Bahrain is a small country on an island in the Persian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia, with a population of 1,410,942 people, whose political landscape has large implications for the Middle East. It is an important economic and political ally for Saudi Arabia and the United States. Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy controlled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family; however, the population is majority Shia.
Most followers of Islam are divided into two main sects, Shi’ism and Sunnism. The divide between the Shia and the Sunni has been portrayed by the media and even some academics as a 1,400 year war rooted in the political fallout following the death of the Prophet Muhammad and continuing to the present day. The Shia are the followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who believe that the leadership of the Islamic community, or Ummah, belonged to the house of the Prophet, the Ahl al-Bayt. The Sunni believe that the historical succession of the three Caliphates before Ali was legitimate and honor the Caliphs as venerated companions of the Prophet chosen through the consensus of the community, or shura. Violence in the Middle East is often viewed through sectarian and fundamentally religious lenses between the majority Sunni population and the minority Shia population.
Bahrain has held parliamentary and municipal elections every four years since 2002, following constitutional changes that gave women the right to vote and run for public office. The next parliamentary elections will be held on November 24, 2018.
Against the backdrop of these elections is the divide between the wealthy Sunni monarchy and the majority Shia population, which feels increasingly disenfranchised. During the Arab Spring of 2011, the Bahraini regime, with help from its Saudi Arabian ally, brutally suppressed protests against the minority Shia population. Thousands of protestors at Pearl Roundabout demanded more representation in their government, a new constitution and some even demanded the end of the al-Khalifa rule altogether. However, unlike the political reckonings that came for other Arab states with similar protests, the Bahraini government’s reckoning never came. Furthermore, the Bahraini government received international condemnation for the methods employed in suppressing the protests. The government called protesters “traitors and agents of Iran,” likely equating the protestors’ Shia faith as an alignment with Iran. The King of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, declared a state of emergency, and with the help of Saudi Arabian and Emirati troops, swiftly ended the protests. Thousands of people were rounded up and detained, two of whom were even members of the parliament. Dubious methods, such as torture, were employed against those detained with little to no accountability in the aftermath of United Nations investigations. King Hamad set up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) amid international concern. BICI issued recommendations, which the King accepted; however, it is unlikely that these recommendations have been implemented as promised or that they will be in the future.
Dissent and opposition to government policies have continued since the 2011 protests, which have been met with matching retaliatory government actions. In 2014, the country’s Shia opposition boycotted the elections due to claims of suppression. The upcoming elections have also been marred with controversy. The King has banned members of dissolved opposition parties from running.
One of the main Shia opposition groups, al-Wefaq, was dissolved in 2016 by the Bahrain Government after it accused the group of being a proponent of terrorism. Bahrain’s highest court subsequently confirmed the dissolution in February 2018. The government once again claimed that Iran and Hezbollah, a Shia political party and militant group based in Lebanon, were behind the unrest in the country. The spiritual leader of al-Wefaq, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, was stripped of his citizenship, and its political leader, Sheik Ali Salman, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Al-Wefaq is not the only political party to be dissolved, and thousands of Bahrainis who were associated with the party will undoubtedly be excluded from running for political office.
Bahrain’s regime is propped up by its Sunni allies in the region for fear that a Shia-led country would, instead, ally itself with Iran. Perhaps these concerns are a self-fulfilling prophecy. With nowhere else to turn, some have become insurgents allegedly funded by Iran, which Iran has denied. Pushing citizens out of the public sphere and forcing them into the shadows can have disastrous consequences.
The 2018 elections could instead be an opportunity to address the concerns that Bahrainis have about their government and bring the majority Shia population together. It could be an opportunity to address the very real problems of disenfranchisement and disconnect with the ruling family experienced by some Bahraini citizens. There are even Shia citizens who believe that working within the political framework available to them is the best way forward. The conflict is being framed as sectarian one, but is, at its heart, about an oppressed majority that has been barred from participation in their government. Shias and Sunnis may never agree on theology, but they can certainly coexist. Factors such as the power dynamics between Saudi Arabia and Iran and foreign intervention by Saudi Arabia have exacerbated tensions in the region, but it is not implausible to believe in the possibility of reconciliation. Shias must be allowed to shape their communities alongside their Sunni neighbors.