Bahrain's revolution that never was

02 June 2015

Economy key to social stability as dependence on Saudi Arabia grows

Despite thousands of people taking to the streets of Manama in 2011 to call for social justice and political reform, the gulf state’s Shia population seems to have subdued its calls for change.

Manama’s streets now look like its regional counterparts with the island nation increasingly stabilised despite a disenfranchised Shia majority.

MEED talks with opposition group, Al-Wefaq’s Secretary General, Khalil al-Marzooq in the group’s headquarters near the American Embassy in Manama to understand what happened to the revolution that never was.

In an office decorated with posters and roll-up banners calling for the release of the group’s leader Ali Sheikh Salman, sits Al-Marzooq as he explains, “ in 2011 the Bahraini people learnt resistance from the Egyptians and the Tunisians, but unfortunately at the same time, the authorities learnt oppression and political crackdown from the respective regimes.”

“We are not calling for the breakdown of the regime or a change of government, but rather legitimate reforms to ensure social justice,” says Al-Marzooq.

Bahrain’s population, which is majority Shia, is governed by a Sunni royal family that enjoys a strong relationship with Riyadh. And has been accused by local opposition groups of social oppression and economic exclusion. Al-Marzooq claims that these injustices are best illustrated by the governments housing and education policies. “If you are Shia it is widely known and accepted that you will receive smaller housing that if you were Sunni. And in terms of education there is an indiscriminate freezing of funds to support Shia students to study abroad, and often those who have self-funded their overseas studies find that the ministry of education does not ratify their diplomas when they are back.”

In saying this, there is little evidence within Bahrain’s constitution that implies a differentiation between its Shia and Sunni citizens, although many have highlighted corruption and legal loopholes as the means by which the authorities implement the status quo.

Meanwhile Bahrain’s opposition has been accused of toning down its hostility with some groups claiming that the injustice did not suffice the street protests and civil disobedience seen in 2011. Al-Marzooq rebukes these claims and says, “we were forced to slow down, the people got tired and the government’s crackdown intensified. People were thrown in prison, killed and closely monitored.”

MEED also speaks with Reda Faraj, a Bahraini MP and member of the Shura council who says that the government has made sufficient steps toward reforms to help the country’s entire population. “The protests have calmed down because the government has heard the calls for reform and are on that track. Despite al-Wefaq not agreeing with this, they know the reforms are good and I am sure they will re-join the political process by taking part in the 2018 elections.”

Al-Wefaq has distanced itself from ad-hoc protests taking part in some of Bahrain’s smaller towns and villages. “Our focus is to now get our leaders out of prison, and maybe we can work toward taking part in the political process again.”

Al-Wefaq has found itself under intense pressure from regional governments who have blamed the Shia group of being affiliated and controlled by Tehran. Al-Marzooq dismisses these claims. “We are not connected with Tehran, but even if we were, we have been peaceful and willing to part take in the political process so it doesn’t matter.”

Bahrain seems stabilised for now, but if the economic climate continues to deteriorate, street protests may erupt again on the basis of economic opportunities rather than the previously perceived schismatic lines that set the basis for the unrest in 2011.

Overall if oil prices remain at their current levels, Bahrain will see its dependence shift from one resting on the hydrocarbon industry, to one looking across the causeway to Saudi Arabia. Support from Riyadh has been politically problematic and has gathered pace since the unrest in 2011. As Manama continues to struggle, this support is likely to continue as Saudi Arabia looks to alleviate the perceived risk of Iranian influence in the island nation. 

The main challenge facing the Gulf state this year will be the government’s ability to curb public spending while raising revenues to prevent the deficit escalating out of control, in effort to appease a population which is starting to feel the brunt of economic instability.

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