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 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.