Since Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, the Gulf country has been plagued by an internal political and sectarian crisis, which has undermined long-term prospects for prosperity and stability in the archipelago state. Hardliners on both sides—the regime and the Shi’a opposition—have gained the upper-hand, resulting in an impasse with no productive dialogue between the sides. Despite authorities in Manama having high hopes for the new parliament (elected last month and this month in two rounds of elections) easing Bahrain’s internal tensions, the Shi’a opposition has denounced the elections as a “farce,” which severely dims such prospects.
Throughout the post-Arab Spring period, the Sunni regime in Manama has made no substantial concessions to the Shi’a opposition and harshly cracked down on all forms of dissent. This power imbalance is largely attributable to the extent to which foreign states in the West (i.e., the United States and the United Kingdom) and others in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have supported the Al Khalifa rulers against Shi’a activism. Yet assistance that wealthier GCC members have provided Bahrain since 2011 has come at the expense of the nation’s ability to function autonomously.
Economically, the island kingdom’s fellow GCC states have supported Bahrain financially with a $10 billion aid package in 2011, followed by another of the same amount in October of this year. In terms of security, Saudi and Emirati forces entered Bahrain in 2011 to help the regime stand strong in the face of protestors, and military forces from the Kingdom and police from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) remain to this day on Bahraini soil. Undeniably, it is legitimate to question whether Bahrain can be considered an independent state rather than a vassal state of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Saudi influence present in Bahrain’s internal and external affairs is clear and frequently analyzed by experts on the Gulf.
The Saudi influence present in Bahrain’s internal and external affairs is clear and frequently analyzed by experts on the Gulf. Whether looking at the Yemen war, the blockade of Qatar, Riyadh’s spat with Canada, the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, or Arab Gulf monarchies’ overtures to Israel, Bahrain has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead on virtually every sensitive regional issue that matters to Riyadh. Yet as influential as the Saudis have become in Bahrain, taking stock of the UAE’s hand in the deeply polarized country’s political environment is essential.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan (MbZ), who is the UAE’s de facto ruler, is an extremely influential figure in the island kingdom. As one Bahraini interlocutor explained to Inside Arabia, no one critical of MbZ has any shot of rising to power in Bahrain.
The UAE’s previous ambassador to Bahrain, Abdul Redha Abdullah Khouri, was influential in deepening bilateral ties between the two countries. He was already serving in his post when the $1.1 billion expansion of Bahrain International Airport began in early 2016. Of this $1.1 billion, $919 million came from the UAE’s $2.5 billion grant to Manama in 2013, which was administered by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD) as part of the GCC’s development program for the island kingdom. The UAE is simply bringing the “Dubai model” to Bahrain International Airport, seeking to help increase the Bahraini airport’s capacity to 14 million passengers each year.
Appointed early this year to his first diplomatic post, Sheikh Sultan bin Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan is Abu Dhabi’s current ambassador to Manama. This young, powerful ambassador plays an important role in Emirati-Bahraini relations. He is one of the grandsons of Founder of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and one of MbZ’s nephews.
The UAE’s leverage over Bahrain was evident in this year’s quadrennial elections. Given the lack of transparency and international monitoring, there is ample reason to believe that authorities in Manama may have tampered with the results to please Abu Dhabi. Islamic Minbar failed to win one seat (the first time in which this Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated society did not secure any seats since the country’s parliament was re-instated in the early 2000s), a factor likely illustrative of the extent to which Manama takes orders from the UAE. Looking ahead, sources from the Gulf claim that new rules restricting Islamists in Bahrain are expected to be implemented in 2019. Such laws would be interpreted as a gesture to Abu Dhabi in order to please MbZ.
Yet given how Islamic Minbar has helped the Al Khalifa rulers shore up Sunni support for the regime since 2011, it remains to be seen how new laws that further constrict space for Sunni Islamists to engage in political dialogue will impact the regime’s ability to keep the country’s Sunni minority relatively united against the Shi’a opposition. If the Bahraini authorities were to dissolve Islamic Minbar, as they did with al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society (Waad), in 2016 and 2017, respectively, it would be a major sign of the extent to which Emirati influence in Manama has deepened in the post-Arab Spring period when Abu Dhabi is working to eradicate virtually all forms of political Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf.
As a small, extremely oil-rich state, the UAE largely exercises power on the international stage through its wealth. With deep pockets and rising military capabilities, Abu Dhabi has strongly supported its allies across the Arab world from General Khalifa Haftar of Libya to Presidents Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi of Yemen and Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt, promoting a pro-status-quo, anti-Islamist, anti-Iranian vision for the region based on a model of authoritarian stability. In the case of Bahrain, protecting the Al Khalifa rulers from Iranian-backed Shi’a oppositionists has been a high priority for Abu Dhabi’s regional foreign policy since 2011. As the only Shi’a-majority GCC state, Bahrain has always been understood as the Gulf monarchy most vulnerable to Iranian meddling.
As a regime survival strategy, Manama has turned to the Saudis and Emiratis for assistance. Doubtless, the UAE’s influence in Bahrain grows with each passing day. In the process, Bahrain’s leadership is taking more orders from Abu Dhabi, resulting in continuously diminishing sovereignty.