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Flashpoint / Global

Bahrain

I. Why it Matters

Bahrain, close ally of Saudi Arabia, has endorsed the Trump administration’s aggressive posture against Iran. Manama’s longstanding suspicions of Iranian support for anti-government groups make Bahrain a flashpoint for regionalising an internal political struggle.

II. Recent Developments

  • 13 November 2019
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  • 5 November 2019
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  • 1 November 2019
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  • 30 October 2019
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  • 21 October 2019
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  • 13 October 2019
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  • 6 October 2019
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  • 4 October 2019
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  • 3 October 2019
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  • 28 September 2019
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  • 18 September 2019
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  • 17 September 2019
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  • 11 September 2019
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  • 3 September 2019
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  • 29 August 2019
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  • 19 August 2019
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  • 8 August 2019
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  • 31 July 2019
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  • 31 July 2019
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  • 17 July 2019
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  • 1 July 2019
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  • 30 June 2019
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  • 31 May 2019
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  • 30 May 2019
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  • 30 May 2019
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  • 19 May 2019
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  • 19 May 2019
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  • 18 May 2019
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  • 9 May 2019
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  • 3 May 2019
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  • 2 May 2019
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  • 27 April 2019
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  • 25 April 2019
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  • 23 April 2019
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  • 16 April 2019
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  • 9 April 2019
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  • 7 March 2019
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  • 27 February 2019
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  • 21 February 2019
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  • 14 February 2019
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  • 5 February 2019
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  • 29 January 2019
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  • 28 January 2019
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  • 15 January 2019
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  • 15 January 2019
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  • 11 January 2019
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  • 10 January 2019
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  • 7 January 2019
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  • 4 January 2019
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  • 6 December 2018
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  • 29 November 2018
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  • 26 November 2018
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  • 24 November 2018
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  • 20 November 2018
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  • 14 November 2018
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  • 14 November 2018
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  • 14 November 2018
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  • 13 November 2018
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  • 8 November 2018
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  • 7 November 2018
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  • 4 November 2018
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  • 1 November 2018
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  • 27 October 2018
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  • 24 October 2018
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  • 23 October 2018
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  • 23 October 2018
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  • 15 October 2018
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  • 9 October 2018
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  • 4 October 2018
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  • 29 September 2018
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  • 28 September 2018
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  • 10 September 2018
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  • 30 August 2018
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  • 13 August 2018
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  • 10 July 2018
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  • 20 June 2018
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  • 21 May 2018
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  • 10 May 2018
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  • 8 May 2018
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  • 3 March 2018
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  • 1 January 2018
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  • 11 November 2017
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III. Background

Bahrain, with nearly a population of roughly a million and a half in 2016, is the smallest nation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The island kingdom has long been a place of popular ferment, owing in part to its relatively open society and in part to the disenfranchisement of its majority-Shiite population by a Sunni monarchy. Bahrain periodically suffered sectarian-tinged trouble before 1979, but the Shiite-Sunni religious rift was not a structural feature of domestic political dynamics. This changed in the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Some elements within Shiite communities throughout the Gulf, notably in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, mobilised and radicalised; in turn, Sunni anxiety heightened. While Bahrain’s government had not pursued a specifically sectarian agenda before 1979, since then many of its practices have exacerbated sectarian differences and fears.  

The situation worsened in 1981, after Bahrain foiled an attempt by the Islamic Front, a radical Shiite organisation, to take over police stations, ministries and radio stations, allegedly with the backing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The government reacted with a wide-ranging crackdown, arresting hundreds of Islamic Front members and sympathisers, and trying and convicting dozens of them.

In the 1990s, the combination of limited civil and political rights, extensive anti-Shiite discrimination, corruption within the ruling family elite, a repressive and largely foreign-staffed security apparatus and a stagnant economy contributed to occasional clashes and unrest. Two major Shiite dissident groups emerged, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, as well as two left-wing (secular) groups. King Hamad, who succeeded his father, Emir Isa, in 1999, sought to defuse tensions, promising democratic reforms under the umbrella of his so-called National Action Charter. These included an amnesty for all political activists involved in the 1990s political unrest, resulting in the return of many exiles and facilitating the establishment of the Islamic National Accord Association (al-Wifaq) as a pan-Shiite bloc in November 2001. Yet optimism among the Shiite population slowly faded, including in 2002, when the king unilaterally promulgated a rewritten constitution that the opposition criticised for creating institutional and legal frameworks in which neither the king nor his advisors were accountable. Pent-up anger rose to the surface in 2004, with street demonstrations that took an increasingly sectarian dimension. Al-Wifaq, which had boycotted parliamentary elections in 2002, participated in both the 2006 and 2010 polls, taking seventeen and then eighteen of the national legislature’s 40 seats and asserting its status as the country's predominant Shiite group.

In 2011, taking their cue from protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, a medley of opposition groups, emergent political movements and unaffiliated youth took to the streets in Manama and surrounding towns and villages.  This was a popular much more than a Shiite revolt, uniting religious Shiites, secular Shiites and non-Shiites around a common agenda. The protesters developed a set of demands that ranged from political and constitutional reform to, for some, outright regime removal. Alarmed by the protests – which Iranian media had cheered on – Riyadh invoked a GCC common security agreement. Saudi and UAE forces deployed to Bahrain, with a mandate to guard strategic sites. Bahrain demolished the Pearl Roundabout square where the uprising had initially begun.

Despite the crackdown, protests continued near-daily in Shiite villages for several years, until the government took more aggressive steps to silence the opposition. It outlawed major opposition groups (Al-Wifaq in 2016 and the leftist National Democratic Action Society, al-Waad, in 2017) and banned their officials from contesting elections. At the same time, the government has escalated allegations – which Iran has denied – of Iranian support, training and harbouring of Bahraini dissidents. In recent years, the Bahraini military has repeatedly seized what it said were weapons and explosives shipments from Iran intended for the opposition. The Iranian media has continued to give sympathetic coverage to Bahraini demonstrators.   

Children holding signs as anti-government demonstrators listen to speeches at Pearl Square in Manama, on 20 February 2011. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

IV. Analysis

Shiite Fifth Column? As Shiites in Bahrain see it, the discrimination they suffer is the product of institutionalised government policy. During the 2011 uprising, the bulk of the protesters were Shiites (reflecting the composition of the population), but by and large their demands were not sectarian or religious: they called for substantive improvements in democracy, human rights and services. Yet the government sought to portray the uprising as a distinctly Shiite revolt inspired by Iran; it was also under pressure from other Gulf states not to let the democratic current go too far and avoid a scenario in which the Shiites would become the dominant political power, or even try to topple the regime, as had happened elsewhere in the region. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, declared in 2012 that “it is wrong to claim that Iran is involved in the events in Bahrain…. If we had interfered, circumstances would have changed in Bahrain”.

In the aftermath of the uprising and crackdown, the government oscillated between attempts at reconciliation and further repression. One example of the former was the commissioning of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which produced the Bassiouni report criticising the government’s heavy-handed approach to protests and found no “discernible link” between the protests and Iran. The government continues to regularly link Iran to attacks and suspected plots. While there is little to suggest close ties between the mainstream opposition and Iran, some marginal pockets within the anti-government camp are closer to the Islamic Republic’s ideology and may be receiving assistance – at a minimum moral and media support, although potentially of a military nature as well – from Tehran, especially from the IRGC, or from Iranian proxies.

Little Daylight with Riyadh: Bahrain is closely tied, politically as well as economically, to Saudi Arabia and its Western allies. During the 2011 protests, Saudi Arabia and the UAE dispatched forces to Bahrain under the terms of the GCC’s Joint Defence Agreement. As the International Monetary Fund warns of the kingdom’s “fiscal and external vulnerabilities”, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have stepped up efforts to support its economy. The U.S. and UK have military bases in the country, and in 2017 Washington authorised nearly $4 billion in weapons sales to Bahrain. The combination of military and economic dependence means that the Bahraini government will remain in lockstep with Iran’s regional rivals and support efforts to curtail Iranian influence, in the kingdom specifically and across the region generally.  

Iran’s Claims to Bahrain: Bahrain has expressed anxiety over occasional but long-standing Iranian claims on the island kingdom as Iranian territory. In 1957, Iran’s parliament passed a bill declaring Bahrain to be the country’s fourteenth province. A UN-administered plebiscite conducted in 1970, shortly before Bahrain gained independence in 1971, concluded that the vast majority of Bahrainis, both Sunni and Shiite, wanted Bahrain to remain an independent Arab state. Although Iran formally accepted this outcome, Iranian officials, diplomats and journalists periodically raise the issue, causing considerable Bahraini (and GCC) irritation.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo meeting with Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, at the U.S. Department of State, on 3 October 2018. U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT

V. Scenarios and Recommendations

All Roads Are Said to Lead to Tehran: Bahraini authorities would likely point the finger at Tehran in the event of any attack or alleged plot in the kingdom, such as a bombing or arms seizure. Saudi Arabia and the U.S., both of which are inclined to see an Iranian hand behind any incident targeting an ally, can be expected to join in the condemnation. For its part, Iran might choose to retaliate against the economic warfare that the U.S. and its allies in the region are waging against it by focusing on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s backyard and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, where it may sense an opportunity to deepen existing fault lines and foment instability at little cost. In the absence of genuine political reform and a redress of sectarian discrimination, local opposition based on domestic grievances will continue to simmer, providing an opportunity for Iran to exploit the sectarian rift.  

The Clerical Conundrum: The condition of Sheikh Isa Qasem, Al-Wifaq’s spiritual leader, is a potential political time bomb. Qasem is ideologically closer to the paramount Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf than to Iran’s clerical leadership. In July 2018 Bahraini authorities permitted Qasem, who had been under house arrest and in declining health, to visit the UK for treatment; he remains in London but has said he intends to return to Bahrain. Qasem’s fate will remain a point of sensitivity between the government and Bahrain’s Shiite population, as well as between Manama and Tehran; a perception of government maltreatment of the aging cleric could inflame tensions.