Along with ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Bahrain is in its second year of a Shiite uprising against the Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy. Bahrain’s Shiites, who make up roughly 70% of the island’s 1.2 million inhabitants, are openly seeking greater political representation, equality, reforms, the fall of the King, and the ousting of foreign mercenaries from the country. However, unlike other conflicts, Bahrain has received little international media attention, despite it being the home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and its strategic location to Iran. That said, the issue of the upcoming Formula One race in the Kingdom on April 20 offers the opposition a chance to focus international attention on their stated plight, which has become part of the larger and bloody power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East.
The unrest in Bahrain has much to do with historical and transnational disputes, but most specifically – the perceived political and social repression of the country’s Shiites by the Sunni monarchy. To that point, Gulf Arab states, led by the Saudis, view the possibility of a Shiite takeover in Bahrain – one which would surely benefit arch rival Iran – as a threat to their national interests and to regional security in the vitally strategic Persian Gulf. Thus, they are keen to maintain a Sunni regime in Bahrain and are willing to intervene militarily to do so. The Iranians however, view the two-century-old Khalifa monarchy as an oppressor of Shiites and a vanguard against Shiite ascension in the region. However, unlike the Saudis, the Iranians have yet to take direct action in Bahrain other than offering political and moral support for their Shiite brethren. For the aforementioned reasons, soon after Shiite protests broke out last year, the monarchy was quick to request a Saudi military intervention on the island, and the Saudis gladly accepted the offer.
Since thousands of Saudi soldiers entered the Kingdom last year, the Shiite opposition has been unable to budge the monarchy and the immediate threat to the regime has been lifted. Therefore, the monarchy insisted that the famed Formula One event be held in the country, given their ability to better contain the widespread protests and riots. The Formula One race has become a source of pride for the Khalifa regime, as it places Bahrain on the international stage and offers a platform to showcase the country’s economic successes. However, the country’s Shiites view the event as grossly inappropriate given the ongoing government clampdown, and are adamant to pressure, both politically and physically, to cancel it. Moreover, after a year of protests, Bahrain’s leaders are likely still intent on going through with the event despite the security precautions needed, as their economy could surely use the revenue, plus some positive press. Therefore, unlike last year, where violence forced the cancellation of the internationally recognized race, this year’s event is still on. The decision by international teams and Formula One to go ahead with the mega event in the face of fierce opposition and ongoing clashes has enraged Bahraini Shiites.
More importantly, however, the coming race highlights a long-term problem for Bahrain. After turning the protests into a campaign to oust the al-Khalifa regime – a regime many Shiites view as illegitimate – they have left little room for compromise. For the government’s part, the Saudi intervention, combined with Sunni angst of possible Shiite gains within Bahrain, has left little room for compromises on their part as well. Furthermore, their inability to seriously pressure the regime – much to the credit of Saudi military support – more militant factions within the opposition have intensified their attacks on security forces in recent weeks. Other than an increase in bombings, Molotov cocktail ambushes and rock throwing routinely accompany daily protests against Sunni security forces – paid mercenaries who are dispatched to Shiite villages throughout the country. But at the moment, the opposition remains nowhere near ousting the regime, or even threatening its stability – let alone cancelling the upcoming race.
In the end, the Formula One event is bringing about some extra attention towards the tiny, albeit strategic island. However, that attention is likely only temporary. Either way, Shiites will continue to press for a change of government or greater representation in Bahrain and will likely intensify their campaign even more in the immediate term. For their part, the Sunni minority – headed by the Khalifa family and backed by Sunni Arabs throughout the Middle East – are likely to control the island for as long as the Saudis remain committed to prohibiting a Shiite state on their eastern border. Nevertheless, Bahrain, like other conflict-ridden parts of the region, is set for a prolonged period of sectarian unrest even after international attention leaves the island along with the Formula One.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East