Castles built on sand

Jane Kinninmont
22 August 2006

After 9/11, western architects said the skyscraper would go out of fashion. But today, in the booming states of the Persian Gulf, twin towers and World Trade Centres are all the rage. The tiny, oil-rich Gulf monarchy of Bahrain has been a trading hub for five millennia, but there are few visible signs of history. Instead, the skyline is dominated by the skeletons of skyscrapers-to-be. The twin-towered World Trade Centre building, designed to be the country's tallest building, has already been dwarfed by the curving, sail-shaped "Dual Towers" of the fifty-three-storey Bahrain Financial Harbour.

As the small Gulf states compete to become "the new Dubai", this US$279 million Financial Harbour is Bahrain's flagship building. It will be a completely self-contained world for bankers: with homes, shops and restaurants as well as offices, there will be little risk of financial executives wandering into poorer parts of town, where the Harbour is deeply resented and the WTC is said to be afflicted with "voodoo curses".

These are the places that have been suffering from a new spate of arson attacks in recent months, blamed on frustrated, unemployed young men. And these are the places where, on the night the UN ceasefire took hold in Lebanon, the streets were jammed with cars flying the yellow Hizbollah flag, and people on foot brandishing pictures of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, chanting in celebration of Hizbollah's "victory".

Places like the village of Sanabis, just a short car journey from the Harbour, where the tallest constructions are mosque spires. At a Shi'a street party for the prophet Mohammed's birthday earlier this year, the main road was decorated with a huge model of Iraq's damaged Samarra mosque – complete with shattered dome. The walls are covered in murals of local "martyrs": Shi'a political activists who were shot by police or died in custody during the more repressive era of the 1990s.

During that decade, a militant Shi'a opposition movement turned to bombs and arson attacks, which the Sunni-dominated government met with torture and mass arrests. Since then, there has been some political relaxation under King Hamad al-Khalifa, who succeeded his less liberal father in 1999. Political exiles have returned, critics of the government speak more freely, and there is a parliament, though it is largely powerless.

But some basic problems persist. Bahrain is a Shi'a-majority state, yet is ruled by a Sunni elite that dominates both politics and business. Most government ministers belong to the king's al-Khalifa clan, including the ministers of oil, finance, defence, foreign affairs, and the interior, as well as the attorney-general and the head of the central bank. And the king's uncle Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – also one of the country's most prominent businessmen – has been prime minister for thirty-five years.

Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and a poet. She is Middle East and Africa Managing Editor at Business Monitor International in London and freelances for newspapers around the world. Jane's first collection of poetry, Seven League Stilettos, is available from Ragged Raven Press.

Also by Jane Kinninmont on openDemocracy:

"Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects" (January 2006)

"Guantánamo and back: an interview with Moazzam Begg"
(March 2006)

"Syriana" (March 2006)

"Paradise Now"
(April 2006)

"Man in the shadows: an interview with Efraim Halevy" (April 2006)

"Saudi Arabia's women pioneers " (May 2006)

"Gaza's slide to war" (June 2006)

Shi'a grievances

Many Shi'a complain of discrimination when it comes to jobs and housing. "If you're a Shi'a, there are no career hopes," said a Shi'a technician at the state-owned telecoms company Batelco. "I'll stay at a low level my whole life, but if someone from the right family comes in, he will fly." Shi'a political parties want a more powerful parliament in which their votes are given more weight, and a "truth and reconciliation" investigation into the events of the 1990s.

Shortages of affordable housing and public land are also fuelling resentment of high-profile, Dubai-style government mega-projects aimed at tourists, like the plan to build a US$3 billion man-made island shaped like a seahorse. The Financial Harbour is widely resented because it is being built on top of the country's old port: valuable land that used to be open to the public but is now being rented to foreign investors. Opposition activists, adept at using blogs and Bluetooth to spread their ideas and publicise demonstrations, recently started using Google Earth to compare densely populated Shi'a areas with the luxury palaces of the royal family. Shortly afterwards, the government-owned telecoms company blocked any Bahraini users from accessing the Google Earth service.

Restrictions on internet use and free speech are generating anger even among the more well-off or liberal Shi'a in Bahrain, who are not natural supporters of the main Islamist-inclined Shi'a opposition parties. Many are concerned about issues of marginalisation, even including the politics of accents; I was told that the "Shi'a way of speaking" is never heard on television, unless the actor is playing a fool or a fall guy.

Parliament disappoints

There were hopes that the parliament would help to address these problems. In a 2001 referendum, an overwhelming majority of Bahrainis approved a National Action Charter that promised a two-chamber parliament, where an elected chamber would "enact laws" while an appointed chamber would merely "advise". Instead, they got a watered-down version where power is equally split between elected MPs and those that are royally appointed.

One local blogger told me, "I want to be optimistic about political reforms, but since the king broke his promise on the constitution, I have had to be sceptical." Bahrainis are also frustrated with the MPs themselves, who spend much of their time bogged down in "morality campaigns" and small-scale sectarian wrangling.

As such, many have taken to the streets, and there have been ever-increasing numbers of protests in the past few years. To some extent, the existence of protests can be taken as a positive sign – at least they are permitted to take place, unlike in some Gulf monarchies. However, the government now appears to be clamping down. Clashes between police and protestors – which each blames on the other – have become more frequent, more violent, and more personalised. And in July, the government passed a law outlawing unauthorised rallies.

Against this backdrop of rising tensions, arson attacks have re-surfaced. In the past few months, cars and houses have been set alight and there have been several bomb scares. In early May, several policemen were wounded by Molotov cocktails thrown by masked youths. Most of the unrest occurs in Shi'a villages like Sanabis, after midnight, when young men block roads with burning tyres, and end up clashing with riot police, who bring tear gas and rubber bullets. It hardly helps that the police force is filled with Sunni immigrants from countries like Yemen or Pakistan, recruited in preference to local Shi'a.

Sunni concerns

For its part, the socially liberal Sunni elite is wary of the more religiously conservative Shi'a majority, and the government has in the past suspected that unrest among the Shi'a is fomented by Iran. Tehran used to claim sovereignty over Bahrain, and although it officially gave this up in 1971, Manama believes Tehran backed at least one coup attempt in the 1980s. The government also accused Iran of setting up a Bahraini branch of Hizbollah in 1996.

In this context, some see the hand of Iran behind the current unrest in Bahrain. It's not impossible. But there is plenty of homegrown dissent among frustrated young men who think they are marginalised because of their religion.

Certainly, Iranian Shi'a clerics influence their counterparts in Bahrain. Some outspoken activists, like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja of the banned Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, are admirers of Ayatollah Khomeini. But Bahrain's Shi'a also look to Iraq's more pragmatic Ayatollah Sistani. Bahrain's own Sheikh Ali Salman, who leads the country's most popular Shi'a political party al-Wefaq, has been a restraining influence on Shi'a youth, repeatedly condemning acts of violence. His party will contest elections for the first time this year and are likely to become the biggest group in parliament – which will spice up the often turgid debate.

Islamism and the class divide

However, regardless of Tehran's involvement, the government will be wary of Islamist trends that might undermine Bahrain's pro-western, investment-friendly image. The country is an ally of the US and UK, hosting the US Navy's Fifth Fleet as well as many US and British expats. At a Bahrain banking conference in London earlier this year, a gleaming model of the Financial Harbour sat in pride of place in a London Stock Exchange seminar room, and a government Power Point presentation made much of the attractions of Bahrain's liberal lifestyle, noting that alcohol is easily available. Yet Bahrain has occasionally seen protests and even arson attacks on restaurants that serve alcohol – which is not at all the image the government hopes to portray.

According to al-Wefaq activist Tawfeeq al-Rayyash, "The Shi'a here are more open-minded than in Iran. Religion is about communicating with God, not politics."

Well, it's not quite so simple. Al-Wefaq opposes government plans to reduce the power of clerical judges in the country's family courts. In 2005 the Supreme Council for Women, a group of women's rights activists headed by the king's wife, campaigned for a unified family law, to replace the current system whereby Sunni and Shi'a have separate family courts. They held a demonstration attended by several hundred. These women were shocked to see a counterdemonstration several thousand strong, filled with women protesting against a law that was intended to codify and clarify their rights.

But this was no simple issue of Islamism versus liberalism; the division reflected Bahrain's sectarian and class divides. After all, Sunni Islamist lawmakers say that the government's planned family court would be closer to Sunni principles than Shi'a. And local blogger Chan'ad said, "The Shi'a community is reacting to a fear that the government is trying to encroach further on one of the few areas of autonomy that the Shi'a community has." He added that there was little sympathy between the less well-off Shi'a women, many wearing the headscarf, and the better-off who demonstrated in favour of the new law, some of whom apparently brought their maids to help them carry their banners.

In any case, Bahrain's Shi'a have to be pragmatic. Their large and powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia, is most likely concerned that empowering the Shi'a in Bahrain might embolden its own Shi'a minority, already restive over Riyadh's recent criticisms of Hizbollah. Indeed, al-Rayyash said, "We have to keep in mind our neighbours in the Arab Gulf. They know changes here will affect them, so we need to make the message very clear: we don't want to lose the royal family, but want to change the law." Bahrain's simmering sectarian grievances need to be addressed if its economic boom and soaring skyscrapers are to have solid political foundations.

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