Bahrain continues to dominate news headlines across the world. In the past week, the eyes of the world have all been on this small island country as it becomes engulfed in the flames of revolution.
Just as was and is the case with the revolts in other Arab countries, the Bahraini people’s uprising is being miscategorized as simply “pro-democracy.” The reality is much more complex. As we have mentioned in previous columns, the authoritarian nature of Syria’s regime is not enough to incite the Syrian people to take to the streets. There is clearly something else driving these revolts, and Bahrain is no exception.
Bahrain is currently ruled by the Al-Khalifah family, the same family that has been ruling the island since British colonialists incited an “independence” movement that resulted in Bahrain’s secession from the Iranian Safaviyeh Empire in 1783. The Al-Khalifah family is Sunni. The Bahraini population is predominantly Shia. The Al-Khalifah family is not native to Bahrain; they were originally from Kuwait, and it took a great deal of ruthlessness for them to consolidate their political power after secession. It is from these origins that the current struggle has developed.
In spite of being a wealthy country (with a per capita GDP of 20 thousand US dollars), many Bahrainis are destitute: roughly 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This is in large part due to government policy of refusing employment to Shias. One needs only to visit Bahrain to see the volume of foreign laborers (brought in from Malaysia, India, and other countries).
The Shia, comprising the vast majority of the country — 80 percent — are being disenfranchized in this manner.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the people are revolting. 200 years of being ruled by a royal family not even native to their land and being reduced to second class citizens further provokes such unrest. But what is interesting to note is the ultimate consequence of this 200 years of Al-Khalifah rule: it has made Bahrainis reassert their roots. Having a foreign royal family rule them for this long has certainly pushed them even harder to retain their national and religious identity. If the government of Bahrain indeed falls, an attempt will be made once more to unify Bahrain with its big brother Iran triggering the normalization of ties. This seems almost like a foregone conclusion, and would really irk the US and its allies in the region.