Bahrain is again in the news this week. The country and Saudi Arabia are discussing a closer political union—with the obvious aim of safeguarding Sunni control in a Shiite majority country. Meanwhile, Shiite activists burned tires and blocked roads in a protest against detention policies.
Bahrain’s crisis has many causes: the Middle East’s wider Shiite-Sunni rivalry; the region’s longstanding Persian-Arab rivalry; ideas released during the Arab Spring; rising political aspirations from years of watching satellite television.
But the key driver is the horizontal inequities (i.e. inequalities between culturally formed groups) that exacerbate the fault line between the Shiites and Sunnis within the kingdom. Shiite demands may not all be reasonable, but their relative disadvantage in economic, social, and political spheres feed dissatisfaction, and promote instability. Reducing at least some of these inequities is crucial to reducing the instability, which otherwise is likely to fester for years to come.
Bahrain is a very tiny place—600,000 citizens (and about a million people in all) live on one archipelago of thirty-three islands. Shiites are in the majority, but no one really knows by how much. Although it is generally assumed (not least by the media) that the Shiites make up 65 to 75 percent of the population, one recent independent study concludes that they now make up less than 60 percent—and the share is dropping steadily. The government’s decade-long program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, mostly for work in the police and military, is adding as many as 100,000 Sunnis citizens to the populace. The below map shows where each group lives.
Beneath this simple division lies a much more complex society comprised of groups and subgroups with different interests and agendas. There are Shiite Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula who have traditionally worked as farmers, pearl divers, and tradesmen; Shiites with Iranian roots who tend to be professionals and intellectuals; Sunnis from Arabia, from Iran, and “tribals” who have distant links to the region’s royal families. And then there are the more recent Sunni arrivals. Recent events, however, have polarized the country into a more rigid sectarian split.
Sunnis—especially those linked to the royal family—hold a disproportionate share of political power and have gained disproportionately from the country’s natural resource wealth:
Government (as of 2010)
The Sunni Al Khalifa royal family plays a dominant role in politics, holding almost all of the most important government posts. The country has had only one Prime Minister since independence in 1971, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, the uncle of King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa (who came to power in 1999). Roughly half of the cabinet ministers come from the royal family, including the Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Five of the 25 cabinet ministers were Shiite as of 2010, including one of four deputy prime ministers.
There are two houses of parliament, a lower house one elected by universal suffrage (Chamber of Deputies) and an upper house appointed by the king (Shura Council). Legislation requires approval of both the two houses and the king. The latter can also issue royal decrees that need no legislative approval.
Upper House of Parliament (40 seats appointed by the king)
Sunni 19 members (47.5 percent)
Shiite 20 members (50 percent)
Christian 1 member (2.5 percent)
Lower House of Parliament (40 seats elected in 2010)
Al Wefaq (Shia Islamist) 18 members (45 percent)
Al Asalah (Sunni Salafist) 3 members (7.5 percent)
Al-Menbar (Sunni Muslim Brotherhood) 2 members (5 percent)
Independents (Sunni) 17 members (42.5 percent)
Gerrymandering tilts the voting towards Sunnis.
Many of the high-ranking judges in Bahrain are either members of the ruling family or non-Bahrainis (mainly Egyptians) with 2-year renewable contracts. All are appointed by either the prime minister or the king, and have been prone to favoring their opinions.
Security forces (the country’s largest employer and the regime’s main protector)
Sunni 95 to 97 percent (estimate)
Shiite 3 to 5 percent
In a 2009 survey of Bahraini citizens, 13 percent of Sunni households reported at least one member employed by the police or military. Not a single employed Shiite offered this occupational data.
Political prisoners are mainly Shiite and have repeatedly suffered from bad treatment, including torture.
Shiites suffer from relative deprivation in housing, income, access to the professions, and above all employment. Sunnis receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service.
Although there are rich Shiite families and high-ranking Shiite government officials, the average Shiite certainly does worse than its Sunni counterparts. The poorest parts of Bahrain have run-down houses with poor families despite the country’s high-income levels (over $27,000 in 2011). Reports suggest that poverty is increasing at the same time that average incomes are rising.
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Many Sunni and Shiite have good relations and broadly similar socioeconomic conditions. In some ways, the divisions are less a product of Sunni-Shiite conflict and more to do with that of a Sunni dominated elite in conflict with its majority Shiite population, with less well-connected Sunnis as bystanders. Indeed, many Sunnis participated in protests when they first broke out in 2010 (there were banners calling for “No Shiite, no Sunni, just Bahraini”), only pulling back when protest leaders crossed red lines with their demands (such as when they called for the abolishment of the monarchy). Many Sunnis are happy with the status quo and fear change.
consider themselves to be the salt of the earth ruled by a minority of Sunni settlers who invaded from Qatar in the eighteenth century. . . . Shias have been heavily involved in every coup attempt, street agitation, uprising and reform movement in the Persian Gulf emirate.
Their most important spiritual leader, Ayatollah Issa Qassim, has resisted negotiations that could have ended the crisis, incited rioting, and acted intolerantly towards anyone who opposed his actions. His sermons are generally anti-American, anti-democracy and vehemently pro-Iran, inflaming sectarianism, and making it less likely that the ruling family will compromise (and more likely that Bahrain’s neighbors will intervene to protect them).
The Sunni leadership sees the crisis as existential, and fears that the Iranians are directing things. In response, the government has sought to crush the opposition. Hardliners in the royal family oppose any reconciliation. Efforts to ensure a Sunni majority are likely to accelerate.
The regime had made some tentative steps to reach out to the Shiite population in the years after the current king came to power (from 1999), but with very limited success. Although the country is anything but equitable, the regime was making some–albeit slow–progress towards becoming more inclusive before last year’s protests. Shiites gained a majority in the 2006 elections for the lower houses, but then became frustrated when they realized how little power this gave them.
In an ideal world, the government and opposition would work out a compromise that gradually reduced inequities. The best bet might be to focus on economic issues such as housing because there is more room for compromise in this area than in the political sphere—which has degenerated into a zero sum game for control. However, surveys show that Shiites are not easily bought off—many will not be satisfied with anything less than more political power.
The real question is what the Sunnis who are not strongly affiliated with the royal family will do. Ostensibly pro-government, there are signs that the Arab Spring and year of protests are awakening their political consciousness. What they do will determine the country’s future.
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