Nervous Bahrain Marks Anniversary of Shiite Protests

By Simon Henderson

February 14 marked one year since Bahrainis began emulating the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions by launching protests of their own. The demands for greater political reform quickly divided the island along sectarian lines, sparking clashes between majority Shiites and the Sunni ruling family's security forces. This week is turning out to be a test of whether the government can stop Shiite activists from retaking the site of the Pearl Roundabout, and whether Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies might again send forces to bolster the suppression of protests. Also of concern is potential action by Iran, which once had a territorial claim to the island and is now viewed as a prospective ally by the Shiites and a malign force by the Sunnis.


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The Bahraini government styles itself as a democracy because of reforms it carried out ten years ago creating a two-tier national assembly: an elected lower house of forty representatives and an upper house with members appointed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. But the drawing of electoral districts left the majority Shiite population underrepresented. Most power remained in the hands of the king and his cabinet, many of whose members were al-Khalifas, including Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, the king's uncle who has held the job for more than forty years.

Last year's troubles exacerbated political resentment and what Shiites see as their low socioeconomic status, made worse by fast-tracked citizenship for Sunni immigrants. Under international pressure, King Hamad set up an independent inquiry to look into the causes of the unrest and propose reforms. The inquiry's findings, presented last November, were critical of the government, and although changes have been made in response, the political stance of the Shiite opposition has become more hardline. Al-Wifaq, the main opposition bloc, has insisted on further concessions, which the government -- responding, it says, to pressure from the Sunni community -- has refused. One of the opposition's main objectives has been to replace Prime Minister Khalifa with an elected official. And some elements resist any notion of engagement with the government and seem determined to provoke more violence.

Differing Views within the Royal Family

The Khalifas continue to exhibit a spectrum of political approaches to the unrest, as they did last year. The king's eldest son, Crown Prince Salman, is said to be among the more conciliatory but appears burned from the failed attempt to negotiate with the opposition last March. Meanwhile, the family hardliners -- of whom the prime minister is the perceived godfather -- reject any hint of compromise.

On February 12, U.S. Central Command head Gen. James Mattis met in Manama with Bahrain Defense Force commander-in-chief Field Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. Reported as an opportunity to "review bilateral relations," the meeting was more likely an official U.S. warning to practice restraint against protestors. The day before the visit, a small group of armored vehicles had crossed the causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Initially thought to be Saudi, they were identified as Bahraini forces returning from deployment, but the timing of the movement only added to the sense of impending crisis.

Thus far, King Hamad has vacillated between a soft and tough approach to the Shiite opposition's demands. At times he even gives the impression of being out of touch, as in today's interview with Der Spiegel in which he stated, "In a sense there is no 'opposition' in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified bloc with the same views...We only have people with different views, and that's okay." He also said that when demonstrators shout "Down with the King," they are only showing bad manners. And he defended the high number of royal family members in the cabinet, saying they received their posts because of merit. In addition to the prime minister and three of four deputy prime ministers, the Khalifas hold eight other portfolios, including finance, foreign affairs, interior, justice, and the royal court.

U.S. Interests

The United States has had a long friendship with Bahrain, dating back to American missionaries living on the island and American companies discovering oil there. Bahraini society has traditionally welcomed expatriates, who make up half of the 1.2 million population and have helped convert the country into a financial services center (though this role has now been usurped by Dubai).

The local U.S. naval headquarters began as an anchored ship but is now a base manned by personnel controlling numerous key assets, including forces deployed to counter Iranian threats in the region and conduct antipiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. Fifth Fleet vessels spend most of their time at sea, apart from making port calls in Bahrain and other Gulf states.

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Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute. Originally published as Policywatch #1899. Reprinted with permission.

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