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Caught In the Crossfire: Bahrain & Iran-Saudi Rivalry

January 4, 2016
Natasha Bowler
8 min read
King Salman of Saudi Arabia with King Hamad of Bahrain
King Salman of Saudi Arabia with King Hamad of Bahrain
Ayatollah Khomenei after the Islamic Revolution of 1979
Ayatollah Khomenei after the Islamic Revolution of 1979
Saudi troops enter Bahrain in 2011
Saudi troops enter Bahrain in 2011
The Iran-backed Houthis rebel forces in Yemen
The Iran-backed Houthis rebel forces in Yemen

Bahrain, a tiny islet in the Persian Gulf, is distinct to other countries in the Middle East: it is the only nation to have a majority Shia, or Shiite, population but a ruling family, the Al-Khalifas, and a government that is Sunni. This unusual political dynamic makes Bahrain vulnerable to foreign sectarian pressures and, in particular, to influence from regional superpowers and rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Although Sunnis and Shias agree on most of the fundamentals of Islam, they disagree on who should succeed Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslims after his death in 632.

Most countries in the region are predominantly Sunni, such as Egypt or Jordan, or a mix of different religious denominations, such as Lebanon, with a leadership that, at the very least, is partially representative of that. While in Iraq, the only other Shia-majority Middle Eastern country, a coalition of Shiite parties runs the government.

The long-established rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has serious, detrimental effects on stability in the wider region, as well as on individual countries — Bahrain being a key example.

The tiny kingdom, which only became independent from Britain in 1971, has ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, albeit in different capacities. First and foremost, Iran, as a Shiite country, shares theological ties with the country’s majority Shia people. Iran also claims to have territorial rights over the island because ancestors of the Al-Khalifa family overthrew Persian rulers in Bahrain during the 18th century.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is geographically close to Bahrain, situated across the Gulf to the west. And, in fact, the two countries are connected by land through the man-made King Fahd causeway. Equally, the Saudi royal family — the house of Saud — has strong relations with the Bahraini royal family, the Al-Khalifas, whom it has assisted in different ways over the years. Lastly, there are strong economic ties between the two, largely down to the sale of oil.


Bahrain as a Proxy

The Bahraini government has been wary of Shia organized groups ever since 1981 when the Islamic Front for Liberation of Bahrain, an Iranian-backed Shia militant organization, attempted to stage a coup in Bahrain. 

Bahraini officials also believe that Iran was behind the pro-democracy movement of 2011 – Bahrain’s version of the Arab Spring — and trained Shia opposition activists for it, although an investigation carried out by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that year found no evidence to back this up. The Pearl Roundabout movement, as it was also known, was violently suppressed a month after its inception after the government sent in Bahraini troops, supported by forces from Saudi Arabia.

“In any other country, a movement of this size would have led to the overthrow of the government or to a change in government, “says Toby Matthiesen, a Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East at Oxford University and author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and The Arab Spring That Wasn’t.

“But Bahrain has powerful allies and was able to scare the Sunnis into believing that an empowerment of the Shia majority would lead to Shia Islamist parties coming to power and seeking revenge for previous injustices. Sectarianism in Bahrain in many ways ensured the survival of the Bahraini monarchy.”

According to Nedal Al Salman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Sunnis and Shias lived peacefully in Bahrain up to 2011. But relations are becoming increasingly strained due to the Sunni leadership’s encouragement — with backing from the Saudi leadership in Riyadh – of sectarian divisions through anti-Shia rhetoric and policies.

“In the past, there were no issues between Sunnis and Shias but now there’s tension between us in Bahrain,” says Al Salman. “Saudi Arabia is worried that if there is political change in Bahrain, it will then move over to Saudi Arabia. So they encourage the government to promote hate against the Shia and to play a sectarian card that divides the Bahraini people.”

While the majority of Saudi Arabians follow Wahhabism, a particularly strict version of Sunni Islam, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population are Shia and live in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, just across the water from Bahrain. It was in this area that pro-democracy protests took place in 2011.

“To stave off the threat of an Arab uprising in Saudi Arabia, the regime has fostered a new Saudi nationalism that is in large parts based on anti-Shiism and on rivalry with Iran,” says Matthiesen. “Saudi Arabia's regional policies are an outcome of this new Saudi nationalism.”

Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, believes that Bahrain’s Shia majority is unlikely to receive greater political or civil freedoms unless the Saudi royal family advises the Al-Khalifas to do so. 

“They’ll only allow Shia groups into the political system if the Saudis tell them to, which only strengthens the resolve of the more hardliner Al-Khalifa family members to not do so,” he says. “The Saudis are unwilling to suggest this because they think the Iranians will be the ones to benefit from it.”


Iran-Saudi rivalry in the region

Bahrain is not the only country to fall victim to rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the two regional powers are vying for power and influence through numerous proxies in the Middle East.

In Syria, this equates to Saudi Arabia and Iran backing opposing armed factions; the Saudis are giving military and financial assistance to several Syrian rebel groups, including those with Islamist ideologies. Meanwhile, Iran has given billions of dollars to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and largely trained the National Defense Forces, a Syrian militia.

In Yemen, the Saudis are leading the bombing campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. And in Lebanon, Iran supplies the Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah, as Saudi Arabia pledges its support to opposing political parties. And so the list goes on.

According to the 2014 US State Department Report, “Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2014, including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.”

“The Iranians are most involved with Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese affairs. They also support the Houthis but this is on a smaller scale and in Bahrain, it is smaller still,” says Gause. “Iranian influence in Bahrain is very indirect, nowhere near as extensive as with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iraq for instance.”

Equally, Saudis have invested billions of dollars since the 1970s into promoting Wahhabism, and in the process, into discrediting other branches of Islam – Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shia. Most recently, it supported the 2013 military coup to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and shored up the Sunni Jordanian monarchy.


Why are they competing?

“The Persian Gulf is one of the most important regions in the world. So Saudi Arabia and Iran are bound to be natural rivals for regional hegemony, regardless of ideology and religion,” explains regional expert Matthiesen.“Having said that, Saudi-Iranian rivalry is complicated by a religious and ideological rivalry that overlaps with strategic and geopolitical rivalry. Both countries have used their own interpretations of Islam in their foreign policies.”

Before the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Saudi-Iranian relations were relatively good. Although not tension-free, the two regional powers found a common enemy in the then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist nationalism, and the Shah’s secular ambitions did not clash with the Saudi royal family’s agenda. However, the Islamic revolution changed that as it brought religion to the forefront of Iran’s political agenda and awoke dormant Sunni-Shiite rivalries that have reached a peak today.

“Under King Faisal, Saudi wanted to be seen as the unrivaled leader of the Islamic World but the Islamic Revolution in Iran undermined this notion because it appealed to all Muslims, both Sunni and Shia,” says Matthiesen. “The sectarian card was very much a way in which Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led states that felt vulnerable could undermine the Islamic Revolution’s appeal.”

However, Matthiesen points out that to an extent this vulnerability was justified as Iran did try, often successfully, to export its revolution, a task it found easiest amongst Shia groups, especially Arab Shias, around the world.

“Both sides have in a way led a sectarian foreign policy that has inflamed sectarian relations across the Arab and Islamic worlds, “he says.

Since 1979, relations between the two regional powers have only worsened, beginning with Saudi backing for Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran. Things deteriorated further after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and again during the Arab spring as strategic rivalry became explicitly sectarian in nature.

In the past year alone, Saudi-Iranian relations have only become more tense with the signing of the P5+1 nuclear deal, the Hajj stampede in Mecca in September, in which more than 400 Iranians were killed, and the Saudi WikiLeaks revelations.

“The recent leaks from the Saudi MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) show that Saudi Arabia is tracking the activities of Shia Muslims in virtually every country in the world,” says Matthiesen. “It equates Shiism, or Shia proselytising, with Iranian influence. It sees an Iranian behind every corner. It is this kind of paranoia that has made matters worse, and has actually pushed many Shia into the embrace of Iran.”

Today, it is common for Saudi and Iranian social media users to vilify each other online, and the Iranian media regularly condemns what it describes as Saudi support for al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) - many Wahhabi teachings line up with the ideologies of Daesh and other jihadist groups.

But nothing has worsened relations as decisively as Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on January 2. Al-Nimr was a vocal proponent of anti-government protests in Saudi's Eastern Province in 2011. Iran reacted by saying Saudi Arabia would pay "a high price" for the execution and shortly afterwards, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was set alight by Iranian protestors. The very next day, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran.

“Clearly, Saudi-Iranian relations are not good now. That goes without saying,” says Gause. “But there is space for improvement and a lessening of tension. Someone just has to make the first move. Let's wait and see what happens.”

Read this: The Story behind the State-Sponsored Spontaneous Torching of the Saudi Embassy