Geopolitics

Jasmine Revolution: Make or Break in Bahrain?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Mar , 2011

A coup against the Al Khalifa regime resulted in the expulsion of many Shia dissidents. Allegedly, those who participated in the coup were armed and trained by Iran. Even though Shia Muslims constitute 70 per cent of the population, they are severely under-represented in the Armed Forces. There have been resentments at subterranean levels over the perceived socio-religious discrimination amongst the Shia population. The government has tried to bridge the Shia-Sunni cleavage by appointing Shias to a number of ministries and senior civil-service posts, although generally not in security related positions.

Formation of GCC

The discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932, caused the economic, social and geo-political metamorphosis of that part of the Gulf Region, which today constitutes the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It was oil, which was responsible for setting geographical limits of each of these countries. Until the discovery of oil, these states were without fixed frontiers and boundaries in which various Arab tribes felt loyalty to the tribe or Sheikh and roamed across the Arabian Desert according to the needs of their flock. Organised authority was confined to ports and oases. The tribal chiefs i.e. the Sheikhs are the present day rulers of these relatively nascent countries.

Historically, Britain exercised a protectorate over each of these states. It only abandoned its protectorate commitments in 1971. The British connection still endures in the form of institutions and military ties. The Bedouin mooring of these countries is rather strong and is evidenced in their dress, customs, and most importantly political institutions. The countries combined with Saudi Arabia to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981.

Role of Islam in GCC

Even though Islam plays a dominant role in each of the Sheikhdoms, it provides only a tenuous unifying link. These countries represent a collage of various shades of Islam. While Kuwait and Bahrain are characterised by a greater secular influence than the other states, the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni sect prevails in Qatar. Bahrain has a majority population of Shias and the people of Oman represent primarily a minor sect within Shia Islam, the Ibadi.

The US Factor in the Gulf

After World War II due to severe economic constraints, Britain had to bequeath many of its strategic interests to the US. In 1968, the British Government announced that it would renounce its military commitments east of Suez including the Sheikdoms, by 1971.

The sincerity of the West, particularly the US, with regard to the “˜Jasmine Revolution is on test in Bahrain and by extension to Saudi Arabia.

The British disengagement from the area created a security vacuum for the smaller Gulf States. Kuwait, riding high on economic success because of its booming oil industry, had declared independence in 1961, but realised its vulnerability when it was militarily threatened by Iraq, which laid claim to the entire country. The other smaller Gulf States also became extremely apprehensive regarding their independent status after British withdrawal. It was under these unsettling circumstances that Bahrain and Qatar declared their independence in 1971, and the former seven Trucial Coast States i.e. Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn joined together to form an independent state, the ‘United Arab Emirates’.

These little Sheikhdoms realised that they had very little viability to exist as a country on their own. The only country that had remained independent all through, since 1650, was Oman. The British had been closely involved in Oman since the middle of the 19th century, but were under no official obligation to defend it.

Security Imperatives of the GCC members

In the face of the Iranian revolution in 1979, all these states experienced fears for their security. These apprehensions led to the formation of the GCC together with Saudi Arabia in 1981. The limitations of the GCC were exposed during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The GCC members did provide generous moral and financial support but the military support was inherently inadequate.

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Consequent to the military intervention by the US-led coalition by way of ‘Operation Desert Shield’ to protect the other GCC countries from further Iraqi onslaught, and subsequently, ‘Operation Desert Storm’ to evict Iraq from Kuwait; these countries realised that the GCC alone could not guarantee their security.

The strategic equations altered drastically after the war. Most of the GCC countries developed intimate defence relationships with the US. These countries signed new military agreements with the US in the wake of the Gulf War. The close defence cooperation of these countries with the US was comprehensive as it included training, regular military exercises, pre-positioning of US defence assets in countries like Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, and provision of air defence cover. Their enhanced defence cooperation was not confined to the USA alone, but involved other western countries like UK and France as well.

The map of the southern part of the Persian Gulf is presently dotted with US presence in terms of troops and other military facilities.

The period following the 1991 Gulf War also witnessed hectic arms purchases by the GCC countries from western sources. In some measure, strategically and logistically, the stage for a US-led coalition attack on Iraq in 2003 was already in place. The map of the southern part of the Persian Gulf is presently dotted with US presence in terms of troops and other military facilities. Some of the important US bases are Camp Doha in Kuwait, Camp Sayliyah and Al Udeid in Qatar, Manama and Sheikh Isa in Bahrain, Seeb and Masirah in Oman, and Al Dhafra and Fujairah in the UAE.

Prognosis

All the GCC countries are characterised by dispensations based on ruling families such as Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Khalifa in Bahrain, Al Thani in Qatar, Al Nuhayyan in Abu Dhabi, Al Nuaimi in Ajman, Al Sharqi in Al Fujayrah, Al Muktum in Dubayy, Al Qasimi in Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, Al Mualla in Umm al Qaywayn and Al Said in Oman. The heads of state of these countries, with the exception of Oman where the ruler bears the title of Sultan, are called Sheikhs, and owe their position to their leadership of various tribes, which are settled in different areas. It was on this traditional basis (tribal leadership) that the British had negotiated treaties with the tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Governmental institutions have gradually taken over spheres that previously fell under the preview of tribal councils in these countries.

In the absence of proper democratic institutions and political culture, the ruling families in each of these countries hold the most important cabinet posts and governmental appointments. The indigenous population of these countries is rather low and the majority of the work force is made up of foreigners. The low population base precludes the formation of effective Armed Forces.

The main threats to the smaller Gulf countries emanate from their larger neighbours and Islamic fundamentalists who are fiercely antagonistic towards the ruling dispensations on religious grounds. The threats posed to these countries cannot possibly be overcome individually or even collectively. However miniscule the smaller Gulf countries may be, the destabilisation of any one of them can flare up into a crisis of international dimensions, given the criticality of the Persian Gulf for global energy security.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

RSN Singh

is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW and author of books Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and The Military Factor in Pakistan. His latest book is The Unmaking of Nepal.

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