December 19, 2007

The Persian Gulf: Rising Shia and Uneasy Sunnis


December 19, 2007 21 26 GMT


Hundreds of Shia clashed with riot police in Bahrain on Dec. 18 in the latest unrest in a series of such incidents this year. Meanwhile, Saudi authorities announced Dec. 18 that they are studying the grievances of the kingdom's Shiite minority. These events are a stark reminder to the Persian Gulf countries that, despite recent moves to engage Iran positively, Tehran's ability to influence their Shiite populations remains a serious threat to their internal stability.


Hundreds of Shia clashed with riot police on the outskirts of Manama, Bahrain, on Dec. 18. The clashes followed the funeral of a protester killed a day earlier after a Shiite rally to commemorate the sectarian groups' violent political upheaval in Bahrain during the 1990s.

Since the beginning of this year, dozens of riots have taken place in Shiite villages across the country, most of them unreported by the tightly controlled local media. The latest tensions reportedly have been over land, which the government has been reclaiming at the expense of the Shiite fishermen.

These recent developments will increase ruling Sunni elite's long-standing suspicions of neighboring Iran's role in fomenting dissent among Bahraini Shia. Bahrain's Shia, who constitute the majority of the population, have long felt disenfranchised by Manama's discriminatory policies. The latest incident will no doubt serve as a stark reminder to Bahrain's royal family of the potential for sectarian instability should Iran choose to support Bahrain's Shia as it has done before.

Saudi Arabia is also worried about the possibility of unrest instigated by Iran in its oil-rich Eastern province, the home to the kingdom's minority Shia -- and its oil wealth. Riyadh seems to have begun taking measures to ensure that such unrest does not disrupt the booming Saudi oil-based economy. The latest announcement by the Saudi authorities Dec. 18 that a government delegation will listen to the grievances of the kingdom's Shiite minority is a move to pre-empt any such uprising. According to an Agence France-Presse report, the head of the commission, a Saudi minister, acknowledged that Shia "often suffer from discrimination in the judicial field" -- the first senior Saudi official to make such an admission. In April, King Abdullah warned Saudis against sectarian frictions, which he said threatened the unity and security of the kingdom.

Until recently, the Gulf Arab states could count on the United States working with them to contain the rise of Iran. Emerging signs of an understanding between Tehran and Washington over Iraq, however, mean the United States could reduce its military presence in the region in the not-so-distant future. The Arab states know that if and when that day comes, they will have to live with an emergent Iran and and empowered Shia in Iraq.

Despite recent efforts on the part of the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries to engage Iran in a positive manner, countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remain only too aware of Iran's increasing ability to inflame internal sectarian tensions in their countries as its influence continues to rise in the region vis-a-vis Iraq.

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