Amidst the glamour and speed of last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix near Manama was the conspicuous presence of Saudi Arabian tanks, brought in to stifle protesters complaining against the hosting of the Grand Prix. This protest forms part of a larger Bahraini uprising against the long-ruling Al-Khalifa monarchy, which saw the latter invite 1,000 Saudi forces into the country to quell the rebellion in March 2011.
The Saudis needed little pleading to send their armed forces across the King Fahd causeway. Bahrain is also a Sunni-dominated country, with a substantial Shia minority. As such, Saudi Arabia sees it as a crucial ally in preventing the spread of Iranian influence in the region and the two states, whilst differing grossly in size, share an interlinked history.
Even before the invention of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain and what is now the east coast of Saudi Arabia formed part of the Sassanid Empire which ruled from 224 to 651. After its dissolution, the historical region of Bahrain came into being and encompassed not only the Gulf islands that comprise the state today, but also the majority of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.
It was from central Arabia that the Prophet Muhammad sent the missionary Abu Al-Ala’a Al-Hadrami to convert the region of Bahrain to Islam in around the year 628. Over the next few centuries, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would share in the experiences of dynastic struggle, Persian encroachment and European invasion.
In the late 18th century, the Al-Khalifa family moved to Bahrain from mainland Arabia, having been persecuted in several other Middle Eastern countries in previous generations. Trying to negotiate a path to Bahraini independence, the Al-Khalifa struck a deal with the British in 1860 (by then a major geopolitical player in the Middle East) whereby they were named the de facto rulers of Bahrain under British protection.
British ambitions soon became more selfish, however, and non-complicit members of the Bahraini ruling elite were exiled to Saudi Arabia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from where they retained their unity. Although the Al-Khalifa family remained the nominal rulers of Bahrain, they were virtual puppets of the British throughout both World Wars and into the 1950s.
During this period, and after the Arabian oil boom had materialised, the destiny of Bahrain’s future came under greater scrutiny. The Shia-dominated Iranians claimed Bahrain as a territory of their own, bitterly opposed as they were by both the Saudis and the British. After UN intervention, supported by a Saudi-British delegation, Bahrain was given independence in 1971, which Iran reluctantly accepted.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979, however, heralded another challenge to Bahraini integrity and required a show of support from their historic neighbours. Inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain instigated an attempted coup d’etat in 1981. Saudi Arabian support, both technical and material, were crucial in ensuring the coup failed and in helping to stabilise their Sunni partners, the Al-Khalifa, in the succeeding years.
This solidarity between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, based on a shared history and religion, has remained a potent force in the Middle East until the present day. Along with Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE, the Saudi-Bahrain axis forms a crucial Sunni alliance, characterised by authoritarian rule, seeking to counter Shia influence spreading from Iran, Syria and parts of Iraq. Whilst in many cases the actions of these governments are no less evil or immoral than the regimes of Iran and Syria, they are considered the lesser of two evils by the Western world.
Such is the reason why the Bahraini uprising has received only brief attention from Western governments. The Saudis cannot be upset at any cost. They remain crucial allies to both the United States and Great Britain. And as long as Bahrain remains an important client state of Saudi Arabia, the Al-Khalifa can rely on the tacit support of Western governments to continue their crackdown on democratic protests and preserve their centuries-long rule.