The tiny, oil-rich Kingdom of Bahrain has traditionally had a Sunni minority ruling over a Shiite majority. Are sectarian divides driving the current uprising? How do the US and other regional heavyweights view the unrest?
The winds of dissent have blown from Egypt - the world’s largest Arab nation - to Bahrain, its smallest.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny Gulf nation where a Sunni minority has long held power over a Shiite majority that currently constitutes around 70 percent of the 807,000-strong population.
The current king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, ascended the throne in March 1999, after the death of his father, who ruled Bahrain since 1961.
FRANCE 24 caught up with Steven Sotloff, a fellow at the Washington DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss the context of the recent uprising in Bahrain.
FRANCE 24: Do Bahrain’s Shiites have grievances against the ruling Sunni minority? And do the Shiites represent an existential threat for the ruling Sunni elites?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: Definitely the Shiites are viewed as an existential threat by the ruling family. If there is a democracy and the Shiites take over, the Sunnis will no longer rule. The Shiites have many grievances – they are marginalized and prevented from working in certain sectors of the government. Although they make up more than 80 percent of the labour 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.
Last week, protesters wanted constitutional reform, they wanted to reform parliament to change it from a rubberstamp parliament to a real parliament with influence and the power to call up ministers and hold them accountable. It began with a Facebook campaign and it was a call for peaceful protests.
But when riot police killed two protesters earlier this week, that’s when the call for reform changed to a call for regime change.
FRANCE 24: The riot police seem to have played an incendiary role in the Bahraini protests. How are they viewed in the country?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: This riot police [force] is not made up of indigenous Bahrainis. They are foreign Sunnis from Pakistan, from Yemen and Jordan, they are beholden to their paymasters - the monarchy - not the citizenry. They know that if the regime falls, they fall with them. The riot police come from places like Yemen. They are nationalized on a fast-track, they are given affordable housing that Bahraini citizens do not get and the grievances stem from this.
FRANCE 24: Are the grievances that are driving protesters to the streets in Bahrain primarily Shiite grievances, or are Sunnis also joining the protest movement?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: It’s a youth movement of Shiites and Sunnis who have common grievances and gripes. They want more jobs. The monarchy is attempting to mitigate the Shia majority by extending citizenship to hundreds of thousands of 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. They want to end corruption. They want a reform of the 2002 National Charter (the new constitution). They want democratic reform. Many people want a constitutional monarchy like they have in Britain.
FRANCE 24: The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and it’s viewed as a bulwark against Iran. Given the geopolitical significance of the region, what role has the US played in Bahrain?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: The support that (US President Barack) Obama gave to the protesters in Egypt without ever coming out against the regime - it’s not going to happen in Bahrain. The US has a huge interest in (the ruling) Al Khalifa family.
It’s not the same as Egypt. In Egypt, you can put out four people, you still have the military you can deal with. But if you throw out the Al Khalifa family, there are thousands of princes and people close to the monarchy. And if there’s a new regime, that regime may not take such a pro-US line.
If you look at the WikiLeaks cables, the king of Bahrain is recorded as saying “Iran must be stopped”. The king of Bahrain is the number one advocate of US strikes on Iran. He is so scared of Iran. Keep in mind Bahrain was a part of Iran in the Safavid dynasty [which ruled Persia from 1501 to 1736]. In the 1830s, the Al Khalifa family signed the first of many treaties establishing Bahrain as a British Protectorate. In 1971, Bahrainis voted for independence. They wanted their own state.
FRANCE 24: The Bahraini royal family frequently claims that Bahraini Shiites’ loyalties lie with Iran. Is this true?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: Not at all. Bahraini Shiites view themselves as Bahrainis. The Al Khalifa family is putting out this bugaboo that the Shiites are allied with Iran and want to create a theocracy. That’s not true.
FRANCE 24: Saudi Arabia is another big player in the region – a causeway links Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. How does Saudi Arabia view the current uprising?
STEVEN SOTLOFF: Saudi Arabia is very, very scared now. The Saudis want stability in the region - that’s all they want. The largest Shia population in Saudi Arabia is in Al Hassa, an oil-rich, eastern province. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas with their Shia brethren in Bahrain.
If you look to the south to Yemen, where there are recent uprisings, there could be a serious blowback to Saudi Arabia if there is a flood of refugees. Saudi Arabia is looking at unrest on its eastern and southern fronts. Its number one ally in Egypt has fallen. The Saudis have funded a huge percentage of the Bahraini budget. They’re pumping oil out of Bahraini oil refineries; they’re pumping millions of dollars a day into Bahrain. They don’t want to see the Al Khalifa family fall. Bahrain has always been on the Saudi side in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); they don’t want to lose that.
Date created : 2011-02-17