As Bahrain prepares to host this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix, demands by protesters for democratic change are intensifying and the government position is hardening, setting the Gulf kingdom on a path to confrontation, analysts say.
Shiite-led street demonstrations have turned increasingly violent, as the ruling Sunni Khalifa dynasty continues its crackdown on dissent in a desperate effort to portray that all is well in the island kingdom ahead of Sunday’s race.
Regional allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, are lending the Khalifas a helping hand, while the United States has mostly turned a blind eye to the unrest, two key factors, analysts say, that have contributed to the current unrest.
The crisis is set against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which see the success, or failure, of Bahrain’s protests as a key piece of the puzzle in regional hegemony.
There is a “pretty clear escalation,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, which this week released a conflict risk alert on Bahrain.
Several factors are feeding fears of escalating unrest, he argued.
“The (political) stalemate is continuing,” and a steady pace of protests are ending in clashes, as protesters use fire bombs and security forces use tear gas and pellet guns, Hiltermann added.
According to Amnesty International, at least 60 people have been killed since the explosion of Bahrain’s Arab Spring-style uprising in February 2011.
Bahrain’s majority Shiites claim discrimination and marginalisation by the Sunni monarchy, and recent promises of reform by King Hamad have not been implemented, while attempts at a national dialogue with the opposition have amounted to nothing.
And as Formula One teams arrive in the kingdom, the opposition and the increasingly radical youth are calling for mass protests, using the world famous sporting event to shed light on their struggle.
For its part, the government is beefing up security and arresting activists, hoping to contain the unrest during the race.
Meanwhile, the deteriorating health of a prominent Shiite activist, Abdulhadi Khawaja, on hunger strike since early February, is yet another ticking time bomb.
It all makes “for a heavy brew,” said Hiltermann, warning that although the uprising is very much a local issue, it is especially dangerous because it has wider regional ramifications.
“A key factor here is the US. It doesn’t want to rock the boat because Bahrain is a critical link in its Gulf security architecture,” he said, adding that the Saudis too “are major power brokers…and have (Bahrain) by the throat economically.”
Bahrain’s crisis has unleashed long-standing fears among Sunni Gulf monarchies that a Shiite revolution in the kingdom would give Iran a foothold in the heart of the Arab Gulf.
“Today… Bahrain is seen as a battleground between (Iran and Saudi Arabia),” said Elham Fakhro, a Bahraini research analyst at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies.
Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni nation, has suppressed its own Shiite protests in the oil-rich Eastern province, which is connected through a causeway to Bahrain.
Along with other Gulf countries, the Saudis sent troops to the island last March to secure major government assets and to free up Bahraini security forces to crush the rebellion.
Bahrain is also home to the US Fifth fleet, a crucial asset in the event of a war with Iran.
The sectarian dimension to Bahrain’s crisis has set it apart from revolts that toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
“First and foremost, the fear is sectarian,” said director of the Brookings Doha Centre, Salman Sheikh. The Khalifas and Saudis are focused “too much on threats and dangers that would come from profound change.”
Bahrain researcher and lecturer at Paris’s Science Po, Michael Schmidmayr described the Saudis as a “huge obstacle” to what some believe were sincere efforts by Bahrain’s King Hamad to reconcile with the opposition.
For a brief moment last November, even members of the opposition felt change might come.
Their optimism was triggered by the remarkable sight of King Hamad sitting in front of the local and international press as a world renowned human rights lawyer read out a litany of abuses committed by his security forces against his own unarmed people.
Hopes were quickly dashed, however, as the government failed to stop the security forces’ excessive use of force and opposition leaders remained jailed.
The stalemate meanwhile is breeding radicals among the “Sunni and Shiite youth,” said Sheikh, adding that there “are pretty hard and fast positions within a divided ruling family.”
Schmidmayr warned that the kingdom was headed “towards a new intifada,” or uprising, arguing that “it may have already started.”