Further Bahrain Unrest Would Be Saudi Arabia's Worst Nightmare

Yesterday, King Hamad of Bahrain announced the formation of a board of inquiry to examine a very critical report concerning the brutal crackdown by Bahraini security forces on demonstrators in late February. Hamad had hoped to achieve some national closure on the issue. However, following the publishing of the actual report earlier this week, demonstrators, nearly all of them Bahraini Shi'a, took to the streets of Bahrain, burning tires and throwing stones at police – an indication that little has changed and that such scenes will become increasingly frequent, even possibly more violent.

For Saudi Arabia, this is a worrying development because the destabilization or fall of the Bahraini monarchy would be its nightmare scenario. This would empower the Saudi Shi'a population, leading to an open challenge to the hegemony of Saudi rule of its Eastern Province, threatening the national economy and ensuring a collision course with Iran over the ensuing military crackdown.  

The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which borders Bahrain, is home to Saudi ARAMCO, heavy industrial complexes, and, critically, the majority of its onshore and offshore oil and gas facilities upon which the Saudi state depends. Projected 2011 Saudi oil and gas revenues are expected to exceed $320 billion, with the vast majority of this income deriving from Eastern Province oil fields. However, the province is also home to Saudi Arabia’s disenfranchised Shi'a population, long oppressed by the Wahhabi state as heretics for their beliefs, forming 10-15% of the population. Shi'as are increasingly frustrated by the Kingdom’s consistent unequal treatment of them, from access to social programs, housing, or jobs. The events in Bahrain have the Saudi government nervously eyeing the Eastern Province and quelling unrest by employing short- and long-term solutions, including encouraging immigration from southern (Sunni) Saudi Arabia to the province. 

Economically, should Bahrain experience further unrest, Saudi Arabia could become engulfed in similar Shi'a-led uprisings. Unrest in the Eastern Province would majorly disrupt oil exports, thereby drastically cutting income as production slowed – disastrous for a country wholly dependent on hydrocarbon revenue. For a rentier state like Saudi Arabia, even short term loss of Eastern Province production would be catastrophic, forcing it to use its reserves to cover basic spending, unnecessarily weakening the country. Additionally, expatriates drawn to the Kingdom by high tax-free salaries would evacuate, leaving critical companies like ARAMCO in serious lack of qualified senior engineers, instructors, and managers. An economy broadly based on foreign expertise would be severely disrupted.

On a political level, the repression of such an uprising would undoubtedly be brutal. This would force the U.S. to critique and distance itself from its long-term ally, isolating Saudi further and making it internally compromise with the religious establishment and curtail promised reforms to stabilize the state. It would also lead to a stricter Wahabbi doctrine being enforced, especially in the relatively relaxed Eastern Province, as the Kingdom attempted to reassert control. 

Finally, Iran would be on a collision course with Saudi Arabia, as relations already near breaking would be further strained. Iran takes a particular interest in the fate of their fellow Shi'a in Saudi Arabia, an interest that occasionally borders on outright interference. With potential Shi'a-led unrest, Iran would certainly increase pressure, mainly through its media, on Saudi. The antagonism has already begun in recent weeks, with Saudi Arabia blaming a “foreign country” for the frequent unrest that has marked the Eastern province’s Shi'a stronghold of Qatif. Indeed, the eventual end game could destabilize this sensitive region.

Therefore, the nightmare for Saudi Arabia is a Bahrain-inspired, Shi'a-led popular uprising in the Eastern Province, necessitating a military crackdown and ensuring international condemnation. Moreover, it would threaten not only its socio-economic stability, but also its political influence in the region. The renewed threat of Iran would also arise – the number one foreign concern for Saudi Arabia – invariably leading to greater confrontation, putting the U.S. and other Western nations dangerously close to military intervention in the Persian Gulf. In short, Saudi Arabia needs Bahrain to stabilize, so as not to be dragged down into its deepest nightmare scenario of socio-economic crisis and political unrest.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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