A Band of (Muslim) Brothers? Exploring Bahrain’s Role in the Qatar Crisis
Bahraini FM Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (R) in Cairo 7/5/17

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


The crisis which has engulfed the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) states since June 5, 2017, leading to an unprecedented diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar, has effectively split the Gulf into three camps, fracturing the uneasy yet much-lauded unity of an alliance which has long prided itself on stability and security.

Bahrain did not hesitate to enter the fray from day one of the crisis, and quickly joined the Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis in picking a fight with Qatar. Very little however has been written about Bahrain’s involvement, in spite of a number of incongruities which suggest that the small Gulf state would likely have preferred a negotiated solution rather than open confrontation with its eastern neighbor. What explains Bahrain’s decision to get involved at all? 

Overview of the Crisis

Much has been written about the motives of the Saudi and U.A.E.-led bloc, joined by Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen’s government-in-exile and Libya’s Tobruk-based Council of Deputies,[1] in breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Kuwait and Oman have adopted their traditional positions as impartial mediators in the crisis, with Kuwait assuming an active role in facilitating negotiations between the two sides and Oman affirming its neutrality and seeking to sit out the crisis as best it can.

The Saudi and U.A.E.-led bloc’s demands on Qatar are deep-rooted and far-reaching, and essentially consist of measures to contain Qatar’s adventurous foreign policy, long a thorn in the side of its Gulf neighbours. The list of 13 demands[2] released by the bloc focus on bringing Qatar into line on policy areas which correlate with the internal threat perceptions of principally Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Egypt — namely, Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups, some Sunni fundamentalist factions fighting in Syria and certain domestic opposition organizations in these countries plus Bahrain.

Perceived Qatari threats to the boycotters’ regime security also extend to Qatari-funded media outlets such as Al Jazeera, whose ostensibly independent coverage[3] of political issues in Egypt, and the Gulf in particular, has led Qatar’s neighbors to accuse it of stirring unrest in their domestic affairs. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also demand that Doha fall into line on the issue of their principal geopolitical preoccupation: countering the threat of Iranian influence in both the Gulf and wider Middle East. Indeed, the very first item on the bloc’s list of demands requires Qatar to downgrade its diplomatic ties and cut off all military and intelligence cooperation with Tehran.

Many have pointed out the double standards at play wherein Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. accuse Qatar of sponsoring terror organizations in Iraq and Syria, when these countries themselves (along with Kuwait[4]) have been linked to the financing of Sunni terror networks,[5] and are openly sponsoring alternative Sunni fundamentalist factions in Syria. Likewise, Emirati trade with Iran is estimated to be greater than that of Qatar,[6] and a number of Gulf states maintain cordial relations with Tehran, including Oman and Kuwait — both of which declined to join Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. in recalling their ambassadors following the January 2016 diplomatic crisis surrounding the execution of Saudi Shiʿi cleric Nimr al-Nimr.[7]

Understanding the Bahrain-Qatar Relationship 

Bahrain did not hesitate to enter the fray from day one of the crisis, and quickly joined the Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis in picking a fight with Qatar. Like Qatar, Bahrain’s government has also been accused of being slow to shut down terror funding networks and stymie Bahraini involvement in groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.[8] Bahrain’s severing of diplomatic relations with Qatar over the issue of Doha’s closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood is particularly puzzling, given that the Brotherhood’s Bahrain affiliate operates as a legal political society and has won seats in Bahrain’s parliament on a number of occasions. Bahrain appears to be the only country in the Arab world whose branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is loyal to the government, and has not been conceived of as a threat to regime stability. This stands in stark contrast to the Saudi and Emirati approach, whose aggressive campaign against the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere stems from fears that the Brotherhood’s grassroots Islamism could pose a substantive threat to monarchical legitimacy back home. What explains Bahrain’s contradictory position, and can Manama maintain it as the Qatar crisis enters its third month?

Bahrain’s relationship with Qatar has long been volatile; however, their bilateral relations had actually improved in recent years ...

Bahrain’s relationship with Qatar has long been volatile; however, their bilateral relations had actually improved in recent years, with the current crisis putting paid to a number of ambitious joint ventures, including a much-discussed proposal to construct a “friendship bridge” linking the two countries.[9] Much of the volatility in the Bahrain-Qatar relationship is the product of their close familial ties and tribal heritage. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa monarchs conquered the island in 1783 from their base in Zubarah in present-day Qatar, maintaining control over Zubarah and other parts of Qatar until the late nineteenth century, when they were forced out by the British following an attempt to capture the current Qatari capital of Doha.[10] Qatar’s ruling al-Thani tribe only gained full control over Zubarah in 1957, again following British intervention against the Al Khalifa’s attempts to assert Bahraini sovereignty over the area.[11]

Territorial disputes continued to mar relations between Bahrain and Qatar after each achieved independence, with both states claiming the uninhabited Hawar islands, as well as Zubarah and a number of reefs and shoals, all of which were rumoured to sit atop sizeable deposits of oil and gas.[12] In 1996 Qatar accused Bahrain of participating in a counter-coup against Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,[13] whose removal of his father in the previous year had not gone down well in Riyadh and Manama. Yet, following this incident relations began to improve between the two countries. Bahrain and Qatar established full diplomatic relations in 1997 and agreed to petition the International Court of Justice for a peaceful resolution of the border dispute, which was settled in 2001.[14]

While Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in briefly recalling its ambassador to Qatar in 2014, a former Bahraini parliamentarian told the author that Manama felt it “could not refuse to participate when the U.A.E. and Saudi decided to settle their differences with Qatar,” but that Bahrain’s involvement in the matter remained “low key.”[15] This is likely due to the same internal contradictions apparent in the current crisis — the 2014 spat principally concerned Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, including allegations that Qatar had allowed Brotherhood members fleeing Egypt after the ouster of Mohammed Morsi to shelter in Doha.[16] The very same year, Manama allowed its own, pro-regime Brotherhood affiliate to stand for elections to the Bahraini parliament, where the group won a single seat. This is a fine line to walk indeed, and begs the obvious question of why Bahrain’s government is nurturing a relationship with the Bahraini branch of the Brotherhood in the first place? 

Al-Minbar al-Islami: Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood Predicament

Domestic policy-making in Bahrain has long been informed by the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy’s need to shore up its base within the countrys minority Sunni community, with the restive Shiʿa majority increasingly conceived of as security threat and potential fifth column.

Domestic policy-making in Bahrain has long been informed by the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy’s need to shore up its base within the country’s minority Sunni community, with the restive Shiʿa majority increasingly conceived of as security threat and potential fifth column.[17] What Gengler refers to as “the securitisation of the Shiʿa problem”[18] in Bahrain escalated further in the wake of the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which shook the Al Khalifa regime to its foundations and precipitated a bloody crackdown which continues to this day. While Manama became increasingly beholden to Riyadh, which spearheaded the G.C.C. military intervention that ultimately succeeded in putting down Bahrain’s mass pro-democracy protests, uniting Bahrain’s Sunni community behind the Al Khalifa monarchy became a matter of regime survival.

Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the National Islamic Platform Society (Jamʿiyyat al-Minbar al-Waṭanī al-Islāmī, known as al-Minbar) is considered a pro-regime organization, in fact one of the King’s uncles, ʿIsa bin Muhammad al-Khalifa, was involved in founding its parent society al-ʾIslah in 1984.[19] The support of groups such as al-Minbar in shoring up Sunni support for the regime during the 2011 protests, and in promoting the government’s sectarianisation policies during the post-2011 crackdown on the Shiʿi-dominated opposition, has played a crucial role in the monarchy’s ability to maintain its grip on power. Al-Minbar’s position is seen as “highly critical of the Shiʿi revolt, which it describes as sectarian, violent and a reflection of terrorism,”[20] and the group has at times pressured the government to crack down even more harshly on dissent in the Shiʿi-majority areas of Bahrain. Groups such as al-Minbar and the Salafi al-ʾAsalah Society have proven to be highly useful allies to a government which has sought to employ sectarian divide and rule tactics to strengthen its leverage within the Sunni community.[21] Al-Minbar has been vocal in its support for government efforts to tarnish Bahrain’s pro-democracy protest movement as a Shiʿa plot, backed by Iran, and Manama is reluctant to take steps to limit the group’s domestic activities, in spite of heightening anti-Brotherhood sentiments in much of the Gulf.

During Bahrain’s 2011 Arab Spring protests, both Qatar and the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement expressed their support for the embattled Al Khalifa regime. Qatar, like Bahrain’s other G.C.C. neighbors, was principally concerned with its own security, and viewed stabilizing the Al Khalifa regime as key to preventing spill-over into other Gulf states should Bahrain’s monarchy fall. Qatar contributed a small number of troops to the G.C.C. Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) which entered Bahrain in March 2011 to quell the protests, and was content to allow Saudi Arabia to spearhead the G.C.C.’s defense of Bahrain’s monarchy. As Coates Ulrichsen notes, Qatar’s support for the Al Khalifa and the Saudi-led military deployment to Bahrain contrasted sharply with the “thrusting unilateralism that characterised some of Qatar’s other Arab Spring policies.”[22] The Muslim Brotherhood’s Doha-based spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who features on the Saudi and Emirati-led bloc’s recent list of Qatar-backed supporters of terrorism,[23] was vocal in his condemnation of Bahrain’s mostly-Shiʿi pro-democracy protesters in 2011, denouncing them as violent, sectarian and motivated by “foreign forces.”[24] It is little wonder then that Bahrain’s government has been comparatively untroubled by widely publicized meetings between al-Minbar representatives and Sheikh al-Qaradawi in Doha, given that both are viewed as supporters of Manama’s often brutal efforts to cement its grip on power. It is doubtful that political groups in Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. would elicit such a reaction, should they take it upon themselves to pay al-Qaradawi a visit.

Why Get Involved at All?

The Muslim Brotherhood is clearly not perceived as a significant threat by Bahrain’s government, which remains preoccupied with tightening its latest crackdown on dissent, including targeting prominent human rights activists[25] and dissolving Bahrain’s last remaining independent opposition societies.[26] In addition, Bahrain’s government has shown comparatively little concern for the issue of terror funding, with more than 100 Bahrainis estimated to be fighting for Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, including top IS cleric Turki al-Binali, who according to Shehabi was “expanding his influence in Bahrain and recruiting for his cause with little or no interference from the authorities”[27] as late as 2014. Given that Qatar’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged terrorist fundraising are cited as the primary reasons for the Saudi-U.A.E. bloc’s severing of ties with Doha, why didn’t Bahrain simply sit this one out, like neighboring Kuwait and Oman?

The answer takes us back to the events of 2011 and their aftermath, during which Manama was pulled so tightly into Riyadh’s orbit that some have argued Bahrain ceded its sovereignty, or at the very least its foreign policy, to its powerful neighbor.[28] The decision to deploy the G.C.C. PSF to Bahrain in March 2011, said to be at the invitation of Bahrain’s King, is often cited as the moment in which Bahrain essentially became a vassal state of Saudi Arabia, in particular as the PSF has actually remained in Bahrain despite the ostensibly temporary nature of its deployment.[29] The Saudis’ military leverage over Manama is compounded by their economic influence, in particular as low oil prices and economic mismanagement have seen Bahrain run a series of budget deficits, with public debt ballooning at an alarming rate.[30] The G.C.C., including Qatar, gave Bahrain $10 billion in 2011 for employment and development projects,[31] seen as a means of heading off Arab Spring-inspired civil unrest, and much of Bahrain’s budget is dependent on revenues from the Saudi Aramco-controlled Abu Saʿfah oil field, which splits profits between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.[32] Bahrain’s increasing economic, military, and foreign policy dependence on Saudi Arabia perhaps explains its enthusiasm for its neighbor’s growing geopolitical assertiveness, including the creation of a formal “Gulf Union” (rejected by the other G.C.C. states),[33] its disastrous military campaign in Yemen, and various diplomatic and rhetorical attacks on Iran.

Bahrain shares Saudi Arabia’s concerns that an emboldened Iran is seeking to foment unrest in the Gulf’s Shiʿi communities, and these fears are compounded by Bahrain’s unique sectarian demography ...

Fears of growing Iranian influence in the Gulf, well-founded or otherwise, in part explain Manama’s involvement in the diplomatic blockade on Qatar. Bahrain shares Saudi Arabia’s concerns that an emboldened Iran is seeking to foment unrest in the Gulf’s Shiʿi communities, and these fears are compounded by Bahrain’s unique sectarian demography, and the apparently genuinely-held belief by many in Bahrain’s government that an Iranian hand was behind the country’s Shiʿa-dominated 2011 uprising. Half of all the organizations listed by the Saudi-U.A.E. bloc as terror groups allegedly supported by Qatar are based in Bahrain, including the February 14 Youth Coalition, Bahraini Hezbollah, and a secretive organisation called Saraya al-Mukhtar.[34] It is telling that, while virtually no evidence exists of a link between these groups and Qatar, all five of the Bahraini entities listed have been linked to Iran by Bahrain’s government at various junctures. The former Bahraini MP interviewed by the author dismissed any connection between these groups and Doha, and speculated that Manama was simply jumping on the Saudi bandwagon, potentially with an eye to claiming financial damages from its wealthy neighbor — “Qatar financing these Shiʿa groups? It’s just opportunism.”[35]

The Bahraini government has been largely successful in depicting its 2011 pro-democracy protests as a Shiʿi-Islamist, Iran-inspired uprising and a threat to both Bahrain’s Sunni minority and the balance of power in the Gulf. Manama’s increasingly sectarian view of the world has impacted upon its participation in a diplomatic spat which, at face value, did not align with its domestic objective of using Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate to strengthen Sunni support for the Al Khalifa regime. Al-Minbar have maintained a low profile since the crisis with Qatar erupted; however, it is possible that Bahrain’s government may be forced to sacrifice its ally at some point, given broader efforts to designate the transnational Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in the Gulf. Bahrain’s involvement in the diplomatic boycott of Qatar is not motivated by concerns surrounding Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, nor its funding of international terror networks. Rather, Manama’s ceding of much of its foreign policy to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the 2011 protests compelled it to join the Saudi and U.A.E.-led bloc’s move against Qatar. The sectarianization of Bahrain’s domestic conflict, and its hypersensitivity to Iranian interference in its affairs, mean that Qatar’s pragmatic relationship with Iran is far more likely to hold the key to Manama’s concerns.




[1] A number of other smaller nations also severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, including Comoros, the Maldives, Mauritania, and Senegal.

[2] For the list of demands, see “Arab States Issue 13 Demands to End Qatar-Gulf Crisis,” Al Jazeera, July 12, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[3] For more on the link between Al Jazeera and Qatari foreign policy see Zainab Abdul-Nabi, “Al-Jazeera’s Relationship with Qatar Before and after the Arab Spring: Effective Public Diplomacy or Blatant Propaganda?” Arab Media & Society 24 (2017), accessed July 26, 2017, .

[4] Kylie Baxter, “Kuwait, Political Violence and the Syrian War,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 71:2 (2017): 128-145.

[5] For example, a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable from the US State Department comments that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” See Wikileaks, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[6] Katie Paul, “Gulf Leaders Trade Barbs as Qatar Dispute Shows No Let-Up,” Reuters, June 10, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[7] Ian Black et al, “Sunni Allies Join Saudi Arabia in Severing Diplomatic Ties with Iran,” The Guardian, January 5, 2016, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[8] See Daniel Wagner, “Bahrain’s Jihadist Dilemma,” International Policy Digest, July 19, 2014, accessed July 26, 2017, and Ala’a Shehabi, “Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2014, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[9] Krista E. Wiegand, “Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands: Resolution of a Gulf Territorial Dispute,” Middle East Journal 66:1 (2012): 94.

[10] Omar Hesham AlShehabi, “Contested Modernity: Divided Rule and the Birth of Sectarianism, Nationalism and Absolutism in Bahrain,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 43 (2016): 6.

[11] Wiegand, “Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands,” 82.

[12] Wiegand, “Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands,” 79.

[13] “Life Sentences for Qatari Coup Plotters,” BBC News February 29, 2000, accessed July 26, 2017,   .

[14] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Qatar: The Gulf's Problem Child,” The Atlantic, June 5, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[15] Interview with Bahraini former MP, July 2017.

[16] Ian Black, “Qatar-Gulf Deal Forces Expulsion of Muslim Brotherhood Leaders,” The Guardian, September 17, 2014, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[17] Moore-Gilbert, Kylie, “From Protected State to Protection Racket: Contextualising Divide and Rule in Bahrain,” Journal of Arabian Studies, 6:2 (2016): 179.

[18] Justin Gengler, “Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid and the Securitization of ‘the Shiʿa Problem’ in Bahrain,” Journal of Arabian Studies 3:1 (2013): 53-79.

[19] Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) 59.

[20] Elisheva Machlis, “Al-Wefaq and the February 14 Uprising: Islam, Nationalism and Democracy- the Shiʿi-Bahraini Discourse,” Middle Eastern Studies 52:6 (2016): 985.

[21] Kylie Moore-Gilbert, “Sectarian Divide and Rule in Bahrain: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?” Middle East Institute, January 19, 2016, accessed July 26, 2017, http://margitsziget.info/content/map/sectarian-divide-and-rule-bahrain-self-fu....

[22] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Qatar and the Arab Spring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 115.

[23] “بيان مشترك: حظر على أفراد ومؤسسات إرهابية ترعاها قطر” [Joint Statement: A ban on individuals and terrorist institutions sponsored by Qatar], Skynews, June 8, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[24] Mohamed Alarab, “Qaradawi Says Bahrain’s Revolution Sectarian,” Al Arabiya News, March 19, 2011, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[25] For example, Bahrain Center for Human Rights’ Nabeel Rajab, an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience, has been in detention since June 2016 charged with a number of offenses related to his Twitter account and interviews he gave to foreign media outlets. See:

[26] Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, “Bahrain Dissolves Wa’ad, Last Major Opposition Society,” May 31, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[27] Shehabi, “Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?”

[28] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013) 19.

[29] Yoel Guzansky, The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East: Between Iran and the ‘Arab Spring’ (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015) 35.

[30] The World Bank, “Bahrain’s Economic Outlook,” July 2016, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[31] Ulf Laessing and Cynthia Johnston, “Gulf States Launch $20 Billion Fund for Oman and Bahrain,” Reuters, March 10, 2011, accessed July 26, 2017, .

[32] Justin Gengler, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015) 2.

[33] Matthiesen, “Sectarian Gulf,” 128.

[34] “بيان مشترك: حظر على أفراد ومؤسسات إرهابية ترعاها قطر” [Joint Statement: A ban on individuals and terrorist institutions sponsored by Qatar].

[35] Interview with Bahraini former MP, July 2017.