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How Bahrain’s crushed uprising spawned the Middle East’s sectarianism

- February 13, 2016
Demonstrators chant and wave Bahraini flags Feb. 15, 2011, near the Pearl Monument on a main square in Manama, Bahrain. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

Bahrain’s mostly forgotten uprising of February 2011 marked the turning point in the so-called Arab Spring. This is true both in the sense that mass demonstrations there were the first to be stamped out successfully by a besieged government, but also because Bahrain witnessed the beginning of, and in many ways supplied the impetus for, the fateful slide away from broad-based opposition movements into the poisonous sectarian and other factional conflicts that have since escaped beyond the Arab Gulf to consume a greater part of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Shiite- and secularist-led protests begun in Bahrain on Feb. 14, 2011, and the ensuing counter-mobilization by the state’s mainly Sunni supporters, presaged the sectarianism which would consume so much of the region in the following years. This sectarianism would be driven by political instrumentalization of latent social group divisions, foreign military intervention, and unwitting entanglement by local forces in the broader regional competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Bahrain is thus notable as the first failed revolution among the Arab uprisings, yet far more significant is why its protest movement failed, and what lessons can be drawn from Bahrain’s experience.

The perennially contentious politics of Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom in the generally placid waters of the Persian Gulf, are often overlooked as sui generis and so offering little by way of wider insight. This distancing of Bahrain from the broader narrative of the Arab uprisings should not be taken at face value, however. For beneath the notion of Bahraini exceptionalism lies a rhetorical battle of supreme political significance, between those who see in Bahrain an important case of citizen protest in a region not known for political opposition, and those whose who would deny the genuine popularity and legitimacy of the country’s February 2011 uprising.

There are, of course, distinctive aspects to Bahrain’s experience. Apart from Syria, the country features the region’s only remaining ruling ethnic minority in the face of a Shiite Muslim majority. Bahrain is a nominal oil exporter that long ago ran out of oil. Its regime is also a product of conquest by a foreign power — the ruling Al Khalifa family and its Sunni tribal allies — rather than of internal political consolidation such as describes the other Arab Gulf nations.

Bahrain thus developed a different type of rentier state than in other Gulf monarchies. Bahrain is an oil-dependent welfare state that does not possess sufficient oil revenues to provide for the welfare of all its citizens, Sunni and Shi‘i, nor has a particular political or normative interest in doing so. Rather than attempt to buy universal political support through financial patronage, Bahrain has resorted instead to a more economical (and politically expedient) ruling strategy: to extend a disproportionate share of state largesse to a core Sunni tribal support base, whose members then have a direct economic-cum-political stake in defending against challenges to the system.

Before and after the uprising, Bahraini Shiites are far less likely than Sunnis to obtain jobs in the public sector, and they are almost entirely disqualified from police and military service. Moreover, those Shiites who do hold government jobs fill lower ranking occupations on average compared to equally-qualified Sunnis. Public services in the highly-segregated neighborhoods and villages where a majority of Shiites reside tend to be inferior to those in Sunni-dominated areas. Finally, Shiite citizens are systematically underrepresented in Bahrain’s elected lower house of parliament due to rampant electoral gerrymandering. In the last fully-contested election in 2010, for example, the average Shiite-majority district represented about 9,500 electors, the average Sunni district only about 6,000.

Not surprisingly, this stark inequality in distribution of economic and political resources has fomented widespread disaffection punctuated by outright revolt among those second-class citizens left out of Bahrain’s implicit ruling bargain. This includes, importantly, many Sunnis of non-tribal pedigree who share most of the same grievances articulated by the mainstream Shiite opposition: a lack of public housing and affordable land, wasteful corruption, and the dilution of Bahraini identity and nationality through the government’s decade-long program of naturalizing foreign Sunnis for service in the police and military.

For Bahrain’s rulers, then, the critical task has always been to ensure that these two constituencies — marginalized Shiites and similarly aggrieved but usually apolitical Sunnis — do not join together in a socially cross-cutting movement in pursuit of substantive reform. And, fortunately for the Al Khalifa but unfortunately for the region, Bahrain has relied to this end on a potent tool: the cultivation of distrust, fear, and even hatred between its two sectarian communities. Even before February 2011, government opposition had been made synonymous with an Iranian-inspired project to take control over the country in the manner of post-2003 Iraq. Afraid of being made pawns in a wider Shiite conspiracy, ordinary Sunnis have been loath to add their dissenting voices, and those who dare to do so are targeted for special retribution.

Beyond the utter undoing of Bahrain’s social fabric, this sectarian stratagem has had the equally disastrous effect of exporting the country’s internal political conflict abroad. The swift labeling of the February 14 uprising as an Iranian-backed coup attempt, followed by the decisive military intervention by Saudi Arabia to end mass protests, transformed a fundamentally domestic event into a new regional cold war. Incited by governments to take up the fight against the Shiite enemy, many Gulf Sunnis ultimately accepted the challenge in places like Syria, Iraq, and later Yemen, including several Bahraini nationals who would assume important positions within the Islamic State group.

However, rather than elicit diplomatic pressure from the United States, Britain and other allies with an interest in resolving Bahrain’s domestic dispute, the regionalization of the conflict paradoxically afforded Bahrain an even freer hand to act internally. For now the West required the Gulf states’ support in combating the very terrorist forces they helped create; and the price, in addition to long-coveted new military hardware, was to butt out of local politics. Five years after the uprising, then, all of Bahrain’s opposition leaders remain in prison, opposition parties remain outside of parliament, and no serious political dialogue — to say nothing of political reform — is being entertained.

Yet there are signs that outside pressure of a different sort may soon demand some compromise from Bahrain’s rulers. Where the international community has equivocated, the global oil market has come calling without regard for political convenience. Having run a fiscal deficit each year since 2011 and facing a potential shortfall of more than $13 billion — nearly a third of GDP — in 2015-2016 alone, Bahrain has followed the lead of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations in beginning to scale back the financially onerous economic subsidies enjoyed by citizens on goods ranging from meat and fish to gasoline and electricity. At the same time, GCC governments have announced plans to raise new sources of non-oil revenue through previously-unthinkable excise and value-added taxes. And the reaction by Bahrain’s supposedly “opposition-less” parliament has been anything but.

On Jan. 11, the Bahraini cabinet announced a 40 to 60 percent increase in gasoline prices to take effect within mere hours. The following day, lawmakers stormed out of parliament in protest, some threatening to resign. An emergency session held a week later ended in similar chaos, with a bloc of MPs refusing to hold regular sessions until the ministers of energy and finance appeared before the chamber for interpolation. According to the chairman of the parliamentary committee tasked with quizzing the ministers, “MPs want the government to realize that they are not puppets and should have a say in what should be done to tackle the financial crisis.”

To be sure, if there is any issue with the potential to galvanize Bahrainis in spite of the sectarian barriers erected over the past five years, it is the state’s gradual introduction of taxation and simultaneous withdrawal of welfare benefits that citizens have come to expect and depend upon since the beginning of the oil era, and whose retrenchment impacts individuals irrespective of sect or tribe. In Bahrain and elsewhere, Gulf leaders appear confident that this unilateral revision of the longstanding social contract between citizens and rulers can be implemented without a corresponding alteration of the political power structure. One wonders how far ordinary citizens will agree.

Justin Gengler is research program manager at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University, where he heads the SESRI Policy Unit.  His most recent book is “Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State” (Indiana University Press, 2015).

This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.