Weekly Jamiat JHB comment – Emerging fault lines in the Middle East

Troops have entered Bahrain coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. They have entered the country to protect the regime which has weathered waves of protests in the past two months.

The GCC is made of six nations on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Qatar and Bahrain itself. They claim to come together among other things for mutual defence.

As of yesterday, Saudi Arabia has sent in a 1200-strong force while the UAE has contributed 800. Opposition groups aligned to Tehran have described the development as ‘unacceptable’ while Iran has described the deployment of troops into the country as a ‘foreign interference.’

The GCC on the other hand, fresh from their recently concluded summit in Kuwait points its finger towards Tehran. In thinly covered rhetoric, Saudi King Abdallah speaking to Majalla magazine, referred to Ahmedinejad’s Iran as ‘a foreign power’ behind the ‘interference’ into Bahraini internal affairs.

The deployment of troops into Bahrain poses a potential of a widening conflict that would engulf the region where Iran is a perceived threat to a number of Sunni regimes.

Complicating the picture is the fact that the Sunni monarch is Bahrain rules a majority Shiite population. If numbers are anything to go by, any popular order that would prevail after deposing the monarch is very likely to be Shiite-based.

It is this fact which is making the GCC states very edgy as they see Iran’s increasing geopolitical influence throughout the region.

It has already been seen that the fall of Saddam Hussein resulted in the rise of Iran’s influence in Iraq via Shiite based groups that now wield considerable power and barring the occupation, would be in full control of the country. This template fits Bahrain which could follow suit.

In Saudi Arabia itself, Shiite groups especially to the east of the kingdom have tried to ride on the wave of popular revolts across the Middle East in order to effect regime change. This comes after Saudi Arabia was engaged in a bloody conflict with yet another Shiite-based Houthi rebel group on the border with Yemen in 2009.

Much of the Middle East’s commonwealth had been an Islamic heritage. Though not always at rest, the region has had periods of stable empire regimes that were ended by colonialism.

The post-colonial nationalism saw an evolution of alignment of emergent modern states. This process was ongoing throughout the Cold War era to the period of the two gulf wars. Emphasis on the common heritage however was not mainly on Islam but Arabism and forging of ties with either the West or the Soviet Union’s Eastern Bloc whenever it was convenient.

That configuration has changed as we see fresh fault lines along which the Middle East is potentially going to be fractured. Are Shiite groups inspired or sponsored by authorities in Iran as it is alleged on an inevitable collision course against Sunni regimes? What sort of polities will emerge from such conflict at the time when the region’s youth are demanding democracy?

The Sunni-Shiite ideological schism of the House of Islam that dates back to the first era of the rightly guided caliphate is now tempered with other interests on the global stage. What will come of out of such a potential belief-tinged conflict?

Outcomes are difficult to predict but it is easy to discern a pattern that poses a real challenge especially in the form of protracted regional proxy wars engulfing the region.

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