Protesters wearing burial shrouds take part in a procession
during a visit to the grave of a 16-year-old youth killed
by Bahraini security forces in clashes on February 14, in a
Bahraini village. The protesters wear the shrouds to
demonstrate they are willing to die for their cause. Photo
''Floggings will continue until morale improves.''
As a way of dealing with a discontented crew it was much
favoured by 18th-century sea-captains, but the Bahrain
Government has been an apt pupil. Alas, Interior Minister
Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa doesn't quite grasp
that this sort of policy statement must be clear and concise.
Announcing that the Bahraini authorities would intensify the
repression that has prevailed since the crushing of
pro-democracy demonstrations two years ago, the sheikh
declared last October: ''It has been decided to stop all
gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before
being reassured about security and achieving the required
stability in order to preserve national unity.''
He's got the spirit of the thing right, but he falls short in
the clarity and brevity departments. (He's obviously been
listening to spin doctors, and they always hate clarity.) At
any rate, the demonstrations, gatherings and marches have not
stopped, although they have got even more dangerous for the
Bahrain's brief role in the ''Arab Spring'' began on February
14, 2011, when demonstrators demanding a constitutional
monarchy, a freely elected government and equality for all
citizens took over Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of the
tiny Gulf state. But one month later the protesters were
driven from the square by force, and after that the
repression became general.
By no coincidence, that was also when Saudi Arabian troops
arrived ''to help the Government of Bahrain restore order''.
(Bahrain is an island connected to Saudi Arabia's Eastern
province by a long causeway.) Officially, the Saudi soldiers
were invited in by Bahrain's ruler, King Hamad bin Isa
al-Khalifa. Unofficially, he probably had no choice in the
Bahrain's ruling family is Sunni Muslim, like Saudi Arabia's
and those of all the other members of the Gulf Co-operation
Council (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman).
However, 70% of Bahrain's population is Shia, whereas the
rest of the GCC countries are overwhelmingly Sunni. And the
relationship between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region
is coming to resemble that between Catholics and Protestants
in 16th-century Europe.
The ensuing century of religious wars in Europe was not
really about doctrinal differences. The wars were driven by
the rulers' conviction that people who did not share their
particular brand of Christianity could not be loyal to them
It was nonsense, but millions of Europeans were killed in the
1500s and 1600s in wars triggered by this belief. The same
disease now seems to be taking root in the Arab Gulf states.
Shias, it is argued, cannot be loyal to a Sunni ruling
family. And if they object to being oppressed, it can only be
because Shia-majority Iran has deliberately stirred them up.
There is a real political and military rivalry between Iran,
the major power on the north side of the Gulf, and the
smaller Arab states to the southwest. It has got even worse
since the US invasion of Iraq ended centuries of Sunni rule
and put a Shia regime in power there. The competition is
actually geopolitical and strategic, not sectarian, but
people get confused.
So Saudi Arabia worries a lot about the loyalty of the large
Shia population (maybe even a majority) in its Eastern
province, where all the oil is. It was certainly not going to
tolerate a democracy - which it thinks would be a ''Shia''
democracy, and therefore a hostile regime - in Bahrain, right
And, of course, it believed that the downtrodden Shia
majority in Bahrain (who cannot even serve in their own
country's army and police) had been stirred up by
Shia-majority Iran across the Gulf. So when Bahrain's king
had still not got the pro-democracy protesters under control
after an entire month, Saudi Arabia sent its troops in.
This may not be what the king had in mind. It certainly
wasn't what Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa
intended: he was trying to negotiate with opposition parties
about giving Shias a bigger role in the kingdom's affairs.
But Saudi Arabia didn't want that kind of example right next
door, and it found hardline allies in the Bahraini royal
It may have played out somewhat like the Soviet invasion of
Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow, determined to crush the
reform movement there, got some second-rank Czech Communists
to request military intervention. At any rate, hardliners in
the royal family have called the tune since then, while the
king and the crown prince have effectively been sidelined.
The triumvirate who are now running Bahrain are Khalifa bin
Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister for the past 40 years, and
the brothers Khalid bin Ahmed bin Salman al-Khalifa, the
royal court minister, and Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, who
commands the Bahrain Defence Forces. (Do pay attention at the
back; there will be a test on these names later.)
The brothers belong to the Khawalid branch of the royal
family, descended from another royal who led a brutal
crackdown against a Shia uprising in the 1920s. With them in
charge, there will be no compromise, even though more than 80
Shia protesters have already been killed.
And even if it gets a great deal worse in Bahrain, no Western
government is going to condemn the country's rulers. That
would seriously annoy Saudi Arabia, and they will never do
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London