Will Saudi Arabia intervene in Sunni-ruled Bahrain? This question emerges against the background of the protests in Bahrain with slogans “Death to Al Saud, Death to Al Khalifa,” referring to the Saudi and Bahraini royal families.
Bahraini police clashed on Friday with demonstrators who were protesting against the execution of a top Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia.
It was the latest of several protests which have turned violent since Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr a week ago, stoking outrage among Shiites in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. It is the most serious confrontation between the two countries over the last 30 years.
Especially, talking about Saudi Arabia, we should mention its eastern province with Shiite population where rivals took place during the Arab Spring. Riyadh is confident that namely Iran stands behind those rivals. The same can be said about Bahrain. The Shiite majority country ruled by Sunni regime, has also faced series of anti-government protests in which it accuses Iran.
In March 2011, when Shiite population in Bahrain started protests against the government, Saudi Arabia sent its troops to Bahrain in order to support the Sunni government there. Saudi Arabia fears that the Shiite rivals in Bahrain can also spread to this country.
That time, Saudi Arabian troops intervened in Bahrain after this country’s government asked Saudi Arabia for help.
Saudi forces crossed the border through the King Fahd Causeway, a series of bridges and causeways connecting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Meanwhile, it was a decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the general secretariat of which is located in Riyadh.
However, some oppositionists in Bahrain assessed this intervention as an occupation that time.
Bahrain is a proxy arena between Saudi Arabia and Iran
When coming to our question above, first of all we should mention that alongside with Iraq, Bahrain is of strategic importance both for Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Bahrain is a proxy arena between these two countries. The Shiite population of Bahrain has close ties with Iran, while its Sunni regime sides with Saudi Arabia.
The issue is that Iran has a traditional policy: to trigger rebels among the Shiite population of rival countries. Any time when Iran has tensions with one or other state, it calls on all Shiites to react to that. In other words, Iran is the main actor promoting solidarity among Shiites in different countries. And Saudi Arabia also has a traditional policy of oppressing Shiite rebels in the countries with which it is allied.
However, in this case, the developments will depend on the urgency of the situation. That’s to say, it depends on the continuation of this process. The case is that it is a very sensitive issue, as it is related to the execution of a Shiite cleric. If Iran supports and even more promotes these Shiite protests, if these protests grow into long-term rebels, then Saudi Arabia can again consider intervention in Bahrain to suppress the rebels.
But on the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to support the Sunni regime, can lead to increase of sympathy towards Iran among the Shiite population of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia itself.
Human rights abuse in Bahrain
Since mid-March 2011 Bahrain has been carrying out a punitive and vindictive campaign of violent repression against its own citizens, according to the Human Rights Watch.
This fierce repression has been characterized by widespread arbitrary arrests, credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, apparently coerced televised “confessions,” unfair trials, and attacks on healthcare professionals and injured protesters, as well as politically-motivated mass dismissals of workers from jobs and students from university.
The number of people killed in Bahrain may not compare to what we see in neighboring Arab states such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family has been carrying out a systematic and comprehensive crackdown to punish and intimidate government critics and to end dissent root and branch.
Since mid-March authorities have arrested well over a thousand people who participated in or were suspected of supporting the demonstrations. While some have been released, Human Rights Watch believes that at least several hundred people, and possibly many more, are still in detention, in addition to the more than 100 who have been convicted and sentenced by the special military court.
Political union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain
In May 2012, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were expected to announce a closer political union at a meeting of the six Gulf monarchies. The move was seen by Bahrain’s Shiite majority as an attempt by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family to retain their monopoly of political power.
Samira Rajab, Bahrain’s minister of information affairs, said “sovereignty will remain with each of the countries and they would remain as UN members, but they would unite in decisions regarding foreign relations, security, military and economy”.
The Bahraini opposition condemned the planned announcement, saying it would be wrong to make any deal without a referendum.
“It is not the right of the (ruling) Al-Khalifa family to decide whether Bahrain will join Saudi Arabia in any type of unity without a decision from the Bahrainis,” Mattar Ebrahim, a leading figure in the opposition Al-Wefaq party said.