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The struggle for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia is fueled by the Sunni-Shia divide. The religious conflict between the two main branches of Islam is fought by proxies. Among the different sources of instability in the Middle East, this is probably the most dangerous one. This is because Sunni and Shia Muslims cohabit in the same countries and feel the burden of this looming conflict.

Although not in the spotlight, the most blatant example is Bahrain. Despite being a small country, it’s social, political and religious landscape sums up all the contradictions and instability currently afflicting the Arabic peninsula: a Sunni minority ruling over a Shia majority (around 70% of the population), a despotic regime that survives thanks to the support of neighboring countries, a total absence of democratic participation, a systematic violation of human rights. This makes of Bahrain the umpteenth example in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It is not a coincidence that a Shia opponent based in Iran, Murtaza Sindi, has announced the start of an armed struggle last January. The message came after three Shia accused of having carried out a terrorist attack that killed three policemen in 2014 were put to death. Now that the main Shia party in Bahrain, al-Wefaq, has been disbanded, the winds of war are blowing over a precarious domestic situation and point to a new phase in the confrontation between Tehran and Ryad.

The crushing of a Spring

The regime led by Emir Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa saw a number of popular protests erupt during the Arab Spring. On February 12, 2011 a peaceful protest asking for democracy and more power for the Shia majority began. A month later, Saudi troops and policemen coming from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council crushed the protests. The 13 thousand men from the Bahraini defense forces, armed and trained by the US, were not enough to contain the revolution. Over a hundred people died, thousands were arrested to defend the reign of the al Khalifas.

The emirate still survives thanks to the oppression carried out by its security forces and outside help. In addition, the US, who have a huge military base on the island, and the UK, responsible for training and supporting the armed forces and looking forward to opening a base in the harbor of Mina Salman, are both silent.

The spiritual leader of the Shia community, ayatollah Isa Qassim, an 80 year-old man that studied in Najaf, Iraq, was stripped by government of his Bahraini nationality in June 2016 soon after al-Wefaq was banned. The official motivation is: promotion of sectarianism and violence, foreign influence (i.e. Iran), and illegal funding and money laundering. Qassim is currently on trial for these “crimes” alongside two of his aides.

Following the 2011 protests, the Secretary general of al-Wefaq, Ali Salman, was also convicted to 4 years behind bars in 2015 for “incitement to hate, public nuisance and insult to public institutions”. His sentence was increased to 9 years following his appeal. Salman was exiled by the regime in 1994 after pro-democracy demonstrations in the early 1990s, he benefited from an amnesty and returned home in 2001, where he was abused and tortured by the Bahraini security forces.

hamad bin isa al khalifa
Emir Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa

A repressive regime

The role of the internal and external opposition in Bahrain is just the tip of the iceberg of Shia dissent and the systematic repression carried out by the regime’s security forces that usually follows. The indiscriminate arrest of Shia religious leaders and politicians is the norm. And so is the recourse to torture, the shutting down of non-aligned newspapers and TV stations, the accusations of subversive activities for anyone taking the streets to protest. Since January 2017, the National Security Agency, the domestic intelligence agency that is trained and supported by the British MI-6, has been granted the authority to arrest Bahrainis “only” in cases of terrorism. It comes as no surprise that any protest in Manama is considered an act of terrorism.

Democracy has never dictated the course of events in Bahrain. Since independence in 1971, the Minister of Interior has always been the same: Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, the uncle of the present-day ruler. As in most neighboring countries, power in Bahrain has been a family affair for the past two centuries or so. Of course, at least on paper, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy. The truth is it’s an absolute one. There formally is a Council of Representatives, a lower house, elected by the people and a Consultative Council, the upper house, appointed by the ruling family. However, the elected members of the assembly have no legislative power. This means that no decision, from the judiciary to security, is taken without the consent of the ruler. Iranian influence has only made things worse and pushed the emir to seek aid from Saudi Wahabis and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Shia terrorism

The threats coming from Murtaza Sindi have to be taken seriously because they are part of Iran’s expanding influence. Several Shia militias and volunteers are fighting across the region and they might want to keep on going after ISIS is defeated. In other words, once the Sunni terrorism of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is taken out, we could witness the rise of Shia terrorism.

The Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi People’s Mobilization Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Hazara Shia volunteers coming from Afghanistan might look for new battlegrounds once the so-called Islamic State is overrun. Rumors has it that the Bahraini opposition is being trained by Shia militias. Others point to a group named “Hezbollah from Bahrain”.

After the conquest of Aleppo in December 2016, Iranian General Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards, stated that the next military targets are Yemen and Bahrain. General Qassem Suleiman, the chief of the elite Al Quds forces and the man commanding Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq, expressed the same concept in June 2016. Suleiman, who usually doesn’t talk much, said that the Bahraini opposition might take up arms and that Iran is ready to support them. He also mentioned a bloody intifada in the reign in the near future.

general Hossein Salami
General Hossein Salami

Fire under the ashes

The reign of the al Khalifas survives despite social unrest, jails filled with opposition members (over 3 thousand people, including some minors), the sealing off and military control of Shia villages, the influx of foreigners – especially Sunni Arabs – to dilute the Shia demographics, the transfer of foreign aid from the Gulf countries only to the Sunni minority, while leaving the Shias in despair. Local courts are overwhelmed and dissent is punished with no less than five years of imprisonment, the stripping of nationality and torture are also very common. But the international community pays no attention.

Bahrain’s ruler can still count on anglo-american support and on his neighbors in the Persian Gulf. After all, Bahrain doesn’t have oil of its own and has its main source of income from a Saudi well it is allowed to sell. His neighbors know that a Shia upheaval could have a domino effect, especially in Saudi Arabia where the Shia minority is concentrated in the oil producing region known as the Eastern Province.

Sunni and Shia have a hard time living together in Bahrain; mixed marriages are at their lowest and the two communities don’t live together anymore. And this is extremely dangerous. While the nascent Arab spring was suffocated in the cradle, the revolution still burns under the ashes and could, sooner or later, re-ignite.

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