In mid-March, a violent government campaign to put down a month-long popular revolt turned Bahrain into an island of terror. Images of security forces firing on unarmed protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful” went around the world via YouTube and other media. Today Bahrain has largely receded from the news, emerging only briefly in an Obama speech or when Formula One organizers had to ex-plain why they postponed and finally canceled the annual Bahrain Grand Prix.
What happened in this small Persian Gulf nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia is the latest episode in a long-running conflict. For over two hundred years Bahrain has been ruled with a heavy hand by a family of sheikhs, the Al Khalifas. Sunni Muslims from the Saudi mainland, they have regarded Bahrain’s Shia population as Iranian proxies who cannot be entrusted with full political rights. The Shias, who make up some 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 million people (of whom some 666,000 are nonnationals), have long felt discriminated against in access to jobs, education, housing, and much else. In particular, they accuse the government of trying to dilute their numbers by naturalizing expatriate workers, especially Sunnis from Arab countries and Pakistan.
The current king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, began his reign in 1999 as an avowed reformer. He freed jailed activists, allowed exiled opposition leaders to return, and promised a new constitution with greater rights for all citizens, including political participation. Opposition groups, foremost among them the newly formed alliance of Shia Islamists called al-Wefaq, welcomed these pledges, but as the King largely failed to make good on them over the next decade, the Shia opposition grew increasingly disillusioned, complaining in particular about gerrymandering that prevented Shias from gaining a parliamentary majority.
Beginning in mid-February of this year, protesters inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt gathered at a centrally located traffic intersection known as the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. In its center then stood a sculpture of a dhow—a traditional local sailing vessel—with six arches for its sails, representing the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional economic and political body of which Bahrain was a founding member. At the top perched a simulated pearl, Bahrain being well known for the pearls it harvests from the Gulf.
Fearing the protests would get out of control, King Hamad announced that the government would allow peaceful demonstrations and would punish no one for participating in them. His son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, opened secret talks with al-Wefaq and six other legal opposition groups about organizing a public dialogue on political reform. (By law Bahrain has no formal political parties, only political societies that effectively function as parties. These have to be registered with the government, however, and some …