- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising, initially supported by both Sunnis and Shiites, is being painted by an alarmed leadership and its Saudi ally as a pro-Iranian effort to increase power and influence in Gulf countries, an explanation being used by the Bahrain monarchy to justify its tough response, says Middle East expert Kristin Smith Diwan. She also says that Yemen’s besieged leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has now asked for Saudi mediation. Diwan says that the strong stand by the Gulf Coordination Council, pushed by the Saudis, was to prevent a downfall of Gulf monarchs comparable to those in Tunisia and Egypt, however, the protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen have not been able to bridge "entrenched societal divisions" and sectarian tensions. As for the United States, she notes that "they are trying to separate themselves from the repressive action that has taken place without clearly denouncing it and asking for the troops to leave. The local reading of this will be that the United States is supportive of what’s taking place."
What is the situation in Bahrain now?
We started with a local uprising on February 16 that was inspired by what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The demonstrators looked upon this as a pro-democracy uprising, even establishing their own square--like Tahrir Square in Cairo--around the Pearl Monument in Manama. Now that uprising has pretty much been eclipsed by a regional proxy war between on one side Saudi Arabia and, to a certain extent, the United States, and Iran on the other side. We’ve kind of seen a transition from a narrative about a pro-democracy uprising to one where now there’s greater concern about Iranian encroachment in the Gulf.
I do believe that the uprising was genuinely democratically inspired. The people behind it were really pushing longstanding grievances against the ruling Al Khalifa family, and in particular the current King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, who, when he came to power in 2002, did initiate a number of reforms that included the reinstatement of the parliament in Bahrain. But he also unilaterally revised the constitution to impose an appointed Shura Council over the elected legislative body. At the same time, there was gerrymandering districts to benefit the minority Sunnis and strategic use of nationalizations of Sunnis from neighboring countries. Thus, the king was able to completely control the political environment despite these reforms. It was an environment of liberalized autocracy.
Did those actions plant the seed for the current unrest?
It has been a longstanding complaint that the betrayal of this initial reform impulse about ten years ago has never been remedied, and I think that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired a strong push to get out into the street and try to push for the needed constitutional legislative reforms to make Bahrain more like a true constitutional monarchy.
Were the protestors all Shiite?
The people in the square who were protesting initially were both Sunni and Shiite. Every time you talk about a democratic shift in Bahrain, you are talking about Shiite empowerment, because the majority of the population is Shiite, ruled by a Sunni monarchy and minority. It is in the interests of the ruling family to portray it as a Shiite uprising, and you saw a lot of actions by the family to paint it that way and to generate more sectarian conflict.
Are Shiites in Bahrain discriminated against? What is the social situation?
The formal discrimination is not religious, so it is not like a Shiite can’t practice his faith in Bahrain. It is not on that level. Bahrain in the Gulf has been one of the more liberal and open moderate societies, and you have quite a bit of intermarriage between Sunni and Shiite. The ruling family in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa, actually came to power sometime back by conquest. They were a tribe originally from modern-day Saudi Arabia; they had been in Kuwait and conquered the island of Bahrain. The population in Bahrain at that time was predominantly Shiite and agricultural. They established a semi-feudal order there where they acted almost like absentee landlords over the Shiite farmers. This still colors the conflict between the ruling family and the Shiites. Obviously things are changed from that period, but there still is an underlying tension that this is kind of an outside family that came in and imposed this order on the local people.
This was the first uprising in the Gulf inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the ouster of the rulers. The stand that the GCC has taken can be read as a strong stance against any uprising taking place against Gulf monarchies.
Is there discrimination in jobs?
In all of the Gulf states, government employment is very important and the Shiites are excluded from any of the security ministries for the most part. The Al Khalifa family brings in people from South Asia and other foreigners to serve in the security forces.
Last week, Saudi forces and troops from the UAE entered Bahrain as part of a Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) move to support the ruling family. Have they been directly involved in the crackdown?
I haven’t seen any evidence of that. Their stated mission is to protect strategic facilities, but it is very clear that what they’re truly doing is providing backbone for the ruling family for a crackdown. In fact, they may have been coming in on one side of the ruling family. There have been some disputes within the ruling family about how to handle this. The GCC coming in clearly signaled that the hard-line approach was going to be taken.
Are things calmer now as a result of this crackdown? Haven’t there have been other demonstrations there in recent years?
Yes. In fact, there’s a saying in Bahrain that they have, "demonstrations every year and an uprising every ten years." It is kind of a persistent feature of Bahranian political culture.
So it has just gotten more publicity because it followed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings?
That’s true, but there is really something at play here. It is important to see that especially with the GCC intervening, this was the first uprising in the Gulf inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the ouster of the rulers. The stand that the GCC has taken can be read as a strong stance against any uprising taking place against Gulf monarchies.
Besides Libya, the other country in the region where there is considerable ferment right now is Yemen. Are there similarities between Yemen and Bahrain?
One key characteristic of the successful Arab uprisings has been their ability to overcome entrenched societal divisions. The ruling autocrats have relied on a strategy of divide and rule to prevent broad popular dissatisfaction with their rule from coalescing. The activists in Egypt explicitly worked to overcome this barrier, which gave us some of the most iconic images of that revolution: Christians and Muslims praying together, young liberal and Muslim Brotherhood activists coordinating actions.
Both Yemen and Bahrain face stiff hurdles in overcoming these divisions. In Bahrain, the activists attempted to overcome the sectarian divide by stressing national unity through the slogan, "Not Shiite, not Sunni, just Bahraini." They had Shiite activists pray behind a Sunni Sheikh and Sunni activists behind a Shiite Imam. They formed a human chain to reach out from the Pearl roundabout where their protests were held to the Fateh mosque where Sunni pro-government forces were rallying. Yet the rejection of dialogue by some in the opposition and the sectarian strife intentionally fomented by the government through the use of Sunni thugs has exacerbated Sunni-Shia divisions, denying the social unity needed to confront the monarchy.
Yemen is likewise beset by divisions in ideology, sect, region, and tribe. The youth activists who started the protests have worked to unify the disparate opposition forces: the Houthis in the North, the southern separatists, the Islamist Islah party, and the Joint Meetings Party, itself an amalgam of oppositions. The resilience of the protests in the face of intense suppression is a testament to their success thus far, and to the deep dissatisfaction with the regime of Saleh. It appears that this persistence may be causing divisions in elite support for the regime, which suggests that the Yemen revolution may have a more successful outcome than the Bahraini one.
One other thing to watch is the role of Saudi Arabia. Saudi intervention in Bahrain decisively turned the government strategy toward brutal suppression. There are reports that Salah has requested the help of Saudi Arabia to mediate the crisis in Yemen, which again speaks to the dire straits he is currently in.
The Saudis and everybody else in the Gulf has talked about Iran’s trying to take advantage of the situation. Yet I take it there’s not much evidence of that at the moment.
Yes. My reading of Bahrain is that it was a local uprising that had cross-sectarian support initially. The mainstream Shiite Islamist party, Al Wefaq, does not have political ties to Iran, and they really framed this in terms of political reform inside of Bahrain. What has happened, though, is that to relieve the pressure of the democratic uprising, both the Bahraini ruling family and now Saudi Arabia are spreading fears about Iran.
Saudi Arabia is making the argument that any uprising in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia itself, is inspired by Iran. This is similar to what you saw in Egypt, where the Mubarak regime said that foreign instigators were causing these problems. The king in Bahrain has said that the entire uprising was a plot instigated from abroad. The Saudi ruling family really does read any Shiite empowerment in Bahrain as a danger to them. They fear that this could turn into a situation like the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and they strongly want to prevent that. The Saudis have an interest in preventing their own democratic uprising, so they don’t want to see a constitutional monarchy, and they don’t want to see Shiite empowerment in Saudi Arabia. The way to confront that is to strongly downplay the democratic impulse that’s taking place and to stress that this is Iranian action because that is one way to consolidate Sunni support to bring people around to the ruling family.
Americans haven’t said much lately, have they?
There were statements after the initial crackdown, when Bahraini forces attacked the protestors in the middle of the night and killed several people; there were a lot of videos that came out of the shooting of peaceful protesters. The United States came out very strongly against that action, which did cause a shift by the Bahraini government and empowered the crown prince to seek negotiations and a national dialogue. The United States was strongly supportive of that, because the primary U.S position was that it would be very good for the Bahraini royals, and in fact for the entire Gulf region, to take seriously the demands for political reform and step forward with significant reforms.
It would have been ideal for the Americans if a negotiated settlement could have come out of this. [But] that effort was preempted by the GCC intervention, and I think the Saudis didn’t want to see those reforms take place; they were genuinely frightened by the unrest in Bahrain and decided to step in. The Americans have not asked for the Saudi troops to leave. Given that there is not much scope for dialogue right now, I’m not really sure what the American position will be. They are trying to separate themselves from the repressive action that has taken place without clearly denouncing it and asking for the troops to leave. The local reading of this will be that the United States is supportive of what’s taking place.