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Bahrain riots alarm oil-rich Persian Gulf states with restive Shiite minorities

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Tunisian and Egyptian revolts have sparked battle for freedom in a number of Arab countries. With the ouster of entrenched Pro-US Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests to change their governments. Sunday witnessed fierce anti-government demonstrations in Benghazi, the second largest town of Libya. Similar demonstrations were witnessed in Algeria, Bahrain and Yemen. The governments have quickly resorted to violence to crush unrest before it gathers momentum that might threaten their grip on power.

After allowing several days of rallies in Bahrain capital, Manama, the riot police Thursday (2/17) stormed a protest encampment in Pearl Square before dawn, firing tear gas, beating demonstrators or blasting them with shotgun sprays of birdshot. At least five people were reported killed in the police assault on sleeping protesters.

Tellingly, unlike in Egypt, where the struggle was between democracy and dictatorship, Bahrain is suffering a flare-up in old divisions between its ruling Sunni minority and restive Shiites, who constitute 70 percent of the local population of 500,000.  

The tension between the Sunni rulers and the Shiite majority runs deep, as it does throughout the Arab Middle East.  Bahrain riots have broader regional implications since Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its eastern, oil-producing districts.

According to US Religious Freedom Report 2010, Saudi Shiite faced significant employment discrimination in the public and private sector. A very small number of Shiite occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Many Shiite believed that openly identifying themselves as Shiite would negatively affect career advancement. In the public sector, Shiite were significantly underrepresented in national security- related positions, including the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the National Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior.

The Report went on to say that there was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shiite in the private sector, but anecdotal evidence suggested that in some companies, including the oil and petrochemical industries, a "glass ceiling" existed and well-qualified Shiite were passed over for less qualified Sunni colleagues. Engineer Abdulshaheed al-Sunni, a high-ranking Shiite official at the King Abdulaziz Sea Port in Dammam, reportedly resigned in September 2009 due to oppression and injustice which prevented him from being promoted.

New York Times has quoted analysts as saying that Saudi Arabia would never allow the Bahraini monarchy to be overthrown. Bahrain is linked with Saudi Arabia through a 16-mile causeway. Ever since Bahrain began a harsh crackdown on protesters on Thursday, rumors have flown that Saudi Arabia provided military support or guidance. "Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends," said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. "It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control."

Most of Bahrain's Shiites are poor, marginalized and discriminated against. They complain that the government is bringing in Sunnis from outside Bahrain and granting them citizenship in order to bolster the ruling elite's political base: the country is less than 30 percent Sunni.  More than 50,000 "imported" Sunnis from southern Pakistan, Balochistan, Jordan and Yemen - have been naturalized. Virtually everyone in the Ministry of Defense and the police is an "imported" Sunni from Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Pakistan.

According to US Religious Freedom Report 2010, only a few Shiite citizens held significant posts in the defense and internal security forces, although more were found in the enlisted ranks. The police force reported it did not record or consider religious belief when hiring employees, although Shiite continued to assert that they were unable to obtain government positions, especially in the security services, because of their religious affiliation. Shiite were employed in some branches of the police, such as the traffic police and the fledgling community police.

To borrow Pepe Escobar, the key problem is that Shiites defying the powers in Bahrain would seduce all other minority Gulf Arab Shiites, from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia itself.

Bahraini protesters have been insisting that this is a movement by the people for the people. When the protests started on Feb. 14, in a so-called Day of Rage modeled after events in Egypt and Tunisia, demonstrators called for a constitutional monarchy, an elected cabinet and a constitution written by the people, as opposed to one imposed by the king.

They want fair elections; the release of all political prisoners; and the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa (the king's uncle, in power for no less then 39 years since independence from Britain), as well as the entire parliament. The prime minister, a major landowner, has come to symbolize the ill-gotten gains of the royal family, which virtually owns the entire country outright.

After Thursday's attack on sleeping protesters by the security forces, the protesters are now calling that King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa should step down .

The main Shiite party, al-Wifaq, had already lost any belief in the current democratic facade, withdrawing from the elected lower house of parliament (18 seats from a total of 40) in protest against the previous crackdown.

Bahrain is a key element of the US administration's strategy against Iran: it is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, and will be the linchpin of any possible military action in the Gulf by US forces. The Manama naval base lets the U.S. military protect Saudi oil installations and the Gulf waterways used to transport oil, without any sensitive presence of Western troops on Saudi soil.

Bahrain 's king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and his family have long been American allies in efforts to push back the regional influence of Iran. In diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, he urged American officials to take military action to disable Iran's nuclear program. Bahrain, with its U.S. naval base, could be a target of Iranian reprisals if the United States or Israel attacked Iran.

Demonstrations in Kuwait

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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