Crisis in (P)GCC: Why Bahrain?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ali Akbar Asadi, PhD Candidate
Department of International Relations, University of Allameh Tabatabaei

Popular uprisings in the Arab world started in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 and before long, spread to other Arab countries. At first, there were serious debates on whether these developments will engulf all Arab and even Middle Eastern countries or if they will spill over to other regions.

The most common view was low possibility of such uprisings in southern countries of the Persian Gulf compared to other parts of the Arab world. Those countries fared much better in economic and social terms in comparison to other Arab states and there were actually no motivation for such uprisings. Although some analysts somehow differentiated Bahrain from other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, they generally took a similar approach to those countries.

As uprisings in the Arab world reached their climax and alarmed by new developments and their possible consequences for their countries, leaders of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf started taking measures to prevent similar unrests in their countries. Those measures were focused on economic issues as governments tried by allocating necessary funds to put a lid on possible protests. Despite those measures, street protests broke out in these countries and most of them became scene of unrests and uprisings. Apart from Bahrain, where popular protests rapidly evolved into a major uprising, protests in other member states of the Council were very limited and were easily controlled by governments. To curb the uprising in Bahrain, foreign military forces moved to help Al-Khalifa regime and a regional crisis ensued. The question is why developments in Bahrain have evolved into a full-blown crisis and what grounds or components, which were lacking in other neighboring countries, have been in work to turn Bahrain’s uprising into such a crisis?

Although there is a predominant view about member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council which stresses on their similarities, including existence of authoritarian regimes and rentier economic systems based on energy exports, the situation in Bahrain has been different from other littoral countries of the Persian Gulf. Those differences constitute the main root of the recent crisis in the country.

The first difference was the level of income and economic welfare in Bahrain compared to other littoral states. While countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates enjoy huge oil and gas reserves and are awash with petrodollars, Bahrain lacks such resources and cannot earn much through energy exports with Saudi Arabia supplying needed oil to Bahrain. The government of Bahrain has tried in recent years to improve economic conditions by turning Manama into a regional financial hub and attracting foreign investments. The country’s economy, however, is still dependent on foreign supports and the existing financial resources are not distributed evenly among Bahraini citizens. Although Shias hold a majority in Bahrain, they still suffer from extreme poverty and unemployment. State policies have caused economic corruption and helped certain social classes, especially among the ruling elite, to avail themselves of the lion’s share of economic advantages while the rest of the country’s population is economically worse off. As a result, most Bahraini citizens, especially Shias, are economically dissatisfied and this has proven to be the main ground for recent the popular uprising there.

Another important issue is the existing political rift between people and the state which is also based on sectarian differences between Shias and Sunnis. Although other Arab states of the Persian Gulf are also ruled by authoritarian regimes, discriminatory policies in Bahrain have made people especially distrustful of their government. Bahraini government and political figures like Sheik Khalifa, the anti-Shia prime minister of Bahrain, have been considering remarkable privileges for Bahraini Sunnis and even non-Bahraini Sunnis who have just immigrated to the country. This has intensified centrifugal tendencies among frustrated Shia majority that is currently calling for reforms in and even downfall of Al-Khalifa regime. Unlike most Arab states which have offered various economic and social concessions and take peaceful approaches to keep their people satisfied, Al-Khalifa has opted for a discriminatory and repressive approach which leaves no place for attention to people’s demands. This is why street protests have been easily controlled in most littoral states of the Persian Gulf and their citizens have been satisfied by offering economic and social advantages.

In Bahrain, however, the majority has been putting up with repressive rule of Al-Khalifa for many decades and is now taking the opportunity to bring about serious political and social changes in their country. Therefore, they are sure to continue peaceful protests until they see real change in political conditions of Bahrain.

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