News / Middle East

Saudi-Iranian Competition in Bahrain Feared

A Bahraini Shi'ite cleric chants slogans in a protest against Saudi and Bahraini leaders in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, as Iranian police officers protect the Embassy, Iran, March 17, 2011
A Bahraini Shi'ite cleric chants slogans in a protest against Saudi and Bahraini leaders in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, as Iranian police officers protect the Embassy, Iran, March 17, 2011

While there has been a wave of political discontent sweeping across some nations of the Middle East, the grievances of the protesters and their way of expressing them is different from country to country.  So, too, are the governments’ responses. Analysts say Bahrain’s unrest has made one neighbor nervous and another adventurous.

Unlike in other countries, the protests in the tiny island nation of Bahrain have largely been along sectarian lines, with Shi’ite Muslims in the streets calling for reforms from the al-Khalifa royal family, who are Sunnis.  The government has not only suppressed the protests, but gotten help from neighboring Saudi Arabia - also ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who has extensive experience in the Middle East, says that has the makings for a particularly explosive situation.

"I think it’s the single most dangerous point right now in the Middle East, the Bahraini issue," he said. "The Saudis, with their partners from the Gulf [Cooperation] Council, have moved some military forces in to help the Bahraini government.  And that really at the end of the day is a Sunni-Shia conflict.  It’s pretty apparent that the Saudis and their neighbors are not going to put up with a Shia state on the peninsula, which they believe, I think, would be a springboard for more Iranian influence."

Fear factor

The fear, says Scheuer, is that Sunni killings of Shi’ites, especially by Saudi troops, could prompt some kind of response from Iran.

"The two Muslim groups, the Sunnis and the Shia, are not just alienated cousins," said the former CIA officer. "They’re determined historic enemies.  And the real question comes down to, if it comes to violence and the Sunni forces start slaughtering Shias, what do the Iranians do?  Do they sit still and watch their co-religionists get killed?  Do they try to start trouble in the eastern province [of Saudi Arabia] to put some pressure on the Saudis?"

The bulk of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields are in its eastern province.

Fears of Sunni on Shi’ite killings are not unusual.  According to a recent account by a New York Times reporter, when he waved his American passport to avoid being shot by Bahraini security forces, a policeman said, "We’re not after you. We’re after Shia."  Added reporter Michael Slackman, "It was like they were hunting rats."

'Iran's intervention'

Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says Iran would like to move in just as Saudi Arabia did, but its moves are limited by geography since it lies across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain.  He speculates Iran might engage in covert activity to help its Shi’ite brethren if it had agents in place before the unrest started.

"The Iranians at this point in time cannot send reinforcements, whatever they may be," said Bokhari. "So they would have had to be in country pre-crisis.  And it’s not clear that they have enough assets to mount an insurgency.  Definitely they can stir up a mass uprising, but that’s very different from an insurgency.  I’m not saying that that can’t happen.  But the Shi’ite community in Bahrain is also pretty much divided."

The al-Wefaq Shi’ites are the largest opposition group and are considered more mainstream, holding 18 seats in parliament before they resigned en masse in February to protest police violence against demonstrators.  But there is also the hard-line al-Haq movement, which analysts say is philosophically closer to Iran.

A girl holds up a picture of Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Muharraq, Bahrain, February 16, 2011, during a gathering to counter three days of anti-government demonstrations
A girl holds up a picture of Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Muharraq, Bahrain, February 16, 2011, during a gathering to counter three days of anti-government demonstrations

Analysts agree that at some point, the ruling al-Khalifa family will have to cut some kind of deal for political reforms, probably by exploiting the split in the Shi’ite community.  Kamran Bokhari says that would suit Iran just fine if it is looking at a long-term strategy of extending influence rather than short-term political gain.

"It’s good enough for Iran. It’s not like if they can’t topple the monarchy then all is lost.  They can make a partial gain right now and then build upon it in years to come.  So any negotiated settlement still empowers Iran. And that’s why you see the Saudis acting really aggressively," he said.

Analysts say any direct Iranian intervention against either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia could also have consequences for the United States.  Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are both U.S. allies, and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain.

You May Like

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid