Sunday, 20 February 2011

What Makes Bahrain Different?

While the Bahraini national population remains resolute in continuing their protests, the success of their revolt looks a lot less assured than the successful revolutions which took place in Tunisia and Egypt, or that are currently taking place in Libya and Yemen.

The horrors that the Bahraini population have faced at the hands of the Al-Khalifa monarchy are comparable to those faced by Egyptians under Mubarak, or by Tunisians under Ben Ali.
The monarchy, for example, expropriated well over 90% of the 33 islands of Bahrain; torture and the imprisonment of children is common with a number of children having gone missing during the course of the present uprising. There is no such thing as a free trial, and the monarch (not a neutral judge) dictates an individual’s sentence. These are just a few points on the long list of late night kidnappings, murders and so forth that have been carried out by the monarchy. There are two key factors, however, that significantly reduce the Bahraini movement’s chances of success when compared to those uprisings that have already succeeded or are currently ongoing.

First, Bahrain’s national population (which is only 46% compared to the 54% non-national population) is predominantly Shi’a. Because of this, media coverage on Arabic-news channels is small in comparison to coverage devoted to Egypt, Tunisia and the current events in Libya. The reality - though harsh - is that the Arab-world is dominated by Sunnis who feel threatened by the rise of another Shi’a dominated state (after Iran and Iraq). Religion may not have been mentioned much during the movements that occurred in Egypt or Tunisia, and the focus is clearly on ‘democracy’, but there is much more solidarity within the Sunni-Arab parts of the Middle East which excludes Shi’a populations.

Secondly, the armies in both Tunisia and Egypt are made up of Egyptian or Tunisian nationals, whereas the Bahraini army predominantly comprises people of Pakistani descent, followed by Jordanians and Yemeni’s. This means that most of the army cannot even communicate in Arabic, and if they can, only very poorly. Also, soldiers that are Arab are from a Sunni-Muslim background, which means they are more loyal to the Sunni monarchy than the population of Bahrain. The monarchy was smart enough not to conscript the Shi’a population into the army, which would have ensured a more powerful movement for change. This second factor plays a much greater role in inhibiting the success of the movement in Bahrain since it is hard to say whether the Army will eventually stop being loyal to the monarchy and ultimately support the population of Bahrain.

Bahrain remains of key geo-strategic importance for the US, and is a long standing ally. With the growing strength of Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons development in region, can the US afford to lose the support of Bahrain? The bottom line remains that even if states in the Middle East form democracies (or not) their populations remain very much opposed to US-power within the region. Indeed, it was only ever the ‘puppet regimes’ that maintained close ties with the US – and in some cases even Israel – much to the dismay of their own populations.

Hala Almousawi
Undergraduate Student,
Department of Politics and International Relations

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