Three years after the Arab Spring uprising against Bahrain’s ruling family, the Shiite and Sunni communities of the kingdom have not yet found a solution for a pacific coexistence.
The causes of tension are purely socio-economic. Hostilities in Bahrain are the result of sectarian policies of the Sunni-led government, in areas such as employment, housing, public services, discriminating against the Shiites who are the majority of the population. The Bahraini Shiites deny uprisings were fuelled by Iran (although Iran has expressed its support to the protesters and has condemned the armed intervention of the GCC troops led by Saudi Arabia) in March of 2011. Furthermore Bahraini Shiites have pursued a doctrine distinctly different from that of Iran. Bahraini Shiism leadership is not politicized as it is in Iran.
Shiites make up 70% of Bahrain’ s population and are calling for democratic reforms and a more representative government. One more issue linked to sectarian policies in Bahrain is the Tajnis-as-siyasi (granting of citizenship policy).The opposition is critical of the regime naturalization policy ensuring that more Sunni foreign nationals are given Bahraini nationality. Approximately 30 thousands might have been extraordinarily granted citizenship during the last 10 years. It is also believed that there are political motives behind the extraordinary naturalization campaigns and especially that they are not carried out openly and are based on a racial and sectarian basis. The government recruits workers of a certain ethnic and sectarian background from other countries to work in security and military apparatuses. The government favours them over regular citizens in work privileges and services. The protests by the Shiite population grouped in several “political societies” (since parties are banned by law) are against this sectarian social policy.
Furthermore the Island’s territorial position in the Persian Gulf not only makes Bahrain a key contending regional power but also determines its geostrategic position as a buffer between the Arab World and the USA on one side and Iran on the other. Hence, the overlap in geopolitical and geostrategic implications helps to explain the international community’s response to the uprising in Bahrain. The small Arab archipelago is, in fact, considered, by Ryadh as the natural extension of the al-Sharqia region, the eastern province of the state where there is the majority of the Saudi oil wells and where, in February of 2011 and 2012, some protests led by the Shiite majority took place, in the Qatif governorate.
The Shiites here are 1,358,000 (about 15% of the total population), they are discriminated against and marginalized by the central government. The demonstrations were labeled by the Saudi regime as a conspiracy organized by Iraqis and Iranians. Saudi Arabia, which led the GCC military forces during the Bahrain uprising, fears that a possible takeover of the Shiite majority in the island might pave the way for Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. In order to avoid such an eventuality, Riyadh believes that defense, including military defense, is a strategic choice to restrain Tehran’s aims of influence. Furthermore it should be emphasized that the lack of political support and media coverage given to the Bahraini uprising by the GCC petro-monarchies, which were very concerned about being exposed to the same waves of change, and thus increasing a Shiite influence in the region. That is how the Sunni monarchies have justified the March 2011 military intervention by about 2,000 soldiers of the Gulf countries’ Peninsula Shield Force. The real goal was maintaining the “status quo” and sending a strong signal to Iran. The current political crisis in Bahrain is far from being solved. Although the internal situation in the country remains particularly complex, a concrete sign of openness by the Sunni regime could lead Shiite opposition to participate actively in the process of national reconciliation recently relaunched. However, national changes are strongly compromised by regional interests in keeping the status quo. (M.B.)