Bahrain crisis could worsen Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions in the region
A Bahraini police crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, two days after Saudi Arabia sent in 1,000 troops to bolster its longtime Gulf Arab ally, will heighten Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Bahrain and beyond. At least five people were killed and hundreds wounded when police cleared demonstrators from Manama’s Pearl Square on Wednesday in an attempt to halt weeks of popular unrest.
The violence, so soon after the Saudi-led intervention, will further embarrass Washington, which had urged dialogue to tackle Bahrain’s problems and says Riyadh did not consult it before moving troops to the island where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based. That may be the case, but U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain at the weekend. To many Arabs the timing smacks of U.S. complicity in King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s decision to invite the Saudis in and declare martial law.
The decision to crush a protest movement inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia is conditioned by the sectarian factor in Bahrain, a tiny country seen by the United States and the GCC as a bulwark against the rising power of Shi’ite Iran.
Sunni Gulf rulers tend to view Shi’ites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a potential fifth column for the Islamic Republic, despite what Gulf-based political analyst Neil Partrick called the “clear Arab affinity of many of the Shi’ites of the Gulf.”
Bahraini Shi’ites have long complained of discrimination in housing and jobs, charges the government rejects. The protesters had sought to cast their movement as national, not sectarian. But amid the tumult of Middle East protests, the sectarian overtones of the Bahrain crisis find a ready echo in places like Iraq and Lebanon, where Sunni-Shi’ite tensions run high.