Bahrain is one of the earliest lands to have converted to Islam. It has a rich history and has been ruled by the Persian Empire, the Portugese, the Safavid Empire. Subsequently, the Bani Utbah tribe captured Bahrain from the Persians: the island has been ruled by the Al Khalifa royal family since. With a population of 1.4 million people of which the majority are Shia Muslims, Bahrain has been experiencing a political crisis for a few decades.The Arab Spring has heightened political activism in the Middle East. Consequently, the political crisis has turned into a popular political uprising in Bahrain.
Like the world’s historic revolutions and uprisings (e.g. the Iranian Revolution), Bahrain’s fragile political structure and suppression by its monarchy were two considerably important reasons for unrest. Shia Muslims always demanded a share in power as they constitute the country’s majority population. In 1973, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain promulgated a constitution that allowed an elected parliament and created an opportunity for maximum participation in politics by Bahrainis, but it only lasted for two years. Salman Al Khalifa dissolved the Assembly and imposed State Security Law. Thousands of Bahrainis were jailed and the media was strictly controlled. Another wave of reform was introduced by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 2001. He had vowed to introduce a constitutional monarchy, separation of powers, individual freedom, strong rule of law and equality by presenting the National Action Charter (NAC). When Hamad Al Khalifa implemented the NAC, the situation started to normalize in Bahrain. However, the major Shia opposition party Al Wefaq boycotted the 2002 elections and claimed that the NAC did not live up to expectations because no law could be passed without the King’s approval.
In this century, the rise of Shia political activism and strong opposition pressure to the Al Khalifa family became a threat for the ruling dynasty and Saudi Arabia as well. Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren wrote in The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era:
For Saudi Arabia, political reform in Bahrain posed a threat. Successful reforms could raise expectations among Saudi Arabia’s own Shia Muslims, who were clustered in the Eastern Province.
Based on prevailing facts, any Shia regime in the Middle East will benefit Iran. According to Noueihed and Warren:
Al Wefaq was campaigning a full constitutional monarchy, but even this demand was too much for the royal family, which knew it would bring in a parliament dominated by Shia opposition groups that could destabilize its rule and further bolster the regional influence of Iran.
One may argue that Bahrain’s uprising was actually the by-product of systematic discrimination against the Shias since the 1970s and so the protestors (who we see on our TV screens) are demanding the end of the authoritarian regime of the Al Khalifa family. Many Shia protestors have made it explicitly clear that they can coexist with Sunni Muslims and that they were only against the oppressive regime, and not Sunni Muslims.
Ironically, the uprising, which was political in essence, has been portrayed as a ‘sectarian conflict’ by the regional powers. It is the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran which exacerbated Bahrain’s conflict, and if this rivalry endures, it will further endanger Shia-Sunni coexistence in the Middle East.
The author is a researcher at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and a student of the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi.