25 April 2019
Bahrain is banning Qatari planes from flying over its airspace as part of a Saudi-led diplomatic blockade. Photo: Qatar Airways
Bahrain is banning Qatari planes from flying over its airspace as part of a Saudi-led diplomatic blockade. Photo: Qatar Airways

What’s driving Bahrain’s grudge against Qatar?

The ongoing diplomatic onslaught against Qatar is spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but it is the tiny Gulf Arab state of Bahrain that has been taking the highest profile in carrying out the blockade.

Not only did it break off diplomatic relations with Doha but also closed its airspace and banned any Qatari plane from flying to and over its soil.

The air blockade imposed by Bahrain has dealt a heavy blow to Qatar Airways. As a small country, Qatar has very little airspace of its own; it is largely surrounded by Bahrain’s airspace.

That Bahrain is banning Qatari planes from flying over its airspace means the Qatar Airways would be forced to ground almost all of its international flights.

Both countries are former British protectorates, but why does Bahrain bear such a grudge against Qatar?

In fact, their bad blood dates back to the Arab Spring in 2011.

As a kingdom even smaller in size than Qatar, Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family, whereas the majority of its population are Shia Muslims. For decades, the minority Sunni regime has always remained highly alert to any danger of a Shia uprising.

And over the years, the Shia in Bahrain have remained the underdog in society. Not only are their social status and average income much lower than the Sunnis, they also rarely have access to high positions in both the government and the military.

In order to dilute the Shia population so as to secure the Sunni rule in the country, the Bahrain government imports Pakistani Sunni Muslims by the hundreds and thousands and gives them citizenship.

The fact that the majority Shia population have been treated as second-class citizens in their own country for decades by the minority Sunnis who are in power has inevitably generated a lot of grievances and indignation among them.

As a result, over the years, there have been clusters of resistance of relatively small scale among the Shia in Bahrain against their own regime, and almost all of these resistance efforts were funded by Iran.

For example, it is widely believed that Tehran has remained the biggest sponsor of Al Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition party in Bahrain. On the other hand, Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of the Bahrain opposition, is believed to be also one of the leading figures of Hezbollah Bahrain, an anti-Bahrain militant group based in Iran.

Given Tehran’s hostility toward the Bahrain royal family, Bahrain’s relations with Qatar have remained anything but warm over the years, because as the saying goes, your enemy’s friend is also your enemy.

And the situation is compounded by the fact that Bahrain and Doha are direct competitors in the international trade and financial fields.

During the Arab spring in 2011, many young Shia in Bahrain were inspired by the pro-democracy movement and took to the streets demanding equality and dialogue with the Sunni regime. The protests greatly alarmed the Bahrain government, which then deployed massive riot police units to crack down on the protesters.

However, the West largely looked the other way despite the brutality of the Bahrain police, because it was both in their strategic and economic interests to keep the Bahrain monarchy intact.

As the anti-government protests continued to escalate, the Bahrain government accused both Iran and Qatar of sponsoring the subversive activities on its soil behind the scene.

In particular, it charged that the Qatar government had colluded with Al Wefaq and put forward the so-called “Qatar proposal”, which sought to topple the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain and push for political reform in the country.

In response, Iran strongly denounced the Bahrain government as an autocratic regime and expelled its diplomats. And relations between Bahrain and Qatar also hit rock-bottom.

As chaos in Bahrain were spreading, Saudi Arabia and the UAE took decisive action and intervened to help their little Sunni brother out by deploying troops and police to the country to restore order there and secure the monarchy. The Bahrain royal family was of course deeply grateful to them for their timely assistance.

However, there was a price tag attached to Riyadh’s help: as autocratic regimes in the Middle East were falling from power one after another during the Arab Spring, the Bahrain monarchy was desperate to secure its rule and increasingly depended on Riyadh for support. As a result, Bahrain has gradually become Saudi Arabia’s vassal state.

Given that, when the Saudis called on other Gulf Arab states to isolate Qatar, Bahrain was among the first countries to take part, partly to return a favor to Riyadh, and partly to settle old scores with Doha.

However, the small kingdom is actually putting itself at risk by eagerly joining the blockade. It is because if Iran and Qatar retaliate by mobilizing the majority Shia in Bahrain to stage an uprising again, it is hard to tell whether its minority Sunni regime can still ride it out this time like it did in 2011.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 16

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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