Fu’ad Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Fu’ad Khuri has provided us with a sensitive analysis of the recent history of Bahrain. He captures the broad sweep of socioeconomic and political change brought about by the colonial bureaucracy and the discovery of oil, and he comprehends the multiplicity of peoples, religious sects and classes in Bahrain and their responses to these changes.

Khuri’s premise is that in Bahrain, tribe, peasantry and urban society are not evolutionary stages in social development but have coexisted simultaneously, and related to each other “variably through different constitutions and through controlling varied social and economic resources.” The tribally organized segment (the Al Khalifa and affiliated clans) has, since 1783, maintained control of the major economic resources — pearls, dates and now oil. The basis of tribal social structure was kinship. The peasantry, working on plantations controlled by the Al Khalifa, were organized in villages whose social structure was community-based, bound by Shi‘a ritual and law.

Bahrain’s urban population, living in ethnically and religiously homogeneous neighborhoods, consisted mainly of urban Sunni and Shi‘a and groups of foreigners. The Sunnis hail from either southern Iran or the Najd, and were engaged in trade, commerce and civil employment or — in the case of the Najdis — police work. The urban Shi‘a were mainly in trade, commerce and civil employment. They trace their origins to al-Hasa (eastern Saudi Arabia), or the original village communities of Bahrain.

The Khalifa ruling family dominated a system of tribal councils and religious courts. They used the tribal councils to allocate economic resources which entailed different methods and degrees of coercion. In contrast to the considerable freedom of operation afforded the pearling enterprises (mainly Sunni), tight control was maintained over the Shi‘a, who were engaged in palm cultivation. The religious courts dealt with personal and family affairs. Khuri points out that “because Sunni religious law was enforced by coercion and Shi‘i law by sanction, Shi‘i jurists rose to power…as political leaders challenging the legitimacy of tribal rule.” The Shi‘i jurist’s judicial authority was enhanced by his role in the “redistribution” of revenue from endowment lands. This autonomous authority structure, as well as the economic oppression of the Shi‘a peasantry, has been the basis of economic and political cleavages in contemporary Bahraini society.

Britain imposed an administrative bureaucracy in the 1920s, enhancing and consolidating the power of the ruling family but alienating it from its tribal alliances. While tribal groupings strongly resisted these administrative reforms, the Shi‘a agitated for those reforms which they saw as a rejection of tribal Sunni rule. Tribal alliances were later strengthened by the allocation of key positions in the government, especially the coercive departments. The establishment of private property, an outcome of the reforms, enhanced the power of the Al Khalifa. The most fundamental change was the discovery of oil, which altered the structure of production on the island.

These changes set the stage for the uprisings of the 1950s and after. Because the new state was the sole recipient of oil revenues, collective protests for material advances became politicized. These protests were carried out by groups which fell along “traditional cleavages” and were centered around two political institutions — the voluntary clubs, and the funeral houses or religious centers. The former rallied around nationalist and modernist ideologies; the latter around religious dogma.

These two opposition groupings came together in the uprisings of the mid-1950s and during the 1975 parliament crisis. Because of the absence of formal political parties or labor unions (which are banned), the regime has found it easy to exploit contradictions and weaken these groups. Khuri is superb at showing the contours and nuances of the political opposition and counter-opposition of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The government instituted the parliament in 1973 to bring political activity to the surface and thus control it. Banning political parties, however, made the parliament the only forum for political activity and led to the formation of three blocs — the people’s bloc, the religious bloc and the independent middle. This was contrary to its purpose of facilitating a unified state authority, and thus the regime dissolved the parliament in August 1975.

In consolidating the independent state in the last decade, three major factors have helped the regime. First, the import of foreign labor effectively depoliticized the labor force. Second, the economic boom moved blue collar Bahrainis into the ranks of white collar bureaucrats, clerical workers and merchant-entrepreneurs at an unprecedented level. Increased revenues allowed the state to achieve greater control. Consider the growth of low-cost housing: The process of dispersing once politically problematic communities into state-run towns has stripped the inhabitants of traditional familial and community ties and traditional political contacts.

The third major factor which has strengthened the regime, ironically, is the Iranian revolution. The “modernists” have been frightened away from Khomeini’s fundamentalism. Those with more “leftist” ideologies were either brutally suppressed by; the regime after the dissolution of the 1975 parliament, or cautiously avoid the political arena. Merchants and other urban groupings have benefited from the allocation of government expenditures and from political stability, and have become staunch government allies.

In addition to facing a fragmented opposition, the government has gained the unprecedented military and security support of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The last ten years of economic growth, however, have not really changed socioeconomic relations in Bahrain. The discrepancies and discrimination of the period Khuri studied remain. Khuri correctly characterizes the results of the government’s expenditure programs as short-term. This policy will not create independent self-sustaining industries. In Khuri’s words, “Protests and rebellions can be expected to occur as soon as the economic system and the job market begin to stabilize, bringing to light the conflicts of collective interests.”

—A Bahrain correspondent

How to cite this article:

"Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain," Middle East Report 132 (May/ June 1985).

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