Since late February, Shiite protesters have been up in arms in Saudi Arabia and the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report hundreds of Shiite casualties and arrests in both. The Saudis have clamped a blackout on the unrest which has swept its Shiite regions from Medina in the West to the oil-rich Eastern Provinces on the Persian Gulf.
Little Bahrain's case is more acute because it has a majority Shiite population ruled by a Sunni, Emir Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. It is also the seat of the US Fifth Fleet command.
The trouble in Saudi Arabia was sparked by an incident on Feb. 20, of which there are two conflicting accounts:
1. A group of women pilgrims visited a revered Shiite site in Medina, where hundreds of the Prophet Muhammad's descendants are reputed to have been buried. They became hysterical when they suddenly spotted a religious policeman perched atop a security wall and filming them, a serious violation of female modesty.
Their male relatives demanded the footage be handed over but instead, five of them were arrested.
The ensuing protests ripped across the kingdom from Medina in the west to the Eastern Provinces, where most of the kingdom's five or six million Shiites live and most of its oil reserves are situated.
Demands by Shiite clerics to end the persecution of their coreligionists were met by charges that the Shiites were Iran's fifth column in the kingdom.
2. According to this account, thousands of Shiite pilgrims from the western province of Asir and the Eastern Provinces foregathered at Medina for the Omera rites, known also as the Little Hajj, at Muhammad's Mosque, his reputed birthplace, to worship at the tombs of Shiite saints buried there.
Using the loudspeakers for imams to lead prayers, some Shiite clerics are said to have inveighed against the discrimination and persecution suffered by Saudi Arabia's Shiite citizens. Security officers disconnected the loudspeakers and dispersed the pilgrims with brutal force.
A few days later, when word leaked out of the many Shiite casualties and detentions, the riots began rolling across the kingdom.
Bahrain in the eye of the Arab-Iranian storm
Bahrain has not experienced much sectarian unrest since the 1980s, although two-thirds of this small Gulf kingdom's population are Shiite. The unrest was sparked there in December when 35 Shiites were accused of plotting to overthrow the kingdom. Since then, the poor Shiite villages surrounding Manama, the capital, have been in uproar. More than 20 people, including two human-rights activists, were charged in court with planning to ambush policemen and bomb shopping malls, markets and hotels.
Amid this furor, former Iranian Parliament speaker Ali Akber Nateq Nouri was quoted by the Western and Arab media outlets as remarking that Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran until 1970 and still had a seat in the Tehran parliament.
This was regarded as an outrageous attack on a fellow Muslim state and led to howls of anger throughout the Arab world.
Bahrain is unlikely to forget that the failed coup d'etat of 1981 by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain was staged under Tehran's export of revolution slogan.
Morocco severed relations with Iran in protest. But most of the kingdom's Shiite factions came out against this assault on Bahraini sovereignty and asserted their ethnic Arab rather than their religious identity. Some pointed out that some of Iran's provinces were home to large Arab and Sunni populations.
Tehran tried to pull its hand out of the hornet's nest by apologizing for the remark and reaffirming Iran's full recognition of Bahraini sovereignty.
Iran’s “positive and open” policies towards Arab countries were stressed.
Arabs rally round Bahrain
But the fat was in the fire. In late February, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who rarely travels these days, was persuaded after talking to Saudi King Abdullah to fly to Bahrain and promise Sheikh Hamad troops if needed to defend his kingdom.
Our Gulf sources report that Mubark advised Sheikh Hamad to hit back at Iran.
Soon after he left, the emir signed a secret directive barring entry to the emirate of persons bearing Iranian passports or papers. The ban summarily cut off the flow of many Shiite families some of whom live in the emirates; others in southern Iran, further fueling the Shiite unrest in Bahrain.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal called on Arab states to forge a unified response to Iranian policy which threatens security in the Gulf. He said that a non-Arab country should not be interfering in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. He didn't mean the United States or Israel – he meant Iran.
The Saudi prince implicitly presaged the mini-summit of Arab rulers in Riyadh on March 10 which virtually posted a no-admission sign for Iran. (See the lead item in this issue).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf intelligence sources see the long arm of Iranian intelligence stirring the pot in the broader context. They cannot imagine Tehran staying passive while the Saudis press their initiative for drawing Damascus out of the Iranian orbit.
If the Saudi maneuver succeeds, Iran may pull out all the stops for hitting their oil-rich Arab neighbor and thwarting its menace to its long-term strategic goals.
The pro-Iran Shiites on the move in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain fit this picture.