Revolution in Bahrain: Defying the Conspiracy of Convenience

An unlikely alliance is the latest obstacle for Bahrainis in their struggle for self-determination.

Centuries of distrust between Sunnis and Shiites were reignited by another mass movement for freedom in Iran 30 years ago. The fallout of that revolution – shaped by the painful memory of a tyrannical king backed by the West and a long, brutal war with its neighbors – continues to color much of the Middle East.

Israel may have reached a shaky peace with the Arabs, but it refuses to see Iran as anything but an existential threat. And the United States has found a great market for its high-tech killing machines. Meanwhile, the struggles for self-determination in nations like Bahrain continue to fall victim to campaigns of delegitimization.

“Bahrain Is a Rich Country, Why Are They Rising Up?”

“People think, Bahrain is a rich country, why are they rising up?” Haider*, a Shiite from the eastern Bahraini island of Sitra explains, as he begins to lay out Bahrain's history. “It's not about being poor, it's about our heritage, our history of demanding our rights.”

The current Al-Khalifa dynasty traces its origins in Bahrain to the invasion and conquest by Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Khalifa, who expanded his emirate beyond modern-day Qatar, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia in 1783. Most of the natives were adherents to Shiite Islam, principally brought to the region when it came under the Persian Safavid dynasty's control in the 17th century.

The Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty spent the next two centuries allying with regional powers to keep, at various times, Egyptian, Ottoman, Persian, Omani and British forces at bay. When oil was discovered in the 1930s, the British Royal Navy moved its regional command to Manama.[1] When the British left Bahrain in 1971, the United States began leasing their base in Manama for $4 million a year.[2]

The chief demand of today's revolution in Bahrain is a return to the Constitution of 1972. Crafted soon after independence, it was the most promising democratic system in the Middle East. But Bahrain's ruler, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, dissolved Parliament when it refused to pass a set of state security laws in 1975 that would have given him sweeping security powers.

The regime hired Ian Henderson, a British Colonial police officer with experience from Kenya (where he helped kill thousands of Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s), as head of state security. His oversight of the detention and torture of dissidents over the next two decades would earn him the title “The Butcher of Bahrain.”

Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain and the Gulf at Rutgers University, says that the use of “systematic torture” over the next few decades would deeply entrench sectarianism in the country.

A coup attempt in 1981, allegedly backed by Iran, prompted the first emergency meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Originally composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the GCC officially hoped to leverage their “special relations, common qualities and similar systems” in order to “channel their efforts to reinforce and serve Arab and Islamic causes.” Iran, with its non-Arab Shiite population, obviously did not qualify.

Throughout the 1990s, Shiite demands for a democratically elected Parliament in Bahrain were met with skepticism, imprisonment and exile. Street movements in 1995, 1996 and 1999 – often branded by the Al-Khalifas as Iranian-backed coups – would end in the arrest and exile of hundreds of opposition leaders.

Jones says the government spent the last decade recruiting foreign residents in order to tip the Sunni-Shiite demographics in their favor. Today, incoming Sunnis – laborers from Yemen and Syria and police and military recruits from Pakistan – are given citizenship and housing, often before they even arrive in Bahrain. Meanwhile, native Shiites are kept from key government and managerial positions.

Optimism at the ascension of a new king in 1999 was frustrated when King Hamad ignored a fresh referendum for restoring the Constitution. Instead, he announced a new bicameral Parliament, largely devoid of any authority, in 2001. In 2006 and 2010, Shiites won 40 percent of the seats in the lower house, but ultimate authority still resided with the king, so protests continued.

“We really hope even that the Shah was still in power, because it would make our job easier,” says Haider.

The political naiveté of Western nations when assuming that all the world's Shiites are seeking some kind of pan-Shiite state is shared by many Sunni Gulf rulers today. Iranophobia, for the West, is rooted in the Iranian Revolution. For Gulf royalty, post-revolution Iran added potent political overtones to a historic religious rivalry.

The split between Shiite and Sunni Islam can be traced to disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad upon his death in 632. The first three successors are considered the most pious of Muhammad's followers by Sunnis, but usurpers and worse by many Shiites. For many Shiite groups, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was divinely appointed to be the prophet's successor.

Ali was eventually murdered, and when his two sons Haider and Hussein attempted to overthrow the Sunni Ummayad rulers, they, too, were killed. The deaths of these three mark the most important times of the year for Shiites, such as the Day of Ashura, as well as some of their most revered sites: Karbala and Najaf, in modern-day Iraq.

Today, a number of Shiite sub-sects survive, and despite a wide variety of ideologies, hard-line Sunni scholars exploit ignorance among their followers to label many of them as non-Muslims. The Sunni Salafi (or Wahhabi) revivalist movement is particularly noteworthy as it dominates the philosophy of Saudi Arabia, which uses its considerable financial and religious influence to spread the ideology abroad. The movement has its roots in Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, a scholar whose thinking was greatly influenced by his travels in the 18th century Ottoman world.

For Abd-al-Wahhab, the central Islamic tenets of monotheism forbade the reverence of saints and their shrines. Shiite belief attaches a sacred nature to the descendants of Muhammad, deferring spiritual and political guidance to them and focusing much of its worship around their shrines. Not content with arguments that Islam allowed for such practices, Abd-al-Wahhab set about finding a political partner to carry out his reformation, eventually finding the House of Saud, which would consolidate its power of the Arabian Peninsula over the next century to found modern-day Saudi Arabia.[3]

For traditional Twelver Shiites – the predominate branch today – scholars played no role in governing the nation. Thus, Ayatollah Khomeini, who first pushed the idea of a rule of scholars (wilayat-ul-faqih), is seen by many Arab Shiites as somewhat of an opportunist, who touted the concept in order to justify the Iranian Revolution. Today, according to Jones, more Bahraini Shiites emulate Iraqi clerics such as Ali Al-Sistani, than Khomeini or other Iranian clerics.

While a number of influential Sunni scholars, such as the Egyptian Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, have made an effort to tone down the sectarian rhetoric – especially after the brutal lessons of the Iraqi Civil War – most Salafis have not. In fact, Saudi leaders do not hesitate to leverage their control over Mecca and Medina to highlight their views that the Shiite are a “deviant” sect. As fighting raged on the Saudi-Yemeni border last year between the Shiite Houthi rebels and Saudi forces, Saudi jets dropped bombs along with flyers warning, “You attack the State of Islam and Muslims, seat of the Two Holy Shrines.”

The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 provided fresh impetus for Sunni fears. Leaders in the Gulf saw an anti-imperialist trend that reminded them of the Gemal Abdul Nasser era, when they fought the Arab nationalist through a number of proxy wars.

The only two states in the region with sizable Shiite populations, Iraq and Bahrain, became problematic soon after. Iraq's membership in the GCC was suspended after it invaded Kuwait in 1991 (it is on its way to being reinstated again, once the Shiite-dominated government there can convince everyone they hate Iran), but received no such censure when Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran in 1980.

Initially motivated by Iraqi territorial claims in Iran and control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, the eight-year war morphed into a jihad not unlike the one in Afghanistan for Sunni Arabs, as Saddam received massive economic and military support from the Arab League, the United States, and a number of European powers.[4]

For Iran's Shiites, the war had tremendous religious significance as the tombs of Ali and many of his descendants were on the other side of the front lines. The leading Shiite scholars in Najaf and Karbala, the historic centers of Shiite training, were either killed by Saddam during the war, or forced to flee to places like Qom in Iran. Iran in turn maintained support for the Islamic Dawah Party – believed to be responsible for organizing a number of bombings and coup attempts in the region – throughout the '80s.[5]

Bahrain became pivotal as Iraq and Iran battled for control of the oil shipment routes in the Gulf. Hundreds of oil tankers were destroyed, threatening to pull the United States and the GCC countries into the war. The GCC formed a rapid military deployment force and spent billions of dollars buying radar systems from Western powers to thwart any Iranian attack on the Straits of Hormuz.[6] Today, the Straits continue to be the world's most crucial choke point for oil, accounting for 40 percent of the world's oil shipments.[7]

The Conspiracy of Convenience

Arab-Iranian distrust is not the only thing pushing conflict in the region. Israel, the United States and Gulf monarchies are locked in a conspiracy of convenience against Iran. Israel pushes fears of a nuclear-armed Iran, secretly threatening to bomb it any day. The Gulf rulers in turn, fully aware of their historical record with Iran, spend tens of billions of dollars on American weapons to defend against any counterattack. Keith Weissman, a former high-level lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), vividly describes the alliance. Weissman was one of three people indicted in 2005 for spying for Israel in a scheme to influence American policy toward Iran. He says Israeli influence has been the main impetus for sanctions against Iran, as well as the scuttling of a number of financial agreements that would have seen Iran profit from its natural gas and oil reserves. AIPAC also worked to warn the United States and Arab countries about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Iran claims its program is not for weapons and cites the lack of oil refineries and other facilities needed to fully exploit its energy reserves as motivating its interest in nuclear energy development.

A more plausible explanation for Israeli fear of Iran is the latter's historic support for guerrilla groups like Hezbollah, which forced Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 and again in 2006.[8] Top AIPAC lobbyists, Weissman says, would host everyone from oil executives to Saudi princes, in an effort to keep the pressure on Iran.[9]

Meanwhile, a myriad of American construction and weapons contracting companies profit from the Gulf arms race, building the fighter jets and lavish defense facilities Gulf monarchs cannot seem to live without.

Qatar has spent almost $1.5 billion building bases to host American troops, aircraft and armor, and the Pentagon has spent more than $200 million on training centers and other facilities there. The Pentagon also spent more than $227 million in the last decade to construct facilities for its fifth fleet in Bahrain,[10] and between 2007 and 2009 Bahrain purchased more than $386 million in defense items from the United States.[11] The US has spent more than $10 million to use a former British Air Force base in Oman. More than $20 billion has been spent by the Pentagon in Kuwait since 2003 on elaborate housing and facilities for 15,000 American soldiers. American contractors have been awarded more then $270 million in contracts to build facilities for training Jordanian forces.[12]

Saudi Arabia's rulers though, who feared the Bahraini uprising enough to dispatch a thousand troops there in March, have out-spent any other country in the region. King Abdullah recently announced the distribution of $130 billion to his subjects, in an apparent attempt to prevent his own uprising.[13] Last fall, the United States announced a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, featuring dozens of new fighter jets, helicopters and bunker-buster bombs.[14] And just last week, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal warned that if Iran continued to pursue a nuclear weapon, his country would have no choice but to do the same.[15]

“Iran,” as Gen. David Petraeus said recently, according to a cable leaked by WikiLeaks, “has become CENTCOM's best recruiting tool.”[16] Indeed, the United States has a military presence – boots on the ground, command and control facilities, air bases etc. – in every country in the Gulf except for Iran.

Jones says that, in the end, the American military presence is a political liability. “These places have to sell their oil. They should be responsible for their ability to do so and not us.” He points out that “as long as we don't do that, we have no accountability and they [Gulf monarchs] are not forced to think carefully about the kind of things that they do.”

According to Jones, “the role of the American navy has not expanded because oil has become any more vulnerable, but because we have even more intensively tied our national security to oil and particularly oil producers.” The placement of American military bases such as the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, he says, is nothing but a provocation toward Iran in a region that “thrives off of crises.”

Amid this new arms race, Bahrainis continue to protest and are accused of providing another foothold for Iran. During a visit to Bahrain in March, Defense Secretary Gates cleverly drew attention to Iran, saying that although the US had no evidence of Iranian backing for the Arab revolutions, there is clear evidence that “the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems.”

Jones says that the claims of Iranian involvement today lack any proof, but acknowledges that it was the case in the 1980s. He says, however, that today, critical Iranian “networks do not exist and would only be the product of a crackdown. Iran does not have the power to influence outcomes in the region, at least not at the level that everybody thinks it has.”

The Bahraini government as well is pushing the sectarian divide with round-the-clock propaganda on TV, claiming the protesters are looking to establish an Iran-style theocracy. “Why would we want to replace one dictatorship with another?” asks Haider. For the Al-Khalifas, Haider says, “it's not right or wrong, it's Shiite against Sunni.”

Haider says this revolution was created by youths, who are ensuring that unlike past uprisings, this one cannot be attributed to Iran. He says people he would have never imagined protesting are participating, “people who have no politics, who hate [religious] scholars, who are not religious … just normal people.”

Mubarak's departure provided the new hope the movement needed. In the past, Haider says, “people gathered, then it would die for another month, then people would try again.” But when Mubarak was forced out, people began to see the possibilities.

Haider says, this time, the crackdown is more brutal because of Saudi influence. In the past, protesters could anticipate the Al-Khalifa reaction, but this time, the Al-Khalifas resorted to destroying dozens of mosques and imposing sweeping curfews in Shiite neighborhoods. “They tell Sunnis that if a Shiite sees you, they will kill you. How can I kill my neighbor when I live with him for twenty years?”

Haider is not optimistic about the future, saying the crackdown will only empower the hardliners who will not rest until the Al-Khalifas are gone.

The Bahraini government announced negotiations with the opposition earlier this month, including with the Shiite al-Wefaq group, but it is unclear how these will turn out. Haider opines: “As long as the Saudi grip is there in Bahrain, no solution is going to happen.” But Bahrainis, he says, are not going to stop this time until their demands are met, “even if it means they are killed.”


*Haider is not the interviewee's real name, which is being withheld to protect him from reprisals.

1. Al-Tajir, Mahdi Abdalla, “Bahrain, 1920-1945: Britain, the shaikh and the administration,” London, 1987.

2. “Bahrain's Base Politics: the Arab Spring and America's Military Bases,” Daniel H. Nexon, Alexander Cooley, Foreign Affairs, 2011.

3. Fisk, Robert, “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,” New York 2005, pp 125, 847.

4. Fisk, Robert, “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,” New York 2005, pp 613.

5. Fisk, Robert, “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,” New York 2005, pp 661-662.

6. “The Gulf Cooperation Council: Record and Analysis,” RK Ramazani, 1988, pp 60-67.

7. “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” Energy Information Administration, 2011.

8. Fisk, Robert, “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,” New York 2005, pp 772.

9. “AIPAC From the Inside,” Robert Dreyfuss, 2011.

10. Tomgram: Nick Turse, “Out of Iraq, Into the Gulf,” Tom Dispatch, 2009.

11. “What's the Impact of US Arms Deals in the Middle East?” National Public Radio, 2011.

12. Tomgram: Nick Turse, “Out of Iraq, Into the Gulf,” Tom Dispatch, 2009.

13. “Among Protests, Saudi King Offers Billions in Benefits,” 2011.

14. “Eyeing Iran, US Details $60 billion Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia,” Arthur Bright, The Christian Science Monitor, 2010.

15. “Riyadh Will Build Nuclear Weapons if Iran Gets Them, Saudi Prince Warns,” The Guardian UK, Jason Burke, 2011.

16. “The Secret Alliance: Cables Show Arab Leaders Fear a Nuclear Iran,” Spiegel Online, 2011.