If you look closely at a map of the Middle East, you may notice a small speck of land afloat in the Persian Gulf, right across from regional behemoth Saudi Arabia. The tiny island is Bahrain, the smallest country in the Middle East, and it has recently been in the news for being both at an ethnic and political crossroads.
With a booming economy, Bahrain faces problems that stem less from living conditions than they do in other Arab nations. The genesis of Bahrain’s problems lies in the difference in the religious affiliations of the population and the ruling dynasty. The emirs of the al-Khalifa dynasty, who follow Sunni Islam, have ruled their mostly Shia population ever since their conquest of the island in 1783. At present, the al Khalifas wield absolute power. The absolute monarch King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa is free to control the appointment and removal of the Prime Minister, the judiciary, and even the parliament.
Bahrain is frequently touted as possessing the freest economy in the Middle East, yet the island’s strong economy did not avert the outbreak of popular discontent at the height of the Arab Spring. Waves of peaceful demonstrations rocked the usually placid streets of the capital Manama, with protestors demanding a shift to a constitutional monarchy.
The difference, however, between these street protests and the uprisings seen in Libya and Tunisia, is distinct: the Bahraini protests featured a noticeable sectarian tinge. The protests in Bahrain saw Shia protestors demanding more religious freedom only to be brutally crushed by armed state policemen. Though the King apologized in a rare television appearance and commissioned an enquiry into the incident, his efforts failed to satisfy Shia critics of his regime.
The sectarian strife brings attention to Bahrain’s position as Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in the region. Linked by the King Fahd Waterway to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is intrinsically linked to the bastion of Sunni Islam. During the demonstrations against his rule, the King requested and received 1000 Saudi soldiers who trooped across the causeway and helped put down the protests. Saudi Arabia is understandably concerned about the political state of Bahrain — the prospect of seeing a fellow conservative monarchy cave to Shia demands is frightening to a country with restive Shia populations of its own. The small Shia population in the east of Saudi Arabia is tightly monitored.
After all, any disturbance could prove catastrophic for Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil production. The Bahraini opposition leaders fighting for basic democratic rights have at least been able to express their frustrations, but being a satellite of the Wahabbi monarchy in Riyadh could hardly be an enviable position.