Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bahrain: Ground Zero for the Sunni Shiite Conflict?

Bahrain - an epicenter of Sunni-Shia conflict
While it may have not gotten the same publicity as the ongoing nuclear crisis with Iran, in the country of Bahrain the Sunni-Shiite conflict continues to boil.  Bahrain is a small island kingdom of about 500,000 people in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia, and is ruled by a hereditary Sunni monarchy headed by the al-Khalifa  family.  Sunnis comprise only 30% of the population though, while Shiites compose the remaining 70%.  Due to the al-Khalifas grip on power, the best jobs and economic benefits generally flow to the minority Sunni population, while the Shiites are largely marginalized by the regime.

As those familiar with events in the Middle East may recall, in 2011 a revolt against the Sunni monarchy erupted, lead almost entirely by the majority Shiite population.  The revolt was eventually crushed by the government, and troops from Saudi Arabia even crossed over into Bahrain to assist their fellow Gulf Sunni monarch.  Since that time, an uneasy peace has prevailed in Bahrain, although tensions between the Sunni and Shiite communities has remained high.

Saudi troops roll into Bahrain in 2011 to help crush Shiite revolt

Bahrain has also emerged as a focal point of the broader Sunni Shiite conflict in the Middle East, especially that between the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran.  At various points, the Iranians have claimed that Bahrain is actually a province of their country, and the Saudis have frequently accused the Iranians of stoking tensions in Bahrain in that country.  The dispute has just erupted again, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain openly discussing the possibility of a formal union between their two countries, which in practice means that the Saudis would effectively annex Bahrain.  As an article from the BBC notes, the Iranians have responded angrily to this suggestion:
Earlier this week, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani was quoted by the official Irna news agency as saying: "If Bahrain is supposed to be integrated into another country, it must be Iran and not Saudi Arabia."
As the dispute over Iran's nuclear program continues, Bahrain has become a microcosm of how events in the Middle East are increasingly influenced by Sunni Shiite conflict in the region.  Here is the full BBC update on the proposed Saudi-Bahraini union.

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