Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:39 | SYDNEY

A dangerous day for Bahrain


Rodger Shanahan


15 March 2011 16:13

Four days after GCC foreign ministers pledged $20 billion over ten years to Oman and Bahrain and warned against foreign (read Iranian) interference in those countries, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent forces to Manama. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Tehran has now issued a call for an end to foreign interference.

This unprecedented entry of foreign forces into Bahrain is a dangerous move for several reasons:

1. It further delegitimises the Sunni ruling family, which stands accused of socially, politically and economically discriminating against its Shi'a majority. For that family to bring in security forces from two Sunni Arab countries reinforces this view among Bahraini Shi'a.

2. It strengthens the hand of the rejectionist opposition. The Bahraini Shi'a opposition, while united in seeking reform, is split into participatory and rejectionist factions. Al-Wifaq has taken part in elections and seeks a legislative path to reform, while the al-Haqq movement considers the ruling family incapable of reform without confrontational social pressure and has eschewed formal political participation. 

Given the regional success of popular protest movements and al-Wifaq's inability to win any meaningful concessions through the legislature, the introduction of foreign Sunni security forces is likely to strengthen al-Haqq's argument that the ruling family is happy to have dialogue but never reform. The next generation of rejectionist Shi'a opposition may well have been made with today's events.

3. It makes Iranian support for Shi'a groups more attractive. Historical, cultural and ethnic links between Gulf Shi'a and Iran are a fact of life. Just as 30% of Australians claim some form of Irish heritage as a result of historical migration patterns, so many Gulf Shi'a have Persian heritage. That by no means makes them pro-Iranian. But if the ruling regime gets assistance from other Sunni states, and there are only perfunctory calls for reform from the West, then offers of financial or other support from Tehran may begin to look the only option. 

Then again, the conspiracy theorist in me can construct an argument that this is one of the aims. If such links with Tehran emerge as a consequence of the intervention, then the intervention was justified to stop Iranian interference — perfect.

It will be interesting to see what Western governments say about this turn of events. There will be a lot about the need for restraint and non-violence, but little about the need for reform, I would say. Arab governments are sensitive to what they perceive as Western preoccupation with democracy. When the issue is democratisation that cedes Sunni political power to Shi'a, those sensitivities take on a new dimension.

Photo by Flickr user heshaam.