Bahrain emerging as flashpoint in Middle East unrest
The kingdom of Bahrain, a key base for US military operations in the region, faces its third straight day of protests as Sunnis and Shiites unite to demand political reform.
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Furthermore, the powers that be have consistently practiced a form of sectarian apartheid by not allowing Shiites to hold key government posts or serve in the police or military. In fact, the security forces are staffed by Sunnis from Syria, Pakistan, and Baluchistan who also get fast-tracked to Bahraini citizenship, much to the displeasure of the indigenous Shiite population.Skip to next paragraph
Unlike oil-rich Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain doesn't have petrodollars to spend on the cradle-to-grave welfare systems that have kept a lid on reform movements in those countries.
Christopher Davidson, a specialist in Gulf Affairs at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, says the situation in Bahrain should be seen as a case of economic disenfranchisement magnified by underlying sectarian tensions.
“Post-oil Bahrain has unemployment and few opportunities for the young population," he says. "However, there is the added dimension of sectarian unrest, with the Shia majority population having historically been second-class citizens to the ruling Sunni elites.“
Not a new phenomenon
Unlike the shock that greeted the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bahrain has long been the scene of political discontent. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Bahraini government repeatedly jailed member of Shiite political groups calling for greater political representation.
Such actions were justified in terms of national security threats amid lingering territorial claims by Iran over Bahrain. Attempts at political reform in 2002 that changed the country from an emirate to a constitutional monarchy have so far failed to yield meaningful change.
However, if the current maelstrom of political reform rushing through the region unites both the Shiite underclass with middle-class Sunnis tired of the status quo, the Al Khalifah dynasty may be forced to cede more power to the people, or use greater force to suppress dissent.
In a country where “divide and conquer” has been so exquisitely practiced, the protesters’ chant of “Not Sunni, Nor Shia, but Bahraini” is one certain to cause concern among the ruling family.