Protests on the neighboring island, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet guards Gulf oil supply, are being overshadowed by the challenge to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Yet they underscore the sectarian divide in the Muslim world between Shiites and Sunnis that puts Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other in a region that holds about 55 percent of the world’s crude.
“Saudi Arabia is concerned about the expansion of the Shiite crescent,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The last thing Riyadh would want to see is Shiite rule in Bahrain. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia would intervene militarily.”
Instability in Bahrain might affect oil prices more than the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak a month later or the turmoil in Libya, according to Mustafa Alani, a regional security expert from the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
Mainly Shiite protesters in Bahrain are demanding democracy through free elections from their Sunni monarch. Thousands of demonstrators surrounded the state television headquarters in the capital, Manama, today, shouting slogans against the royal family, after several Shiites were injured in street clashes with Sunnis late yesterday, the Associated Press reported.
“Bahrain is the front line in the conflict between the Gulf states and Iran,” Alani said in a telephone interview. “The sectarian dimension is definite. This would have a huge impact on the stability in the Gulf.”
There have already been signs of unrest among Saudi Shiites, who make up about 10 to 15 percent of the population. About 100 people joined a demonstration in the Shiite village of Awwamiya yesterday, calling for the release of prisoners, and a similar number gathered later in the city of Qatif under a strong police presence.
Saudi Arabia, which holds 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, is dominated by a branch of Sunni Islam, while Iran, home to 10 percent of reserves, is mainly Shiite.
Crude oil prices have climbed 20 percent to a 29-month high since unrest erupted in Bahrain on Feb. 14. Saudi Arabia’s benchmark stock index plunged the most in more than two years on March 1 on concern disturbances may extend to the kingdom. The Tadawul All Share Index (SASEIDX) has tumbled 20 percent since Feb. 14.
‘Markets Would React’
“Even if there isn’t any disruption of output in Saudi Arabia, if there is deterioration in the political environment in the region, markets would react,” Monica Malik, an economist at investment bank EFG-Hermes Holding SAE, said in a telephone interview from Dubai.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family maintains a strict version of Sunni Islam. It prohibits the public observance of other religions and limits the practice of other branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia is linked to Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet uses over 20 warships and oversees about 25,000 personnel across the region, by a 26-kilometer (16-mile) causeway.
While protesters chant that all Bahrainis are the same people, the Shiites, who represent as much as 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, say they face discrimination.
The rebellion in Bahrain “fuels fears” of a “Shiite uprising in the Gulf, aided and abetted by neighboring Iran,” said Shelley Deane, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine. “Bahrain’s revolt and the state’s repressive response create tension among its neighbors fearful of instability spilling over state borders.”
So far there are no signs Saudi Arabia is planning an intervention in Bahrain. The country stepped in with force against Shiite rebels on its border with Yemen. The three-month conflict ended in February last year.
During the Iran Iraq war of the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations supported Iraq “because they suspected Iran of trying to spread its revolution and foment unrest in the Gulf monarchies,” Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow on the Middle East and the Africa, at London-based Chatham House, said in response to e-mailed questions.
Both also claim a “kind of leadership position in the Islamic world,” she said.
Bahraini Shiite protesters have so far defined their protests as a national movement without Iranian influence.
‘No Outside Involvement’
“No one will accept outside involvement,” Abduljalil Khalil, head of the largest Shiite opposition bloc in Bahrain’s parliament, said in an interview. Ahmed Jassem, a Shiite cleric from Sitra, a smaller island off the Bahrain coast, said during a funeral that drew tens of thousands of mourners that “Iran has nothing to with what is going on in Bahrain.”
Government supporters counter that should the Al Khalifa monarchy fall, the upheaval may open the country to Iran.
“What do the Shiite people want?” said Moneera Mohammed, a 28-year-old employee at the Information Ministry. “These people are like the Iranians. They don’t represent us.”
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who was tasked with bringing stability back to Bahrain, flew to Riyadh on March 2 for a two-day visit with officials. Saudi Arabia and neighboring Qatar subsequently backed Bahrain with “full political, economic, security and defense support,” the official Bahrain News Agency reported.
“Unrest in Bahrain is always a concern for Saudi Arabia, because there are close family, religious and cultural ties between Bahrain’s Shiite and the Saudi Shiite in the Eastern Province,” Kinninmont said. “Saudi Arabia takes a zero tolerance approach to protests in its own territory.”
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