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Zehra Zaidi: Bahrain's fall may drag Saudi Arabia and Iran into an explosive mix

Zehra_zaidi Zehra Zaidi was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England at the 2009 elections and has been a development consultant on governance and democratisation for UNICEF and the British Council. She has also acted as an adviser to Andrew Mitchell, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

As news channels rightly focus on the devastating impact of the Japanese tsunami and Gaddafi's continued crackdown on opposition forces in Libya, violence has once again escalated in Bahrain. The severity of the situation cannot be stressed enough.  This cluster of islands off the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, barely four times the size of Washington DC, is the base of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and a key Western ally but also a country where rival regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran have long held competing interests.

What started earlier last week as reported threats received by human rights activists escalated to demonstrations ahead of last Friday's surprise visit by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.  More than 800 people were injured in Sunday's demonstrations.  A day after Gates' visit, it seems the Bahrain regime has  turned to its neighbour to help quell the protests.  Late last night, we heard news that the Saudi National Guard under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”) is due to enter Bahrain to help bring matters under control.  The advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is ominous, advising against all travel to Bahrain and for British nationals currently in Bahrain to remain at home until further notice”.  Scanning what are largely uncorroborated twitter reports coming out of Bahrain, 'alarmed' is only half of what I am feeling as I scan my blackberry for updates.

Most will see the recent trouble in Bahrain as an extension of the political unrest that has spread across the Middle East.  In fact, the protests that began in mid February are not new at all.  Bahrain with its highly developed civil society has a record of political activism.

The country won independence forty years ago after the British Government withdrew from all territories east of Suez. In 1973, the then ruling emir, Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, established an elected parliament in order to secure internal legitimacy in a country in which 70% of the population - unlike the ruling royal family – were Shiite Muslim. However, this assembly was dissolved two years later when over zealous parliamentarians pushed for land reforms, curbs on the spending of the royal family and an end to the US military presence.  The 1990s saw a landmark uprising or intifada which only ended after Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa ascended to the throne in 1999 promising constitutional change. Women were given the vote and political prisoners were released. On 14 February 2001, a referendum was held on the National Action Charter, which pledged to restore parliament and install an elected Prime Minister. The regime proposed an amendment to the Constitution allowing for the introduction of an upper house of appointed parliamentarians whose power would be advisory over an elected lower house.

The National Charter received overwhelming public backing.  However, Sheikh Hamad reneged on delivering the full package of reforms.  In the Parliament that was established, the forty parliamentarians who were appointed by the King had far more power than those forty who were elected.   Opposition groups pushed for a return to the 1973 constitution and eventually two main camps emerged: one that focussed on seeking parliamentary reform and one which called for mass protests. It is the latter camp that has increasingly gained the upper hand in Bahrain.  It is no coincidence that this year's protests which followed upheaval across the Middle East started on 14 February – a date which marked the 10 year anniversary of The National Charter.

The ruling elite have been simply too slow to recognise the need to accelerate constitutional reforms.  Of course, democracy in Bahrain may come at a price: the election of Islamist politicians (in the 2006 elections both Sunni and Shiite Islamists made gains).  But we have reached a stage where those protesting have moved from demanding constitutional reform to overthrow of the ruling family and young activists are becoming more and more radicalised.  The situation is dangerous and highly unpredictable.

At the end of the day, this is a country where sectarian tensions have always simmered away below the surface and the recent boiling over of tensions can be put down to a Shite majority that has grown tired of broken promises. The Shiite majority's grievances can be divided into both constitutional and economic.  First of all, the leadership of the country is not representative of the demographic make up of the country or indeed that democratic.  Whilst Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy headed by Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, the Prime Minister, is his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa (he is the longest serving unelected Prime Minster in the world, having held that position since 1971), and 80% of the Cabinet is made up of members of the royal family.  Whilst its lower house is elected, the upper house (the Shura Council), is appointed by the King and holds more power.  In recent years, allegations of torture have resurfaced, political arrests have increased and the board of an independent human rights NGO was dismissed by the Government.

The Government has made some steps towards appeasing the protesters: calling for dialogue, freeing opposition activists, partly reshuffling the Cabinet and reducing citizens housing costs.  However, when violence first erupted a few weeks ago, the monarchy should have drawn up immediate plans to give reformists and its Shite majority population not only more power but also jobs.  In this oil rich country, per capita GDP is $38,400 but the Shite population is on average poorer than its Sunni counterparts.   On Saturday, the main point of protest was not constitutional reform but the citizenship granted (at the King's discretion) to some 70,000 foreign Sunni Muslim workers since Sheikh Hamad came to power.  This is quite a large percentage in a country where the total population stands at just over 1.2 million.  The country's Shiite population accuse the Government of not only trying to engineer a change in the country's demographics and political balance but also depriving them of jobs.

As Secretary Gates made clear on Friday, the regime must provide real reform on an urgent basis and not by piecemeal baby steps.  his situation is alarming from a Western strategic standpoint: the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet is based there providing support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But also, if Bahrain becomes unstable it could impact upon neighbouring Saudi Arabia – little wonder then that GCC forces are planning to enter Bahrain.  However, Saudi intervention may fuel its own dissidents.

More worryingly perhaps, although the Iranian regime has not been behind recent protests, this situation creates an obvious opportunity for the Iranian regime to exploit.  Yesterday, Tehran called for an end to violence and State TV is covering events with microscopic attention.  These calls will only get louder, especially now that the Saudi Government has intervened.  The influence of Iran should not be downplayed.  Bahrain, which only gained independence from the British forty years ago, has in its history been governed by Iran for centuries.  In 1860, when the British tried to gain Bahrain, Sheikh Mohammad Ben Khalifa wrote a letter to Nasseredin Shah of Iran declaring himself, his clan and all the people of Bahrain to be Iranian subjects and asked for Iranian protection against British pressure.  This situation of course changed over time with the Khalifa family establishing the dominance of its own Sunni and Bedouin way of life, and used the presence of US forces to keep Tehran at bay.  However, the influence of Iran remains due to the majority Shite population who are not only Arabs but also ethnically Persian.

So, what can be done?  The US Government has to be commended on Friday's swift visit by Secretary Gates.  Whilst the US Government has stressed its continued support for such a key strategic ally, one would have hoped that its call for urgent constitutional and economic reforms would have been heeded by the monarchy (though probably not enough) but also not gone unnoticed by protesters.  However worryingly, some elements of the opposition movement are refusing to enter into any sort of dialogue with the regime due to what they say are decades of broken promises.  The US has also been investigating whether any aid to foreign security forces has been used against civilians under the terms of Congress' Leahy Amendment.  This is potentially quite a powerful tool as the U.S. is required to cut aid if found to have violated human rights and if found guilty, the Bahrain regime could see its military aid (amounting to around $20 million) frozen.

However, one day after Gates' visit and call for reform, Bahrain has ignored this advice and sought to clamp down on protesters by enlisting the help of Saudi Arabia.  On Sunday evening, the White House called for an end to violence in the country and urged the GCC forces to show restraint and to operate in a way that facilitated dialogue and not undermined it.  Other Western Governments should follow suit.

As I have said in a previous article, Middle Eastern regimes like that in Bahrain can help appease civil unrest by instituting swift constitutional and economic reforms and respecting human rights.  However, that window gets narrower the longer the violence continues.  The deployment of GCC Forces in Bahrain has raised the stakes even higher and just as the international community finally edges a little closer towards establishing a no fly zone in Libya, the region is once thrown into turmoil with multiple fires to quell with Yemen also flaring up again at the weekend.

Any crisis in Bahrain was always going to pull in foreign powers, both Western and regional. However, given the international impasse in acting on Libya and the intervention by the GCC, I cannot see how the international community and the US in particular will be able to do anything but call for restraint against protesters.  It will feel its hands are tied given the presence of the US navy - so crucial in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the strategic importance of both Bahrain and neighbouring countries.  Unlike the Libyan regime which gave little cause for support or caution in passing judgement on its practices, here Western Governments are faced with a situation where allies are locked in a battle for political dominance or even survival.  Worse still, it is a catch 22 situation as the civilian protesters may feel they are being left defenceless and the risk is that anti Saudi and anti Western feeling may erupt.  The current escalation of violence has only riled protesters, some of whom are operating without fear.  Will Bahrain's Shiite majority really be controlled by violent crackdown and intervention of a neighbouring regime whose Sunni Wahhabi religion is at odds with Shia Islam?  The Saudi Government is facing increasing dissent in its Eastern provinces – will the intervention in Bahrain divert attention from domestic problems or escalate its own problems further?   The current crisis will only embolden Islamist forces in the Gulf.

It is a rhetorical question but have the GCC and Saudi Arabia in particular really thought out current manoeuvres? What happens if Iran decides to ratchet up its own influence and play the Shia card?  If Saudi Arabian is itself destablised, unlike Bahrain, it will have no neighbour at hand to intervene (let alone the West).


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