Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings.

Too often, Bahrain’s ongoing impasse is viewed through the prism of a region-wide sectarian conflict or the county is seen as a pawn in a geo-political contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative has obviously been the most useful for the Bahraini government and its Saudi patrons: by framing unrest as Iranian-inspired, it absolves them from tackling the true economic and political drivers of dissent. 

For many Bahraini officials the ongoing protests in Manama’s Shi'a suburbs have long been seen as a sort of retaliation by Iran for Gulf Arab support for the anti-Assad uprising. “You pinch me here, I’ll pinch you there,” a senior official in the Bahraini Foreign Ministry told me in 2012. Hardliners in the regime have echoed this: the commander of Bahrain Defense Forces (BDF), Field Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has repeatedly argued that the anti-Assad forces represent the only true, homegrown popular uprising in the Arab world; other revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and especially Bahrain have been the products of foreign incitement.

Other Bahraini Sunni actors, with apparently tacit government approval, have taken further steps to “regionalize” and “sectarianize” the island’s crisis. Prominent Salafi MPs from the al-Asala society visited the Free Syrian Army to deliver humanitarian aid to hospitals and shelters. Shi'a commentators found the visit especially ironic because the government in usual circumstances heavily scrutinizes and regulates the transfer of Shi'a charitable donations (khums) outside Bahrain. In early and mid-2013, there was additional evidence that al-Asala’s support to Syrian jihadists had grown more formal and robust, with reports that five Bahraini Salafis had been killed fighting alongside Syrian jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra. Although the Foreign Ministry distanced itself from these activities and urged Bahrainis to avoid traveling to conflict zones, pro-government commentators lambasted the Shi'as’ criticism of their visit as yet another sign of their perfidy, “sectarian bigotry,” and support for the Assad regime.

Western officials and commentators have also slipped into a geo-strategic and sectarian narrative, which assigns agency to chess-moves by Iran and Saudi Arabia, while obscuring the accountability of local actors. President Obama’s General Assembly reference to “sectarian tensions” on the island is only the most visible example; others have referenced Iran’s ability to “stir the pot” in Bahrain, should the regional balance-of-power tip in its disfavor. But despite such accusations, there is little evidence that Iran provides material or lethal support to the Bahraini opposition—or seeks to do so in a manner that approximates its clandestine strategy in Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria. As for sectarianism, it is best thought of as the symptom of the island’s impasse and a byproduct of regime policies, rather than being the underlying driver: the real culprits are its democracy deficit, corruption, and uneven distribution of economic capital. Finally, there is no doubt that that Riyadh wields power over the island’s politics and reform progress. But too often, this influence is used to avoid assigning culpability to the poor governance and repressive tactics of the Al Khalifa. 

To move forward on tangible reforms, it is crucial for all sides to delink Bahrain’s political ills from the analytical framework of Iranian-Saudi rivalry, the Syria war, or broader Sunni-Shi'a tensions. Doing so may also equip the U.S. to better assess the balance sheet of liabilities incurred by continuing to base U.S. assets and people on the increasingly unstable island.