state is concluded. Ask yourselves why is it always a shia oppressing movement and most of the iranian international media are presenting Bahrain's case as a serious one when it is such a peaceful one!
    Knowledge is power!

    September 14, 2011 at 9:38 am | Reply
    • Matt

      Another spokesperson for the right-wing thugs in Washington trying to delude the rest of us into believing what a "great" man this cursed King Al Khalifa of Bahrain is. Then again, he is for the U.S. and it's NATO allies who want to keep on dominating as much of that part of the world as possible!!!

      September 14, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
  16. Sam

    I hate when when people say: i lived in Bahrain for 10 yrs or 20yrs and I know that Bahrain is great and I know that they get all the benefits and people shouldn't protest and Iran is behind this blablalbla...

    will people really put their life in danger, possible imprisonment and torture and open their chests for the regime's bullets, for no reason??!!
    or will they really do all that for Iran?? and how come I never heard any of those protesters talk about Iran?
    open your mind and never listen to what any regime claims.. listen carefully and closely to what the people say,
    so let the people choose their own destiny .. if they don't like a government they should have the right to elect their own .. This is simple HUMAN RIGHTS.

    October 22, 2011 at 2:28 am | Reply

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