The daily events of the Arab spring, whose restive sway has swept the region and so far brought down four notable rulers, is now seemingly taking on a new twist – at least as far as the surviving kingdoms in the Persian Gulf are concerned. There is growing evidence that the long ruling Sunni monarchies are alarmed by the prospect of their demographically minor, but politically active, Shiite subjects, being compelled into stepping up mass revolt as a mechanism designed to ultimately topple their rule. Only a few days ago, Amnesty International published a 73-page report condemning the use of widespread repression by Saudi authorities as a measure to pre-empt designs for an Arab Spring by parts of it Shiite population in the east of the country.
The report stated that hundreds of Shiites have been arrested, many of them without charge or trial. In defiance of a national ban on protests since February this year, the authorities have not only sentenced tens of prominent reformists after sham trials, but torture and ill treatment in detention are still widespread. If the appetite of their majority Sunni population to rise up has so far proved to be stagnant, the wrath of the long persecuted Shiites maybe another matter. And the spectre of a Shiite dominated Gulf may well be a plausible one. Although statistically the Shiites are a minority in a region of more than 300 million Arabs, they dominate the region east of the Suez Canal. They not only form the majority communities in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, but have sizeable numbers in Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, Saudi Shiites not only make up nearly fifteen percent of the population, but they live in the region where the Kingdoms crucial oil reserves are concentrated. But the fear of being encompassed by a ‘Shiite crescent’ goes over and beyond Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni authorities have for years being suppressing the Shiite ‘Houthi’ sect in their own back yard, and despite its long serving ruler recently stepping down, reports are trickling in that they have once again become active in their long quest for a fair share of the national pie. Kuwait, despite its relatively small Shiite population, seems content on having end-to-end control over its Shiite notables. Over the last one and a half year, not only has it been systematic in keeping up surveillance on their community activities, but has even gone so far as revoking passports of their exiled leaders.
In Bahrain the continued agitation and state response shows no sign of slowing down. Despite the killings, mass arrests, political and economic restrictions endured by the revolting Shiite majority, their hostility towards the ruling Al-family is only becoming emboldened by the day. If the brewing trouble with Iran, long accused by the gulf Arabs of fomenting strife within their countries, takes a nasty turn, Bahrain’s Royal family could be the first to be targeted by a vengeful Iranian revolutionary guard.
Ever since the birth pangs of the Arab spring, many of the Persian-Gulf-based-Shiites, particularly those in Eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who inhabit lands rich in oil, have almost felt destined to venture for a future of much desired human rights and political opportunity which has for centuries been denied to them. Their long held grievances, and decades of being subject to systematic denial by their ruling Sunni Princes and Kings, is much bigger than the need for affinity with Iran, or for that matter Iran’s regional desires. Despite having few friends to turn to and having every door to freedom long shut against them, this once hapless league of outsiders is slowing finding its feet on the long road to recognition.
For the Shiites have always been what their Sunni contemporaries in the region have never been: united but insubordinate, ambitious but God-fearing, neither mercenaries nor auxiliaries and devoid of treachery and cowardice. Whoever they attacked, be it in Iran, Lebanon or Iraq, defeat for their adversary always followed.
These are a people for whom freedom has a history of only being earned in blood; peaceful protest and resort to civil disobedience movements when up against the last vestiges of absolute Arab rule, is unlikely to ever enter their lexicon. But for the weary monarchs of the Persian Gulf, the Shiites are a people whose loyalty is to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in. Thus the thought of an Iran-led regional Shiite alliance threatening their rule, was ostensibly the reason why they came together to crush the suspected Iran-backed opposition in Bahrain. If Bahrain was to fall into a Shiite orbit with directives emanating from the Mullahs in Tehran, it may have been the beginning of the end for her long supporting neighbours.
The Arab world is effectively undergoing a Renaissance. The long-subdued Shiites of the Arabian Peninsula have now become its most resurgent actors, its most enthusiastic aspirants. If chaos, disorder and the rise of Sunni extremists turns out to be its most virulent symptom, the rise of the Shiites may turn out to be the most potent.