Responding to Iran’s Influence? A Comparative Account of Saudi Foreign Policy Behavior towards Bahrain and Yemen since 2011

Master's Thesis, 2022

73 Pages, Grade: 3.0


Table of Contents


1 International Relations (IR) Theory / Hypotheses
1.1 Realism
1.2 Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA)
1.3 Hypotheses

2 The Case of Bahrain
2.1 Saudi-Bahraini links
2.2 Iranian-Bahraini links
2.3 The uprising in
2.4 Saudi policies towards Bahrain

3 The Case of Yemen
3.1 Saudi-Yemeni links
3.2 Iranian-Yemeni links
3.3 The war in Yemen
3.4 Saudi policies towards Yemen

4 Evaluation of Hypotheses

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

7 Online Sources


In recent years, scholars of the Middle East have described the various proxy conflicts between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) as a regional “Cold War” for influence and hegemony.1 Saudi Arabia has been a close US ally in the region since 1945,2 although the degree of American sympathy towards Riyadh strongly depends on the respective administration in Washington. Iran, on the other hand, has emerged from its 1979 Islamic Revolution as one of America’s fiercest enemies and as a serious contender for the role of a regional hegemon. At the same time, the Saudi monarchy has often been described as the source of the most dangerous form of Islamism, namely militant Salafism (or Jihadism).3 The Saudi conservative branch of Islam, Wahhabism, appears as a striking antithesis in view of the kingdom’s ties with the United States and the modernization processes which have taken place in the country.

The regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran has received considerable scholarly and media attention in recent years. The list of countries where political commentators see this battle in action includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen.4 In Syria, Iranian military support helped the regime of Bashar al-Assad (b. 1965) survive the uprising against his rule in 2011.5 Saudi Arabia, hoping to install a Sunni government in Damascus,6 backed Salafi opposition groups which kept their distance from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardline jihadist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the self-declared Islamic State (IS or Daʿesh). In Lebanon, Tehran has gained a major foothold through its ally Hezbollah (founded in 1982) while Riyadh has supported its own preferred clients (predominantly Sunni politicians). Iraq, after the US invasion in 2003, saw an increased emphasis on sectarian identities, with Saudi Arabia backing Sunnis and Iran supporting the Shiʿa in the country.7 Thus, it has been easy for some observers to see a regional sectarian conflict between Riyadh and Tehran.8 However, several phenomena defy this perception. One is the Saudi proscription of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood. If regional alliances were simply driven by sectarian affiliations, one might expect the Saudis to see in the Brotherhood a natural partner. Instead, they have designated it as a terrorist organization.9 Iran has not always played by sectarian rules, either. Tehran’s support for the Sunni Islamist groups Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas is a case in point. Obviously, Sunni and Shiʿa are increasingly important categories in the Middle East, but they fail to explain the complexities of the regional stockpiling.10

Leaving Syria, Lebanon and Iraq behind, I will, in the following, shed light on the two remaining countries on the list above: Bahrain and Yemen. More precisely, I will scrutinize the foreign policy behavior of Saudi Arabia in these two cases, starting in early 2011. The year 2011 is significant because it marks the beginning of popular uprisings across the Arab world, soon to be referred to as the “Arab Spring”. Bahrain and Yemen represent two cases in which an uprising against the ruling regime led to two different outcomes: Repression (Bahrain) and war (Yemen). In both cases, Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states, intervened in a neighboring country to support allied governments fighting their opposition (or a rebel movement, as in Yemen). Bahrain and Yemen are both countries with significant Shiʿa populations,11 amplifying Saudi fears of growing Iranian influence in these communities (not to mention Saudi Arabia’s own Shiʿa minority in the country’s Eastern Province). Based on the evidence of Iranian involvement in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq (see above), I assume that Iran has played a role in Bahrain and Yemen, too. The extent to which Saudi policies in these two cases have been informed by Iran’s influence will be at the center of this study’s inquiry.

If sectarianism cannot explain the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran (nor the conflicts in Bahrain and Yemen), then what can? Analyzing the official statements of Saudi policy makers (primarily those of the most recent kings Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud, r. 2005–2015, and Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud, r. 2015–presently, and those of Mohammed bin Salman, or simply MbS, b. 1985, crown prince since June 2017) would be one possible approach to understanding Riyadh’s motives in Bahrain and Yemen. However, such a perspective would most likely be rather biased and fail to bear any analytical value.12 A methodological approach may focus on the concept of influence. What kind of Iranian influence (political, ideological, financial, military, direct, indirect) can we discern in Bahrain and Yemen? Which political and militant groups were supported by the Islamic Republic, and to what extent? Can Saudi policies in these two cases be causally linked to Iran’s channels of influence? Or should we see domestic factors as the drivers of Saudi foreign policy making? Starting from these methodological questions, I will then focus on empirical observations in the cases of Bahrain and Yemen.

1 International Relations (IR) Theory / Hypotheses

1.1 Realism

Realist IR scholars assume that the international state system is anarchic and driven by individual players who attempt to maximize their respective power.13 Realism perceives states as monolithic blocs, disregarding various internal political factions and competing interests. It is an approach focusing on security, where the insecurity and anarchy of the international system is regarded as the driving factor shaping state behavior. In International Relations theory of the Middle East (IRME), two strands have emerged which are relevant for this study. The regime security approach focuses on elites and regimes in power, emphasizing regime survival as the main consideration behind foreign policy decisions. The Neoclassical Realist approach (NCR) integrates domestic factors into the equation, emphasizing that foreign policies are reactive to internal (but also external) threats.14 Due to the multitude of conflicts and crises in the Middle East, Realism might be uniquely positioned to explain Saudi foreign policy behavior in the cases described above. From this perspective, what matters to Saudi rulers is not Iran’s revolutionary ideology but solely its political and military power, threatening the survival of the Saudi regime and Saudi allies (such as the Bahraini and Yemeni governments) in the region.

The lack of attention given to ideology is seen as one of the main weaknesses of Realism. By focusing on power and security, “soft” factors such as belief, perception and ideology are neglected.15 This might seem particularly out of place in the Middle East where religious belief and rhetoric are quite widespread. Another point of criticism concerns the internal realm of states. In contrast to Foreign Policy Analysis (see 2.2), the question as to how foreign policies are formed within a given state is not asked (nor answered). Thus, internal divisions and diverging interests are not taken into consideration. In the case of Saudi Arabia, there are several ideological factors which go beyond the simple Realist concern, namely the Saudi claim to leadership over the Muslim world and its role as the custodian of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. As such, it stands in direct competition with Iran whose revolutionary appeal has been directed at all Muslims, albeit mainly successful among the Shiʿa.16

The Saudi state rests on a strategic alliance between the ruling Saʿud family and the Wahhabi clergy. It was forged in the 18th century between Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) and Mohammed bin Saʿud (or simply Ibn Saʿud, 1700–1765). This agreement meant that Abd al-Wahhab and his descendants were to provide the ruling family with religious legitimacy while Ibn Saʿud and his descendants would govern the various Saudi states until today.17 This relationship between the Wahhabi clergy and the Saudi rulers has only recently started to deteriorate when Salman bin Abd al-Aziz and his son Mohammed bin Salman have taken over control in Riyadh. In fact, MbS has pushed back the influence of the Wahhabi ʿulama further than any of his predecessors.18

In terms of the preferred regional security architecture, the Saudi and Iranian approaches differ significantly. While Riyadh relies on the American security umbrella (and thus seeks to maintain close ties with Washington), Tehran’s strategic goal has been to expel the US forces and present itself as the main guarantor of stability in the region.19 In addition, the Iranian enmity with Israel, the closest US ally in the Middle East, has contributed to the dichotomy between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman even recognized (in an interview to the American magazine The Atlantic) Israel’s right to exist, thus setting Saudi Arabia apart from Iran in a highly contentious issue of Middle Eastern politics.20 Hence, it is possible to distinguish two political camps, with Iran leading the anti-American bloc and Saudi Arabia spearheading the pro-American axis, along with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. It is no coincidence that the latter four have all normalized their diplomatic relations with Israel (Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994, the UAE and Bahrain in 2020).21

Obviously, Realism goes a long way in explaining power politics in the Middle East based on the distribution of economic and military capabilities. Iran’s opposition to the militarily superior United States can therefore only stem from ideological factors, namely Shiʿa Islamism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism. Saudi Arabia chose an easier path, although American support for Riyadh is questioned by many in Washington, not least because of the war in Yemen (see 4.3) and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (1958–2018) in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.22 On the Iranian front, the United States under Barack Obama (b. 1961) reached a groundbreaking nuclear deal in 2015 (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) which Obama’s successor Donald Trump (b. 1946) withdrew from in May 2018.23 It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia and Iran share a certain sense of distrust and suspicion (although for different reasons) when it comes to American foreign policy towards the region. Realism thus retains quite some significance as regional powers are vying for influence while the global superpower is increasingly perceived as unreliable.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia (which is seen as a status quo power), Iran’s regional ambitions are described as revisionist, i.e. aiming at the reorganization of the regional power structure. This includes, as mentioned above, the American and Israeli presence as well as the Sunni Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia. Some commentators argue that this rivalry can be understood as a classic balance of power game where different actors strive for hegemony “in a range of different arenas”.24 Other scholars emphasize the sectarian dimension of this conflict, “boil(ing) the rivalry down to an existential struggle about religious difference, neglecting the complexity of identity construction”.25 Yet another group of observers points to the mechanisms of power and legitimacy, arguing that sectarian cleavages are deliberately manipulated by elites for their political advantage. This approach links the religious dimension with considerations about policy strategies.

Neorealists argue that states attempt to balance the distribution of power in the international system. The goal is to prevent a unipolar world order and to maintain a balance of power.26 According to this theory, states react to the emergence of a (regional) hegemon by either extending their military capabilities or forging alliances with other states. The recent normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states is seen by many observers as an example of the latter. The emergence of Iran as a regional hegemon drives former enemies to create new alliances.27 In particular, Iran’s nuclear program has raised concerns among Arab Gulf states as well as in Israel (which does possess nuclear weapons). Statements by Saudi politicians about following suit if Iran acquired the nuclear bomb can be seen as a balance of power competition (by means of extending military capabilities).28

The more capabilities a state has, the greater its influence in the region and its readiness to extend this very influence. Due to the scarcity of resources and conflicting interests within the international community states have an inherent desire to acquire as many capabilities as possible. The latter can be material (e.g. weapons, natural resources) as well as immaterial (population, alliances, geography).29 The level of power thus depends on the quantity of capabilities a state possesses. If a state accumulates many capabilities (and thus relative power), neighboring states attempt to balance the scale of power. Neoclassical Realists assume that the distribution of power determines the foreign policies of a state. In the anarchic international system, all states seek security for their population, but some have the power (i.e. the capabilities) to go beyond that and project their influence onto the regional (or global) scene.

Scholars of International Relations identify several possible reactions to a state emerging as a hegemon. Underbalancing refers to a lack of appropriate action vis-à-vis a hegemonic actor, with the possible result of a costly war. Nonbalancing means that a state does not balance significant changes in the international system. This can take various forms: distancing, buckpassing, appeasement, or bandwagoning. A state engages in distancing by turning away from threatened states in order to avoid a confrontation with the threatening state (or the one perceived as such). Buckpassing occurs when a state avoids a military confrontation by relying on other status quo states. Another option is appeasement which refers to any attempt at easing tensions with the threatening state.30 Bandwagoning describes the cooperation of a state with an emerging hegemon, or, as Stephen Walt put it, the “alignment with the source of danger”.31 The primary motive is security, i.e. deterring a possible military attack (by means of forging alliances). The goal of bandwagoning is to gain benefit from the alliance with the hegemon. This definition is well in line with the work of other theorists (such as Kenneth Waltz).

Based on the Balance of Power framework, Walt developed the Balance of Threat theory in the 1980s. According to the latter, states do not balance against or bandwagon with the most powerful actor but against/with the most threatening one (regionally or globally). Other scholars such as Randall Schweller disagree with this position. Schweller formulated the Balance of Interests theory which distinguishes between status quo states and revisionist states. Status quo states seek to prevent significant changes in the international (or regional) power system and focus mainly on security. Revisionist states, as mentioned above, attempt to overcome the current status quo, typically by deploying military means. Balance of interests here refers to the relation between the costs for preserving the status quo and the costs for a change of the system.32

According to Schweller, the stability of the international power structure depends on a balance between the status quo bloc and the revisionist camp. If the latter achieves a power surplus, a conflict erupts and a change in the system occurs. If status quo powers gain in influence, the system remains as it is. A power balance does not happen automatically. Schweller argues that ‘satisfied powers’ (i.e. those content with their position in the state system) usually join the status quo coalition while ‘dissatisfied powers’ (i.e. those seeking change) mostly bandwagon with revisionist states.33 In the Middle East, some ‘satisfied powers’ such as the UAE and Bahrain (despite internal tensions) have recently allied with Israel and thus joined the status quo bloc. On the other hand, Iran’s only state ally is Syria, a country heavily suffering from the devastating effects of a long civil war. Nonetheless, some observers argue that Iran has come close to a regional hegemony.34 On a theoretical level, the state system would see a change in this case:

“When status-quo states are far more powerful than revisionist states, the system will be stable. When a revisionist state or coalition is more powerful than the defenders of the status-quo, the system will eventually undergo change – only the questions of when, how and to whose advantage remain undecided.”35

If Iran is in fact a regional hegemon, we would witness changes as pointed out by Schweller. The rapprochement between Israel and some Arab Gulf states could be one indication of this. Joint military drills in the Persian Gulf point to an intensifying security cooperation, not least because of the repeated attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman (see 4.3). The region is in flux, alliances are shifting, and (regime) security remains one of the main considerations for elites in power. Even if the revisionist camp achieves some successes, it is unlikely that the status quo powers simply stand by and watch. Saudi regional policies in recent years as well as American and Israeli attacks on Iranian positions (and personnel) in Syria and Iraq point to the opposite.

1.2 Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA)

Foreign Policy Analysis has been defined as “a subfield and a distinct perspective”36 in International Relations theory. Having emerged in the 1960s, it questions some of the basic Realist assumptions. Unlike Realism, it does not perceive states as monolithic blocs. FPA emphasizes conflicting interests and factors within a state and poses the question as to how foreign policy is shaped domestically. While Realism is primarily concerned with economic and military power and security, and may thus have certain advantages in the study of authoritarian states, the FPA approach offers valuable insights into the making of a state’s foreign policy, and in this case of Saudi foreign policy towards Bahrain and Yemen.

FPA, in contrast to the strict Realist focus on the state as a monolithic category, sheds light on “differences within the state and other factors, be they economic or transnational”.37 Foreign policies are thus the product of what happens inside the black box of a state, and FPA provides a glimpse into that box. By considering decision-making factors and domestic politics, this approach adds important elements to the traditional Realist framework. The Foreign Policies of Arab States by Dessouki and Korany (1984)38 focused on four factors: Domestic environment, foreign policy orientation, decision-making process, and foreign policy behavior. Their findings concentrated on the different sectors within a state shaping foreign policies, i.e. bureaucracy, private enterprises, ministries, and civil society. Thus, for the analysis of Saudi foreign policies one should look at how different actors and institutions (princes, ministries, businessmen etc.) in the kingdom have designed and legitimized their policies vis-à-vis Bahrain and Yemen.

It is a matter of debate whether the FPA approach can be applied to authoritarian states. The first problem is the information and material available, particularly in more secretive regimes. The role of the state is another issue:

“ (…) in politics, whether international or regional, the state may be less influential than is conventionally claimed: nationalist movements, religious fundamentalism, movements of social protest may try to enlist the support of other states but are not controllable by them. Values and images, not least the rival theatres of public display between rulers, are also important.”39

The role of a state may be exaggerated when limitless powers are attributed to it. In fact, the Realist perspective may run the risk of giving a state credit for everything which happens on its soil and through its people. This is certainly not the case. However, in closed societies with limited freedom for its inhabitants it is difficult for civil society to thrive and make an impact in the economic and political sphere. In open societies, the influence of different segments, interests and institutions is quite obvious. In Saudi Arabia, an additional factor is the oil industry:

“In more secretive, but factionalised, states, particularly those where through oil revenues the boundaries between state and private, or family, interest are more than normally blurred, it is often hard to say where the state, as originator of foreign policy, ends and private initiative begins: Saudi Arabia is an obvious case – where the boundary lies between the policy of Saudi ministries and the initiative of individual princes and businessmen is difficult to assess.”40

However, where ‘individual princes’ and ‘businessmen’ used to exert quite some influence, they are now held captive and bribed at five-star hotels in Riyadh.41 In fact, if FPA set out to overcome the focus on the category of the monolithic state, it would now have to question the role of the all-powerful crown prince. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is a good example. By publicly accusing and prosecuting the killers, Riyadh attempted to blur the lines of responsibility (with some success, initially). Since not much is known on the internal power mechanisms, it is hard to tell whether or not the crown prince is guilty. Only intelligence can close that gap. The role of bureaucracy has come under scrutiny too:

“One of the main insights of foreign policy analysis has been in regard to the role of different institutions within the state, or bureaucracy, in shaping policy, be this in crises or over a longer period.”42

Bureaucracy mostly refers to ministries which, in the case of Saudi Arabia, cannot act against the will of the king and the crown prince. Although quite a body of literature on Saudi history and politics has emerged, a specific FPA-centered approach does not seem all too worthwhile. Even the Wahhabi clergy (which has been dealt with quite extensively)43 can no longer be seen as the most decisive factor in Saudi politics. It would be more interesting to find out how decisions are reached between King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and how opposing views (in the royal family as well as in the religious establishment) are dealt with. FPA cannot eavesdrop on private conversations, nor can it acquire knowledge of confidential issues. It can create a research agenda which dives into the making of a state’s foreign policy.

“FPA takes us, therefore, away from the realist model of the unitary state. It provides a more complex, subtle, explanatory system and research agenda. Its problem is, however, that it abandons the concept of the state altogether”.44

In an authoritarian context, Realism appears to be a more adequate framework than FPA due to the former’s focus on security and power. This is particularly true given the high degree of militarization in the region. Perhaps the FPA approach could be of greater significance for the analysis of Iran where parallel political structures (co)exist and various figures compete in the decision-making processes.45 Some even question the terminology “state”, arguing that due to the different interest groups and factions within Middle Eastern states one might just as well call it by a different name. Foreign Policy Analysis also focuses “on the role of psychological factors, institutional policy-making processes and public opinion in foreign policy.”46 For instance, one might argue that in authoritarian regimes public opinion does not influence foreign policy. However, “foreign policy may also, in authoritarian states, be affected by public opinion”,47 Halliday argues, referencing Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait and anti-Kuwaiti sentiment among Iraqis. The same goes for the relations between Arab states and Israel where elites in power would have wanted to make progress but were constrained by public hostility towards the Jewish state.48 FPA research also emphasizes

“ (…) the importance of individual leaders’ beliefs, perceptions and personalities for foreign policy (which) leads us to expect that changes in leaders are critical to foreign policy even without regime change.”49

Thus, Foreign Policy Analysis goes much deeper into the details of leadership and personalities in power, stressing that even minor character traits can have an effect on foreign policy decisions.

1.3 Hypotheses

This research project will examine Saudi foreign policy towards Bahrain and Yemen against the backdrop of external factors and domestic determinants. Based primarily on Realist assumptions, the first hypothesis of this research project is that Saudi policies towards Bahrain and Yemen since 2011 have been reactions to the influence of Iran and Iranian-linked groups (H1). Thus, Iranian involvement in these cases constitutes the independent variable (IV), and the dependent variable (DV) is Saudi foreign policy vis-à-vis Bahrain and Yemen since early 2011. For the first case, Bahrain, I suggest a second hypothesis: There has been limited political and ideological Iranian influence on Shiʿa communities and groups in Bahrain (H2). Based on this hypothesis (correct or false), I pose the question if Saudi policies towards Bahrain were primarily driven by the specter of increased Iranian influence or whether Saudi domestic concerns played a more significant role. Hence my third hypothesis: Saudi policies towards Bahrain since early 2011 have been designed to roll back Iran’s political influence at Saudi Arabia’s doorstep (H3).

In Yemen, the case seems to be clearer. The Yemeni Houthi movement, which emerged in 1992,50 has been supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, although the extent of that support is not comparable to Tehran’s close ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shiʿa militias in Iraq. I thus suggest a fourth hypothesis: Iranian ideological and military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen is limited but has grown since 2014 (H4). With the Saudi intervention starting in early 2015, a possible correlation between Houthi actions and Saudi policies in Yemen appears plausible. At the same time, domestic factors such as economics, religious affiliations, change (or transition) of leadership, among several others, must be considered as well. Against this backdrop, I formulate my fifth hypothesis: Saudi policies towards Yemen since March 2015 correlate with Iran’s (and Hezbollah’s) growing influence through the Houthi rebel movement (H5).


In order to answer the research question and test the hypotheses, I will now present a definition of influence. It is generally accepted that ‘influence means the modification of one actor’s behaviour by that of another’.51 This definition goes back to Cox and Jacobson (1973)52 who emphasize that influence constitutes a modified decision. This modification, however, need not be a direct intervention in the decision-making of an actor. If actor A is aware of the thoughts, presence or actions of actor B, it can already be classified as political influence. Thus influence can be defined as ‘the achievement of (a part of) an actor’s goal in political decision-making, which is either caused by one’s own intervention or by the decision-makers’ anticipation.’53

Influence is not to be equated with power. The latter is defined as ‘capability; it is the aggregate of political resources that are available to an actor. (…) Power may be converted into influence, but it is not necessarily so converted at all or to its full extent.’54 Hence, power can be regarded as the ability to project influence on other actors whereas influence as such is the actual process of modifying decisions on the other end.

2 The Case of Bahrain

2.1 Saudi-Bahraini links

In Bahrain, a Sunni minority elite rules over a Shiʿa majority population.55 The Bahraini Al Khalifa dynasty is closely allied with the Al Saʿuds in Saudi Arabia, and the tiny kingdom hosts the US Navy Fifth Fleet in its capital Manamah. Politically speaking, Bahrain belongs to the American-Saudi camp,56 but internally there have been major tensions between the Sunni regime and the Shiʿa population, the latter being considered a “potential if not actual fifth column of Iran”.57 In fact, Bahrain has seen tensions and uprisings since the early 1980s. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran had encouraged various Shiʿa movements in the Gulf states to embark on a similar trajectory. From now on, sectarian policy strategies became the main tool through which to frame and control the Shiʿa majority population.

Shiʿa Islamists, inspired and assisted by Iranian and Iraqi religious scholars, established cells in the Saudi Eastern Province. These groups, which came to be known as shirazis, organized uprisings in Qatif and its vicinity in 1979 and in early 1980. This culminated in an attempted (and foiled) coup against the Bahraini regime in 1981.58 Thus Manamah came to think of the Shiʿa as a security threat, and invoking the Iranian specter became a common way of framing protests and unrest among the Shiʿa population. Between 1994 and 1998, a series of protests, referred to as the “Bahraini intifada”, was met with harsh repression on the part of the Bahraini government. Likewise, the Saudi National Guard crushed the shirazi uprising on its own soil.59

Tensions between Riyadh and the Saudi Shiʿa have been around for some decades now, and many see the 1979 Iranian Revolution as the modern-day watershed moment in terms of Sunni-Shiʿa relations. Since then, Arab Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, have feared the “spread of revolutionary Islam”60 and Iranian influence on their Shiʿa populations. Thus, Saudi Arabia and others have attempted to portray the Iranian revolutionary ideals as a purely Persian phenomenon and as an ideology deviating from the accepted (Sunni Wahhabi) form of Islam.61 One should also mention that Saudi Arabia’s Shiʿa population has been the target of several terrorist attacks such as the Qatif mosque bombing in May 2015 which killed at least 20 people.62 At the same time, the Shiʿa population continued to be perceived as a threat by the government, often linked to notions of Iranian interference.63

Since 1986, Bahrain has been linked to Saudi Arabia via the King Fahd Bridge, a sixteen-mile causeway whose construction began after the Iranian Revolution when the Bahraini government was afraid of a similar upheaval taking place on its territory. This bridge has been designed for Saudi troops to come to the aid of Bahrain’s regime in the case of an emergency (as in 2011). The Saudi and Bahraini security forces have had a shared concern about the Saudi Shiʿa and even banned them from entering Bahrain at times.64 In this manner, the securitization of the Shiʿa, both in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, was translated into political measures which discriminated against an entire segment of the population.

In the economic realm, Bahrain is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia. Manamah’s oil reserves are limited, ranking 67th among states with proven resources as of 2016.65 Despite recent oil and gas discoveries off Bahrain’s west coast,66 the government is aware of the need to diversify its economy. The tourism and banking sectors have suffered tremendously from the 2011 uprising as the number of tourists dropped and banks withdrew some of their personnel from Bahrain. Since then, the small island kingdom has become ever more dependent on Saudi money and visitors than before.67

2.2 Iranian-Bahraini links

In my second hypothesis I have suggested that there has been limited political and ideological Iranian influence on Shiʿa communities and groups in Bahrain . Prior to the Iranian Revolution, Shiʿa movements such as the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) were engaged in various cultural activities, albeit not actively participating in Bahraini politics.68 The 1981 coup, only two years after Shiʿa Islamists seized power in Tehran, shifted the threat perception in the eyes of Manamah’s rulers.69 Hence, we must also consider the possibility of misinformation and deliberate propaganda on the part of the regime.70

Nonetheless, certain organizations and groups can be identified here. One of these organizations is al-Wifaq, described by Bernard Haykel as “moderate Shi’ite”.71 Al-Wifaq is a Shiʿa Islamist party72 in Bahrain, headed by its secretary-general Ali Salman (b. 1965) who had studied in the Iranian city of Qom (often “simplistically regarded as a conservative regime stronghold”73 ). At the time of the uprising, al-Wifaq held 18 seats in the Bahraini parliament. When the first protester was killed on 15 February 2011, all MPs of al-Wifaq resigned. Ali Salman, however, was engaged in a dialogue with the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (b. 1969). There were some more radical organizations which rejected the Bahraini monarchy altogether. Al-Haqq (“Movement for Liberties and Democracy”) and al-Wafa (“Islamic Trend”), two Islamist organizations with many supporters during the uprising, were banned by the government in Manamah.74 Compared to al-Wifaq, these groups were indeed radical, calling for the overthrow of the Bahraini regime and forming, together with the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, a “coalition for a republic”.75

This, of course, led pro-regime voices to argue that the coalition attempted to install an “Islamic republic”, which resonated with the fears of many Bahraini Sunnis and regime supporters. Moreover, Toby Matthiesen points to Hezbollah supporters he met in Manamah, although there is an ongoing debate as to whether Hezbollah cells exist in Bahrain. Al-Wifaq would deny such claims and insist that it (i.e. al-Wifaq) is a local organization without any foreign influences.76 In 2011, Bahraini politicians and media sometimes referred to al-Wifaq as a “Bahraini Hezbollah”, thereby suggesting it was following an Iranian agenda.77

While there is no evidence of active Iranian involvement in the Bahraini uprising,78 it is true that various Shiʿa movements had ideological ties to Iran and Hezbollah. Matthiesen lists three currents of Shiʿa political Islam in the Gulf: The shirazis (see above), al-Dawa, and Hezbollah. In fact, half of al-Wifaq ’s supporters hailed from the Hezbollah trend, while the others came from al-Dawa or neither of these two. Despite these affiliations, Matthiesen concludes:


1 See for example Gause, G. F. (2014): Beyond Sectarianism. The New Middle East Cold War. Doha: Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper 11, 7/2014, pp. 1–27; Matthiesen, T. (2013): Sectarian Gulf. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 18–21; Ubriaco, J. (2017): The Middle East’s Cold War. Harvard International Review, 38 (3), p. 6.

2 Facilitated by Saudi oil resources and US strategic interests in the region, see Mandaville, P. (2016): Islam and International Relations in the Middle East: From Umma to Nation State, in: Fawcett, L. (Ed.) (2016): International Relations of the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 176–195.

3 An excellent scholarly overview of Salafist ideology and practice is provided in Meijer, R. (Ed.) (2009): Global Salafism. Islam’s New Religious Movement. London: Hurst Publishers.

4 One might also add Palestine where the two dominant and competing political factions (Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) have been supported by Iran (Hamas) and Saudi Arabia (Palestinian Authority), respectively, see Gause 2014, p. 14. Although Hamas’ relations with Iran have seen several ups and downs, the general ideological, not sectarian, connection has prevailed.

5 Phillips, C. (2017): Eyes Bigger Than Stomachs: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria. Middle East Policy, 24 (1), p. 40.

6 Zeino-Mahmalat, E. (2013): The Role of Saudi Arabia and Iran During and After the Upheaval in the Arab World. KAS International Reports, 8/2013, p. 9.

7 Gause 2014, pp. 6–11; see also ibid. (2010): The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 180f.

8 For a critical discussion of sectarianism in the Middle East see Hashemi, N. (2016): Towards a Political Theory of Sectarianism in the Middle East. The Salience of Authoritarianism over Theology. Indiana: Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, 1 (1), pp. 65–76. The central argument here is that sectarian identities are exploited and manipulated by these authoritarian regimes to distract from popular demands for democratization, see p. 71f.

9 Gause 2014, p. 16. The fight over the Muslim Brotherhood has also sparked controversy within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar, with its massive gas and oil revenues, has been supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups in Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, and was accused by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain of being too easy on Iran. In fact, the former demanded that Qatar cut off relations with Iran and curb its support for the Muslim Brotherhood (among several other issues). When Qatar refused to give in to these demands, the four countries cut all diplomatic ties to Doha on 5 June 2017, thus revealing a major rift within the GCC between an anti-Iran bloc (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain) and Qatar.

10 Hashemi 2016, p. 74; Matthiesen 2013, p. 20; see also Haykel, B. (2013): Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a Time of Revolution. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Gulf Analysis Paper, 2/2013, p. 3.

11 Hashemi 2016, p. 69.

12 See for example an interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the American magazine The Atlantic, Goldberg, J. (2018): “Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good’”. The Atlantic, April 2018 (Online Sources). Regardless of what these statements comprise, a critical analysis may use them but cannot rely exclusively on them, they are not “an index of motive (…) let alone a guide to historical accuracy”, see Halliday, F. (2005): The Middle East in International Relations. Power, Politics and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 32.

13 Halliday 2005, p. 25f.; Mabon, S. (2020): The Kingdom and the Glory? Saudi Arabia as a Middle Power in the Contemporary Middle East, in: Saouli, A. et al. (2020): Unfulfilled Aspirations. Middle Power Politics in the Middle East. London: Hurst & Company, p. 137f.; Gause, G. F. (2020): Saudi Arabia and Regional Leadership. The Impossibility of Hegemony. Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, 243, 8/2020, p. 2.

14 Darwich, M. & Kaarbo, J. (2020): IR in the Middle East: Foreign Policy Analysis in Theoretical Approaches. International Relations, 34 (2), pp. 228–232.

15 Halliday 2005, p. 32f.

16 Matthiesen 2013, p. 20. The exceptions, as already mentioned, are Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, see Juneau, T. (2016): Iran's Policy Towards the Houthis in Yemen: A Limited Return on a Modest Investment. International Affairs, 92 (3), 3/2016, p. 649.

17 Steinberg, G. (2014): Saudi-Arabien. Politik, Geschichte, Religion. Munich: C.H. Beck, pp. 33–37.

18 Ibid. (2020a): Saudi-Arabien, die Pandemie und das Öl. Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 64, 7/2020, p. 2.

19 Mabon 2020, pp. 139–141; Haykel, B. (2021): “Bernard Haykel Says More”. Project Syndicate, July 2021 (Internet Sources).

20 Goldberg 2018.

21 Baker, P. (2020): “Israel and United Arab Emirates Strike Major Diplomatic Agreement”. New York Times, August 2020; Aljazeera (2020): “Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign US-brokered normalisation deals”. Aljazeera, September 2020 (Internet Sources).

22 Steinberg 2020a, p. 6.

23 Fathollah-Nejad, A. (2020): The Islamic Republic of Iran Four Decades On: The 2017/18 Protests Amid a Triple Crisis. Doha: Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper 28, 4/2020, p. 9, 20.

24 Mabon, S. (2019): Saudi Arabia and Iran. Islam and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, in: Akbarzadeh, S. (Ed) (2016): Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 140.

25 Ibid.

26 Rose, G. (1998): Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy. World Politics, 51 (1), pp. 144–170.

27 Baker 2020.

28 Gu, X. (2013): Theorien der Internationalen Beziehungen. Munich: Oldenbourg, pp. 72–75.

29 Juneau, T. (2015): Squandered Opportunity. Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 35ff.

30 Schweller, R. L. (1998): Deadly Imbalances. Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 70–73.

31 Walt, S. (1987): The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 17.

32 Schweller, R. L. (1994): Bandwagoning for Profit. Bringing the Revisionist State Back In. International Security, 19 (1), pp. 83–105.

33 Ibid., p. 88.

34 Thus Middle East scholar Guido Steinberg, see Böhme, C. (2021): “Teheran betreibt eine sehr kluge Bündnispolitik“. Tagesspiegel, July 2021 (Internet Sources).

35 Schweller 1998, p. 89.

36 Darwich & Kaarbo 2020, p. 226.

37 Halliday 2005, p. 27.

38 Dessouki, A. & Korany, B. (2010): The Foreign Policies of Arab States. The Challenge of Globalization. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

39 Ibid., p. 28f.

40 Ibid., p. 29.

41 Chulov, M. (2017): “How Saudi elite became five-star prisoners at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton”. The Guardian, November 2017 (Internet Sources).

42 Halliday 2005, p. 28.

43 See for example Steinberg, G. (2002): Religion und Staat in Saudi-Arabien. Die wahhabitischen Gelehrten 1902–1953. Würzburg: Ergon.

44 Halliday 2005, p. 30.

45 See Fathollah-Nejad, A. (2021): Iran in an Emerging New World Order. From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 123­–180.

46 Darwich & Kaarbo 2020, p. 227.

47 Halliday 2005, p. 30.

48 Darwich & Kaarbo 2020, p. 233.

49 Ibid., p. 231.

50 Lackner, H. (2017): Yemen in Crisis. Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State. London: Saqi Books, p. 149f.

51 Arts, B. & Verschuren, P. (1999): Assessing Political Influence in Complex Decision-Making: An Instrument Based on Triangulation. International Political Science Review, 20 (4), p. 412.

52 Cox, R. & Jacobson, H. (eds.) (1973): The Anatomy of Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

53 Arts & Verschuren 1999, p. 413.

54 Ibid., cited from Cox & Jacobson 1973, p. 3.

55 Ismail, R. (2015): “The Shiʿa Question in Saudi Arabia”. Middle East Institute, June 2015 (Internet Sources).

56 Jones, M. O. (2015): “Bahrain’s Uprising. Resistance and Repression in the Gulf”. Open Democracy, September 2015 (Internet Sources). Jones’ observation: “A British and American military presence equates to transatlantic support for the authoritarian status quo”.

57 Louër, L. (2013): Sectarianism and Coup-Proofing Strategies in Bahrain. Journal of Strategic Studies, 36 (2), p. 246. In fact, Iranian politicians both before and after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 have regularly questioned Bahrain’s sovereignty, thus contributing to Manamah’s distrust and fear of its Shiʿa majority population.

58 Ibid., p. 247. Louër notes that this happened with “some logistical support from Tehran”.

59 Matthiesen 2013, p. 23.

60 Hashemi 2016, p. 2.

61 Ibid.

62 Ismail 2015; Phillips 2017, p. 44.

63 Matthiesen 2013, p. 24, 30.

64 Ibid., p. 30f.

65 Worldometer (2016): “Bahrain Oil”. Worldometer, 2016 (Internet Sources).

66 International Trade Administration (2021): “Bahrain. Country Commercial Guide”. International Trade Administration, September 2021 (Internet Sources).

67 Matthiesen 2013, p. 30.

68 Louër 2013, p. 246.

69 It is no coincidence that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded that very year.

70 See, for example, Iqbal, M. (2012): “Bahrain warns Iran against meddling in its affairs”. Business Recorder, May 2012 (Internet Sources). Note the reference to ‘Iranian claims that Bahrain is the 14th governate’ of the Islamic Republic; see also Matthiesen 2013, p. 29, who points to the “portrayal in Saudi-owned media of all the protests (…) as an Iranian plot carried out with the help of the local Shia populations.”

71 Haykel 2013, p. 4.

72 In fact, there are no formal parties in Bahrain, “only political societies that effectively function as parties”, see Matthiesen 2013, p. 139, footnote 19.

73 Fathollah-Nejad 2020, p. 12.

74 Matthiesen 2013, pp. 13–24.

75 Ibid., p. 48.

76 Ibid., p. 41, 44.

77 Steinberg, G. (2020b): Krieg am Golf. Wie der Machtkampf zwischen Iran und Saudi-Arabien die Weltsicherheit bedroht. Munich: Droemer, p. 144.

78 Ibid., p. 134.

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Responding to Iran’s Influence? A Comparative Account of Saudi Foreign Policy Behavior towards Bahrain and Yemen since 2011
The American University in Cairo
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Matthias J. Messerle (Author), 2022, Responding to Iran’s Influence? A Comparative Account of Saudi Foreign Policy Behavior towards Bahrain and Yemen since 2011, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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