Arabia-Bahrain union reflects Gulf
rivalry By Chris Zambelis
In the new Middle East, formerly
suppressed political parties, movements, and ideas
are increasingly shaping a political and
ideological discourse that departs from previous
paradigms. An equally important trend that is
receiving less attention, however, is the
mobilization of counter-revolutionary and
reactionary forces opposed to the changes taking
place in the region. In this regard, Saudi
Arabia's proposal to forge a formal union with
Bahrain, a subject that topped the agenda in a
summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) member states in Riyadh last month,
warrants a closer look.
call for freedom and democracy that has toppled
despots in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened the
survivability of other autocracies, including key
Saudi allies, has not sat well with Riyadh. The
onset of public demonstrations in Bahrain in
February 2011 elicited Saudi Arabia's most
forceful response to date. At
the official request of
the Bahraini royal family, a Saudi-led contingent
of the GCC's Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) entered
Bahrain on March 14, 2011 to crush democratic
opposition protests under the auspices of the
GCC's Peninsula Shield defense pact.
protests in Bahrain raised particular alarm in the
Saudi Arabai for three reasons:
expressions of dissent in a fellow Arab monarchy
and GCC member demonstrated that the GCC was not
immune to the brand of democratic activism being
exhibited elsewhere in the Arab world.
Bahrain is led by a Sunni monarchy that presides
over a largely impoverished and underserved
Shi'ite majority that makes up at least 70% of the
country's total population. While the grievances
and demands of the Bahraini opposition were
articulated by a wide segment of society,
Bahrain's demographics raised the specter of
similar events occurring within Saudi Arabia.
Bahraini Shi'ite face widespread discrimination in
what is largely viewed as a minority Sunni
dominated society. Bahrain's geographic proximity
to Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority in the
kingdom's Eastern Province, where most of the
country's oil wealth is concentrated, amplifies
the perceived threat emanating from the uprising
As a result, Saudi Arabia
worries that its own restive Shi'ite minority will
take a cue from their kin in Bahrain and rise up.
Like their counterparts in Bahrain, the Saudi
Shi'ite also endure persecution by the
ultraconservative Sunni regime that regards them
as heretics. In the face of violent crackdowns by
Saudi Arabia's security forces, the Shi'ite
organized demonstrations in Saudi areas such as
al-Hasa, al-Qatif, and Safwa to protest the
Bahraini crackdown against opposition forces.
Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite also voiced anger over
their predicament in Saudi society and demanded
that Riyadh withdraw its military from Bahrain.
3. Saudi Arabia believes that the unrest
in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region strengthens
the hand of its rival, Iran. The sectarian
narrative underlying the protests in Bahrain that
describes a largely Shi'ite majority demanding
greater freedom and human rights of the ruling
Sunni monarchy reinforces Saudi Arabia's position
relative to Iran. For Saudi Arabia, the Shi'ite in
Bahrain and other Persian Gulf countries represent
an Iranian-directed fifth column ready to act at
Tehran's behest. Saudi Arabia often relies on
inflammatory sectarian rhetoric to paint Iran and
Arab Shi'ite in the region as hostile forces. Just
days before Saudi-led GCC forces entered Bahrain,
for instance, the Saudi daily al-Jazirah published
a series of articles entitled "Safavid Iran's
plans for the destruction of the Gulf States".
As the unofficial leader of the GCC, a
body that includes fellow monarchies Kuwait,
Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates
(UAE), Saudi Arabia is a longtime proponent of
expanding the group's mandate into a formal union.
The GCC was founded in 1981 during the Iraq-Iraq
War (1980-1988) and in the aftermath of the
Iranian Revolution of 1979. The establishment of
the GCC represented an attempt by the six Persian
Gulf Arab monarchies to encourage closer
political, economic, and security relations amid
regional instability and the perceived threat
posed by Iran.
Beyond their monarchical
character, GCC members share other attributes in
common. GCC members host a number of US military
installations, including the regional headquarters
of the US Central Command in Qatar and the US
Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Each GCC member
also maintains close ties with the United States.
Save for Bahrain, the GCC members are also rich in
oil and natural gas. GCC capital in the form of
sovereign wealth funds has propelled its members
into the upper echelons of global financial power.
At the same time, the GCC is beset with
internal rivalries on a range of issues. While GCC
members agree in principle on the utility of a
confederation, there appears to be little serious
interest within the body to unite at this stage
outside of the embattled leadership in Manama.
Saudi Arabia nevertheless feels compelled to
proceed with creating a union with Bahrain. Saudi
Arabia has also led the way to extend the prospect
of GCC membership to two Arab monarchies located
outside of the Persian Gulf area, namely, Morocco
and Jordan. To various degrees Morocco and Jordan,
authoritarian states in their own rights, have
also experienced protests demanding greater
freedom and reform.
surrounding Riyadh's plan to unite Bahrain with
Saudi Arabia are unclear. While national
sovereignty and decision-making powers will be
protected in a federal system, the proposed union
between a vastly larger and stronger Saudi Arabia
and a relatively tiny and weak Bahrain is
difficult to envisage in practice.
Overall, Saudi Arabia's intentions towards
establishing a union with Bahrain are shaped by
its rivalry with Iran. Similarly, Bahrain's
relative weakness is also pushing it into Saudi
Arabia's fold. The strategic undercurrents of
Saudi Arabia's drive to unite with Bahrain have
not been lost on Iran, which has criticized the
move in harsh terms. Iranians have also staged
protests against the proposed confederation.
In a reference to Iran's historical
territorial claims over Bahrain, an Iranian
parliamentarian lashed out against Saudi Arabia's
plans: "If it [Bahrain] is supposed to be annexed,
it will go to the Islamic Republic not [the]
In a more official
response, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin
Mehmanparast suggested, "The crackdown on people,
military and security intervention by neighboring
countries like Saudi Arabia, and plans like the
proposal for the formation of a union between
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are, in our view,
ill-advised measures, which will deepen the
crisis". Given the stakes involved, Bahrain will
remain a crucial strategic battleground between
Saudi Arabia and Iran in the months ahead.
Chris Zambelis is an author and
researcher with Helios Global, Inc, a risk
management group based in the Washington, DC area.
The opinions expressed here are the author's alone
and do not necessarily reflect the position of
Helios Global, Inc.