An organ of the American Institute of International Studies (AIIS), Fremont, CA

Current_Issue_Nregular_1_1 Archives
Your_comments Legal

Your donation
is tax deductable.

Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

Senior Editor:
Arthur Scott

Syed Mahmood book
Front page title small

Journal of America encourages independent
thinking and honest discussions on national & global issues


Disclaimer and Fair Use Notice: Many articles on this web site are written by independent individuals or organizations. Their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Journal of America and its affiliates. They are put here for interest and reference only. More details

February 21 2011

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

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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 for reforms and getting rid of tyrants. This week witnessed fierce anti-government demonstrations in Benghazi, the second largest town of Libya with hundreds of casualties. 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 in Bahrain, as it does throughout the Arab Middle East.  Bahrain riots have broader regional implications since Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its oil-producing eastern 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.

The US report pointed out that Members of the Shiite minority were also subjected to political discrimination. For example, although Shiite compose approximately 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population and approximately one-third to one-half of the Eastern Province population, they were underrepresented in senior government positions. There were no Shiite ministers, deputy ministers, governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province, and only three of the 59 government-appointed municipal council members were Shiite.

Many Shiite were also subjected to systematic religious discrimination, the US report went on to say. For example, the government does not finance construction or maintenance of Shiite mosques. All new mosques required the permission of the MOIA (Ministry of Islamic Affairs), the local municipality, and the provincial government, which is functionally part of the MOI. The government approved construction of new Shiite mosques in Qatif and some areas of al-Ahsa--sometimes after lengthy delays due to the numerous approvals required--but did not approve construction of Shiite mosques in Dammam, home to many Shiite. Shiite leaders attributed the refusals to a government desire to discourage the growth of Shiite populations in these communities. Since May 2008 al-Ahsa municipal authorities continued to halt construction of the Imam Rida mosque, the largest Shiite mosque in al-Ahsa, reportedly due to building code violations, the US Religious Freedom Report 2010 concluded.

New York Times has quoted analysts as saying 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.

Shiite were underrepresented in the Ministry of Education in both the leadership and the ranks of head teachers who teach Islamic studies and supervise and mentor other teachers, the report said addint: Although there were many Shiite Islamic studies teachers, school authorities discouraged them from introducing content about Shiitte traditions and practices and instructed them to follow the curriculum.

Government maltreatment of its Shiite majority is also reflected in the construction of their religious places. According to a senior official of the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA), there were 750 Shiite mosques and 460 Sunni mosques, and the government's budget for constructing mosques is split evenly between Shiite and Sunni projects. In newer developments such as Hamad Town and Isa Town, which often have mixed Shiite and Sunni populations, there tended to be a disproportionate number of Sunni mosques.

The problem is that Shiites defying the powers in Bahrain would seduce all other minority Gulf Arab Shiites, particularly of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with substantial Shiite population. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population is estimated between 10 to 15 percent with concentration in oil-producing eastern province while Kuwait’s Shiite population is estimated at more than 30 percent.

A movement by the people for the people

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 the 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

Tiny Bahrain riots have large implications for the oil-rich Persian Gulf region which controls world’s almost half known oil reserves.

On Friday (2/18) Kuwait, another oil-rich Persian Gulf state with about 30 percent Shiite population, witnessed violent demonstration. However, this demonstration by about 1,000 stateless residents, many of whom are of Iranian origin, was not for political reasons but to press for their demand for citizenship, free education, free health care and jobs, benefits available to Kuwaiti nationals.

The elite special forces forcefully dispersed the demonstration, using smoke bombs, water cannon, tear gas and batons after protesters ignored warnings to leave. At least five people, including a security man, were hurt as Kuwaiti riot police clashed with the stateless protesters demanding rights.

The stateless, known as bidouns claim they have the right to Kuwaiti citizenship, but the government says that ancestors of many of them came from neighboring countries and that they are therefore not entitled to nationality.

The bidouns belong to the same origins and races that live in Kuwait. Those origins and races exist on a wide geographical area, stretching from the Arabian Peninsula in the south, to the deserts of Iraq in the north, and to Iran in the east.

According to Kuwaiti government statistics, they currently number about 93,000 people but media sources place the number of Kuwaiti bidoun higher, at 120,000.

Many bidouns are denied driver’s licenses, cannot get birth certificates for their babies or death certificates for the dead. They are also banned from getting their marriage contracts attested. Due to stringent state restrictions, a majority of them are living in dire economic conditions in oil-rich Kuwait, where the average monthly salary of native citizens is more than $3,500.

Currently, the government obstructs the Biduoon's right to civil documentation by requiring them to relinquish citizenship claims before they can receive birth, marriage, or death certificates. The government does not recognize their right to work, and Bidoon children may not attend government schools. Despite the establishment of two previous administrative bodies to address their situation, the first in 1993, Bidoon attempts to claim citizenship continue to be blocked.

Refugees International Organization, in its May 2010 report said that the government of Kuwait continues to balk at granting nationality to its stateless residents, or bidoon as lack of legal status impacts all areas of their lives.

Kuwait must begin immediate and transparent reviews of all bidoon cases towards providing naturalization, the Organization urged adding: Kuwait should guarantee the bidoon the right to work and earn equitable incomes, allow their children to enroll in public schools, provide them healthcare free of charge, and issue certificates that record births, marriages, and deaths.

Tellingly, the bidoon’s demonstrations also highlight a simmering deep rooted issue of Shiite-Sunni divide in Kuwait as many of the bidouns are of Iranian ancestory.

The US Religious Freedom Report 2010 cited some reports indicating many Shiite government employees face difficulties when it comes to promotions from one grade to another particularly in certain government authorities. The report added some leading positions are forbidden for the Shiites even if they are efficient to take over these posts because these posts are awarded only to Sunnis.

The report added the government has imposed some restrictions on religious practices, hinting many Shiites are upset over the dearth of Shiite mosques in Kuwait and this can be attributed to slow government measures to agree to the construction of new Shiite mosques in the country. At the moment there are 35 Shiite mosques in the country compared to more than 1,100 Sunni mosques. Since 2001 the government has given its consent for the construction of only six new Shiite mosques.

Bahrain and Kuwait are members of the six-member regional grouping, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Oman Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar and Oman have very nominal (5%) Shiite population while the UAE hosts around 15% Shiite population. Alarmed by the demonstrations in Bahrain the GCC Foreign Ministers held an emergency meeting on Thursday (2/14) in Bahrain, and pledged full support to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In their statement the Ministers said that that any attempt to destablize Bahrain’s security and stability will be seen as a transgression against security and stability of the GCC countries at large.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.