The issue of the GCC Union has dominated public debate this week in Bahrain, culminating in a demonstration led by Ayatollah Isa Qassim in Budaiya on Friday and the (loyalist) National Unity Gathering in Al Fateh Mosque which came out in support of the union on Saturday. Outspoken comments by prominent Iranians have particularly galvanized public opinion.

Pro-union gathering: Sectarian & predictable, or vital show of support?

Even within the loyalist camp, there are differing views towards the Gulf Union and public rallies on this issue; even though there is a wide section of the public who are in favour of the Union since they feel it will that Saudi Arabia will provide them with security, while Bahrain is facing threats from Iran.

Ahmed 29, from Budaiya stated “Iran has always been vocal about its views towards the GCC and its recent statements show that it fears the Arabs uniting, as it will be side stepped and will face a bigger threat”.

Abdullah from Riffa stated “I refused to go to the [National Unity] Gathering as they are predictable. I support the GCC Union but I do not support the gathering and other sectarian movements that fall under its umbrella”. Others in the social media opposed this view, saying how important it was for people to demonstrate their support for the Union; although many described the issue in simplistic Sunni vs. Shia terms.

Iran “shows its true face”

To many Bahrainis, protests in Tehran against the Gulf Union makes Iranian interference very stark, particularly comments from Iranian hardliners claiming Bahrain to be part of Iran. “We have to take statements by Iranian hardliners into consideration. Larijani represents the government and people of Iran, hence this gives his words more weight” said Samar 32, Manama.

Ahmed 26 from Saar, said that the Gulf Union issue had “forced Iran to show its true face, and its hostile intentions towards the Kingdom”.

Many saw that the National Unity Gathering on Saturday sent a very simple message and that is there are many Bahrainis that support the GCC Union, despite the opposition’s stance.  “The protest movement in Bahrain will denounce anything that is not accepted or put forth by their higher powers, i.e. the Ayatollah” said Marwa, 43 from Saar.

“No harm” in a referendum

The Bahraini opposition’s main demand is to put forward a referendum for the GCC Union; a matter which many loyalists consider to be pointless, since the Union serves the country’s interest and should be supported “These issues must be dealt with by the responsible leaders of the countries and its vital for Bahrain to form a better connection with its brotherly neighbours” added Ahmed 29 from Budaiya.

Some others saw the referendum as a good option since the union should reflect the public’s will. “There is no harm in having a referendum, but this might cause a delay that will not serve the interest of Bahrain” said Samar from Manama

Layla 36 from Manama added “People have put their faith in the Parliament and the people’s representatives should hence vote for the union or against it”

In conclusion, in the space of just a week, the Gulf Union has gone from being an issue that was poorly understood and little discussed amongst Bahrainis; to being seen as an issue of great influence to Bahrain’s economy and security.

Loyalists have shown their support for the move and the opposition has repeatedly refused the union as it has done with most other steps taken by the Government. Loyalists consider Saudi as their protectors while the opposition considers Saudis to be invaders.

“Huge show of unity” – Snapshot of the Bahraini media

All Bahraini newspapers led this Sunday with the mass demonstration in Juffair in support of the Gulf Union, with numerous photos of thousands of people waving Bahraini flags and messages of support for Gulf unity. Many highlighted the message from the Prime Minister to the demonstration, describing the Gulf Union as “the most decisive event in the region’s history”.

“Coincidence of protests” in Tehran & Bahrain

Many of the opinion pages focused on the threat from Iran, while highlighting that the protests in Iran and Bahrain against the Gulf Union coincided in their timing and their messages. To cite examples from three editorials in Al-Bilad:

“Iran has recently shown its true face. This has reached the extent to which we can no longer be silent, and thus military union has become a priority issue”

“No-one was caught by surprise by this coincidence of protests in both Tehran and Budaya [in Bahrain] which carried the same slogans and images indicating rejection of the Gulf Union which comes at a time greatly unsuitable to they who were planning on announcing a very different kind of union – joining Bahrain to the Iranian Republic. Iran still has not acknowledged the failure of its plots and is unwilling to announce to its public or its lackeys that its plans have failed and been dispersed by the wind.”

“They [the protest movement] have made it known with a loud voice that their source of authority is not of this nation; rather they went out in unison with the Persians and protested against the Arab identity of our nation and declared their obedience to their leadership on the eastern shore [i.e.; Iran]”

The Gulf Daily News published a Citizens for Bahrain article drawing attention to the comments of Iran’s leaders calling for integration of Bahrain into Iran. The commentary called for national unity in order to counter foreign interference.

Iran’s “flagrant interference”

The Gulf Daily News, Al-Bilad and other papers highlighted on their front pages the letter from Gulf states, strongly denouncing “Iran’s flagrant interference in the internal affairs of the GCC”.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Ayam also on its comment pages focused on Iran: “Observers therefore expect Iran to intensify its interference into domestic Arab affairs and to stir up trouble and disturbances in the Arab household in an even more inflammatory manner in the coming weeks. Iran’s clerical regime hopes this will rescue them from their own domestic volcano, in the form of the inevitable revolution they themselves will have to face. We Arabs will have to pay the price of these desperate Iranian adventures and these traps for which all too many have fallen victim to.”

Al-Ayam published a long article documenting “an archive of Iran’s terrorism in the Iranian Gulf”.

“We must solve our internal problems first”

Pro opposition newspaper Al-Wasat also led with the Juffair March and the UN complaint about Iran’s behaviour. It stressed the call by the leadership of the demonstration in support of the Gulf Union, that such a union should not deter progress towards democracy.  

Al-Wasat’s comment page focused more of other issues. However, one comment piece looked in detail at the idea of a Gulf “confederation”. While the article stressed the close ties between Arabic Gulf states, it noted the importance of maintaining sovereignty and improving public awareness of these proposals. She stressed “outrage at these Iranian statements which undermine the sovereignty of Bahrain”, but concluded “on occasions something is hateful to us even though it is good for us, and at other times we love something which is bad for us. We don’t know whether such a confederation will be good or bad, but we know that we must solve our internal problems first, at a distance from the interfering hands of others, before we think about such confederations or unions.”

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