Since early June 1997, an upsurge of crude firebombings, street demonstrations and heavy repression has added some nine deaths and an unknown number of arrests and injuries to the toll of the ongoing unrest in Bahrain. The troubles erupted there three years ago with demonstrations over unemployment, discrimination and the refusal of the ruling family to modify its monopoly over the state and the public purse. The government frequently boasts that Bahrain’s standard of living, as marked by various development indices, puts the country near the top in the region. It announced recently that Bahrain has the highest literacy rate in the Arab world — 85 percent as compared with an average of 55 percent, according to the latest UN Development Program report. Bahrain, however, remains a place where you can go to jail for what you write or read: Among those Bahrainis sentenced to fines and prison terms in June were seven men who had been imprisoned already for 14 months for possessing leaflets the Interior Ministry alleged to contain “false news and unfounded statements.” The same month saw the expulsion of the last remaining Western correspondent, Ute Meinel of the main German press agency, for “spreading lies, harming the welfare of the state and insulting the ruling family.” Since then, the government has effectively silenced the local stringer for BBC Arabic, which had been an important source of uncensored news for many Bahrainis. Bahraini defense lawyers, the source for most information about arrests and security court trials, have been threatened with disbarment if they continue to talk to the outside press.

The great majority of Bahrainis can read and write, but thousands of them, mostly young Shi‘i men, do not have jobs. The Al Khalifa themselves — the amir, Sheikh ‘Isa, his brother and prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa, and the scores of others who run the country and share the Khalifa name — are among the literate 85 percent, but certain things they refuse to read or allow their countrymen and women to read. In June, a small group of leading critics of the government prepared a letter to the amir requesting a meeting to present a petition which, they claimed, nearly 22,000 Bahrainis had signed in late 1994, asking that the National Assembly, dissolved by decree in 1975, be restored. The letter, like the petition, graciously expresses “the solidarity of your people and your citizens with your rule and legitimacy of your wise leadership.” Among the signatories were Munira Fakhro, a professor of sociology suspended from Bahrain University for refusing to remove her name from a petition of more than 300 women in 1995; Sa‘id Asbool, an engineer who lost his high position at the ministry of public works for signing a petition and who had undergone a week of interrogation in April 1996 for meeting with a BBC reporter; and Ahmad Shamlan, a lawyer and veteran nationalist activist who had been incarcerated for several months for a newspaper column he had written and for possession of a copy of the petition. True to form, the government responded by harassing the leaders of the effort and warning them not to submit the letter to the amir or press for a meeting with him. [1]

The ruling family has a strong incentive to avoid the sort of fiscal accountability that would likely come with the revival of the National Assembly. According to many otherwise conservative Bahraini businessmen, ruling family control over the monies of the state, and the corrupt practices and influence peddling of the prime minister and his immediate family in particular, would soon become the target of parliamentary inquiry, similar to what has occurred in Kuwait.

The regime’s ability to maintain this intransigent stance has several components. One is the internal security apparatus constructed over the past 40-odd years, initially under British rule, which the regime has expanded using British, Jordanian and Egyptian commanders and advisers, financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and other nervous neighboring sheikhdoms, and thousands of Pakistani and Baluchi recruits. Another is the sectarian communal divide between the Shi‘i majority and Sunni minority. [2] The Sunni ruling family, with some unwitting help from the opposition, has largely succeeded in using the threat of Shi‘i political dominance to rally the Sunni community to its side, or at least to neutralize opposition elements within it.

A third and not inconsiderable factor is the support Bahrain continues to enjoy in the region and internationally. This support has been both material — in the form of financial subsidies from Saudi Arabia and military supplies and training from the US — and political. The US, which has its Persian Gulf naval headquarters in Bahrain, has refused to criticize publicly the Bahraini ruling family’s political intransigence and atrocious human rights record, or to endorse in any manner the opposition’s main demand to restore the constitution and hold elections for a revived national assembly. In late August, however, the US did support a resolution criticizing Bahrain’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Subcommission meeting in Geneva. In September, the US ambassador-designate to Bahrain, Johnny Young, spoke vaguely in his confirmation hearing of the need to “maintain order…in a manner consistent with international standards of human rights,” and promised a “frank, earnest and appropriately discreet dialogue” on such matters.

When Bahrain became independent in 1971, as part of Britain’s military and political withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, the Al Khalifa initially moved to bolster and expand their clan-based political legitimacy. Key positions were reserved for the Al Khalifa, but the amir also formed a partially elected constituent assembly which drafted a liberal constitution. The centerpiece of the constitution, promulgated by the amir in 1973, was a partially elected National Assembly.

The ruling family, though, proved unready to tolerate popular institutions that seriously challenged its customary prerogatives. In 1975, the parliament balked at endorsing a broadly written decree that would enable the government to detain critics and opponents at will for “statements” or “activities” deemed to threaten the country’s “internal or external security.” In August 1975, the government dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the Constitution. [3] This was followed by a wave of arrests, detentions without trial and forced exile that decapitated and crippled the opposition, then comprised mainly of Arab nationalist and communist elements with a base among the intelligentsia and in the underground trade union movement.

The suppression of this opposition, which had largely overcome Shi‘i-Sunni communal divisions, contributed to the emergence of a different sort of opposition following the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran, this one based in the Shi‘i “village” population and expressing itself in religious terms. [4] In December 1981, the government arrested some 73 persons, mostly Bahraini but including several Shi‘a from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, on charges of plotting, with Iranian assistance, to overthrow the regime.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the government continued to imprison and exile opposition activists, religious and leftist alike. Following the Gulf war in 1991 and the success of a broad-based political reform movement in Kuwait, many Bahrainis saw an opportunity to raise again the demand to restore the constitution and the National Assembly, and initiated a petition campaign along these lines.

Initially, this was confined to a group of several hundred elites, chiefly businesspeople and professionals. When the government failed to respond, the petition movement moved to solicit signatures on a mass scale. Within a short time, according to the opposition, nearly 22,000 signatures were secured despite the fact that it could not be mentioned in the media and could only be circulated by hand.

Given the demographic weight of the Shi‘a, and that publication restrictions gave an advantage to the informal networks of the Shi‘i mosques and prayer leaders, the endorsement, coming at a time of growing economic discontent, was overwhelmingly Shi‘i. [5] The situation escalated into violent street protests and confrontations when the government arrested three young Shi‘a clerics in early December 1994 and then summarily exiled them.

A second escalation occurred a year later. The massive arrest campaign of early 1995 included a number of leading Shi‘i clerics and community leaders, including Sheikh ‘Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, an elected member of the dissolved National Assembly who had emerged as the single most influential spokesperson among the Shi‘a activists and in the street. The government then engaged Sheikh al-Jamri and others in several months of jailhouse negotiations.They were released in September 1995 on the basis of an informal understanding that they would endeavor to dampen street protests and the government would take steps to meet the demands of the protesters. At the government’s insistence, though, nothing was committed to paper. Street protests did diminish sharply in the fall of 1995, but when Sheikh al-Jamri and the others began to charge that the agreement was being ignored, the government denied there had been any understanding. The situation once again deteriorated, and street violence and massive arrests resumed. Sheikh al-Jamri and his colleagues were arrested again on January 22, 1996, and as of this writing remain under detention without charge. [6]

Some independent opposition figures believe that the government took advantage of the political naivete of al-Jamri and his colleagues by keeping its commitments extremely vague, promising only that it would “look into” the demands of the petitioners. In this view, the government’s goal in detaining and purportedly negotiating with Sheikh al-Jamri and the others was precisely to undercut the more sophisticated, liberal, secularist and cross-communal leadership of the petition campaign. Such an approach had the added advantage of further identifying the opposition as essentially Shi‘i, expressing communal rather than broad national political grievances. Sheikh al-Jamri “fell into the trap” by not reaching out to his petition colleagues following his release. “He never returned their visit,” said one opponent of the government. “He became like Khomeini in Paris.” [7]

The Bahraini government publicly attributes the country’s political crisis to machinations by Iran and specifically to Iranian support of a group called “Hizballah Bahrain.” While no known Bahraini opposition group goes by this name, this does not exclude its possible existence or a degree of Iranian involvement. It is also conceivable that the dynamics of revolt and repression have created a phenomenon that did not exist at the outset of the unrest, that the young men taking to the streets “hope that Hizballah is there and that they will do something for us,” as one of them put it in a recent conversation. But the crude and random violence that has accompanied Bahrain’s political crisis does not display the footprints of a well-armed and well-financed Iranian surrogate with more than three years of training in Qom and Lebanon’s Beka‘a Valley, as the government alleges. There has not been a single incident involving the use of firearms by the opposition. US and British government officials familiar with the situation agree that the government’s effort to blame Iran for the three years of unrest has no credibility, though they have avoided expressing this view in public. [8]

The Bahraini government is also ready to grant that economic distress is a major factor underlying the country’s troubles. In fact, to the extent that it acknowledges any internal or domestic responsibility for the unrest, it pins all the blame on the economy, and thus portrays the resolution of the crisis strictly in terms of economic, not political, reform. [9] It has tried to compensate for political intransigence by touting economic reforms and training programs designed to provide badly needed jobs. Nevertheless, the situation seems to be worsening. The Economist recently estimated that unemployment rates may be as high as 30 percent — almost exclusively among Shi‘a young men, who are in the forefront of street protests and anti-government vandalism and who are probably responsible for a series of deadly arson attacks on foreign workers from Bangladesh and India.

If the economy is one of the factors behind the unrest, it is also one of the casualties as multinational firms scale back their presence. Publicly this is presented as part of a trend towards consolidation and “downsizing.” Privately, executives admit that the unrest is behind the fact that the consolidating is happening in Dubai rather than Manama. The number of offshore banking units operating in Bahrain has dropped from a high of 75 to today’s 46. Even Caltex, the Chevron-Texaco consortium that pioneered oil production and refining in Bahrain, sold the government its 40 percent share in the Bahrain Petroleum Company refinery after the government failed to attract any outside buyers.

Bahrain’s own business elites are not able or willing to pick up the slack. Some are critical of the government’s hostility to political reform; many are resistant to labor market reforms that would reduce the number and raise the wages of foreign workers as a means of encouraging greater employment of Bahraini youths. Bahrain’s labor minister, ‘Abd al-Nabi al-Shu‘ala, in a recent speech, said that between 4,500 and 6,500 Bahrainis enter the work force each year. At the same time, he acknowledged, his Labor Ministry every month issues 2,450 new work permits and renews 3,450 permits for expatriate workers, who still constitute two thirds of the total work force.

The most recent deaths in June occurred as Bahrain’s unrest moved into its fourth year with no resolution in sight. One death was that of Sheikh ‘Ali al-Nachas, a 50-year-old blind cleric who had spent most of the past two years in prison for his “political” sermons critical of the government. The opposition charges he was tortured to death; the government claims he died of “natural causes.” In another case, a 27-year-old man died shortly after being arrested and later released. The opposition says he had been beaten by security forces; in this case, too, the government asserted that the cause of death was “natural.” Six of those killed were Indian and Bangladeshi workers, who died in two separate arson attacks on shops.The authorities have announced arrests in one of the attacks, but no political motive has been charged or claimed — fitting the pattern of the ten other Asian workers killed since the unrest began.

The Bahrain Freedom Movement, speaking for the Shi‘i community opposition abroad, hints that government provocateurs are behind these attacks, or that they are provoked by the excesses of government security forces. The Movement asserts that the opposition is committed to a strategy of civil resistance, but with most of the Shi‘i leadership either in prison or in exile abroad, it seems that the street opposition in Bahrain is operating without direction. Opposition spokespersons abroad, up to now, have failed to speak out clearly against attacks on foreign workers. An alternate leadership has yet to emerge from the smoldering neighborhoods inside the country. The ruling family, with its hold on power and purse still intact, is all too content with this situation, as it purchases its survival with policies of exclusion and discrimination that are poisoning Bahraini society.


[1] See, for instance, the Human Rights Watch letter of August 15, 1997, to Sheikh ‘lsa urging the government to cease its harassment of Ahmad al-Shamlan in particular.
[2] Bahrain’s population in 1996 was around 598,000, of which some 62 percent are Bahraini nationals and the rest mainly workers from South Asia. Bahraini nationals are approximately 70 percent Shi‘a. The ruling family is Sunni, and all military and most key political posts not in the family are reserved for other Sunnis.
[3] See Routine Abuse, Routine Denial: Civil Right and the Political Crisis in Bahrain (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997), pp. 16-20.
[4] Bahrain, as a result of its small size, economic history and population growth, is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. The two cities of Manama and Muharraq and main towns in the northern end of the island account for 85 percent of the population. “Village” therefore refers to relatively homogeneous Shl‘a neighborhoods, many of them marked by poverty and unemployment, rather than to spatially insular rural communities.
[5] For a detailed account of the emergence of the petition movement, see Routine Abuse, pp. 23-42. See also my article in Middle East Report 200 (July-September 1996).
[6] The Bahraini government now claims that Sheikh al-Jamri is a leader of the terrorist group Hizballah Bahrain. It continues, however, to hold him without filing charges or providing evidence that Sheikh al-Jamri or any of the other community leaders being held without charges have participated in or advocated acts of violence.
[7] Interviews, Manama, June 1996, and London, December 1996.
[8] Interviews, Washington and London, March 1996. In August 1996, in a written response to Congressional questions following a public hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau said there was “credible evidence” that Iran had provided “some assistance and training” to “a small group of Bahraini militants,” but that “the roots of the unrest appear to be domestic and involve the desire for expanded political participation and increased employment opportunities.” More typical, and much more public, are statements such as Pelletreau’s at the National Press Club in January 1996, in which he characterized Bahrain’s unrest as “brought about by a fairly high level of unemployment” and “urged on and promoted by Iran.”
[9] Informally many of the government’s supporters subscribe to the view that the underlying problem is one of explosive demographic growth among the Shi‘a. The editor of one of Bahrain’s two dailies, and therefore someone very close to the regime, using language familiar to anyone acquainted with racist discourse in the United States and Europe, complained that the problem is that the government indulgently provides the Shi‘a with education, health care and other social benefits so that they can remain idle and breed. In a variation on this theme, one that I heard from several well-placed individuals, the Lebanese Shi‘i leader Imam Sadr visited Bahrain in the early 1970s to urge that Shi‘a procreate more assiduously. “Bahrain,” he is reputed to have said, “will then fall into our hands like a ripe fruit.” Interviews, Bahrain, June 1996.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Bahrain’s Crisis Worsens," Middle East Report 204 (Fall 1997).

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