Bahrain on the edge

The politics of a small Persian Gulf kingdom do not usually reverberate far beyond its borders. But an accumulation of social tensions and rights violations in Bahrain gives its coming election a rare international importance, say Christopher M Davidson & Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen.
Christopher M Davidson Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
19 October 2010

The rulers of Bahrain are having to become used to greater scrutiny of the way they govern their tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. The approach of a parliamentary election on 23 October 2010 is one reason for a flurry of reports and articles about the country’s political life. But what this closer look has uncovered - including hundreds of dissenters behind bars, and widespread accounts of torture - should be of interest to far more than political analysts.

The Al-Khalifa monarchs, whose fiefdom the island state of Bahrain is, present themselves as the guardians of a nascent democracy. This is strictly a facade. True, the embattled sheikhs have in recent years had little choice but to allow a limited political opening. What lies behind this concession, however, are difficult economic conditions (declining oil reserves, a growing inability to placate citizens via handouts and public-sector employment, a widening gap between rich and poor). Moreover, the state's tactical shift is combined with some of the pathologies associated with an authoritarian regime (including minimal transparency, pervasive corruption, and the instinct to suppress an increasingly organised and vocal opposition). In these circumstances, any illusion of Bahraini democracy is rapidly being dispelled.

This portrait is reason enough for the world to be watching when Bahrainis (at least that are allowed to) go to the polls on 23 October. But much of the official attention on Bahrain will be for the wrong reasons. Bahrain is home both to a United States naval base and a majority Shi’a population, which support a tendency to view the country through the lens of the enduring Washington-Tehran standoff. No surprise then, that some powerful figures in the west are anxious that a pro-western regime remains secure in its rule (even if a few fingernails need to be lost); and that their equivalents in Tehran relish a vigorous crackdown by the “puppets” in charge.

There are indeed serious tensions between Bahrain’s Shi’a and the ruling Sunni minority. But what is happening in Bahrain can no longer be plausibly presented as what the Al-Khalifa - and the extensive international media campaign now underway - seek to make you believe it is: a sectarian clash. In fact, neither a great Sunni-Shi’a conflict nor an Iranian conspiracy is responsible for Bahrain’s unrest. Its core is rather a genuine popular movement against the injustices and abuses perpetrated by an outdated regime. And this movement has support from across Bahraini society, with the poorer Shi’a community understandably forming much of its backbone.

A pattern of repression

Bahrain’s current troubles - marked by a wave of arrests of human-rights and political activists - echo those of past decades, even if the stakes today are higher. There were regular, sustained periods of social unrest from the 1920s to the 1970s, after Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971. A generation on, tensions erupted into a rising that lasted from 1994-99.

This started with a cross-sectarian mass petition calling for the restoration of constitutional rule and developed into a concerted movement that demanded greater public involvement in social and political development. The Al-Khalifa, its security service headed by a British former colonial police officer involved in crushing Kenya’s Mau-Mau in the 1950s, subdued the insurgents using methods that incurred allegations of systematic torture and human-rights abuses.

The latter marred the final years of Emir Issa bin Salman’s long reign, which ended with his death in 1999 and the succession of his son Hamad bin Issa. Hamad initiated a process of political reform that began with the abolition of the state-security law and the launch of a “national action charter” in 2001.

The ostensible aim of transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament played well with the George W Bush administration’s democracy-promotion agenda in the aftermath of 9/11; the US president himself praised Bahrain’s “pioneering reforms” as a model for other middle-eastern states. But whatever significance they had was almost immediately diluted by a constitutional amendment of 2002 which established an appointed consultative council that granted the government veto power over legislation.  

In response, four predominantly Shi’a political opposition groups boycotted the elections to the chamber of deputies in October 2002. But in 2006, Bahrain’s largest Shi’a Islamist group - the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society - reversed its stance and won seventeen seats to become the largest faction in the new parliament. In turn, the decision to participate in the elections split the opposition as the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy broke from Al-Wefaq on the grounds of opposition to taking part in a political process it deemed inequitable and illegitimate.

The elections of 2006 were strained too by allegations made by a British-Sudanese government advisor, Salah al-Bander, that the government was adjusting election districts to marginalise Shi’a communities and ensure they did not win a parliamentary majority. Al-Bander was deported and the allegations censored within Bahrain, but they demonstrated the tensions inherent in an autocracy trying to liberalise the political environment while still maintaining a firm grip on power.  

A new phase

It is against this backdrop that Abduljalil al-Singace, head of human rights for the opposition Haq movement, was arrested in August 2010 on his arrival at Bahrain’s Manama airport from London, where he had been addressing a seminar at the House of Lords hosted by Kishwer (Baroness) Falkner. Three other prominent human-rights activists were arrested in late August, and their treatment allegedly included being handcuffed, beaten, and held in solitary confinement. By early September, the authorities were claiming that they formed part of a twenty-three-strong “terror network” of Shi’a activists aiming to bring down the Sunni-dominated government.

The state-controlled media simultaneously launched a campaign to persuade the public of their guilt without awaiting the results of a free or fair trial. The regime also made similar terror allegations against two Bahraini political dissidents in exile in London, but failed to present documentary evidence to back up their extradition requests.  

There have been other repressive measures in recent months. They include a tightening of electronic censorship of Blackberry-delivered news services and more widespread blocking of internet sites; the withdrawal of citizenship from a high-ranking Shi’a cleric, and the banning of another from delivering sermons for two weeks in a bid to stifle influential critics ahead of the elections.

Beyond such attempts to stifle dissent and influential critics ahead of the elections, the government has launched a mass naturalisation programme to provide Bahraini nationality to more than 200,000 Sunnis from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. This will both shift the sectarian imbalance and create a bloc of newcomers who will owe absolute loyalty to their new state and its government. Many of the new citizens are employed in the military and internal-security services, from the higher echelons of which Shi’a are systematically excluded.

A tinder land

Bahrain’s problems are not unique in the region, and residents of neighbouring Gulf monarchies also need to pay close attention to what is happening there. All six of these states share similar political structures and political cultures, and in many ways Bahrain could be a portent for their collective future.

A regime that is unable to keep distributing wealth and maintain its population in a depoliticised condition, and sees repression as its only recourse, represents a model that the other sheikh-dominated regimes will have to face in the coming post-oil decades. 

But the future could come sooner than that. Kuwait’s rulers are already entrenching themselves against political opposition and reversing many of the political openings of the last decade; discontent is spreading in the poorer, largely disenfranchised parts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that live in the shadow of Abu Dhabi and Dubai; and the exploding youthful demographic in Saudi Arabia is demonstrating an unwillingness to live by the old rules. 

In such a highly charged environment an implosion in Bahrain might not be contained within the island’s shores, and could provide a catalyst for a much greater wave of regional unrest.  

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