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Bahrain: The epicentre of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry?

Article by Dr Simon Mabon

November 12, 2018

Bahrain: The epicentre of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry?

For many, the archipelago of Bahrain is at the epicentre of the geopolitical and sect-based struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Situated 16 kilometres from the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, linked by the King Fahd Causeway, and 768 kilometres from the west coast of Iran, with a Sunni minority ruling over a Shi’a majority, it is easy to see how such conclusions are reached. Bahrain’s geographic location and demographic makeup mean that political events on the island often take on additional meaning within the context of the rivalry between the island’s two more powerful neighbours.[1]

A brief glance at the country’s past reveals a history of social unrest and political upheaval, viewed anxiously by many in Manama and Riyadh. These concerns are furthered when coupled with allegations of perfidious Iranian interference across Shi’a communities in Bahrain, long viewed as 5th columnists by the Sunni ruling family. Long-standing Iranian claims to Bahrain increase fears amongst regime loyalists. In Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper with close links to the government, an editorial suggested that Bahrain remained ‘an inseparable part of Iran’, dating back to the 18th century.[2]

Whilst a history of protest in Bahrain is found far earlier than 1979, there is little doubt that revolutionary fervour in Iran had a dramatic impact on the island. In the years after the revolution, elite military units from Iran provided support to a number of organisations across the region including Hizballah in Lebanon and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, who undertook a coup d’etat in 1981. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the group’s actions and their Iranian sponsor created conditions that helped the narrative of nefarious Iranian behaviour take hold.

With the apparent rising influence of Shi’a groups across the Middle East, captured by the concept of the ‘Shi’a Crescent’,[3] many in Bahrain were concerned about the repercussions for the island’s equilibrium amidst shifting geopolitical currents. An unpublished government report documented the extent of such fears:

the marginalization of Sunnīs and the lessening of their role in Bahrain is part of a larger regional problem […] Thus there is a dangerous challenge facing Bahraini society in the increased role of the Shīʿa [and] the retreat of the role of the Sunna in the Bahraini political system; namely, the problem concerns the country’s [Bahrain’s] national security, and the likelihood of political regime change in the long term by means of the current relationships between Bahrain’s Shīʿa and all the Shīʿa in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s eastern region, and Kuwait.[4]

When protests began in February 2011, the very survival of the Al Khalifa regime appeared at stake. The protesters were initially driven by a widespread demand for greater political representation and they were quick to stress their non-sectarian nature. As the protests escalated, a regime crackdown began which featured the cultivation of a narrative that positioned Iran as the driving force of unrest.[5]

One month after protests began, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces under the guise of the Peninsular Shield Force, crossed the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain in support of the government. The force supported the regime’s crackdown on opposition movements, in an attempt to prevent increased Iranian involvement on the island, but also to prevent democratic aspirations from spreading into the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Allegations of Iranian involvement in the uprisings were later rejected by the Bassiouni Independent Commission Inquiry. Upon receiving the report, King Hamad delivered a speech asserting that Iran was responsible for “supporting anti-government protests”.[6]

The years that followed were characterized by a process that is now commonly referred to as sectarianization, the manipulation of sect-based identities in an attempt to ensure regime survival which involved widespread restriction of civil society, mass arrests of Shi’a protesters and the banning of Al Wefaq. Whilst sectarian identities were seen as a threat to political stability in Bahrain, the sectarianization process circumvented calls for political reform and ensured the loyalty of Sunnis on the island and beyond by locating events within the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with a broader meta-narrative of perfidious Iranian manipulation that runs across the Gulf.[7] Amidst a region increasingly shaped by sectarianization, events in Bahrain provide what Toby Matthiesen has called the ‘most salient’ example of the sectarianization process,[8] leaving opposition groups decimated and the Saudi-backed Al Khalifa regime in a position of supremacy.

Photo by Francisco Anzola, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East, 2013, London: I.B. Tauris

[2] Simon Mabon, ‘The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian-Saudi Rivalry’, Middle East Policy

[3] Ian Black, Fear of a Shia full moon, The Guardian, January 2007,

[4] Salah Al-Bandar, ‘Al-bah. rayn: al-khiyār al-dīmūqrātī wa āliyāt al-iqs.a’, unpublished report prepared by the Gulf Center for Democratic Development, September 2006), in Justin J. Gengler, ‘Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shi’a Problem’ in Bahrain’, Journal of Arabian Studies, 3:1, 2013

[5] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t, 2013, Stanford: Stanford University Press

[6] Joost Hilterman, and Kelly McEvers, “Barricaded in Bahrain,” The New York Review of Books (blog), December 2011,

[7] Simon Mabon, ‘The End of the Battle of Bahrain’, Middle East Journal (Forthcoming) and Sossie Kasbarian and Simon Mabon, ‘Contested spaces and sectarian narratives in post-uprising Bahrain’, Global Discourse 6:4 (2016) 677-696

[8] Toby Matthiesen, ‘Sectarianization as Securitization: Identity Politics and Counter-Revolution in Bahrain’, in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds) Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, 2017, (London: Hurst

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