Commentary

Gulf: Rising Shias, Uneasy Sunnis

Indians are rightly excited by the jasmine revolution that has overthrown autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, and may oust Muammar Gaddafi in Libya too. They hope that the jasmine revolution will spread to the rest of the Middle East, bringing some sort of democracy throughout the region. However, there is one huge difference between North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are all Sunni-majority states ruled by Sunni autocrats. But it may surprise readers to learn that the Persian Gulf coast is entirely a Shia majority area, much of which is ruled by Sunni autocrats. Hence popular revolts in the Gulf nations may or may not evolve into democracy, but will certainly evolve into Shia-cracy. This terrifies the Sunni rulers.

Arabs hate the term “Persian Gulf” and call that body of water the “Arabian Gulf.” Yet the most appropriate name may be “Shia Gulf”. The Shias in the north coast of the Gulf are Persian and those in the west and southern coasts are Arab, but all are Shia regardless.

Iran and Iraq are Shia-majority countries where Shias are in power. But in other Gulf countries, the Shia majority is ruled by Sunni sheikhs — in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Even the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia (which produces and exports most of its oil) has a Shia majority, although the country overall has a Sunni majority. The Saudi king has one big advantage over other Sunni rulers of the region: he is revered by all Muslims, Shia or Sunni, as the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This makes Saudi Arabia less vulnerable to a popular Shia revolt than Bahrain (where demonstrators are already choking the streets), Kuwait or the UAE. Yet the Saudis are paranoid because all their oil lies in the Shia-majority eastern region.

This is why the Saudi king has just announced that he will spend a whopping $ 11 billion on improving welfare and housing in the Shia-majority region. He wants to buy off potential revolutionaries. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen: Bahrain’s Shia demonstrators have refused to be bought off with grants of $ 2,250 per head. Some months ago, the WikiLeaks of US confidential diplomatic papers revealed that many Gulf sheikhdoms — including Bahrain and the UAE — wanted the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. The sheikhs claimed they feared armed invasion or bombing by Iran. In fact, their real fear is that a rising Iran will induce their own Shia subjects to revolt and demand democracy. The Sunni sheikhs have long cultivated the US to keep Iran at bay. But this simply induces disgust on the part of many Shia subjects, who view their rulers as not just Sunni oppressors but American stooges too. Bahrain is a small island off the Saudi Gulf coast, linked to it by a motorable causeway. Whereas Saudi Arabia is an ultra-conservative Muslim state where women must wear burqas and are not even allowed to drive cars, Bahrain is a freewheeling, westernized state where women can wear short skirts and dance all night in nightclubs. It has an elected lower house, but real power vests with the king. The democracy movement in Bahrain started off as a secular one, yet inevitably became coloured by the Shia-Sunni split.

Some analysts hope for a peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy in the Middle East. Muslim autocrats have sometimes evolved into leaders of political parties in democracies. Two examples are Gen Zia-ur Rahman in Bangladesh and Gen Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. It is just possible that some such transition could occur in North Africa too. But this will be impossible in the Gulf, since any political party formed by the Sunni rulers will be thrashed by Shia rivals. Hence Gulf sheikhdoms are more likely to opt for the Gaddafi path of bloody suppression than the Mubarak path of exiting in favour of democracy.

This creates a moral and financial dilemma for the US. It swears in theory by democracy, but in practice dreads the replacement of Sunni sheikhs by Shia-cracies in the Gulf. It also fears that Shia revolts in the Gulf may disrupt oil supplies and send prices soaring, above all if the democracy fever spreads to Saudi Arabia.

Iran loves the thought of a completely Shia Gulf. But it also fears that its own theocracy could be toppled by a democracy movement, and that tempers its enthusiasm for the jasmine revolution. When democracy seems inconvenient to so many powerful forces, its prospects in the Gulf cannot be too bright. Its prospects in North Africa are much brighter.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.