Proposed Saudi Arabia-Bahrain Union Reflects Intensifying Persian Gulf Rivalry

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 12

In the new Middle East, formerly suppressed political parties, movements, and ideas are increasingly shaping a political and ideological discourse that departs from previous paradigms.  An equally important trend that is receiving less attention, however, is the mobilization of counterrevolutionary and reactionary forces opposed to the changes taking place in the region.  In this regard, Saudi Arabia’s proposal to forge a formal union with Bahrain, a subject that topped the agenda at the May 14 summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states in Riyadh, warrants a closer look (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 14).

The collective call for freedom and democracy that has toppled despots in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened the survivability of other autocracies, including key Saudi allies, has not sat well with Riyadh.  The onset of public demonstrations in Bahrain in February 2011 elicited the Kingdom’s most forceful response to date. At the official request of the Bahraini royal family, a Saudi-led contingent of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) entered Bahrain on March 14, 2011 to crush democratic opposition protests under the auspices of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield defense pact (al-Jazeera, March 15, 2011; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 24, 2011).   

The start of protests in Bahrain raised particular alarm in the Kingdom for three reasons: 

  • The expressions of dissent in a fellow Arab monarchy and GCC member demonstrated that the GCC was not immune to the brand of democratic activism being exhibited elsewhere in the Arab world.
  • Bahrain is led by a Sunni monarchy that presides over a largely impoverished and underserved Shi’a majority that makes up at least 70 percent of the country’s total population. While the grievances and demands of the Bahraini opposition were articulated by a wide segment of society, Bahrain’s demographics raised the specter of similar events occurring within the Saudi Kingdom.  Bahraini Shi’a face widespread discrimination in what is largely viewed as a minority Sunni dominated society.  Bahrain’s geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, where most of the Kingdom’s oil wealth is concentrated, amplifies the perceived threat emanating from the uprising in Bahrain. As a result, Saudi Arabia worries that its own restive Shi’a minority will take a cue from their kin in Bahrain and rise up.  Like their counterparts in Bahrain, the Saudi Shi’a also endure persecution by the ultraconservative Sunni regime that regards them as heretics.  In the face of violent crackdowns by the Kingdom’s security forces, the Shi’a organized demonstrations in Saudi areas such as al-Hasa, al-Qatif, and Safwa to protest the Bahraini crackdown against opposition forces.  The Kingdom’s Shi’a also voiced anger over their predicament in Saudi society and demanded that Riyadh withdraw its military from Bahrain (Press TV [Tehran], March 23, 2011).
  • Saudi Arabia believes that the unrest in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region strengthens the hand of its rival, Iran.  The sectarian narrative underlying the protests in Bahrain that describes a largely Shi’a majority demanding greater freedom and human rights of the ruling Sunni monarchy reinforces Saudi Arabia’s position relative to Iran.  For Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a in Bahrain and other Persian Gulf countries represent an Iranian-directed fifth column ready to act at Tehran’s behest.  Saudi Arabia often relies on inflammatory sectarian rhetoric to paint Iran and Arab Shi’a in the region as hostile forces.  Just days before Saudi-led GCC forces entered Bahrain, for instance, the Saudi daily al-Jazirah published a series of articles entitled “Safavid Iran’s plans for the destruction of the Gulf States” (al-Jazirah [Riyadh], March 12, 2011).   

As the unofficial leader of the GCC, a body that includes fellow monarchies Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia is a longtime proponent of expanding the group’s mandate into a formal union.  The GCC was founded in 1981 during the Iraq-Iraq War (1980-1988) and in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  The establishment of the GCC represented an attempt by the six Persian Gulf Arab monarchies to encourage closer political, economic, and security relations amid regional instability and the perceived threat posed by Iran.  Beyond their monarchical character, GCC members share other attributes in common.  GCC members host a number of U.S. military installations, including the regional headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) in Qatar and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.  Each GCC member also maintains close ties with the United States.  Save for Bahrain, the GCC is also rich in oil and natural gas.  GCC capital in the form of sovereign wealth funds has propelled its members into the upper echelons of global financial power. 

At the same time, the GCC is also beset with internal rivalries on a range of issues.  While GCC members agree in principle on the utility of a confederation, there appears to be little serious interest within the body to unite at this stage outside of the embattled leadership in Manama.  Saudi Arabia nevertheless feels compelled to proceed with creating a union with Bahrain (Gulf News [Dubai], June 4).  Saudi Arabia has also led the way to extend the prospect of GCC membership to two Arab monarchies located outside of the Persian Gulf area, namely, Morocco and Jordan (al-Arabiya [Dubai], September 11, 2011).  To various degrees Morocco and Jordan, authoritarian states in their own rights, have also experienced protests demanding greater freedom and reform.  

Precise details surrounding Riyadh’s plan to unite Bahrain with the Kingdom are unclear.  While national sovereignty and decision making powers will be protected in a federal system, the proposed union between a vastly larger and stronger Saudi Arabia and a relatively tiny and weak Bahrain is difficult to envisage in practice.  Overall, Saudi Arabia’s intentions towards establishing a union with Bahrain are shaped by its rivalry with Iran.  Similarly, Bahrain’s relative weakness is also pushing it into Saudi Arabia’s fold.  The strategic undercurrents of Saudi Arabia’s drive to unite with Bahrain have not been lost on Iran, which has criticized the move in harsh terms.  Iranians have also staged protests against the proposed confederation (Press TV [Tehran], May 18).  In a reference to Iran’s historical territorial claims over Bahrain, an Iranian parliamentarian lashed out against Saudi Arabia’s plans: “If it [Bahrain] is supposed to be annexed, it will go to the Islamic Republic not [the] al-Saud [family]” (Financial Times [London], May 15). In a more official response, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast suggested "The crackdown on people, military and security intervention by neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, and plans like the proposal for the formation of a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are, in our view, ill-advised measures, which will deepen the crisis" (Mehr News Agency [Tehran], May 28). Given the stakes involved, Bahrain will remain a crucial strategic battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the months ahead.