I am astonished by how little the media has covered the ongoing protests in Bahrain, Kuwait, and eastern Saudi Arabia. You would think that the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states would be under a microscope, because what happens there immediately affects oil prices. But large media corporations have opted not to cover events in these countries, so as not to cause market panic. And there is a lot to panic about.
The Arab Spring, or something like it, in Bahrain is all about Sunni-Shia tensions. Bahraini Shia make up almost 70% of the country’s total population. They are freer than the Saudi Shia (who are a distinct minority) to practice their faith in public, and they have never been subject to the incredible brutality of anti-Shia campaigns like the ones that were conducted in Iraq by Saddam’s forces following the 1991 uprising. That said, Bahrain’s Sunni Al-Khalifa ruling family excludes the Shiite population from participating in public life, and discriminates against them economically and politically.
Any attempts by the Shia to address their needs by democratic and peaceful means are repressed by the government, because they are seen as a threat to the regime. The ruling family has portrayed all Shiite calls for reform, democratization, and constitutional government in the country as a radical Shiite agenda aimed at destabilizing the island, and has linked Shia protesters to Iran. As a result, Bahrain has become extremely polarized, and Shiite Islamists have become the strongest political opposition group.
The government of Bahrain has made a mistake by ignoring the will of the majority of its own people. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has refused to incorporate members of the Shiite elite into the government. It is possible that, if the Emir had sacrificed several ministerial posts to the Shia elite, the 2011 uprising could have been prevented. Instead, prior to the elections, the government exposed a Shiite conspiracy, which led to the events of 2011.
Protests started in February 2011, and were inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s collective force (which is composed of mainly Emirati and Saudi troops) successfully suppressed the demonstrations, and the world did not express discontent with the fact that Bahrain’s purely internal tensions were resolved through military intervention. Many suspected that a crucial, behind-the-scenes role was played by the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, and could be jeopardized by local turmoil.
After the major protests, the government didn’t change the country’s political system to incorporate the Shia majority into politics. Bahrain’s electoral system is one of the most notorious examples of the persisting discrimination. To ensure Sunni domination in the elections, constituencies have been gerrymandered; although Shiite citizens account for two-thirds of the population, less than half of the seats in the National Assembly are held by Shiite representatives. The government has allowed harassment of opposition politicians, banned several NGOs that monitored the government, and arrested journalists and bloggers.
The Shiite community has suffered economically since the end of the major wave of protests in 2012. Due to high unemployment, almost 53,000 Shiite families are waiting to receive housing from the government, but most are passed over due to Bahrain’s policy of naturalizing and providing housing to Pakistanis, Yemenis, Jordanians, and Syrians to balance the Shia-Sunni ratio.
Although protests still smolder in Bahraini towns, world attention is turned to the spectacular events in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. All protests have been banned in Bahrain since October, but the ban hasn’t stopped the opposition from taking to the streets to demand the resignation of the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, who has been in office for 32 years now. The passion of protesters has remained strong; they are still able to fill the streets of the capital, Manama, as well as smaller towns.
The government, which mainly consists of ruling-family members, does everything possible to prevent the resolution of the conflict: puppet courts acquit policemen of torture charges, protesting students are expelled from universities, and the Shiite majority seems invisible to the authorities.
People are continuing to die in the protests, and the whole thing seems to have taken a dangerous and extreme turn. Until recently, protesters were relatively peaceful and only resorted to assembling in the streets. But on July 17, a car exploded in a mosque parking lot near the royal residences in Manama, marking an escalation of tensions between protesters and the government. That same day, an office building was set ablaze in another area of the city, and several days before that, a car exploded by the house of one of Bahrain’s members of parliament.
Judging by the authorities’ recent behavior — both the army and the police have been mobilized — they are preparing for the biggest protest yet, scheduled for August 14. The demonstration, which is being referred to as a “rebellion” on social media, is calling for the overthrow of the government, and has gained massive support among Bahrainis. The prime minister warned Bahrainis against joining the movement, but the warning, coming from someone who is regarded the most corrupt politician in the country, had the opposite effect. Whether the much anticipated overthrow of the government happens or not, Bahrain’s August 14 demonstrations will certainly bring the country back into the world’s headlines.