Michael Kennedy: The Roots of Sectarian Conflict in Bahrain

Of the movements that gained international attention during the Arab Spring of 2011, the push for democratization and equal rights for Shi’ites in Bahrain has been one of the least successful efforts. In their textbook on the history and politics of the Middle East, William Cleveland and Martin Bunton summarize:

“The forceful repression of any opposition was most brutally felt on the…island state of Bahrain, where the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty rules over a largely Shi’a population. On February 14,2011, Bahraini activists congregated around the central Pearl roundabout in the capital Manama to demand greater representation. The Shi’a majority of Bahrain had, for the past decade, been active in their protests against the discrimination by which the ruling family denied them access to economic and political opportunities. But the al-Khalifa family and the Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia portrayed the protests solely in sectarian terms.”[i]

The most prominent opposition party in mobilizing protests during and following the Arab Spring uprisings is Al-Wefaq, formerly known as Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, a Shi’a Islamist Party. Although Al-Wefaq was the largest political party representing Bahrainis in Parliament, all members resigned in opposition to the regime’s violence against pro-reform protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring. In July of 2016, Bahrain dissolved Al-Wefaq after the Justice Ministry accused it of having connections to “terrorist activities.” The Government has also stripped the citizenship of the Shi’i cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim, a spiritual leader for the group, and sentenced Al-Wefaq’s political leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, to nine years in prison for attempting to overthrow the regime. The U.N. has called for the release of Bahraini political prisoners and has condemned Bahrain’s repression of peaceful protest and its charges against Al-Wefaq.[ii]

To understand the reasons a majority Shi’a population mobilized for political changes in Bahrain and the forceful backlash of Bahraini and Saudi military forces, one must understand how the Shi’a and Sunni sects have been transformed into salient political identities in Bahrain. The political nature of this conflict is much more complex than a simple clash between sectarian groups vying for power; rather, the modern discrimination against the Shi’a population  is tied to maintaining Bahrain’s undemocratic rentier state under the leadership of the al-Khalifa family.

The Bahraini System of Favoritism

All the Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and North Africa are often mischaracterized as demands for regime change; although many movements across the region demanded resignations, Bahrain’s protests were demanding change to a political system that discriminated against the majority Shi’a population. Because of political and economic practices that have favored Sunnis in the country, sectarian identity in Bahrain doesn’t only reflect religious ideas, but is a salient identity that affects quality of life and political power.

Although the country is majority Shi’a (at about 70% of the population) a majority of the leadership in Bahrain’s government, military, and business sectors are Sunni.[iii] The country’s hiring practices are criticized as nepotistic, intentionally favoring Sunnis. Although Bahrain’s government is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, Bahraini activists argue Sunni voting power is artificially increased through electoral gerrymandering practices. Tahiyya Lulu highlights the disparity created in the political representative system:

“In past elections, the Shia-dominated northern governate of more than 91,000 voters elected nine members of parliament. In the Sunni-dominated southern governate only 16,000 voters elected six members.”

Shi’a political power is also being countered by government policy that encourages foreign Sunnis to emigrate to the country. According to a 2011 study, the Shi’a population in Bahrain is the second fastest growing Shi’a population in the world, with an annual growth rate of 1.5%.[iv] Having the smallest population of Middle Eastern countries, Bahrain has been dependent on foreign labor for decades, however there has been an increased recruitment of foreign Sunnis into the workforce. Ian Black, an author focusing on Middle Eastern issues writes, “Precise numbers are a closely guarded secret, but in recent years the Manama government has made a concerted effort to recruit non-native Sunni Muslims as part of an attempt to swing the demographic balance against the Shia majority.”[v] Over the last fifteen years, a program has recruited foreign Sunnis into the country’s military and police forces in exchange for naturalization.[vi] Shi’as are not allowed to serve in the state military forces.

Bahrain’s military recruitment strategy has created deeper rifts between the public and the Bahraini government. Ian Black explains, “Bahrainis often complain that the riot police and special forces do not speak the local dialect, or in the case of Baluchis from Pakistan, do not speak Arabic at all and are reviled as mercenaries. Officers are typically Bahrainis, Syrians or Jordanians… Iraqi Ba’athists who served in Saddam Hussein’s security forces were recruited after the US-led invasion in 2003.”[vii] Ala’a Shebabi, a Bahraini political journalist, claims that sectarian-based hiring practices have increased the number of ISIS sympathizers within the military forces.[viii] These forces have been successful in repressing protest and protecting the Bahraini state, but at the cost of further alienating native-born Bahrainis across sects.

While political scientists and journalists agree that Bahrain’s government policy discriminates against the Shi’a community and seeks to reduce their political power; mainstream news sources do not question the underlying reasons for this repression.

Why is the Shi’a Population Discriminated Against?

Solely conceiving this conflict in sectarian or religious terms erases the political connotations that play into such discriminatory measures. It is important to recognize that during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Bahrainis of different backgrounds protested in support of the Shi’a community. One popular slogan of the movement was “No Sunni, No Shi’i, Just Bahraini.”[ix] Although the ruling al-Khalifa family are Sunni, they don’t hold a distinct religious ideology of governance like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is described by political scientist Jillian Schwedler as a “nominally religious state” in which the ruling family “claim authority based on direct descent from the bloodlines of the Prophet Muhammad.”[x] While historically, many states have discriminated against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, the Shi’a population in Bahrain are of a large majority; almost making up two-thirds of the population. Justin Gengler is one of the most prominent political scientists whose research focuses on Bahrain’s political system. He points out that media focus on Bahrain’s conflict as sectarian in nature is inaccurate. This faulty framework of analyzing Bahrain’s conflict based upon actual sectarian difference, “… tells little of ordinary Sunni citizens who make up more than a third of the island’s population and are about as far removed from power of the Shi’a.”[xi]

Although there are antagonisms between sectarian groups in Bahrain, these don’t stem from religious differences, but from seeds of distrust sowed by the Bahraini government. Rather than confronting Shi’ism as an ideological threat, the Bahraini government frames protests for equality as attempted power grabs by those who wish to destabilize the country. Even before the 2011 protest movements, the government linked any Shi’a opposition with a conspiracy of an Iranian project to control the country.[xii] While Iran did seek to incorporate Bahrain in the early 1970s, out of which Bahrain passed a referendum for independence, there has been no modern credibility to the conspiracy. Although the move was under the Pahlavi government, Saudi Arabia joins in propagating an Iranian conspiracy to undermine Sunni-ruled governments.[xiii]

The motive of discriminatory policies is primarily state-centered, focusing on the long-term interests of the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty. While the ruling family still maintains a strong grasp on power in the country, Bahrain’s finite resources are posing a truly existential crisis for the state. Bahrain’s government has attempted to navigate this crisis by transforming its welfare state into a discriminatory state.

The Politico-Economic Motives of Discrimination

Although the country’s oil reserves are not as large those in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain was the first state in the Arab Gulf to develop a petroleum-based economy in 1934.[xiv] Transnational companies vied for access to these oil reserves and states like Bahrain were able to base their income primarily on oil exports and renting fees from transnational oil companies. Currently 80% of the country’s budget is funded by oil revenues and as opposed to citizens, oil companies are taxed heavily at 46% of their net income.[xv] However, the natural resources that have funded revenues are rapidly depleting. Currently, the government of Bahrain is investing in offshore drilling but has yet to find any new oil reserves with a long-term supply. Analysts also speculate that the country’s reserves of natural gas will be depleted in 10 years.[xvi]

Bahrain’s access to huge reserves of oil have not only shaped the country’s economy about also shaped its relationships to foreign countries and its citizens considerably. Bahrain’s dependence upon revenues from transnational resource extractors have shaped its politics to reflect what political scientists deem a “rentier state.” In a rentier state, the government is not reliant upon taxation of its citizens, but rather tax the incomes of transnational companies that extract natural resources. Bahrain, like many other rentier states, established a welfare system to provide employment opportunities and only required limited forms of personal taxation. Middle Eastern monarchies have largely persisted waves of democratization because of their abilities to maintain a welfare state.

Although the population is relatively small, the revenues from oil rents are no longer sufficient to support a welfare state in Bahrain. Coupled with the increased hiring of foreign workers, Bahrainis are facing new levels of economic competition with less government aid. Political Scientist Laurence Louer finds summarizes the country’s current economic state:

“Reduced resources and a growing population seriously hinder the redistribution capacity of the al-Khalifa regime, which in particular, can no longer guarantee citizens jobs in the already saturated public sector… Unlike their parents, young Bahrainis no longer benefits from the protective effect of the earlier system of reserving public sector jobs for citizens. Instead, they need to compete with foreigners in the private sector. This competition is stiff regardless of skill, education, and perceived level of prestige attributed to jobs.”[xvii]

Louer argues that the changes in the regime’s ability to provide for its citizens have radically challenged citizen’s assumptions of their relationships to the state. Whereas Bahrainis often described their previous relationship through the rhetoric of “parent” and “child,” Louer finds that more Bahrainis are feeling as if they are now “orphans.”[xviii] More Bahraini citizens, across sectarian lines, are finding life to be more difficult than it was for their parents; as a result, satisfaction with the regime has been decreasing.

Bahrain’s discrimination against its Shi’a population is a political attempt to re-distribute limited resources in a way that can stop growing dissatisfaction among a large enough base of supporters. In this case, the targeted base of support is drawn along sectarian lines. While these policies should be recognized as discrimination against Shi’as, the goal of the government is to provide favoritism to Sunnis. Justin Gengler’s analyses on Bahraini politics and the government’s economic challenges rationalizes the Shi’ite discrimination policy as the government’s means of maintaining a stable base of support despite its weakening ability to provide for its citizens. Gengler explains:

To Bahrain’s government, finite resources are best spent on satisfying a core constituency whose continued allegiance is sufficient to keep the government in power.” [xix]

By granting political and economic advantages to Sunni Bahrainis, the government rationalizes that it can maintain a significant base of support; whereas if it tried to maintain an equal welfare state with less resources, all citizens would feel the government is giving them a worse deal than generations previous. Gengler cites that surveys have proven political behaviors and opinions of Sunnis in Bahrain to be more influenced by economic satisfaction than those of Shi’ites.[xx] Such findings suggest that Bahrain’s rentier state model still works, but only for Sunnis. Nonetheless the crucial population of loyal native Sunnis is faltering in their support for the regime. Gengler explains, “Sunnis are more cognizant of their perennial position as political counterweight and more resistant to it.”[xxi]

The government’s efforts to attract Sunni immigrants and naturalize them is not only a political counter-weight to the growing Shi’a population but also an attempt to make up for resistant Bahraini Sunnis. While Bahrainis might be critical of the regime either because of their reference to “better times” or resistance to the state’s politicization of their religious identity, new immigrants don’t have the background knowledge of the state’s politics or history. The government is giving them citizenship and access to jobs regardless of their language spoken or place of origin. The program isn’t in place because the country needs workers, it is working to build a new base of support for the al-Khalifa regime. However, Bahrain’s foreign worker program is also reinforcing the saliency of foreigner’s Sunni identity; this coupled with the economic frustration of Bahrainis targeted at foreigners creates the potential for stronger sectarian tensions to flare.

Why does the International Community Support a Discriminatory Program?

While the failures of the rentier state and the al-Khalifa dynasty’s need to consolidate a base of support explain Bahrain’s Sunni-favored system, the international community must also be recognized as complicit. When the Bahraini government suppressed protests during the Arab Spring, they did so with the help of forces sent from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Despite the United Nations call for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, countries of the region and allies from abroad have not pressured the government to take meaningful action. There are several contributing factors to explain the lack of international pressure for change.

While Bahraini demands for just governance respond to a policy of discrimination, the possibility for Shi’a autonomy in the region is linked to historical and ideological threats to Sunni rulers. Over the course of history in Bahrain, rule under the Qarmation Republic was the most autonomous for Bahraini Shi’ites. Not only was Qarmation rule Shi’ite, but a form of Shi’ism that was considered egalitarian and thus radical. Among practices that shocked the Muslim world included the sacking of Mecca in 930, the abolition of Sharia law, and the changing the qibla of prayer.[xxii] According to Historian Juan Cole, it was under Sunni rule that Twelver Shi’ism was encouraged, as it was a more quietist- and thus less oppositional- force.[xxiii] Because of the pre-dominance of the Qarmations in the 10th century and their egalitarian and heretical religious practices, some still associate Shi’ite politics with a sense of political radicalism as opposed to stability.

International concerns over regional stability allow Bahrain to continue its policies of Sunni favoritism. The sectarian nature of anti-government protest is conceived as a threat by other Sunni rulers in the Gulf region and Arabia. Saudi Arabia undeniably holds the most political and economic sway in the region; its support for Bahrain during the Arab Spring was critical to the failure of the Bahraini reform movement. Viewing Bahraini Shi’a unrest as a foreign policy concern, Saudi Arabia feared that resistance was being supported by Iran to gain more influence in the Gulf. There is no evidence of such an intervention.[xxiv] Shi’a nationalism or unrest is also a major domestic concern for the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia’s eastern province has both a high concentration of oil reserves and a higher Shi’a population. The country’s primary fear was that success of a Bahraini opposition would embolden Saudi Shi’ites to demand concessions.[xxv] The possibility for Saudi unrest to restrict the country’s oil reserves adds a tremendous economic incentive for Saudi intervention in the Bahraini conflict. Actors in the Middle East are not only to blame, “The United States, which not only maintains an important naval base in Bahrain but was also eager not to antagonize its Saudi ally, showed no interest whatsoever in supporting the prodemocracy demonstrators.”[xxvi]

Bahraini policy to discriminate against the Shi’a population is morally wrong, but it is important to recognize that this policy is politically calculated. Conflict is created across sectarian lines, but it is by no means sectarian in nature. The state of Bahrain is facing an existential challenge, but its “solution” will only heighten tensions and opposition to the government. If the state can no longer give its people the economic support of the past, it will need to develop a new relationship with its citizens to survive. Given the high rate of growth of the Shi’a population, the costliness of the foreign worker program, and the heightened competition in the economy, it would be difficult to imagine the program of Sunni favoritism being able to survive into the long-term. A legitimate democracy that represents Bahrain’s population would serve the greater good of the country; but the longer the al-Khalifa rulers repress tides of change, the less likely they will be part of that democratic vision if or when it comes into being.

[i] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East, Sixth Edition. Pg. 553.

[ii] “Bahrain: Inhumane Conditions for Political Prisoners and Human Rights Defenders.” Bahrain Center for Human Rights, July 18, 2017. Web. http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/8886.

 

[iii] Tahiyya Lulu. “The real story of Bahrain’s divided society.” The Guardian, March 3, 2011. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/03/bahrain-sunnis-shia-divided-society.

[iv] Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life The Future of the Global Muslim Population, January 2011.

[v] Ian Black. “Bahrain security forces accused of deliberately recruiting foreign nationals.” The Guardian, February 11, 2011.Web. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/17/bahrain-security-forces-sunni-foreign.

[vi] Justin Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Middle East Report Online, January 17,2012. Pg. 2. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-660425-dt-content-rid-1785604_1/courses/201709-POLT-112-01/Bahrain%27s%20Sunni%20Awakening%20_%20Middle%20East%20Research%20and%20Information%20Project.pdf.

[vii] Black, “Bahrain security forces accused of deliberately recruiting foreign nationals.”

[viii] Ala’a Shebabi “Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2014. Web.

https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-656681-dt-content-rid-1776567_1/courses/201709-RELG-275-01/Ala%20Shehabi%2C%20Why%20Is%20Bahrain%20Outsourcing%20Extremism%20%20%20%20Foreign%20Policy.pdf.

[ix] Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Pg. 1.

[x] Jillian Schwedler, “Religion and Politics,” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist, Second Edition, (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2013). Pg. 126.

[xi] Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Pg. 1.

[xii] Justin Gengler. “How Bahrain’s crushed uprising spawned the Middle East’s sectarianism.” The Washington Post, February 13, 2016. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/02/13/how-bahrains-crushed-uprising-spawned-the-middle-easts-sectarianism/?utm_term=.f4ece7aaedec.

[xiii] Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy. “Powerful Saudi prince sees no chance for dialogue with Iran.” Reuters, May 2, 2017. Web. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-prince-iran/powerful-saudi-prince-sees-no-chance-for-dialogue-with-iran-idUSKBN17Y1FK.

[xiv] Cleveland and Bunton, Pg. 420.

[xv] Harnek Shoker. “Oil and Gas regulation in Bahrain: Overview” Thomas Reuters Practical Law, August 01, 2014. Web. https://content.next.westlaw.com/0-525-3563?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&__lrTS=20170725174031936&firstPage=true&bhcp=1.

[xvi] Shoker, “Oil and Gas regulation in Bahrain: Overview.”

[xvii] Laurence Louer. “The Political Impact of Labor Migration in Bahrain” City & Society, Volume 20, Issue 1 June 2008. Pg. 46.

[xviii] Louer, Pg. 47.

[xix] Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Pg. 1.

[xx] Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Pg. 1.

[xxi] Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Pg. 1.

[xxii] John Joseph Saunders. A History of Medieval Islam. Routledge, 1978. Pg. 130.

[xxiii] Juan Cole. Sacred Space and Holy War. IB Tauris, 2007. Pg. 32.

[xxiv] Cleveland and Bunton, Pg. 553.

[xxv] Cleveland and Bunton, Pg. 553.

[xxvi] Cleveland and Bunton, Pg. 553.

 

Works Cited

Ala’a Shebabi “Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2014. Web.https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-656681-dt-content-rid-1776567_1/courses/201709-RELG-27501/Ala%20Shehabi%2C%20Why%20Is%20Bahrain%20Outsourcing%20Extremism%20%20%20%20Foreign%20Policy.pdf.

“Bahrain: Inhumane Conditions for Political Prisoners and Human Rights Defenders.” Bahrain Center for Human Rights, July 18, 2017. Web. http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/8886.

Harnek Shoker. “Oil and Gas regulation in Bahrain: Overview” Thomas Reuters Practical Law, August 01, 2014. Web. https://content.next.westlaw.com/0-525-3563?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&__lrTS=20170725174031936&firstPage=true&bhcp=1.

Ian Black. “Bahrain security forces accused of deliberately recruiting foreign nationals.” The Guardian, February 11, 2011.Web. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/17/bahrain-security-forces-sunni-foreign.

Jillian Schwedler, “Religion and Politics,” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist, Second Edition, (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2013).

John Joseph Saunders. A History of Medieval Islam. Routledge, 197

Juan Cole. Sacred Space and Holy War. IB Tauris, 2007.

Justin Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Middle East Report Online, January 17,2012. Pg. 2. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-660425-dt-content-rid-1785604_1/courses/201709-POLT-112-01/Bahrain%27s%20Sunni%20Awakening%20_%20Middle%20East%20Research%20and%20Information%20Project.pdf.

Justin Gengler. “How Bahrain’s crushed uprising spawned the Middle East’s sectarianism.” The Washington Post, February 13, 2016. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/02/13/how-bahrains-crushed-uprising-spawned-the-middle-easts-sectarianism/?utm_term=.f4ece7aaedec.

Laurence Louer. “The Political Impact of Labor Migration in Bahrain” City & Society, Volume 20, Issue 1 June 2008.

Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life The Future of the Global Muslim Population, January 2011.

Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy. “Powerful Saudi prince sees no chance for dialogue with Iran.” Reuters, May 2, 2017. Web. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-prince-iran/powerful-saudi-prince-sees-no-chance-for-dialogue-with-iran-idUSKBN17Y1FK.

Tahiyya Lulu. “The real story of Bahrain’s divided society.” The Guardian, March 3, 2011. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/03/bahrain-sunnis-shia-divided-society.

William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East, Sixth Edition.

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