The Kingdom of Bahrain -- a country that is usually overshadowed by its larger and more powerful neighbors -- has historically been able to keep its domestic troubles outside the international limelight. But the tiny Gulf state has made big headlines the last few weeks with its recent crackdown of dozens of Shia activists who have been tortured for their alleged campaign to topple the ruling family. The island nation's ruling Sunni minority has always had a tumultuous relationship with its Shia majority, who constitute 70 percent of the population. And as the other major Gulf states are applauding Bahrain for its crackdown on these Shia activists, it's worth taking a deeper look at the turbulent relationship between Bahrain's Sunnis and Shia which -- as the nation edges closer to parliamentary elections in October -- is sparking violence because of the deep and long-standing discrimination underlying this sectarian divide.
In large part, Bahrain's sectarian divide is not a Sunni-Shia one, since the two communities have few problems co-existing. The discord in fact lies more between the royal family and the Shia. The monarchy has marginalized the Shia and prevented them from working in certain sectors of the government, justifying the discrimination by claiming Shia loyalties rest with Iran. Though such beliefs are not entirely unfounded, they are largely exaggerated. Shia tradition requires laymen to choose a senior scholar, follow his rulings and pay him alms. These ayatollahs largely live in Iraq and Iran, making Bahrain's Shia susceptible to charges that they have dual loyalties.
Regional tensions have spilled over into Bahrain, affecting the way locals view foreign conflicts. The monarchy backed Saudi Arabia when it attacked a dissident Yemeni Shia group known as the Huthis in November, 2009, enraging Bahrain's Shia who came out in support of their embattled co-religionists. Members of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia party in parliament, stormed out of the legislature in protest, helping to crystallize the idea of a perfidious Shia element on the island. Yet though foreign factors have piqued tensions between the orthodox Sunni ruling elite and the heterodox majority, it is the government's domestic policies which are at the root of Shia animosity. Despite the fact that they make up more than 80 percent of the labor force, they have been predominantly prevented from working for the country's largest employer, the security forces, which have only a three-to-five percent Shia makeup. Before their political awakening which followed the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Shia staffed the majority of the non-officer positions in the security services.
The monarchy's ability to marginalize the legislature and its drive for reform has equally vexed the Shia. After gaining independence in 1971, Bahrain established a parliament and promulgated a constitution ensuring basic rights and equality. However, when parliament demanded greater transparency in government budget distribution as well as a desire to stem the rising authoritarianism of the ruling family, tensions erupted. The parliament refused to pass a draconian measure sponsored by the regime known as "The Security Law," leading the monarchy to dissolve it in 1975. The regime passed the law anyway, which stipulated that political prisoners -- primarily Shia -- could be held for up to three years without charge for anything deemed threatening to the country. Torture was rampant for years. These measures eventually proved unsustainable, and violent riots aimed at bringing about democratic reform, along with the death of the king, precipitated change in 1999.
The current king, Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa, enacted the National Charter in 2002 with a desire to establish ethnic harmony in Bahrain. The charter largely revisited the 1973 constitution, but while the older document had been negotiated openly, the current version was brokered through secret talks in which the Shia were largely absent. Another tenuous attempt at social overhaul was the Amnesty Law, which was poorly received by the Shia because it acquitted both torturer and tortured, and has failed to sweep a dark chapter of Bahraini history under the rug.
Other initiatives sponsored by the king have equally failed to assuage Shia anger. Though the 2002 elections offered the Shia a chance at government office for the first time in three decades, they mostly boycotted the balloting, believing it to be a charade. Eventually, hope for tangible transformation paved the way for a Shia parliamentary majority in the 2006 elections, but they quickly discovered they commanded scant political power to generate change. Real power is vested in the king-appointed upper house of parliament known as the Shura Council, since its job is to ensure the monarchial agenda is pursued and to block any motions emerging from the elected body of parliament that oppose it. Of its 25 members, only three are Shia.
Today, the Shia are united in desiring change, but there is no unanimous view on how to achieve it. Parties such as al-Wad and al-Wefaq have joined the political process and despite the fact that electoral districts have been gerrymandered to prevent Shia dominance, al-Wefaq holds a majority with 17 of parliament's 40 seats. Though control of parliament should give it the authority to effect political change, the party has found much of its power lies in public protest.
Against an increasingly apathetic constituency, al-Wefaq has decided to contest the upcoming elections at a time when many Shia are strongly considering boycotting the polls. Organizations outlawed by the regime like al-Haq, which split from al-Wefaq, want to take control by force and advocate overthrowing the regime. Small riots take place almost nightly in Shia neighborhoods with youths coordinating tire burnings with their compatriots in other villages. The riots are becoming such a nuisance that many of the opposition members accused of inciting the protests have recently been arrested under anti-terrorism laws. The riot police, composed of an amalgam of foreign Sunnis, are sent in to control the pandemonium, creating further tension between the Shia and the government. It's no surprise, since the monarchy has long sought the aid of foreign Sunnis to suppress its indigenous Shia population in the past. In the early 19th century, Bahrain's rulers invited Saudi tribes to pillage and devastate Shia villages in order to make room for Sunni expansion. In the 1990s, Shia riots were quelled when the regime threatened to bring in Saudi paratroopers to subdue the protesters.
Today the monarchy is attempting to mitigate the Shia majority by extending citizenship to as many as 100,000 Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan and offering them employment in the security services. This policy has not only enraged unemployed Shia, but also angered local Sunnis who are hard pressed to find work. The regime has also recently welcomed puritanical Salafis into government bureaucracies. These Salafis are Muslims who abhor the Shia and often advocate violence against them -- as has been the case in Iraq and Pakistan.
Both Sunnis and Shia have also been infuriated by the government's housing policy. All Bahrainis are entitled to government housing, yet many have been waiting 15-20 years for assistance. Foreign Sunnis who serve in the security services are given citizenship and housing after five years of service, depriving the native population of the opportunity to acquire such benefits at a time when Shia neighborhoods face severe housing shortages. This kind of discrimination was slated to end following reforms instituted in the wake of mid-1990s uprisings, but the changes have been merely cosmetic. With elections approaching next month, there is a real fear that disenfranchised Shia will opt to return to violence, believing it to be the only effective way of gaining government concessions.
The current political system does not permit a popular Shia voice. A Shia victory in parliamentary elections is meaningless unless real changes are made to assuage government injustices against them. But the al-Khalifas fear that giving the Shia more rights in line with the 1973 constitution represents an existential threat to the monarchy. And as tensions increase, changes that could have potentially minimized friction in the past will no longer do. There is little chance the monarchy will reform its policies or that cosmetic changes will mollify the Shia. Many Shia claim that the kingdom's interest is to fuel Shia unrest in order to promote the idea that they are a public danger, giving the regime reason to maintain the status quo. Such a policy may prove misguided as ever-increasing tensions will boil over if Shia concerns are not addressed. If this happens, the Shia may no longer look to elections to address their concerns, but rather seek a widespread movement for change by force.
Steven Sotloff writes about Arab affairs and recently visited Bahrain.