Bahrain’s Sunni ruling elite is naturalizing Sunnis en masse to dilute dissent among its majority Shiite population and bolster its security forces. Whether this amounts to demographic engineering or ethnic cleansing, the implications are grave and far-reaching.
Since 2011, Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula, has experienced unprecedented civil unrest and political instability amid the throes of a popular movement which has been relentless in its calls for meaningful democratic reforms.
With the country caught between the formidable wills of its Shiite majority and Sunni monarchy, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa decided to sanction the acceleration of a naturalization policy that has been equated to demographic engineering due to its sectarian and ethnic nature — a policy that uses national security as a smokescreen to obscure sectarian repression.
“Although Bahrain has long seen political polarization between the ruling Sunni elite and the dominantly Shi‘a opposition, the events of 2011-12 stand out because of the intensity of the popular mobilization, the state’s reliance on violent repression, and the increasing shift from economic and political grievances to sectarian religious conflict,” Quinn Mecham, a scholar of civil conflict and political Islam, wrote last December.
Amid the ongoing crackdown against dissent among Bahrain’s 1.3 million people, security forces raided the home of Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Ahmed Qassem, a prominent Shiite cleric and the main voice of the opposition. The November raid is being interpreted by some as government retaliation for Sheikh Qassem’s calls for a boycott of Bahrain’s legislative elections.
When he first assumed power as an emir in 1999, King Hamad presented himself as a modern monarch, a reformer compared to the other monarchies in the region. In the intervening years, however, he has proven to be as ruthless and persistent as the monarchies at the helm in neighboring countries, if not more imaginative in his handling of dissident voices.
In 2011, for example, the state sanctioned the arrest and torture of health workers who defied official orders by treating injured protesters. Physicians for Human Rights catalogued the grave international law violations in a report, “Under the Gun: Ongoing Assaults on Bahrain’s Health System.”
Following three years of unabated violence, King Hamad’s promises to transition Bahrain into a “modern constitutional monarchy” seem both distant and insincere. If he began his official reign as king of Bahrain in 2002 — following the adoption of a national charter — by vowing to fulfill his people’s desires for fairer and more inclusive institutions, the years of systematic sectarian-based manipulation are evidence of an entirely different reality.
“As far as I am concerned, King Hamad’s name has become synonymous to political repression and sectarian-based oppression,” al-Khawaja told MintPress News in an interview in October.
“Bahrainis have been promised change for over a decade and yet little, if anything, has changed. I would argue that Bahrain has never more authoritarian than it is today,” she continued. “When even nationals stand to be stripped of their citizenship on account of their political affiliation, I don’t think that anyone — let alone the authorities — can argue with the totalitarian nature of the state.”
The crackdown on a long walk toward freedom
Though Bahrainis’ long walk toward freedom only recently caught the media’s eye, their struggle began in 2001, when Al Khalifa’s rule already stood as an eroded autocratic structure. The only country of the Arab Spring to have resisted its people’s yearning for change, Bahrain has been the epicenter of brutal state repression and a comprehensive reactionary state policy rooted in sectarianism.
Vice News reported in September that, according to Travis Brimhall, of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “An estimated five people per day are ‘disappeared’ in Bahrain and locked up for indefinite periods; prisons in the country swell with thousands of political prisoners.”
Some of the most recent unlawful arrests conducted by the regime feature pivotal figures of the opposition, such as Maryam al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab and Ghada Jamsheer — all of whom are members of Bahrain’s Shiite community.
But just as the state has showed that it will pursue every avenue and stop at nothing to remain in power, Bahrainis have long vowed that their resolve won’t diminish, no matter how long their struggle persists.
Earlier this month, Bahrain’s brutal and unlawful crackdown against protesters was highlighted by the case of Taqi al-Maidan, an American-Bahraini national who has languished in a Manama jail since October 2012 after the state deemed him dangerous. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on charges of unlawful assembly, intent to kill police, destruction of police vehicles and possession of Molotov cocktails. The U.S. State Department said last month that it had concerns about al-Maidan’s “safety and welfare, his treatment in prison, including his medical and nutritional needs, and the Bahraini court system’s judicial proceedings.”
Bahrain naturalization policy
In 2011, Omar al-Shehabi, director of the Gulf Centre for Policy Studies, described King Hamad’s reliance on immigrants — particularly, Sunni immigrants — as symptomatic of the regime’s eagerness to control and curb Shiite Muslims’ religious pull and political traction within the kingdom.
In a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, al-Shehabi wrote: “The Bahraini monarchy has long relied on foreigners not only as military and police forces, but also to shift the political balance in the island kingdom.”
“The opposition in Bahrain … has accused the government of fast-tracking the citizenship of carefully selected foreigners in order to change the demographic makeup of the country,” he asserted, explaining that those immigrants have almost always hailed from an ethnic and religious background similar to that of Al Khalifa, thus mirroring the monarchy’s sectarian inclinations.
Ruled by a Sunni minority, Bahrain remains overwhelmingly Shiite in its religious structure, more closely resembling Iran than Saudi Arabia in terms of its sectarian identity and affinity. While this reality has been a source of constant worry for Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Shiites have never felt the need to imprint their religious preferences in the political realm.
Amid the suffering and injustices, activists are reportedly most concerned about King Hamad’s naturalization policy, as it aims to artificially alter Bahrain’s demographic and religious-ethnic makeup through targeted immigration in order to control dissent and dilute the opposition. In 2006, five years before the Middle East came to dance to the tune of revolution and change, Bahrain was already deliberately naturalizing Sunnis from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria to absorb the sectarian imbalance which troubled the country’s monarchy.
Bahrain’s naturalization policy first came under sharp criticism in 2005, when International Crisis Group noted in a report: “Consistent with past practice [as early as 1999], the government reportedly is pursuing policies to alter the island’s demographic balance. These include granting citizenship to non-Bahrainis — mainly Sunni Arabs from around the region – to mitigate Shiite dominance.”
ICG clearly asserts that the state used “exceptional measures” to fast-track naturalization and ensure that those naturalized citizens join in the military and security apparatus. “[T]he heavy presence of foreigners in the military and police has provoked sharp anger from locals who consider them ‘mercenaries,’” according to the report.
Hussain Jawad, chairman of the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR), told MintPress this summer that the Bahraini ruling class’s obsession with the kingdom’s sectarian set-up had more to do with officials’ sense of inadequacy and bigotry than anything else.
“Bahrainis are not sectarian in nature. Shia Muslims do not seek religious supremacy, nor [have they] envisioned a future where Sunni Muslims would be excluded and persecuted. This is all the regime’s doing. These fears have been drummed into society to entice mistrust and justify state-run repression against Bahrain’s Shias,” Jawad said.
“King Hamad has intentionally perpetuated this idea of a Sunni-Shia divide so that he could control the political narrative and assert himself as the guardian of Sunni stability. This makes no sense from a democratic standpoint. Religion has never been an issue, only a weapon wielded to serve the regime’s interests.”
Adding to the feeling of uneasiness, the politically-naturalized now swell the ranks of the security and military apparatus, “increasing the perception that they have been brought to contain the local population,” al-Shehabi wrote.
Naturalization as a tool of repression
With the Middle East to the west and Asia to the east, Bahrain’s population is a reflection of its complicated history — a window to a past which saw populations and tribes mix and mingle on the backs of merchant ships and migration patterns. Imperial Britain was the first to exploit ethnic rivalry as a tool of repression and political control. In the 19th century, Britain brought troops from Baluchistan and India to regain control over the Trucial coast — a group of sheikhdoms in the southeastern Persian Gulf, thus introducing ethnic engineering to the region.
Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain’s most prominent opposition group, has been instrumental in exposing Al Khalifa’s naturalization policy, pointing out the abuses and negative consequences that such demographic manipulation has generated over the years.
In August, Khalil al-Marzouq, the political assistant to the secretary general of al-Wefaq, denounced Bahrain’s naturalization policy, noting that the recent wave of targeted immigration has catastrophic implications for social, economic and political life in Bahrain.
According to al-Wefaq’s 2014 figures, as reported by Iran’s Ahlul Bayt News Agency, “95,0000 foreigners from different nationalities have been granted the Bahraini nationality in an attempt to replace the indigenous people of Bahrain, both Sunni and Shia.”
Al-Marzouq has repeatedly asserted that immigrants have raised Bahrain’s population by an estimated 17.3 percent, a figure Al Wefaq has described as conservative. Such numbers are based on Bahrain’s state-run Central Informatics Organisation 2010 census.
“The naturalization project committed against the indigenous people of Bahrain will make the people of Bahrain a minority in their own country in the coming two decades,” al-Marzouq emphasized while speaking to MintPress.
Mojtaba Mousawi, a political analyst based in Tehran, noted that despite increasing calls to the United Nations and neighboring Gulf countries, the international community isn’t hearing the voices of Bahrainis.
“This policy goes beyond simple repression or even sectarian-based oppression, it has to do with ethnic engineering and on some level ethnic cleansing. Al Khalifa is disappearing Bahrain by diluting its ethnic identity. This is a worrying development for the region,” Mousawi told MintPress.
Ethnic cleansing or demographic engineering?
Ali al-Fayez, a rights activist based in Manama, is adamant that King Hamad’s regime intends to lay waste the people to better assert that his rule will endure the test of time, regardless of the consequences.
“It is ethnic cleansing, there is no other way to describe such demographic remapping. We are talking about over 100,000 migrants coming into Bahrain in between 2004 and 2010 — that we know of. Prior to that, between 2000 and 2004, 120,000 were artificially integrated into Bahrain,” al-Fayez told MintPress.
“The regime began its demographic engineering in the 2000s. The king is carrying out a plan which seeks to transform Bahrain’s ethnic and religious identity. The regime has naturalized Pakistanis, Yemenis, Saudis, Jordanians, Syrians and others, giving them housing privileges and jobs in the security forces.”
Yet if the monarchy has favored targeted immigration as a useful political tool, using foreigners to subdue its own people and curb dissent, while also ensuring that loyalties would not shift on account of political, social or religious empathy, expatriates have proven useful in other arenas as well.
While foreigners have often been required to attend pro-government gatherings in order to present to the world a greater sense of popular legitimacy, the state has found its naturalized citizens immensely useful in curbing labor unrest. As noted by al-Shehabi, “The demographic makeup has also been used as a way to limit dependence on the local population in the economic sphere, helping the regime to avoid labour unrest that has been a constant feature of Bahrain’s modern history.”
Al-Shehabi continued, explaining how the state has used its “large oil revenues” to maintain “local residents” in a semi-permanent state of economic dependence through “an extensive welfare state,” thus ostracizing and marginalizing targeted segments of the population.
“Al Khalifa’s myopic understanding of the ramification his immigration policy carries for Bahrain and the region is as dangerous as it is reckless,” Mousawi said.
“Should this trend continue, the island kingdom will no longer resemble Bahrain, not as its people understand it. Social cohesion stems from a people’s history together. Such mass migration will only generate unrest and lead to social and ethnic compartmentalization,” he said.
However one chooses to look at the fast-changing demographics of Bahrain, it has become apparent that such ethnic remapping could generate more instability in the long term than Al Khalifa may have anticipated. While this selective naturalization policy may have been instrumental in diluting popular dissent, and thus delaying the over-run of all state institutions by revolutionaries, the social fractures and frictions it has led to stand to unravel Bahrain society from within and collapse all sense of social cohesion and balance.
Ali al-Fayez told MintPress he does not believe Bahrain will survive the regime. Bahraini culture, the people’s national identity and their sense of social belonging are being swallowed up, he said, adding “You will not see Bahrain in the near future, the identity will vanish completely.”