From a cultural history perspective, one of the more important elements of the recent turmoil in the Middle East has been the way in which it has provided a possible avenue towards greater cooperation within the Islamist Sunni Muslim world. The declining fate of secularist military dictators in the region (like Egypt’s Mubarak  or Libya’s Gaddafi ) and the stresses on even moderate Islamic monarchies (like that of Jordan’s Hashemite King Abdullah ) seems to be leading to a noisy Islamic democracy where deference is declining quickly, similar to what happened in the United States in the late 1790’s .
What all this means is impossible to say, but the little gulf nation of Bahrain offers a very intriguing example of one of the fundamental cultural elements of this upheaval in the Middle East. As readers of my blog know, the title of this blog, Edge Induced Cohesion, relates to the way in which distinct perspectives across lines in the sand lead to the hardening of attitudes and the development of hostile and alien cultures . In few places are the lines in the sand more literal and the cultures more hostile than the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that goes through Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf States. The consequences of this are potentially serious.
Stratfor, which is quickly becoming a very trusted source in my repertoire for skillful analysis of international affairs, offers a very thoughtful examination of the current crisis in Bahrain as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran . The article gives a very frightening examination both of Iran’s power, ambitions for control of the Persian Gulf, and the weakness of its opponents on the other side.
This competition has strong cultural and religious bases. One of the main weaknesses of the nations of Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia is that the Persian Gulf areas of these nations all have Shi’ite majorities but have been ruled for long periods of time by Sunni monarchies (or, in the case of Iraq, is being ruled by a very fragile and nearly powerless coalition government). Currently, it appears as if the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, the first line of defense of the Arabian peninsula from the “heretic state” of Iran, are hollow shells and that the old problem of Sunni and Shi’ite conflict in the Arabian Pensinula is heating up again.
While it would appear that in unity and cohesion Iran has the advantage right now, let us not forget that Iran itself is already an empire with restive minorities like the Kurds and Baluchi, and that it is simultaneously seeking to increase its influence in Afghanistan (around the area of Herat) as well as the Persian Gulf. As mighty a potential empire as Iran is, it has a lot on its plate right now. What may be more important than its actual imperial expansion into the region is the fact that its threat may force a vastly greater unity than currently exists among the Sunni Arab monarchies on the other side of the line in the sand.
The military weakness and general decadence and impotence of the existing Sunni Arab states of the region reflect poorly on the lengthy histories of the Sunni monarchies of the area. Decades of defeats at the hand of nations like Israel, humiliation like the need for Saudi Arabia and other nations (like Bahrain) to accept American military aid in order to protect their regimes from outside takeover and internal revolution are certainly a humiliation to the proud people of the Arabian peninsula, who no doubt remember that they once ruled over an empire that lasted from the Atlantic Ocean to Central Asia and who now quiver in fear at unarmed demonstrators in the streets, and depend on hired mercenaries and American allies for security.
It should be noted that in a democratic regime over large parts of the Persian Gulf would be dominated by Shi’ite Arab parties, of a kind at least moderately sympathetic to Iran. This is something that Saudi Arabia is not likely to accept, even though its own oil resources in the Persian Gulf region are in largely Shi’ite populated areas, meaning that the fall of the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain would lead instantly to the threat of civil war in its own nation. How better is there a way to tap the numerous frustrations of the Arab people of the Middle East than to turn the popular pressures that are threatening the monarchies and presidencies of these nations against outsiders–whether Israel, the United States, or Iran (or all three), so long as there was someone behind whom the largely religious populations of their nations could unite behind.
What at first might look like increased stability in the region might easily and quickly turn ugly. As I mentioned, right now Iran looks much better organized than the Sunni Arab realm, but with the population and military strength of a nation like Egypt combined with the oil wealth of the Arab monarchies and the Saudi control of the Arab holy sites, Iran could easily overplay its hand in a conflict over Iraq and/or Bahrain and lead the currently disunited Sunni states to unite against their own fiercest Muslim enemy. It has the chance to do so while the attention of the world is pointed elsewhere at other crises, while the United States is pulling its troops out of Iraq and tacitly abandoning the region to its own fate and its own resources. Whether it does so or not, no one can say for certain, but the possibility certainly exists.