Battle for Bahrain: What One Uprising Meant for the Gulf States and Iran

After the popular uprisings that struck in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the surviving Middle East monarchies have come under heavy criticism in the West. Many believe it is only a matter of time until they are next. The conventional wisdom in the West is that this revolutionary change in the Middle East must be a positive thing. Popular demands for political freedom are viewed as part of the inevitable march of progress. Another implicit assumption in the West is that the monarchies, like the corrupt autocrats who have fallen, lack popular support.

But the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies of the Middle East—Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—do enjoy some degree of legitimacy, a product of shared religion and years of distributing oil wealth and patronage to the population through extensive bonds of kinship. Many of the GCC monarchs took swift preemptive action to shore up their legitimacy with handouts while at the same time forcefully repressing dissent. The GCC also distributed a share of its combined oil wealth to both Oman and Bahrain (without enough petroleum wealth of their own to hand out) during the height of the unrest in March 2011. What’s more, there has been important and notable incremental social reform in the Gulf states, although the pace and direction of change is viewed as too slow and piecemeal for the West. 

For their part, GCC monarchs, and the Saudis in particular, see the ghost of Ayatollah Khomeini in the events that took place in Bahrain in February and March 2011. They believe that Iran has attempted to exploit the initial popular unrest in Bahrain and, using the cover of the uprisings elsewhere, subvert the Sunni al-Khalifa family’s grip on power in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.

In addition to Bahrain’s large Shiite population, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all possess significant Shiite minorities. Saudi officials are conscious of the memory of the November 28, 1979, “Intifada of Muharram 1400,” when approximately ninety thousand Shia gathered in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on Ashura. The Shiite protesters in Saudi Arabia held posters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s image and carried placards with anti-Saudi slogans. Violent riots erupted when Saudi security forces attempted to break up the demonstrations, which lasted for three days. There were also strong links between these Shiite activists and Bahrain’s Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), led by Hadi al-Mudarrisi, who claimed to be Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative in Bahrain in 1979. In 1981, an Iranian-backed IFLB plot to overthrow the al-Khalifa in Bahrain was foiled by state security forces. This recent history, when added to the revival of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric, is exactly why Sunni rulers suspect the hand of Iran behind Shiite anti-regime activity in their states.

The Saudis and their neighboring Sunni Arab rulers along the Gulf littoral are now responding to what they see as the challenge of Iran as much as to last year’s events in Tahrir Square. A renewed security competition between the Sunni Arab rulers and Iran seems to be coalescing in the Gulf in the absence of a strong Iraq, which historically provided the balance to Iran’s power. During a recent appearance on Al Jazeera television, Abdulkhaliq Abdallah, a professor of political science at UAE University, noted that in contrast to the 1990s, “Iraq’s absence affects the security balance” and gives Iran a disproportionate amount of influence in the region. Abdallah emphasized that “the existence of a weak Iraq and a strong Iran is a serious and huge imbalance in the security equation and this does not reassure us at all.”


Bahrain’s Sunni ruling al-Khalifa family and the neighboring Sunni ruling dynasties have also blamed Iran for inciting the popular unrest that erupted in Bahrain last year just days after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt on February 11th. Indeed, the al-Khalifa suggested that contacts between leading Shiite opposition figures and Al-Alam (Iran’s Arabic-language satellite television station), Al-Manar (Hezbollah’s Lebanon-based Arabic-language satellite television station), and other Shiite, Lebanese-based news outlets were evidence of Iranian incitement and collusion in the protests that gripped Bahrain from mid-February to mid-March.

The popular uprising in Bahrain, which began with a “day of rage” on February 14th, was organized on Facebook by Bahrain’s youth and inspired by the mass movements that brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The Bahraini youth who camped in the iconic Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, were not calling for an end to Sunni al-Khalifa rule; instead, their major goal was to turn the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, similar to how they mistakenly viewed Morocco. 

Popular opposition to Bahrain’s governing family stems from what is perceived to be widespread institutional discrimination against the Shiite majority by the ruling Sunni minority. The main opposition parties in Bahrain have claimed they did not want an Iranian-style vilayet-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) government. The opposition wanted to see the government end sectarian gerrymandering, which artificially limits Shiite representation, and what is believed to be a government practice of granting citizenship to non-Arabic-speaking Sunni Pakistanis who serve in the Bahraini security forces.

These issues erupted in the streets of Manama on February 14th and continued through Saturday morning, February 19th, until the military abruptly withdrew its forces in the early afternoon, allowing the protesters to reclaim the Pearl Roundabout. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa appeared on television calling for calm and promising a national dialogue. However, preliminary attempts to open a dialogue between opposition political societies and Prince Salman went nowhere.

On February 26th, a leading Shiite opposition figure, Hassan Mushaima, returned to Bahrain from self-exile in London and, despite the announcement that four Sunni government ministers would be replaced, thousands of protesters carrying red-and-white national flags and chanting anti-government slogans marched from Pearl Roundabout into Manama’s government and business district. Mushaima, speaking in front of a large crowd at Pearl Roundabout, told protesters that a national dialogue was not enough for the opposition and, using language of Shiite martyrdom, praised those who had been killed in the protests: “You have seen our brave brothers who have opened their chests to the military, those who are willing to die in the name of God—God will
promise them victory.”

The al-Khalifa response to the protesters flip-flopped between appeasement and force, which some say indicated the division in the ruling family between the reform-minded King Hamad, who assumed power in 1999, and his uncle, Prince Khalifa, the country’s conservative prime minister since 1971.

The al-Khalifa suspicions of an Iranian hand in the Bahraini political standoff were aroused when Mushaima, a member of the hard-line al-Haq political society, told the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar that Iran would intervene to back the Bahraini opposition if the Saudis intervened to support the ruling family. In fact, Mushaima had expressed similar sentiments the week before, while he was still in exile in London, during a television appearance on the Iranian satellite television station Al-Alam.

On March 3rd, the Bahraini opposition announced it was ready to begin a meaningful dialogue with Prince Salman based on four conditions it presented to the government. These conditions included abolishing the 2002 Constitution, the election of a constitutional assembly to draft a new basic law, and, the most controversial demand, that Prime Minister Khalifa step down from his post of four decades.

Later that day, the first violent Shia-Sunni clashes erupted in the town of Hamad, south of the capital. The clashes involved hundreds, and police fired tear gas to break up the crowds. This violence was followed by a significant escalation in demands for change from Bahrain’s hard-line Shiite political groups. Hassan Mushaima led three Shiite groups (al-Haq, al-Wafa, and Bahrain Freedom Movement) into a “Coalition for a Republic,” which declared its intention to end the al-Khalifa rule. Al-Wifaq, the largest Shiite political bloc, still favored a more moderate political agenda that called for a constitutional monarchy, but Mushaima’s call for a republican system in place of the monarchy dramatically raised the stakes in the opposition’s ongoing struggle with the regime.

Following the first eruption of Sunni-Shia violence in Bahrain, GCC leaders, who were closely observing the developments there, began to take more aggressive steps to support the ruling family. They also seemed to share the perception that Hassan Mushaima’s demand for a republic in Bahrain was the work of Iran. On March 10th, the GCC foreign ministers announced a ten-year, $20 billion pledge to the governments of Bahrain and Oman to support socioeconomic development and issued a statement alluding to the GCC’s suspicions that Iran was meddling with the Bahraini opposition: “The Ministerial Council (Foreign Ministers) of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) today confirmed that its countries and peoples categorically reject any foreign attempt to intervene in their internal affairs, announcing that it would instead face with firmness and decisiveness whoever try to tamper with their security and interests or spread the seeds of rift and sedition among their peoples.”   

The regime took a more aggressive posture toward the protesters. On March 13th, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of protestors who had barricaded the section of King Faisal Highway in Manama that leads into the city’s financial district, blocking traffic into the area. Security forces also surrounded the Pearl Roundabout and attempted to clear out protestors by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the tent compound, but thousands of protesters rushed into the area and held the ground.

The next day, at King Hamad’s request, Saudi military-transport vehicles carrying more than one thousand troops from the GCC’s joint Peninsula Shield task force crossed the causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to support the al-Khalifa security forces. A coalition of the opposition groups issued a statement saying, “We consider that any military force or military equipment crossing the boundaries of Bahrain from air, sea, or land an occupation and a conspiracy against the people of Bahrain . . . [which] threatens them with an undeclared war by armed troops.”

The hard-line Bahraini prime minister, Prince Khalifa, also issued several statements, claiming, “What we are witnessing in Manama is no peaceful protest, it’s wanton, gangster-style takeover of people’s lives.” In the days that followed the GCC’s military force entering Bahrain in a demonstration of support for the al-Khalifa, King Hamad declared a three-month state of emergency, imposed martial law, and instituted a twelve-hour curfew.

In the weeks that followed, the state began a slow, methodical consolidation of control over the Bahraini population while it searched for a quiet way to compromise with some of the central demands from the moderate opposition. In the meantime, a regional war of words erupted in response to the GCC intervention and the regime’s crackdown in Bahrain that exposed deep hostility between Iran and its GCC neighbors.


Just days before GCC troops entered Bahrain, the Saudi daily newspaper Al Jazirah published a weeklong series of articles titled “Safavid Iran’s plans for the destruction of the Gulf States,” the modifier alluding to the period between 1501 and 1722 when Iran became a Shiite empire and exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. The series described a sophisticated Iranian scheme to exploit the anarchy in Bahrain to realize its regional ambitions, which include the annexation of Bahrain into the Islamic Republic. In other words, the Saudis feared that Iran would infiltrate Bahrain in the same way it extended its influence into Iraq and Lebanon.

It is true that the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic maneuvering became much more aggressive the day after GCC forces entered Bahrain. On March 14th, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to express his concern regarding the foreign forces that entered Bahrain. On March 17th, Salehi followed up with formal letters to the UN Secretary General, the Organization of Islamic
Cooperation, and the Arab League.

In Iran itself, the influential Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan published a statement endorsed by two hundred and fifty-seven members of the Iranian Parliament. The statement attacked the legitimacy of the Saudi regime: “The efforts of America and the sending of forces by the rulers of Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, the staining of the hands of these rulers with the blood of innocents of Bahrain not only will not suppress the will of the people of Bahrain, the bloody intervention in Bahrain by Saudi Arabia will have dangerous consequences for the illegitimate rulers of the Saudi regime.”

In early April, Kuwait announced that it had uncovered eight separate Iranian spy networks operating in Kuwait, two of which were armed. Kuwaiti officials said that three members of the networks who had worked for the Kuwaiti army were sentenced to death, including two Kuwaitis and one Iranian. The government also announced that three Iranian diplomats who were believed to have been involved in the networks were expelled from the country. Kuwait’s aggressive response toward Iran is a significant change from recent years; it represents a return to the early years of the Iran-Iraq War, when Iran attacked Kuwait by targeting Kuwaiti economic infrastructure, the US and French Embassies, and even the emir.  

Speaking at a press conference in early April, Iran’s foreign minister responded to the GCC statement by saying that Iran’s policy was non-interference. He then appeared to warn Riyadh, saying, “Saudi Arabia is following the wrong path and its action will have severe consequences.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, responded by saying that it was regrettable that Tehran’s policy continues to “violate their [GCC states’] sovereignty and independence in a way that contradicts all international conventions and laws, and the principles of legitimacy.”

The rhetorical fireworks showed that something profound was afoot. As Ghassan Charbel, editor in chief for the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, observed at the time, aggressiveness and impetuosity are not usually hallmarks of GCC foreign policy behavior, which is “usually based on keeping crises silent, avoiding condemnations and accusations, attempting to contain conflicts behind closed doors, and overly adopting silence, patience, and openness.” Unlike in Iraq, where the GCC was unwilling to openly confront Iran on its political entrenchment, the Gulf leaders were drawing a red line on the issue of Bahrain, and acting in what they perceived to be the defense of their sovereignty and the unity of their peoples.


The popular uprising in Bahrain, which the GCC has sought to depict as orchestrated by Iran and Hezbollah, shows how deeply member countries fear Iran’s bid to establish revolutionary Shiite ascendancy in the Gulf. The GCC states view the events in Bahrain as confirming their suspicion that Iran is engaged in a sophisticated strategy of subversion—waged through propaganda and financial and logistical support—via the Shiite communities residing in the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. The GCC also fears Iran’s expanding conventional military capabilities, and, more seriously, Iran’s quest to create a nuclear weapons capability. It is this potential nuclear capability that worries the GCC states most because it would decisively alter the regional balance of power and make Iran a potential Persian Gulf hegemon.

Tehran appears to be pursuing a strategy that combines a nuclear dimension with asymmetric military capabilities, which would allow it to project power while it develops the strong, technologically advanced ground forces it currently lacks. Iran’s rapidly advancing ballistic missile capability, combined with shorter-range cruise missiles and artillery rockets, gives it several ways to strike the Gulf states’ vital hydrocarbon assets—the lifeline of their economies and, therefore, to a certain extent, their regimes.

Iran’s emphasis on ballistic missiles is a product of its lack of airpower and its experience during the “war of the cities” phases of the Iran-Iraq War. The worst period lasted for fifty-two days, between February and May 1988, when Iraqi bombardment resulted in sixteen thousand civilian casualties and more than a million Tehran residents forced from their homes. The traumatic experience, combined with the UN’s silence when Iraq employed chemical weapons in Kurdistan, convinced Iran that it could only rely on its own capabilities for its defense. From then on, establishing an indigenous ballistic missile industry became a top priority for the regime, which also noted that in the 1990–91 Gulf War ballistic missiles extended Iraq’s strategic reach against coalition forces because they were extremely difficult to detect and destroy. It was a lesson well learned. The GCC fear of Iranian ballistic missiles was articulated by a Saudi official speaking with the assistant to the president for US Homeland Security in 2006, when he said that he “can take preventative measures against terrorism but not against Iranian missiles.”

Some in Iran argue for a balance of security in the Gulf, rather than a balance of power, proposing to trade stability in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere for a US military withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. (In addition to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, the US also has military facilities in Qatar and Kuwait.) The GCC states view a security trade between Iran and the US as coming at their expense, and, perhaps more importantly, say that such a potential development would indicate tacit US acceptance of Iranian hegemony in the Gulf.

But ultimately the argument that Iran is merely seeking a balance of security in the Persian Gulf is belied most dramatically by its nuclear program. The GCC states clearly understand that Iranian nuclear superiority in the Persian Gulf would make it likely that the GCC would develop its own nuclear deterrent. In a speech at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research on March 21st, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal asked, “Why not seek to turn the GCC into a grouping like the European Union? Why not have one unified Gulf army? Why not have a nuclear deterrent with which to face Iran—should international efforts fail to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons . . . ?” Prince Turki has since pursued this idea through conversations in the international community, including at a private meeting of NATO officials at Britain’s Molesworth air base in June.


Since its inception in 1981, the GCC has attempted to avoid direct confrontation with its larger neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Throughout the 1980s, the GCC tilted toward Iraq, but hardly presented a unified front in the Iran-Iraq War. The UAE and Oman, in particular, have historically had different relations with Iran than Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Even within the UAE, the various emirates have had different levels of political, cultural, and trade relations with Tehran. And Oman has historically played an important role mediating between Iran and some of the other GCC states. Yet WikiLeaks documents suggest that even within the Omani establishment the military and diplomatic institutions view Iran very differently.

Qatar has created an important regional diplomatic role for itself during the last ten years, and does attempt to escape the Saudi shadow, but it is unlikely to openly oppose GCC consensus. Kuwait, which has a large and politically robust Shiite population, has historically pursued an independent foreign policy that tries to play Iran against Iraq and balance between the two. Yet since the spring of 2011, Kuwait has appeared more openly and consistently critical of Iranian “interference.”

Statements throughout April and May 2011 from key GCC officials suggest that they feel that Iran will exploit any weakness in the Gulf regimes to promote Shiite ascendancy and increase its power at expense of the Sunni rulers in the region. The monarchies see Iran as attempting to turn the Arab uprisings into another Iranian revolution. This prompted the unprecedented GCC military coordination in support of the al-Khalifa dynasty, which was the first time there was a GCC mandate to deploy force in what it perceived as a confrontation with Iran.

Whether its leaders can overcome their own historical disputes and differences and build a more functional military alliance will ultimately determine the direction of the future development of the Gulf Cooperation Council. At the close of the thirty-second annual GCC summit, Saudi King Abdullah called his fellow members “to move beyond the stage of cooperation” to the stage of “union.” The king’s statements suggest the Saudis are working to build consensus within the group to begin moving toward a more robust union that aspires to add a more powerful and integrated military capability to meet Iran’s challenge in the Persian Gulf. Speaking at the International Symposium on Air Defense in Jeddah on April 18th, Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, deputy minister for defense and aviation, told his international guests that “the global and regional developments and change in the balance of power around us demand from us to acquire all forms of power and develop our fighting capabilities . . . in order to make our armed forces well prepared to carry out its mission in a highly professional manner.”

The GCC’s attempt to build consensus for a stronger union and a stronger joint military capability may also be linked to Washington’s response to the crisis in Bahrain and its withdrawal from Iraq. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized Bahrain’s mid-March crackdown on the opposition as “alarming” and President Obama publicly called for King Hamad to use “maximum restraint.” This perceived lack of support, particularly coming on the heels of events in Egypt, may have left GCC leaders feeling that the US is an unreliable security partner. Khalid Abu al-Aynayn, a former UAE air force commander, articulated the prevailing perception among the Sunni rulers in the Gulf when he said, “The GCC is supporting Bahrain, and they were not happy at all with the European and American attitude. . . . They think it’s a matter of a civil movement, a matter of democracy. . . . What’s going on in Bahrain is much beyond our Western allies to understand it. It is a complete conspiracy of the Iranians in the region.” 

Brandon Friedman is a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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