If you ask an average Bahraini whether there is a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in their country, their answer will be the same regardless of their sect: “No, we don’t have an issue with each other.” Yet, in the world of foreign policy and mainstream media, the issues that Bahrainis face are reduced time and time again to a religious or sectarian conflict.
So, what’s the real story?
In a few words, Bahraini politics can be boiled down to class politics. At the heart of the small kingdom’s “political conflict” lies the hoarding of wealth by an elite ruling class at the expense of the lower and middle classes.
This is not to say that religious identity is not important, but that anti-government resistance in Bahrain is rooted in a long history of social and economic discrimination.
While Bahrain’s Shia population makes up about 70 percent of the native population, the country is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. The Al Khalifa family, originally based in Kuwait and then Qatar, has ruled Bahrain since the 18th century. After settling there, they created a system of feudal rule, appropriating the land of the indigenous Arab Shia population of Bahrain, or “Baharna,” and relegating them to second-class status.
The Shia population has complained for decades of social and economic discrimination.
The Shia population has complained for decades of social and economic discrimination. Among the issues faced by the majority population are inadequate housing, high rates of unemployment, and poor political representation.
Shia have also experienced employment discrimination in the government sector. While the Interior Ministry and security forces are the largest employer in the country, Shia Bahrainis are rarely hired to work for either.
The country’s reliance on a low-wage foreign workforce also contributes to Bahrainis’ unemployment rates. The government has been known to grant citizenship to Sunnis from other countries, many of whom are employed in the country’s security services.
Meanwhile, Bahraini Shia comprise less than 5 percent of the country’s security sector and are denied the opportunity to serve in the military. Even those lucky enough to be hired often receive low-ranking and administrative positions.
Moreover, high-ranking government positions are granted to those well-connected to the ruling family, who are predominantly Sunnis. Only a handful of Shia Bahrainis are appointed to high-ranking positions, likely as tokens of the country’s so-called commitment to equality and as part of a strategy of appeasement.
Discriminatory hiring practices, nepotism, and the uneven distribution of resources all contribute to making the rich richer at the expense of the poor. The nation’s wealth, derived primarily from the oil and gas industries, is heavily concentrated in the hands of the ruling elites. A lack of transparency and corrupt handling of economic resources allow the ruling class to profit not only from oil rent, but tax revenues, land ownership, stakes in companies, and even the sovereign wealth fund.
The story of Bahrain is one of crony capitalism, where an elite political class hoards the nation’s wealth.
As analysts have noted, the story of Bahrain is one of crony capitalism, where an elite political class hoards the nation’s wealth and colludes with a business class comprised of their own connections. Lower and middle-class Bahrainis have thus not benefited from the nation’s economic development in the same way as the upper and elite classes.
While accurate and recent statistics are not available, a report released in 2004 by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights found that over half of Bahrain’s citizens were suffering from poverty and poor living conditions. Bahrain’s Economic Development Board released a report on income inequality in 2011 indicating that the poorest 40 percent of Bahrain’s population only got poorer between the years of 1995-2006.
The government has also failed to provide promised state-funded housing to lower and middle-class Bahrainis who cannot afford to buy land. Yet, while Bahrainis wait up to 20 years in frustration to receive government housing, the state’s land reclamation projects make way for settlements of non-native, naturalized Sunnis.
In addition to facing economic and social discrimination, Shia Bahrainis have also suffered intense political repression, imprisonment, and torture when they have dared to protest their marginalization.
The Bahraini government and its international allies commonly dehumanize Shia protesters, depicting them as violent and intent on causing “unrest,” or even as puppets of Iran. This obscures the history of Shia-Sunni cooperation in the opposition movement as well as the true causes of political protest in the country.
Anti-government protests in Bahrain can be traced back to the 1990s, when Sunni and Shia protesters called for political reform and the establishment of a constitutional democracy. The protests were met with major government crackdowns and the arbitrary arrest and detention of Shia activists and leaders of the opposition movement.
Despite promises of reform when King Hamad came to power in 1999 and the re-instatement of a parliament, Shia Bahrainis continued to lack adequate political representation in the coming years, as re-districting privileged Sunni voters over Shia voters.
Pro-democracy protests demanding both political and socioeconomic equality culminated in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, involving thousands of Shia and Sunni protesters taking to the streets and gathering around the Pearl Roundabout to participate in non-violent demonstrations. The protests were violently quashed by the government and the military intervention of its ally, Saudi Arabia.
Cycles of protest and repression have persisted since 2011, with Shia activists continuing to face intense government persecution.
Cycles of protest and repression have persisted since 2011, with Shia activists continuing to face intense government persecution. The country is now experiencing a period of relative calm, though many Bahraini activists remain in prison and the government continues to torture and even execute prisoners.
The imprisonment of Bahraini protesters has significant economic consequences, as they are no longer able to provide for their families. While Shia charities are founded to help the families of political prisoners, the government often shuts them down.
The government’s violent repression and broader socioeconomic marginalization of Shia Bahrainis has aimed to divide the country along sectarian lines, preventing the forging of Sunni-Shia solidarity that was so dangerous to the ruling family during the Arab Spring. While neither pro-government sentiment or anti-government opposition is exclusive to one sect, the cooperation between Shia and Sunni Bahrainis witnessed during the Arab Spring has certainly faded.
By politicizing religious identities and reducing Bahrainis’ social and economic struggles to a religious divide, Bahraini rulers mask structural, social, and economic inequalities and protect their own power and wealth.
Without the political power or economic resources to improve their situation, it is no wonder Bahrainis resort to resistance. For them, it has never been about sectarianism, but about living as the wrong social and economic class in a system designed to serve the ruling class.