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Making Sense Of Unrest In Bahrain

Paresh Dave |
February 16, 2011 | 2:25 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

Via Twitter
Via Twitter
What Is Happening In Bahrain Right Now?

Thousands of protestors have parked themselves in the city of Manama's Pearl Roundabout, which is quickly becoming Bahrain's version of Egypt's Tahrir Square. Like Tahrir, the Pearl Roundabout sits in the middle of Bahrain's capital near major financial and commercial institutions.

When security forces tried to suppress protests on Monday, a man was killed. The protestors held a funeral for him on Tuesday morning. Security forces attacked the funeral with tear gas and rubber pellet guns, killing a second man. On Wednesday morning, protestors held a second funeral procession. The police laid low this time around.

Prompted by the deaths, Bahrain's ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa made a rare appearance on state television, promising that the deaths would be investigated. In response to the killing, members of Bahrain's main opposition group have indefinitely withdrawn from parliament.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department expressed concern about the violence and called for everyone to exercise restraint. King Hamad noted that peaceful protests are tolerated.

The protests began on Feb. 14, marking the nine-year anniversary of the ushering-in of a constitutional monarchy.

Where Is Bahrain and What Is Bahrain?

Bahrain is a tiny island country situated in a Persian Gulf bay where Qatar and Saudia Arabia meet. Bahrain is directly across from Iran and due south of Iraq.

Bahrain has an economy that is one percent the size of California's economy. It's population of about 1.2 million puts it on par with San Diego, California. Half of those people aren't even citizens.

Why Are There Protests In Bahrain?

Inspired by recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahraini youth launched their own revolt through Facebook before taking to the streets.

The country is Islamic, but it's population is divided into two sects. Shiites make up about 70 percent of the country and Sunnis 30 percent. Yet, a Sunni royal family rules the country and dominates the wealthy class.

The disproportionate role of Shiites is said to have left much of society poor and unemployed. Shiites also claim the government has been trying to attract more Sunni foreigners to become citizens in hopes of upsetting the population imbalance.

The Shiites are aligned more with Iran while the Sunnis have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Diplomatic cables from 2008 that WikiLeaks released this week point to growing alarm about the Shiite-Sunni division.

Regional tensions may be adding to long-standing domestic tensions as well, contributing to the stridency of sectarian voices in Bahrain,” one cable said. “The majority of Bahraini citizens are part of the Shi'a underclass, and their grievances, expressed both in legal political activity and in street skirmishes between youths and police, are at the center of all domestic politics here.”

The WikiLeaks-released dispatches also say King Hamad involved himself even more as unrest was spreading a couple of years ago.

Over the past two months the King has departed from his traditional detached style and intervened personally in several controversies arising from Bahrain's Shi'a-Sunni tensions. He has publicly, both personally and through his ministers, summoned communal leaders, newspaper editors and bloggers to warn them against crossing red lines against discussion of issues like royal family disputes and criticism of judges who have sentenced Shi'a rioters to prison terms.

At $1 billion (or 5 percent of its gross domestic product), Bahrain has one of the largest deficits in the Middle East, leaving the government very little wiggle room.

What Do The Protestors In Bahrain Want?

The main demand is the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, according to Al-Jazeera. Al-Khalifa has been in power since Bahrain declared independence from Britain and nine Arab emirates in 1971.

Other demands include:

  • More parity in parliament. Right now, about half the members of parliament hail from the Al-Khalifa family. Meanwhile, the group that makes up 70 percent of the country has only a 45 percent representation.
  • Release of political prisoners.
  • Greater respect for human rights.
  • Rewrite of the constitution.
  • End to discrimination in housing and selection for government jobs.

So far King Hamad has:

  • Ordered an increase in food subsidies (making food less expensive by increasing supplies).
  • Raised social welfare payments.
  • Paid about $2,600 to each Bahraini family.

“Most people will welcome a grant but it will not necessarily change their views of the government. More important are ongoing efforts to boost foreign investment, improve education and restructure the labor market,” Jane Kinninmont, an editor and economist at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told theburningplatform.com.

How Do Protests In Bahrain Affect The United States?

The U.S. has a crucial navy base in Bahrain. The country's location offers a perfect perch from which to spy on Iran. Bahrain has expressed worries about Iran's nuclear missile program and has made it a priority to have a strong missile defense system.

The countries have strong cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. King Hamad has been willing to arrest people with ties to al-Qaeda even if they belong to his Sunni sect.

The rising tension may be one reason the U.S. bumped foreign aid to Bahrain from about $5 billion in 2008 to $9 million in 2009 and finally about $20 million each of the past two years. Of course, the sums are still small compared to the $1.3 billion the U.S. sends to Egypt.

Many of the Sunnis, including children of the royal family attend a Department of Defense of School on the base alongside American children.

Los-Angeles based Occidental Petroleum drills billions of dollars worth of gas in Bahrain, signing a new seven-year contract last week with the country.

What's Next?

The Guardian reports that the regime has hired Western public relations firms to help handle the mess that has been brewing since elections in October.

As one of those diplomatic cables put it:

"King Hamad understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression. Two election cycles have seen the integration of the Shia opposition into the political process. While a Shia rejectionist fringe continues to boycott the process, their influence remains limited as the mainstream Wifaq party has shown an ability to work with the government to achieve results for its constituents … So long as Wifaq remains convinced of the benefits of political participation, the long-term outlook for Bahrain's stability is good."

But that Wifaq party was the one that walked out of parliament this week, officially leaving the country on a path toward chaos.

And then it continues. A dispatch from a year earlier said:

"Small but violent bands of Shia underclass youth, frustrated with persistent discrimination and what they perceive as too gradual a pace of reform, clash with police nearly every week. The Sunni minority, which rules the country and controls all security forces, has generally acted with restraint, but it takes only one mistake to provoke a potentially disastrous escalation."

Sound familiar?

Reach executive producer Paresh Dave here. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.

[View the story "Bahrain Protests (Feb. 16)" on Storify]



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