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Bahrain key in Sunni/Shia divide

Tiny Gulf island state looms large because of its close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain shiite protests shia sunni 2011 2 26Enlarge
Bahraini Shiite opposition leader Hassan Mashaima, left, greets anti-government protesters gathered at Pearl Square in Manama on February 26, 2011 upon his return from self-imposed exile following assurances from the Gulf kingdom that he had been pardoned of terrorism-related charges. Bahrain's protests put it at the center of the bitter divide between Sunnis and Shias in the Gulf. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In the fraught divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims of the Arab world, the tiny island state of Bahrain is the next crucible of combat.

Unprecedented pro-democracy protests there by the Shia community have had a longer reach than what would normally be the case in a country of only 738,000 for one simple reason: Bahrain’s close ties to its huge neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

The two countries are linked by a 16-mile, multi-lane causeway and by the shared commitment of their Sunni ruling royal families to remain in power. Oil-rich Riyadh also financially supports petroleum-poor Bahrain.

The two states are also determined to thwart what they regard as hegemonic attempts by Iran, which holds itself out as the champion of Shia rights, to control the Gulf region, and in particular, to extend its influence in Bahrain’s internal affairs.

“Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have an interest in Bahrain, and what happens there would reflect on the strategic balance in the Gulf region,” said Fares Braizat of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Most of Bahrain’s street demonstrators are Shia because around 70 percent of the island’s population are Shia. The engine of their protests is a long-felt political and economic marginalization by the ruling Sunni elite, including the Al Khalifa royal family.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, recent protests have had “a clear narrative of people against despotic governments,” said F. Gregory Gause III, an expert on the Gulf area at the University of Vermont. But countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that have numerically significant Shia populations allow “a sectarian element” to be easily woven into demonstrations, he added.

Bahrain is “at the forefront of this because even though there are plenty of Sunni Bahrainis who want political reform,” said Gause, “everything in Bahrain comes down to sectarian differences. So if there is more violence in Bahrain, it will definitely worsen sectarian tensions, particularly in the Gulf.”

Saudi Arabia is the most challenged by what has been happening in Bahrain. The opposition’s most oft-repeated demands more or less mean the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. If this comes to pass, it would present Saudi Arabia with an awkward example of a neighboring royal family giving up a great deal of its political control. So far, that is an example the Saudis are not inclined to follow.

Second, a more democratic system in Bahrain would naturally increase the Shia population’s political potency — a template that might embolden Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. Estimated at between 10 and 15 percent of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens, Saudi Shias live mainly in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Like their Bahraini peers, they also complain of being treated like second-class citizens.