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February 17, 2011 | 2058 GMT
Analyst Kamran Bokhari explains how the sectarian-driven civil unrest in Bahrain could serve as a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
After Egypt, Bahrain has become the most significant place where street agitation is taking place in the Middle East. Bahrain is significant because it is the only wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country where we are seeing mass protests and a government crackdown. The country being a proxy battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran makes it even more significant.
Pro-democracy street agitation is not a stranger to Bahrain. There have been such protests, going as far back as the early 1990s, with the opposition forces demanding that the monarchy make room for a more constitutional framework and a much more democratic polity. So, what is happening is not entirely new. What makes this significant — this latest round of unrest — is that it comes in the context of the overall regional unrest that started in Tunisia and moved to Egypt (in both Tunisia and Egypt we saw the fall of the sitting presidents). What makes this even more significant is that in Bahrain you have a sectarian dynamic; the country is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that presides of an overwhelmingly large Shiite population, estimated to be about 70 percent of the country’s total population.
It’s not just the sectarian dynamic that makes the protests significant in Bahrain. There is also a wider geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been going on for several decades and, more recently, since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been very worried about Iranian attempts to project power across the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Peninsula. And with Bahrain having a heavy Shiite population, this is a cause for concern in Saudi Arabia, as Saudi Arabia is neighbors with Bahrain and has its own 20 percent Shiite population.
From the point of view of the United States, Bahrain is also significant because it is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. The 5th Fleet is one of the key levers that serve as a counter to Iran, or any movement on the part of Iran. It is not clear at this point to what degree Iran is involved in the uprising Bahrain. There are linkages, but to what degree Iran is playing those linkages is not clear at this point. Nonetheless, it is one of those flashpoints between Shiite Iran and the largely Sunni Arab world, and Bahrain is going to be very interesting in terms of how both sides battle it out in the form of a proxy contest.
Should Bahrain succumb to unrest and the monarchy has to concede to the demands of the protesters at some point in the future, this becomes a huge concern for the security of countries like Saudi Arabia, particularly where there is a 20 percent Shiite population that has been keeping quiet for the most part, but could be emboldened, based on what they have seen in Egypt and now what they are looking at in terms of Bahrain.
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