Another day of protests began in Bahrain on February 14, as the second anniversary of unrest within the small Middle Eastern nation began. The day of protesting, demonstrations and street fighting led to the death of a 16-year-old protester and numerous arrests as police attempted to quell the uprising. Rioting has been a thorn in the side of Bahrain’s Sunni government since the early days of the Arab Spring.
The demonstrators are backed by numerous opposition factions, the largest of which is Al-Wefaq. They have been protesting in an attempt to pressure the ruling monarchy into giving up some of its political power. Bahrain is a Sunni-ruled kingdom. The king holds the power to elect the upper chamber of parliament. Despite Al-Wefaq holding the majority of seats, it is hamstrung by the overruling power of the monarchy. Al-Wefaq could hold every seat, but the king always has final say.
The king has made some concessions in an attempt to cool down the increasingly volatile opposition. Talks between the monarchy and opposition factions began on February 10, but so far, there has been little headway. The government is also accusing the opposition of trying to stall the talks in an attempt to prolong the violent street protests.
There are two mindsets among opposition parties. Some want to sit down and negotiate at the table with the monarchy and gain more power through compromise. Then there are the more radical opposition factions that are calling for more protests against the government. They do not believe the current administration will give up much power. The radical opposition is hoping for a revolution akin to those in Egypt and Libya.
There are a number of reasons why the opposition could yet be successful. Bahrain is ruled by the Sunnis. It receives military aid from Saudi Arabia, which is directly to its west. However, across the waters of the Persian Gulf lies Iran. The Iranians would like nothing more than to see the Sunni government overthrown, and a more pro-Iranian Shiite government take control.
The attempts of the Shiite opposition forces to gain more power have been helped by the fact that the majority of the population in Bahrain is Shiite. This is one of the reasons that the protests have lasted in the face of the strong arm of the government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis don’t want to see Bahrain fall to Iranian influence. The Persian Gulf is a natural barrier between the two Middle Eastern powers. The miniscule nation of Bahrain, however, is right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. Should the Shiites gain power in Bahrain, it could stir up the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, primarily the regions close to Bahrain that have a strong Shiite presence. Plus, these Saudi Shiite areas are located on top of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil fields. Oil is Saudi Arabia’s most powerful economic and geopolitical tool. Right now, the major “moderate” Arab nation in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. It is a key player in keeping a balance of power among Arab nations in the region.
If its Shiites grow restless, Saudi Arabia won’t have as much ability to counteract Iran. The Saudis will be too busy putting out fires within their own nation.
The Saudis are not the only ones who stand to be affected by changes in Bahrain. The United States has its 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain. From there, the U.S. has a port to launch operations in the Persian Gulf. If the Shiites gain control of the nation, they won’t stand the presence of the Americans for long. Despite this possible outcome, America has been quiet on the protests in Bahrain. It doesn’t appear to realize the threat that is being posed to its influence in the region.
If America is not careful, it will allow the stranglehold on the Persian Gulf to be tightened by Iran and its proxies. Bahrain may be small, but it is perfectly placed to make large-scale changes to the balance of power in the Middle East. If it allies with Iran, watch for Iranian dominance to be bolstered in the Gulf region. Read The King of the South to see what a powerful Iran means for the Middle East and the world. ▪