For the second time in less than two years, Saudi Arabia deployed troops beyond its borders to contain Shiite unrest in its immediate neighborhood. In late 2009, Saudi forces fought to suppress Houthi rebels in the country's Shiite borderland to the south in Yemen. This time around, a Saudi-led force, operating under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield Force, deployed forces to the Sunni-ruled island kingdom of Bahrain to suppress Shiite unrest.
The Saudi royals, highly dependent on the United States for the security of their regime, do not deploy their forces without good reason — especially when they already have their own simmering Shiite unrest to deal with in the country's oil-rich eastern region and are looking at the potential for instability in Yemen to spill into the kingdom from the south. From the Saudi perspective, the threat of an Iranian-backed destabilization campaign to reshape the balance of power in favor of the Shiite is more than enough reason to justify a deployment of forces to Bahrain.
The United States, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies have been carefully monitoring Iran's heavy involvement in fueling Shiite protests in their Sunni sheikhdoms and understand the historic opportunity that Iran is pursuing.
The historical attraction of Bahrain lies in its geography. Bahrain is a tiny island nestled between the Arabian and Qatar peninsulas. It is vulnerable to external interference and valuable to whomever can lay claim to its lands, whether that be the Shiite, the Sunni or any outside power capable of projecting authority to the Persian Gulf. Control of the island together with the Strait of Hormuz allowed for domination of the Indian Ocean trade along the Silk Road and the Arabian trade route from Mecca to the Red Sea.
The isles of Bahrain, along with the oases of al-Qatif and al-Hasa (both located in Saudi Arabia's modern-day Eastern Province), have been the three key economic hubs of the eastern Arabia region since antiquity. Bahrain sat atop a wealth of natural pearls while all three of these areas traded dates and spices and later on, oil, with buyers abroad. Critically, Bahrain, al-Qatif and al-Hasa have also been heavily populated with Shiite peoples throughout their history. As a result, Bahrain, al-Qatif and al-Hasa have vacillated between Sunni and Shiite domination for hundreds of years.
The Bahraini island can never exist comfortably in either domain. As a natural extension of the Arabian Peninsula, it would often fall under the influence of roaming Sunni Bedouin tribes, which found it difficult to subjugate the majority Shiite inhabitants. When under Shiite domination, as it was during the century-and-a-half-reign of the Banu Jarwan in the 14th century and during the 17th century with the rise of the Persian Safavid empire in Iran, the Shiite in Bahrain struggled to fend off Sunni incursions without significant foreign backing.
The Persians, sitting 200 kilometers (125 miles) across the Persian Gulf, would often find it difficult to project power to the island, relying instead on the local religious elite, traders, judges and politicians to assert their will, but frequently finding themselves outmatched against outside powers vying for control and/or influence over eastern Arabia. From the Portuguese to the Ottomans to the British (and now) to the United States, each of these outside forces exercised a classic balance-of-power politics in playing Sunni and Shiite rivalries off each other, all with an eye on controlling, or at least influencing, eastern Arabia.
History repeated itself Monday. A Saudi-led contingent of Arab forces crossed into Bahraini territory in defense against an Iranian-led attempt to reorient eastern Arabia toward the Shiites. And yet again, the Persians are facing a strategic dilemma in projecting power to aid its Shiite proxies living in Sunni shadows. At the same time, the predominant naval power of the Persian Gulf, the United States, is pursuing its own strategic aim of shoring up the Sunni forces to counterbalance a resurgent Iran. It remains to be seen how this latest chapter unfolds, but if history is to serve as a guide, the question of whether Bahrain remains in Sunni hands or flips to the Shiite majority (currently the less likely option) will serve as the pivot to the broader Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the Persian Gulf.