By Lee Smith
Even as tensions surrounding the protests that have left 20 dead here since February 14 seem to be waning—curfews have been relaxed and people are slowly returning to work—they’re not going away. The sticking point isn’t the sectarianism that divides the Shia majority (some 65 percent of the population) and the ruling Sunnis. Nor is it that Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah see here a potential opening for their influence. The issue is older and more profound, dating back to the time two centuries ago when the al-Khalifa conquered Bahrain and the indigenous people who’d lived there for thousands of years.
Some longtime observers of Bahraini politics believe it was the call for replacing the Sunni monarchy with a republic that brought escalation. In response, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa two weeks ago invited in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force composed of 1,000 Saudi troops and another 500 from the United Arab Emirates.
“There was a paper signed by some of the opposition groups wanting to topple the government,” says Ali Rabia, a democracy activist for over 35 years. A well-known Sunni, Rabia is proof that the opposition movement is no simple sectarian affair. “I very much doubt these groups’ loyalties are with Iran,” says Rabia. “The Iranians would not treat them well, and they know it. The relationship between Persian and Arab Shia is not a good one.”
Rabia notes that in 1970 the Bahrainis voted in a U.N. poll not to join Iran and to remain an independent Arab state under the al-Khalifa. Now he fears that discontent, brewing for many years, may be reaching the point of no return. In his office in downtown Manama, he shows me a copy of the document calling for a Bahraini republic and explains this is why he left his political society (use of the word “party” is outlawed). “It was a gift to the government,” says Rabia. “It was also useful in telling the GCC states and the United States that we are facing a danger.”
But the presence of what amounts to an occupying force—a foreign Sunni constabulary with no accountability to the Shia population it is policing—is only making matters worse. Some here blame the GCC forces for much of the violence, including detentions, disappearances from hospitals, midnight raids in Shia villages, and the shooting death of a 51-year-old woman, Bahia al-Aradi, as she was driving in her car.
Much of the opposition sees the government’s actions as unjustified. “So what if some of the opposition asked for a republic?” says Khalil Marzooq, a member of Al Wefaq, a Shia grouping and the largest bloc in parliament until its deputies walked out in late February. “As long as they did it peacefully, what’s the problem with that? If there were pro-regime figures on the other side who said we should leave the government alone and accept things the way they are, should we say we’re going to kill them?”
Al Wefaq, explains Marzooq, is taking the middle road in pushing for a constitutional monarchy. “We want a constitution written by the people,” says Marzooq, rather than the one imposed in 2002 by the ruling family. “And a representative parliament.” At present, the al-Khalifa’s Sunni co-religionists enjoy disproportionate representation. Before the GCC force arrived, the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, accepted the idea of dialogue with the opposition.
To some observers this suggested a split in the royal family, with “hardliners” taking control and summoning the GCC force. Others wondered if the decision had really been made by the Bahraini government, or if the Saudis themselves were calling the shots.
“More than three-quarters of Bahrain’s budget comes from the Abu Saafa oil field,” says Abdul Jalil Khallil, a colleague of Marzooq’s from Al Wefaq. “That field produces 300,000 barrels a day, half of which goes to the Saudis and the other half to Bahrain.”
That is to say, Riyadh essentially determines the economic health of Bahrain. Most real estate investment in Manama is Saudi, and the Saudi royal family sees Bahrain as a vital strategic interest. Bahrain refines up to 270,000 barrels of Saudi oil a day, and trucks coursing the 16-mile King Fahd causeway between the two countries carry vital goods to Saudi Arabia. Coming the other way are Saudi tourists heading into Manama for shopping and the liberal cultural climate. They can let their hair down in the city’s bars and nightclubs.
If Bahrain serves as an escape valve for the Saudis, however, it’s precisely Bahrain’s relaxed atmosphere that poses a threat to the Saudis. “The Saudis are not worried about sectarianism,” says Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. “Shia make up only 20 percent of the Saudi population. They’re worried about democracy, or anything that would wrest power out of their hands.”
If the Saudis see Bahrain as a place to project power and dishearten their own opposition before it takes off, other observers argue that it wasn’t the Saudis who made the decision to send in troops.
“The Bahraini establishment was under intense pressure from the United States to enter a dialogue,” says one source close to the government. “The Americans did not want to see any use of force. So the Bahrainis’ hands were tied, and they brought in the Saudis because of their special relationship with the Americans.” In other words, bringing in Riyadh was meant to shield Manama from Washington’s scrutiny.
Manama has more than enough firepower to quell any uprising all on its own. Bahrain, with a population of 1.2 million, has some 40,000 troops—a larger army than Tunisia, which has 10.5 million people. Add the security forces (police), the national guard, and the intelligence services, and Bahrain has more armed forces per citizen than just about anywhere else in the world. The vast majority of those forces, moreover, consist of foreigners from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Sudan that the government has made citizens in an effort to tilt the sectarian balance in its favor. The number of Shia in the armed forces is minuscule.
Why is the army so large? The al-Khalifa are afraid of Iran, but that’s why the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Manama: to protect Gulf oil and its producers from hostile external forces. The GCC forces are supposed to serve the same purpose. And yet the king congratulated the commander of the GCC forces as though he’d waged a successful campaign against foreign invaders rather than Bahrainis. This is because the royal family does not perceive the Shia community as part of their own people.
“It’s a tribal matter,” says one Shia intellectual. “It’s not sectarian. It goes back to pre-Islamic days when the tribes invaded each other. You have the Bedouin and you have the towns-people. For the Bedouin there were eight months of raiding, raping, and robbing each year and four months of rest. The al-Khalifa conquered this island. They are the winners and we are the losers, and they believe they owe us nothing. This is Bedouin style—who has the sword can do what he likes.”
The al-Khalifa play the sectarian card because it has resonance with Bahraini Sunnis and with Washington, which fears Iranian influence in any Shia movement.
In reality, the ruling families of the Arab Gulf states are more like a confederation of organized crime families. Each has a stake in the others’ maintaining their power and collecting tribute. Most of the families originated in the Nejd region of what is now Saudi Arabia. The al-Khalifa started there and moved first to Kuwait, where their cousins, the Al-Sabah, rule. From Kuwait they went to Qatar, ruled by the Al-Thani, another Nejdi tribe, and then to Bahrain.
“Therefore,” says my Shia informant, “the Shia have to be under them. But it wouldn’t matter if all the Shia one day converted to Judaism or Christianity or even Sunni Islam, because the bottom line would still be the same. We lost.”
If Bahrain seems to be getting back to normal, it’s also true that a GCC force cannot put down a protest movement whose roots go back long before the recent regional wave of uprisings kicked off in December. Khalil Al Marzooq says indigenous Bahrainis have been agitating for their rights since the 1920s. “If you keep repressing people,” says Marzooq, “eventually they’ll respond. People cannot continue to live like this.”
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010). This article first appeared at the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.