The following is an extract from a longer article by J.E. Peterson published by Foreign Policy Research Institute. April 2011
Bahrain is a good example of why the GCC states are not all interchangeable. It is a small country and its oil reserves, small to begin with, have just about run out. Thus the post-oil future that hangs over all six members has struck already in Bahrain. While Bahrain’s ruling family has been in charge for more than two centuries, it has been more autocratic than its neighbors and consequently the archipelago has witnessed regular periodic protests and periods of dissidence for more than a century.
Bahrain’s troubles are often ascribed to sectarian tensions between a Sunni minority (including the al Khalifa ruling family) and a Shia majority. But the country’s political problems are better seen as a perpetual contest between the al Khalifa (who trace their background from a tribe of central Arabia) and their tribal allies who also came to Bahrain from the mainland on the one hand, and the great majority of the both Sunni and Shia population on the other. Among the Sunnis are the hawala families, of Arab origin but who arrived in Bahrain from the Persian coast of the Gulf; they dominate in business. The Shia are principally the Arab Baharna, generally regarded as the original inhabitants, but there are also many Persians who have immigrated over the last century. The opposition also charges the regime with having naturalized thousands of Sunnis, especially Jordanians, Syrians, Yemenis, and Pakistanis, in an attempt to redress the sectarian imbalance.
Sunni and Shia dissidents have banded together in their opposition to the al Khalifa regime in 1938, 1953-1956, 1965, and the early 1970s. But the Shia have taken the lead in organized and persistent opposition because they are the disadvantaged in Bahrain. Shia villages are visibly poorer and lack many of the amenities found in Sunni villages. The Shia are systematically excluded from the military and the security forces and are under-represented in government employment in general and in senior positions in particular. Thus most of the large numbers of young and unemployed are Shia who have become increasingly disaffected. The serious unrest of the late 1990s was a Shia-driven phenomenon although it had the quiet support of many Sunnis as well.
When long-time ruler Shaykh Isa died in 1999, many Bahrainis saw the succession of his son Hamad as a positive development. Isa had never been very interested in the affairs of government and he reigned while his brother Khalifa ruled as prime minister. Khalifa not only made himself one of the wealthiest men in the Gulf, he also easily became the most hated man in Bahrain for many Bahrainis.
Through his control of internal security, Khalifa spearheaded the wave of repression that saw Bahrainis jailed for political offenses, some of them tortured, and others victims of the peculiarly Bahraini practice of exiling. For expatriates, Bahrain was a welcoming place to live and work, but deep-seated tensions underlay the friendly, prosperous air of the capital al-Manamah.
In his first two years as ruler, Hamad enacted a number of long overdue reforms. Prisoners were freed, exiles were welcomed home, real steps were made toward freedom of speech and press, and the ruler engaged in serious dialogue with opposition leaders. In 2001, however, he declared himself king and the process of change stagnated. True, he held elections for a national assembly but the elected assembly was matched with an appointed assembly whose speaker could cast the final vote breaking any tie. Furthermore, electoral constituencies were gerrymandered so that Shia representatives won a maximum of 18 of the 40 available seats, even though they constitute the majority of voters. Most of the other seats have been won by Sunni Islamist supporters of the government.
The political situation remained unresolved until the “Arab spring” of 2011 burst forth in Tunisia and Egypt. In imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bahrainis occupied Pearl Roundabout as the center of their vocal opposition to the government. The goal of most of the protesters was not the toppling of the regime as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, but genuine reform beginning with the dismissal of the prime minister (and the king’s uncle) Khalifa. He was seen by many as the leader of the hardline faction of the ruling family while the heir apparent and son of the king, Salman, was regarded as the liberal leader, urging dialogue and accommodation. King Hamad was said to be in the middle.
In the end, the hardliners won out and the regime reacted with repression, eventually clearing the roundabout. More protesters began to call for the overthrow of the regime and the government acted with force, arresting many and instituting martial law. Not all Bahrainis have protested and there have been mass demonstrations in support of the government. But the government has been stubborn in its rejection of opposition demands. It apparently has sought to stoke a sectarian dimension of conflict, it has declared that Iran was behind opposition movements, and it has re-arrested some opposition leaders and closed the principal opposition newspaper.
Disturbingly, the al Khalifa have received the support of fellow GCC monarchs and they invited Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) troops to enter Bahrain in support of Bahraini security forces—although it is debatable how much of an “invitation” Saudi Arabia needed. The situation has quieted and many of the foreign media have departed. But underneath, nothing has changed. All the al Khalifa remain in their usual positions, the old allegations of unjustified arrest and torture have resurfaced, hundreds of Bahrainis are being held by security forces, and thousands of young Bahrainis remain unemployed and disaffected. The economic damage of the last several months is enormous while the tenuous “social contract” between ruler and ruled is fraying badly.