Bahrain resists

February 18, 2011

The Arab protests has at last reached the Gulf. rally of thousands in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, was bloodily dispersed , leaving at least three people dead. Troops in tanks and armoured personnel carriers have now been deployed to key areas in Manama to prevent crowds gathering.

Bahrain won its independence from the UK in 1971 and since then, has regularly experienced civil unrest because of tensions between the Sunni elite, including the Sunni Al-Khalifa family which has ruled Bahrain since 1782, and the Shia majority, who complain they are marginalized, repressed and kept out of most jobs in the government, the security forces and the business community. There are slums around the capital Manama, which is quite unusual for the region. They are hotbeds of discontent.

While per capita GDP is relatively high in Bahrain, $40,400 (29,800 euros) according to 2010 estimates, the country, about the size of Singapore, has endured civil unrest for decades. An uprising from 1994 to 1999 demanded social and economic reforms. The conflict was defused in 1999 when Sheikh Hamad became emir and set out on a cautious course of economic reform. In 2001, voters approved a National Action Charter that would transform the country into a constitutional monarchy. The next year, Hamad declared himself king and decreed that a National Assembly be formed. He has tried to establish the trappings of democracy, but in fact, Bahrain is still an absolute monarchy.

“You basically have a system of apartheid in Bahrain,” Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told Deutsche Welle. “While the Sunni minority has access to the good jobs and most of the country’s wealth, the Shiite majority lives in poor conditions.That’s the bottom line”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, does not want to see a Shiite uprising spill over into its own eastern providence, where Shiites are also in the majority and have long demanded more fairness from the government. The eastern province is crucial to Saudi Arabia since that is where most of the country’s oil is located. “If the monarchy (in Bahrain) was in danger, I think the Saudis would intervene,” said Dubai-based analyst Karasik.

The United States is also concerned because Bahrain is a key ally in the highly strategic Persian Gulf region, home to more than half of the world’s oil reserves, and hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the main American naval base in the Middle East.

Earlier, as Egypt erupted, Bahrain’s ruling family made its first move to head off local unrest by increasing food subsidies and social welfare payments. The king also ordered a payment of 1,000 dinars (1,960 euros) to each Bahraini family. “It was packaged as a gift and a kind of royal benevolence, but of course it was just an attempt to buy popular support,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science said.

It hasn’t worked.

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