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16 May 2013, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

Policy and Prejudice: Shia Divisionism in Bahrain

Two years ago, during the Arab Spring uprisings in several West Asian nations, youth and pro-democracy movements flared up on the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain. In light of these events, this paper assesses how Bahrain’s policies toward its Shia constituency have affected relations between Sunni and Shia groups.

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In early 2011, demonstrations erupted across the Arab world in an unprecedented fashion and revealed how powerful globalizing forces can weaken strong and even otherwise impervious states.[1] Nations that experiencedwidening political revolutions shared a singular, significant trait—all had governments that were either monarchial or autocraticin structure. They were also situated for the most part in the Arabian Gulf and the Maghreb. Youth and pro-democracy movements that took hold also flared upon the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, which has had the same ruling monarchs in power since 1783.

A tiny archipelago of 33 islands in one of the world’s geostrategic oil belts, Bahrain is a nation that relies heavily on revenues from oil refining, industrial enterprises, banking and financial services. Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province is minutes from the island’s western tip while Qatar lies to thesouth.  Bahrain is a taxation-free, patronage-based, rentier state and the ruling al-Khalifa family has held political power over the years primarily by exercising its monopoly over the use of force.

These days, however, longer-term political dynamics are shaping the lives of most Bahraini residents. Demonstrators and private Bahraini citizens broadly seek better governing structures and demonstrators rally almost daily to make the case for them. Day long marches and protests have become routine.

As a result, traditionally stable but autocratic Arab states are contending with diverse new challenges.  Many states globally have had to adjust their responses toward private citizens because of the sheer speed and political will that improved technology, communications and media enterprises have brought to bear. Millions are empowered by social media technologies, but non-violent demonstrations do still require significant in-person engagement to ultimately succeed.[2] And like other states that need to manage novel political revolutions with great care, Bahrain is no exception.[3]

A scholar on the issue, April Carter, has addressed non-violent movements like those in Bahrain as products of urbanization, economic development, higher education levels, new forms of communication and a raising of individual expectations.” In terms of how to handle civil resistance movements, Bahrain’s monarchial government is at a crossroads. On the one hand, Bahraini security forces want to prevent large groups of demonstrators from mobilizing so as to ‘keep the peace’; on the other, at least a few of the nation’s parliamentary and senior leaders want reforms that will last and hold sway with younger protestors and citizens. The priority of the Bahraini government is also to keep the nation’s monarchy firmly in power.

But after over two years of near-daily demonstrations, mostly by Bahraini citizens who belong to the Shia religious sect of Islam, neither a peace agreement nor a credible reconciliation mechanism has emergedto resolve differences between the government and four parliamentary opposition parties.  Since the protests began in February 2011, demonstrators have continued to mobilize in large gatherings. Bahrain watchers are far from sanguine when it comes to the prospects of true democratic change in the country. Calls for reform by the pro-democracy movement in the country have largely gone unheeded. Primarily, the need for security forces to diversify their ranks and for the judiciary to strengthen the rule of law in the country has largely fallen on deaf ears. Both institutions are still closely tied to the monarchy, and their legitimacy remains highly contested at the present time.

There are few local avenues and political structures in place to absorb, organize and shape thoughtful dissenting opinions. Only a handful of local leaders, as a result, inspire trust and confidence within pro-democracy movement and amongst the public at-large.[4]  The Hamad government has also gerrymandered Shia communities across the state such that Shia advocates from local villages occupy disproportionately fewer seats in the elected chamber of parliament.[5] Discriminatory practices over the years toward local Shia have also contributed to a significant trust gap between Sunni and Shia communities.[6] The gap has only widened in the wake of political protests and demonstrations that started in 2011 as local groups, leaders and activists appeal either to violent rhetoric and tactics or more disciplined nonviolent civil resistance strategies to make their voices heard.[7]

This project will assess how Bahrain’s policies are affecting relations between Sunni and Shia groups. It will draw upon opinions from Bahrainis and expatriates in the country and in the region who represent a moderate cross section of the population; and who remain concerned that the country’s instability is likely to worsen before it gets better. 

For its part, the state has urged that protestors respect all sides of a nationally administered public conversation called the National Consensus Dialogue, which has been authorized by the nation’s king. Younger Shia populations and others that watch the country closely remain highly skeptical of the government’s agenda[8], however, and advocates citizens are increasingly mobilized along sectarian lines.

The purpose of the project is, therefore, to consider the history and impact of divisionist local policy in Bahrain, and to seed ideas, responses and opinions that chip away at the conflict’s harder edges. Ultimately, there is a need to infuse the conversation on Bahrain with fresh perspective and provocative new solutions and this research project aims to do this by speaking mostly to those local Bahraini moderates who have lived in the country for an extensive period of time.

Pia Sawhney is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where she focuses on security and conflict resolution.

You can read the full text of this paper here.


[1]Shultz 2012.

[2]Carter 2012.


[4]Interview on background with Angad (2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6]Interview on background with Khalid (2013).

[7] Ibid.

[8]Interview with Erlich (2013).

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