Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge

Posted in Other | 06-May-05

Thousands of Bahrainis gather to protest for the reform of a constitution introduced in 2002, in Manama, Bahrain, May 6, 2005.


A little over four years after Sheikh Hamad bin `Isa al-Khalifa announced a sweeping reform plan, Bahrain's fragile liberal experiment is poised to stall, or, worse, unravel. The overlap of political and social conflict with sectarian tensions makes a combustible mix. If steps are not urgently taken to address the grievances of the large and marginalised Shiite community -- as much as 70 per cent of the population -- Bahrain, which is often touted as a model of Arab reform, could be in for dangerous times. The U.S., which has extolled Bahrain's reforms and is the country's principal benefactor, should moderate its praise, urge the government to see through what it started in 2001 and find ways of raising the delicate issue of sectarian discrimination.

Bahrain's problems go beyond sectarian discrimination to include protracted conflict between government and opposition, mounting unemployment, high rates of poverty, and a rising cost of living: establishing a stable political system requires altering relations between government and citizens as a whole.

The government recently has taken steps to repair what was once a dysfunctional autocracy. Still, it so far has failed in two important respects. First, reform has been uneven, leading many domestic critics to view it as an attempt less to establish a new political contract between rulers and ruled than for the royal family to formalise and institutionalise its grip on power. Secondly, it has done virtually nothing to tackle sectarian discrimination and tensions. Indeed, the latter have been exacerbated, as the majority Shiite community feels increasingly politically marginalised and socially disadvantaged.

Bahrain's Shiites also suffer from, and are angered by, widespread suspicion among officials and Sunnis regarding their national loyalty and ties to co-religionists in Iraq and Iran. These views stem from misconceptions regarding relationships between the Shiites' spiritual and political leaderships. They ignore the broader trend over the last two and half decades, which has seen the country's sectarian tensions fuelled far more by local political and social frustration than by national religious irredentism.

Of greatest concern today are increasingly aggressive moves by the government, which more and more resorts to police tactics and authoritarian measures to maintain order. At the same time, the moderate Shiite leadership's control over more confrontational elements within its community is showing signs of wear. While some opposition members advocate reconciliation, others are pushing for a more dramatic showdown. As this dangerous dynamic sets in, government and opposition moderates may lose their tenuous hold on the situation. Both need to act quickly to prevent this from happening.


To the Government of Bahrain:

1. End discriminatory practices against the Shiite community by:

(a) ceasing manipulation of Bahrain's demographic makeup through political naturalisation of foreigners and extension of voting rights to citizens of Saudi Arabia;

(b) halting inflammatory rhetoric that casts doubt on Shiite loyalty and labels the political opposition a sectarian movement;

(c) recruiting Shiites into the Bahraini Defence Forces and domestic security forces in order to diversify their makeup;

(d) ending informal and formal practices that prohibit Shiites from living in predominantly Sunni residential areas;

(e) passing a law that clearly defines and renders illegal religious or ethnically based discrimination;

(f) conducting a national population census that reflects Bahrain's complexity, including information on religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic status; and

(g) creating a national forum in which political associations and government officials can discuss challenges facing the country and the best ways to move forward.

2. Deepen the political reform process by:

(a) redrawing electoral districts to reflect demographic and sectarian realities more accurately;

(b) enhancing the elected chamber's legislative authority by either reducing the size of the appointed chamber to twenty or defining its role as exclusively consultative, as outlined in the 2001 National Action Charter;

(c) granting the elected chamber the power to draft and initiate legislation;

(d) rescinding restrictions on formation of political parties and halting harassment and surveillance of non-violent opposition activities; and

(e) ensuring that appointments to high government office are based on merit and appointing persons who are not members of the Al-Khalifa family to key ministerial positions.

3. Promote respect for the rule of law by:

(a) passing legislation protecting freedom of expression and association, in accordance with international standards;

(b) ending politically motivated arrests and freeing political prisoners;

(c) ensuring that all citizens and residents of Bahrain, including members of the ruling family, are held accountable for offences such as exploiting public office for private enrichment; and

(d) enforcing transparency in government financial dealings and the financial holdings and interests of all officials of cabinet rank and above.

4. Expand recent efforts to address the worsening socio-economic and unemployment crisis by:

(a) criminally prosecuting employers who hire expatriate labourers with illegal work visas;

(b) broadening opportunities for technical and professional training;

(c) expediting implementation of labour market reforms outlined by the crown prince's office and the business community;

(d) requiring transparency in public and private commercial business transactions; and

(e) privatising land owned by the royal family and making it available for purchase by citizens either with the help of short-term government subsidies or fairly determined market values.

To Shiite Community and Opposition Leaders:

5. Deepen participation in the political process by:

(a) cooperating with members of the parliament who seek to resolve the current constitutional and political stalemate;

(b) expanding relations with regime officials, such as the office of the crown prince, who are committed to ameliorating the social and economic pressures that affect the Shiite community;

(c) encouraging unemployed Shiites to participate in government job training programs; and

(d) offering to participate in the 2006 elections on condition that the government redraws electoral districts.

6. Promote non-violent activism and avoid threats of confrontation.

7. Formulate a political platform and agree to a codified personal status law that allows women the choice of using Sharia courts or those of the government.

To the Government of the United States:

8. Moderate praise of Bahrain as a model of reform and urge the government to:

(a) bring the 2002 Constitution in line with the 1973 version, restoring legislative authority to the elected branch of the parliament; and

(b) end anti-Shiite discriminatory practices and redraw electoral boundaries to better reflect the country's demographic make-up.

Amman/Brussels, 6 May 2005

International Crisis Group
Middle East Report N°40

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