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Bahrain: Shiite Majority, Sunni Rule

This Tiny Persian Gulf Country Is a Study in Restlessness

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Updated January 10, 2008
Only three countries in the world have Shiite Muslim majorities: Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. (In Lebanon, the largest single sect is Shiite, but it adds up to between 35% and 40% of the multi-denominational population.) Iran is ruled by a Shiite theocracy. Iraq’s government, after decades of secular, Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein, is led by a mostly Shiite government. Tiny Bahrain (a cluster of 33 Persian Gulf islands whose inhabited areas add up to the size of New York City), however, remains the only country in the world where a Shiite majority is led by a Sunni minority.

That inequity has been at the root of recurrent unrest for most of Bahrain’s history.

The unrest is naturally of great concern to the ruling Sunni elite in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family, which has ruled the country since 1783, though not always autonomously. (Britain ruled Bahrain as a protectorate between 1892 and 1970, when Bahrain gained its independence.) It’s also of concern to Bahrain’s neighbors: Kuwait to the north, Saudi Arabia to its west, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to its east and south. Each of these countries has restless Shiite minorities of its own. Each of these countries is within the scope of Iran’s ambitions in the region.

Iran’s Eyes on Bahrain

Iran hasn’t given up on exporting its revolution. Nor has Iran forgotten that until 1783, Bahrain was a Persian province, ruled by a Persian dynasty since 1603. Iran still claims Bahrain as its own. And when the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979, massive demonstrations in support of Iran broke out in Bahrain, with Shiite leaders demanding that Bahrain, like Iran, be proclaimed an Islamic Republic.

As the New York Times’ Youssef Ibrahim reported on Dec. 1, 1979, in the midst of Bahrain’s Ashura celebration, banners proclaiming “Death is Happiness,” “Oppression is humiliation,” and “Death is a habit with us” were draped over the main road to Bahrain’s bazaar. “‘Freedom,’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Equality’ were scribbled on almost every poster carried by the marchers,” Ibrahim wrote. The assertive and angry displays, expressive of long-simmering resentments in the demonstrators’ eyes, brazen in the regime’s eyes, rattled the Bahraini regime and the Saudi regime nearby, which has always made it clear to Bahrain that it would not tolerate religious unrest (Bahrain’s oil and banking economy is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia).

Repression and Rumors of Coups

But Shiites had become greatly dissatisfied with the regime, which had promised democracy with independence only to impose a state of emergency in 1974 and dissolve parliament. The regime cracked down further in 1979, arresting some 900 people and inviting the United States to visibly increase its military presence on the Island. Bahrain has been a Pentagon staging ground ever since. In 1981 and 1984, rumors of uprisings and coups coursed through the islands, and in 1984 arms caches found. The mid-1990s were marked by further unrest.

The 2002 and 2006 Parliamentary Elections

On Feb. 14, 2002, Bahrain held a referendum on a new, reformist constitution. Although political parties were still banned, the political process was somewhat open again, and a 40-seat parliament, or “Council of Representatives,” was established. But so was an appointed, 40-member upper chamber, or Shura Council, which has the same powers as the lower chamber—effectively nullifying those powers. For that reason, the October 2002 parliamentary election was boycotted by most Shiite opposition groups, turnout was a bare 52 percent, and the Council of Representatives became just another Sunni-dominated political organ.

The November 2006 election went somewhat better for Shiites: Opposition candidates won 16 of the 17 contested seats, but still ended the day with just 40 percent of parliament—and the upper chamber’s veto power left unscathed.

Bahrain as a Bush Administration Favorite

Since the beginning the the Iraq war, Bahrain has been the site, in 2004 especially, of anti-American demonstrations. For the Bush administration, however, Bahrain is a model of Middle East stability and reform (Bahrain did grant workers, including foreigners, the right to form unions in 2002—ironically, an initiative the Bush administration, which is not supportive of unions in the United States, would not champion. Bahrain has about 39 trade unions and allows workers to go on strike).

Most of Bush’s esteem, however, is for Bahrain’s support of the Pentagon’s military outposts there. In the 1990s about 1,300 U.S. troops were stationed there, part of the Gulf contingents pressuring and containing Iraq that decade. Bahrain became a more important staging ground for U.S. troops during the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when U.S. troop strength in Bahrain grew to 4,500, many of them Air Force pilots flying from Bahrain’s Shaykh Isa Air Base. Bush considers Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally.”

Once a rich outpost of pearling, weaving, fishing and boat building, Bahrain’s economy shifted to oil, banking and construction in the 20th century. Today Bahrain’s oil-borne fortunes are declining, as its limited oil reserves are declining year after year. Bahrain relies heavily on its considerable petroleum refining capacity as well as in developing itself as a banking and telecommunication hub for the Gulf.

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