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Why the Crisis in Bahrain Won't Go Away

Protest, Sectarian Tension And Regional Rivalries

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Why the Crisis in Bahrain Won't Go Away

In Februrary 2011, the Arab Spring re-energized the largely Shia anti-government protesters in Bahrain.

John Moore/Getty Images

Bahrain’s largely Shiite opposition continues its struggle against the Sunni royal family, even though it has met little international support. Here’s five reasons why crisis in Bahrain won't go away:

Stalled Reforms

In response to protests demanding greater democracy that began in February 2011, the ruling Al-Khalifa family promised constitutional reform but little has been delivered. Even reform-minded royals, such as Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, fear that a rush to democratic reform would be a start of a slippery slope, allowing the opposition to one day dispense with the system as a whole.

To be fair, the Al-Khalifa do not claim absolutist, divinely inspired authority like the Saudi royals, nor do they preside over a Syria-style one-party system. Bahrain has multi-party elections and opposition media. But let’s be clear: even after decades of peace-meal reform and regular bouts of political unrest, the kingdom remains a highly authoritarian state where elected legislative bodies hold little control over a narrow royal elite.

And the government may just have kicked the can down the road for a few years too long. Many Shiites no longer consider the Khalifa as legitimate rulers.

See here for the historical context to unrest in Bahrain .

Growing Sunni-Shiite Tension

The fact that senior government posts and positions in the security apparatus seem almost exclusively reserved for Sunnis has always added a distinct sectarian dynamic to Bahraini politics. Any political opening would inevitably empower the Shiite majority. Bahrain’s protest movement is overwhelmingly Shiite, and fears of a Shiite-dominated government have led most Sunnis, including those critical of Khalifa, to side with the regime.

For its part, the government consciously encourages suspicions of protesters’ alleged loyalties to the Shiite Iran. Shiite protesters, on the other hand, are outraged over the brutality of the Sunni security force, which includes mercenaries from Sunni Arab countries. < href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17002308">Sunnit-Shiite tension is boiling and the gulf may now be too wide to bridge.

Economic Crisis

Bahraini rulers lack the luxury of abundant oil reserves to keep the masses happy with massive welfare programs and cozy government jobs. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has pledged $10 billion in budgetary support, but ongoing unrest is deepening Bahrain's economic crisis.

Shiite protesters at the forefront of regular clashes with the police come from low-income areas on the outskirts of the capital Manama. They are young, unemployed and angry, just like their counterparts in restive Syrian cities. The regime may maintain dialogue with moderate opposition parties, such as al-Wefaq, but there’s no short fix for income disparities and growing social tension.

GCC Intervention

The principal safety valve of Khalifa rulers is the staunch support from Saudi Arabia and other GCC members who sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to quell the unrest. The wealthy Gulf monarchies simply can’t allow one of their own to go down, while the US is reluctant to poke at the last bastion of pro-American rulers in the Middle East.

This makes the downfall of the Bahraini regime very unlikely in the near-term but it seems that the GCC intervention made the government even less compelled to gamble with an unpredictable process of political opening. At the same time, the presence of foreign Sunni (Wahhabi) troops in this small island can only radicalize the Shiite opposition.

Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

Unfortunately for Bahrainis, the future of their country has become firmly embedded in the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bahraini and Saudi governments have long claimed Iran’s hand in domestic unrest, although we have yet to see any solid evidence of that. But this could change. Faced with hostile Sunni states and an unsympathetic US government, some Shiite groups might eventually turn to Iran for help.

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