Bahrain's rulers are taking
LIKE many island states, Bahrain is more complicated than its small size and population would suggest. Not as rich as the other Gulf monarchies, because it has little oil, the kingdom still prospers as a banking hub, touting itself as a regional haven of lower taxes, lower living costs and relative liberality. It also hosts America's Fifth Fleet, with its large and expanding base outside the capital, Manama. Yet, as a crackdown ahead of next month's general election shows, Bahrain is not without headaches.
As in Iraq before 2003, Sunni Muslims dominate Bahrain's government, though Shias make up two-thirds of its 500,000 citizens. Hard-line Sunnis aligned with next-door Saudi Arabia, with conservatives in the ruling Khalifa family, have long suspected the Shias of secret loyalty to Bahrain's other big neighbour, the Shia regional power Iran, which dropped territorial claims to the archipelago only in 1970.
Shias, for their part, charge the state with systemic discrimination, particularly in the share of government jobs and housing. The security forces, reinforced by recruits from countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Jordan, many of whom have been fast-tracked to citizenship in an apparent bid to shift the sectarian balance, are overwhelmingly Sunni. Electoral districting for the 40-man lower house of parliament, which has limited power in any case, tilts representation in favour of the Sunnis too.
Shia discontent often boiled over in the 1980s and 1990s, but abated after King Hamad al-Khalifa took power in 1999, freed prisoners in an amnesty, pardoned exiles and brought in reforms. Most Shias voted keenly in elections in 2006, despite a boycott by Shia factions demanding fairer rules, fuller rights and a transition to constitutional monarchy. Both Shia and Sunni voters largely backed respective Islamist parties, whose influence the king then diluted by filling the upper house of parliament, whose seats he appoints, with loyalist liberals, including a Christian and a Jew. The result has been a noisy talking shop that has disillusioned many Bahrainis, amid gripes that the Khalifa family still hogs the plum cabinet seats, dominates business and owns much of the best land.
With little to show their constituents, Shia advocates of patience have lost ground to the boycotting faction. Tension has risen as next month's elections approach. A series of scuffles and arson attacks in Shia districts have provoked an increasingly harsh response, with arrests, tighter press censorship and a blanket ban on using mosques for politics. Most serious is the charging of a score of people, including prominent political activists and human-rights advocates with forming a terrorist cell to undermine the state. The creator of Bahrain's most popular internet chat site, Ali Abduleman, was arrested.
Independent watchers say the charges are overblown and human-rights lobbies want allegations of torture to be investigated. The severity of the crackdown may serve as a pre-electoral warning to ensure a quiet, tidy vote on the day. But it may prompt more unrest, returning Bahrain to its once-chronic state of unease. Moreover, the alacrity with which other Arab governments have jumped to back the Khalifas and the silence of Western governments suggest that the real aim of Bahrain's rulers may be to forestall local Shia repercussions should hostilities between the West and Iran break out.
Some hardliners in Bahrain's ruling establishment have indeed been hoping the Americans or Israelis would attack Iran before it began loading fuel last month into its reactor at Bushehr. Moreover, though the opposition is unlikely to be manipulated by invisible Iranian hands, many Bahraini Shias sympathise with Iran, which at a minimum gives Bahrain's dissidents moral support and often features them admiringly on Iran's Press-TV channel.
Shut up the Shias. Economist [serial online]. September 11, 2010;396(8699):58-59. Accessed September 27, 2010.
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