We are pleased to present this piece from our friend and colleague, Jean-François Seznec, whom we consistently find to be a uniquely insightful analyst of the intersection of politics, economics, and energy in the Middle East. Jean-François is currently Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where his scholarship and teaching concentrate on the influence of political and social variables in the Gulf on financial and energy markets. He has 25 years’ experience in international banking and finance, 10 of which were spent in the Middle East, and is currently Senior Advisor to PFC Energy as well as a founding member and Managing Partner of the Lafayette Group, LLC, a U.S.-based private investment company. He holds a MIA from Columbia University and a MA and Ph.D. from Yale University.
by Jean-Francois Seznec, PhD
The momentous events in Bahrain are placing the Saudi government in a difficult position. On the one hand, the Saudis fear the potential “fall” of Bahrain to Iran, on the other, they know that a muscled intervention and interference could actually create it. Indeed, as the United States knows from experience, intervention and occupation do not win hearts and minds.
The most salient fact of Saudi policy at this time is that there is none. The country suffers from a major power vacuum. Any decision to invade and occupy Bahrain to put down a “Shi’ite” rebellion would have to come from the King himself after he has obtained consensus from the rest of the leadership of the country. The King is 87 years old. He has returned today from a three months absence in the US and Morocco due to illness and has not had the time and the energy to build a national consensus on a response to Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or Libya. Prince Sultan, the crown prince, who was handling the Kingdom in the King’s absence, is often reported to be unable to fulfill his role because of age and illness and could not build any kind of response or policy. In any event, he could not have decided to intervene militarily or otherwise in Bahrain without the approval of the King himself or without full consensus from the leadership. No other Prince could make such decision. Not even the powerful Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef.
From five thousand miles away, the solution to the Bahrain crisis appears simple. The al-Khalifas in Bahrain should accept the fact that their 230 years of feudal management of the island has to come to an end. The King should accept to become a British-style monarch. The Bahrainis should be allowed to have a true parliament and ultimately have a Prime Minister issued from a majority coalition of political forces in the island. Indeed, the Bahrainis, especially the younger ones, feel Bahraini first, not Iranian, Saudi, Sunni or Shi’a. A normal political contest would bring stability to the island, which would be good for the United States and for Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, this rosy scenario is under severe attack by an important side of the al-Khalifas who do not want to give up their right to control and plunder the island. They know that their time is coming to a close and have their back to the wall. They seek to create havoc and polarize the situation—i.e., make the uprising into a Sunni-Shi’i issue. Their game is to ensure that the United States and the Saudis maintain their support of the corrupt regime as a bastion against “evil Iran”. Undoubtedly the orders to shoot at the demonstrators came from this camp, to provoke and emphasize the sectarian split in the Island. It is this which has also given nationality to the foreign mercenaries in order to change the sectarian balance of the island, arrested and tortured Shi’a leaders, manipulated elections, seized the best pieces of land, demanded percentages in successful businesses, etc. This faction of the family is headed by the Prime Minister. For the past 35 years, the Prime Minister has been extremely clever in manipulating all the social groups. He managed to divide sectarian and social groups to his advantage. However, at this time, he is getting quite old and may not be able to limit the damage inflicted to the island by his rabidly anti-Shi’a entourage. The Prime Minister and his group have substantial support among many Salafi Sunni groups, which view him as perhaps corrupt but strong enough to defend the true faith against the Shi’a.
The more liberal side of the family, headed by the Crown Prince, has shown that it is more willing to accommodate a new system of competition for power. The Crown Prince does not seem to fear any Shi’a take over. He seems to be only interested in having the island become a modern country ruled by law, not by whim, where every citizen has equal rights. The Crown Prince has support among the more educated and liberal Sunnis and Shi’a. Primarily, he has support among the youth, both Sunni and Shi’a. The youth instigated the present demonstrations and have shown a great deal of disdain for the Shi’a-Sunni divide emphasized by the older generation. Their motto is no Sunni, no Shi’i, just Bahraini. The Crown Prince is also the commander in chief of the Army and, as such, has some influence against the more nefarious groups that his uncle commands, the secret police and the police forces, which are manned mainly by foreign mercenaries.
The struggle in Bahrain is between two visions of the Bahraini world. On the one side, the feudal system, which divides Bahrain into religious sects, with one seeking to maintain and impose its domination of the other. On the other side, a modern vision, which sees problems as social issues of economic disadvantages—have-nots versus the haves. At times, the haves and haves-nots divide meets the sectarian divide—but not always and, in fact, less and less as the older generations lose their grip.
The King may be the arbiter between the feudal and the modern factions within his family, but over the years he has increasingly appeared to be a very weak figure unable to stand up to the faction headed by his uncle, the Prime Minister, which seeks to preserve its feudal control over society.
Both sides of the family, however, have one point in common—they view themselves as Bahrainis first, not Sunnis or Tribal. In that sense, they also have something in common with the Bahraini demonstrators, even though they may not see it. The feudal faction will claim that the opposition is Shi’a and therefore controlled by Iran. The modern side will claim that the Salafis are under the thumb of the Saudis. However, this gives an opening to the Crown Prince to bring the “Bahrainis” on both sides together, against the extremists, be they Shi’a, al-Khalifas, Salafis, etc.
If we try to put the Saudi equation and the Bahraini one together, it would appear that a Saudi direct intervention is not likely at this time. The Saudi gerontocracy makes it difficult for the Saudi leadership to make any decision and any consensus will not be easy to achieve. Many Saudis know well that any muscled intervention would backfire. Even the most conservative elements in the Kingdom would shy away from being seen as invaders. Physical Saudi presence in Bahrain would open the Kingdom to major criticism from all its neighbors and from most Muslim countries, thereby losing costing the Saudis the mantle of Islamic leadership which they have woven for generations.
On the other side of the Saudi causeway, even the most feudal among the al-Khalifas would be wary of a physical Saudi intervention, as it could lead to the rule of the al-Khalifas coming to an end. The al-Khalifas would still nominally be left in charge by the al-Saud, but in practice they would have to give up their control and access to wealth to their neighbor. From their point of view, it would be better to have the al-Saud in charge rather than the Iranians, but not much better. Perhaps, some of the more feudal al-Khalifas do not see the danger of a foreign camel putting its nose into their tent. After all, they did provide nationality to many Baluchi, Yemeni and Syrian military types, thereby creating a new class of Mamluks. However, one can assume that the ultimate interest of the al-Khalifas is to remain in charge, and not sell out their inheritance to the al-Saud for a plate of lentil–like security.
Of course, Saudi intervention does not have to be just a military operation. The Saudis could provide funds and intelligence support, which they probably do already. They may provide support to the Salafi elements among Bahraini Sunnis in the form of money and organizational help. The tribes that have dual Bahraini and Saudi citizenship will perhaps move more into Bahrain than they have before and provide muscled civilian support if need be. They may try to undermine the Crown Prince’s efforts for a national dialogue, by creating incidents between the Salafis and the Shi’a. These efforts could be very effective in maintaining havoc and instability. However, many in the Saudi leadership must realize that havoc and instability may stop a Shi’a takeover, but would make the island much more susceptible to Iranian meddling.
Should there be a transition of power in Saudi Arabia to a younger successor, the Saudi leadership may see that the youth movement of Bahrain, Sunni and Shi’a, is actually strongly opposed to Iran. A Bahrain led by the Crown Prince with a freely elected government representative of the various segments of society would in fact promote Bahraini stability and independence from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, stability and a royal democracy is more favorable to Saudi interests than the present regime, which stands to create violent reactions and end up, unwittingly, doing Iran’s bidding.