Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?


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Bahraini youths run for cover as police fire teargas during Labor Day protests in the Manama suburb of Sanabis, May 1, 2012

Until 2011, the tiny island nation of Bahrain was mainly known to the outside world for one thing: an annual Formula One car race, the first of its kind in the Middle East, that signified the country’s arrival among the community of stable advanced nations. But then came last spring’s popular uprising and brutal government crackdown, and a different side of this Gulf monarchy came to light: the longstanding grievances held by many Bahrainis, including above all members of the island’s Shia majority, against its Sunni ruling family, who in turn seem prepared to use force to hold onto power. The regime prevailed, and after inviting an investigation of human rights abuses last fall, it suggested it was bringing the country back to normal; this spring’s Grand Prix would show the world it had succeeded.

But as I discovered during a five-day visit shortly before the race, nothing could be further from the truth. Talking to dozens of people both in Manama and in smaller communities outside the capital, I was told again and again that the situation was becoming worse, not better: police forces have been using large quantities of tear gas against protesters, repeatedly causing deaths; police brutality had not ended but moved from police stations to alleyways and undeclared detention centers; young activists are increasingly resorting to Molotov cocktails, subverting the peaceful nature of the protests; and the government has not opened any dialogue with the opposition or offered hope for political reform. Protests occurred nightly in Shiite villages and neighborhoods during my stay, and a veritable battle of graffiti took place on the walls of shops and houses, with protesters writing slogans calling for the end of the regime, police erasing them with a quick coat of paint, and activists scribbling new ones seemingly before the paint had dried.

And so while the Grand Prix, Bahrain’s single prestige event, did take place in late April, it happened amid clouds of tear gas and wafts of smoke from firebombs, as well as an outcry over the death of a protester apparently as a result of shotgun pellets fired by riot police. On the day of the event, a political activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was into his eleventh week of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on allegations of plotting to overthrow the state during last year’s protests. (As of this writing, the hunger strike is now in its ninetieth day.)

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

Consider the recent cases of Ali and Omar: two Bahraini boys, one a teenager, the other a pre-schooler. Ali, of course, is one of the more common Shia names while Omar is a common Sunni name. Their stories, much embellished in the retelling, have been wielded by each side in the conflict to attack the other side.

In March, the Bahraini Internet was full of Twitter comments about 4-year-old Omar, who was said to have been forced to kiss his (Shia) teacher’s feet simply because of his name. The historical Omar was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and Islam’s second Caliph. To Shia, he was a usurper, who muscled aside Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, in the succession crisis that erupted following Muhammad’s death.

The teacher denied the accusation, but when it was leaked to the press that the school had launched an investigation (after a complaint lodged by Omar’s parents), the Ministry of Education became involved, and the matter, quickly amplified by social media, soon became a national controversy. The school was forced to suspend the teacher, and a picture of her husband and his daily route to work were circulated on Twitter in an attempt to intimidate the couple.

Ali, the other boy, is a 16-year-old from a Shia village who, according to the Shia version of a story that has gone viral, was picked up from the street by intelligence agents, who tortured him in their attempt to turn him into an informer. When Ali went to the police to file a claim, they accused him of giving a false deposition and having inflicted his own injuries. In the ensuing Twitter melee, Sunni activists highlighted the case as an example of the Shia opposition’s use of false evidence to denounce police brutality. They also claimed the opposition was highlighting the case to cover up its embarrassment over Omar’s tale.


I first heard about Ali and Omar from another Omar, a young Bahraini professional who is not aligned with any faction or movement, and is secular in outlook. What is more, while his given name suggests he is Sunni, he is in fact a Shia for the simple reason that his father is Shia. Like so many other urban Bahrainis, Omar is the offspring of a mixed marriage, and he would never refer to himself in sectarian terms. Indeed, I have come across many Sunni Alis during my peregrinations in the Middle East, and quite a few Shia Omars, all proud owners of names redolent of Islamic history without the political baggage that some sectarian leaders seek to burden them with.

In fact, this overtly sectarian discourse has far less to do with longstanding communal differences than with the regime’s attempt to deflect attention from its own record of mismanagement and corruption. The fact that the leading opposition parties are Shia Islamist in their outlook has not helped. The largest group, Al-Wefaq, has come under criticism from secular Bahrainis—Sunni or Shia—for its pursuit of a religiously-based conservative political agenda (regarding the status of women, for example, or the relationship between mosque and state). Moreover, many Sunnis accuse Al-Wefaq of being a local stand-in for Iran’s theocratic regime. From its side, the ruling Al Khalifa family and the government it has installed have exploited Sunni unease with Al-Wefaq to mobilize the Sunni community. By whipping up sectarian sentiments, the government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.

Because of extensive intermarriage, however, and the fact that Bahrain’s native population is so small (about half a million), invoking a Shia threat alone has not sufficed. As Munira Fakhro, a secular pro-democracy activist, put it when I met her in Manama in late March, “Hatred comes from fear. This is what we had in Muharraq [a predominantly Sunni town next to the capital] when I grew up. But then we moved into a mixed neighborhood in Manama and I discovered they [Shia] are people like us.” Notwithstanding the dismissals (and subsequent partial reinstatement) of Shia professionals and ongoing mutual hostility, Sunni-Shia interaction is what defines daily life at the workplace and in many neighborhoods.

The regime’s use of an Iranian bogeyman has been particularly effective. One of the first signs to greet a visitor driving from the international airport in Muharraq to the capital exclaims in English: “Down Down Iranian Conspiracy.” The argument, conveyed to me on numerous occasions during my visit, is a marvel of simplicity: Unlike Sunnis, the Shia have a religious leader, or marje’a, a source of emulation. Al-Wefaq’s leaders derive their inspiration from their Bahraini marje’a, Sheikh Isa Qasem. He, in turn, allegedly is a follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Guide. Ergo, Iran is the hidden hand behind the street protests, the escalating use of Molotov cocktails, and the general effort to bring down the regime. In this reading, Al-Wefaq’s call for reform is a merely a subterfuge to cover its real aim of establishing an Iranian-style theocracy.

Yet for all this there is no indication of active Iranian interference in Bahraini politics, or of Bahrain’s Shiites looking to Khamenei as their guide. (In fact, Sheikh Isa Qasem is generally thought among Shia to be a follower of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, who is a quietist.) Even the United States, which has its own sharply adversarial relationship with Tehran, has repeatedly stated it has seen no evidence of direct Iranian meddling, and has reminded its interlocutors in Manama that bottling up legitimate demands for political reform could push disenfranchised Shia into Tehran’s arms—a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So where are these allegations coming from? One explanation is that there has been a marked shift in the power center of the regime itself, with those who want to seek accommodation with the opposition increasingly sidelined by hard-liners. When the opposition movement began last year, the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his allies were considered a leading force for reform within the government. But his failure, in March 2011, to persuade Al-Wefaq and other opposition societies to agree to a dialogue with the government on reform fatally undermined his position.


The Crown Prince’s eclipse is the principal untold story of Bahrain’s aborted Arab Spring. In recent years, he had been on a quest to loosen Bahrain’s dependence on Saudi Arabian oil and weaken Saudi Arabia’s friends within the Bahraini royal family. To this end, he established the Economic Development Board (whose leadership constituted a virtual parallel cabinet), as well as Mumtalakat, a sovereign wealth fund designed to generate revenue from sources other than oil; the Labor Market Regulatory Authority, an agency that inter alia seeks to reduce the gap between Bahraini and expat salaries; Tamkeen, a training fund to promote entrepreneurship; the Bahrain Polytechnic, which aims to create a skilled workforce that will allow for economic growth and diversification; and the Bahrain Teachers College.

Now, control over all of these institutions has been taken away from the Crown Prince and they are in the process of being refocused or reduced to empty shells. For regime hardliners, this has been a way to reinforce their own power base, which is backed by Saudi patronage. With escalating violence and no sign of a political breakthrough, those with influence in the regime are seeking a more intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf Arab (and Sunni) neighbors. Saudi troops are still present following their March 2011 invasion, hunkered down at some distance from the volatile urban terrain. Socially, Saudi weekenders use the island for wild indulgences forbidden at home: families flock to cinemas, women gather at malls to organize group drives, while men binge-drink and visit houses of ill repute, which now include major hotels, where prostitution is conspicuous. Local wisdom has it that it is better not to venture out on weekend nights in order to avoid drunken Saudi men and inexperienced female Saudi drivers.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain now propose to consummate the Gulf states’ security-based relationship, the Gulf Cooperation Council, into a political federation. But none of the Gulf monarchies has shown any interest in such an arrangement. The proposal, therefore, if it comes to anything, is more likely to produce a Saudi-Bahraini confederation, in which there would be little doubt where real power lies. Bahrain would become no more than a satrapy, with the Al Khalifa reduced to, at most, policing the island on behalf of the House of Saud—what in a sense it is already doing.

The ultimate irony is that in seeking to escape Iranian interference, the Al Khalifas are rushing headlong into a Saudi embrace. For Bahrainis themselves, this would likely mean even less freedom and more autocracy than before: the Saudi regime would want to keep tight control over this tiny spit of land within Iran’s military reach, and the introduction of its Wahhabi doctrine would put a swift end to the social liberties and free-wheeling cosmopolitanism to which ordinary Bahrainis have grown accustomed, exemplified by the island’s signature Formula One race. It is doubtful that either Bahrain’s Alis or its Omars would fare well under such an arrangement.

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