Shia Opposition in Bahrain Return to the Streets

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Nearly a year after failing to give birth to its own version of the Arab Spring, the majority Shia population of the tiny nation of Bahrain is once again trying to initiate an uprising against the Sunni-based al-Khalifa regime. This time the target has been the annual Formula One race, which the protesters are trying to have cancelled. Bombs were detonated earlier this week, injuring several people and casting doubt on the government’s ability to provide proper security for the race. Meanwhile, the government’s approach to dealing with the crisis has been two-fold: to categorize the protesters as a very small minority of extremists acting on the orders of Iran and to provide carrots to the youth by promising new programs and greater political participation.

In an op-ed for the Gulf Daily, C Moore argues, “The fact is that hypocrisy remains one of the biggest threats to Formula One in Bahrain. Then there is the media’s insatiable thirst for a good story, no matter how bad it is. Let’s face it, the saga we are force fed (no pun intended) must make covering Formula One events elsewhere about as interesting as, well, watching cars drive round in circles. But the biggest threat of all is the actions of Bahrain’s opposition in the run-up to the race. The irony is that the opposition stands to benefit as much as anyone by allowing the event to pass smoothly, since it would only support claims that it is a peaceful, legitimate movement with the best interests of the country at heart.”

For its part, the government has moved forward with a PR campaign that highlights its populist and democratic credentials. According to a government-supported 24×7 News report, “His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa reaffirmed his desire to build a Bahraini society free from any unilateral domination. He pointed out his efforts to promote democracy ever since he launched the reform project, citing the final report of Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)….Asked about the regional situation a year into the wave of protests which hit several Arab countries, HM King Hamad urged all countries to embrace development, being the only viable path.”

Along the same lines, it was also reported this week that “Supreme Council for Youth and Sports chairman, Bahrain Olympic Committee president and Royal Charity Organization chairman Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa stressed that His Majesty King Hamad’s directives to the government to set up centers to tap the potential and boost the role of Bahrain’s youngsters….He confirmed the leadership’s resolve to provide equal opportunities for all social segments and promote integration of people with special needs in all fields, urging a comprehensive study on their needs.”

However, those assurances are not likely to satisfy the opposition movement, who feel besieged under the government’s policies. In a recent statement posted on its website, the Bahrain Freedom Movement declared: “The Al Khalifa junta is now targeting the population with these chemical gases to ensure their gradual extermination. The number of Bahrainis killed by those lethal gases has risen to around 35….The Bahraini revolutionaries have threatened to carry out massive revolts if F1 is held in the country. It is now almost a unanimous verdict that F1 management and teams will have abandoned their human principles, supported hereditary dictatorship and ignored the plight of the dead, the tortured and the injured if it they insist on holding the race in Bloody Bahrain.”

The issue of lethal use of tear gas and its effect on the Shia protesters in Bahrain has been the topic of various reports. In one recent investigative article, Al Jazeera’s Gregg Carlstrom reports: “Rights groups say that at least 25 Bahrainis have been killed by excessive tear gas inhalation — roughly one-third of the people killed since widespread unrest began here last February. (Some groups, like Physicians for Human Rights, put the number slightly higher.) That figure does not count the three protesters killed after being shot with tear gas canisters. Nor does it include at least two potential cases where medical evidence was inconclusive….Many villages in Bahrain are now sprayed with the gas several times per week….But many people here accuse the police of shooting tear gas not just at protesters, but inside of private homes.”

But the lethal gas attacks are not the only threat to the Shia majority in Bahrain. Another Al Jazeera report published this week noted, “Bahrainis wielding knives and sticks attacked Shia villagers overnight, witnesses have said, as pressure grew for this month’s Formula One race in the Sunni-ruled state to be cancelled over the unrest. A day after a gasoline pipe bomb injured seven policemen, men from Sunni neighborhoods who answered an internet call to avenge the attack converged on Shia-populated villages near Manama late on Tuesday, according to witnesses….Witnesses also said mobs attacks the headquarters of a major Shia owned business chain whose holdings include supermarkets and cafes.”

Others have worried about the regional consequences of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Asharq Alawsat’s Hamad Al-Majid worries, “The intense attack that is being carried out against Islamists in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf States, is akin to a priceless service for Iran and its regional political and ideological expansion project. This is because such attacks are not the same thing as objective criticism. Iran is trying to infiltrate our Arab world via ‘certain’ regional Islamist factions….Therefore, it is ill-advised to delight in warning Gulf States against Islamist trends. Such advice would only serve to create a dangerous climate of chaos and unrest, whilst also doing Tehran a great favor, as Iran’s mouth waters whenever it hears of a state of antagonism or tension between Gulf States and their domestic Islamist trends, as Tehran is always the primary beneficiary of this!”

The National’s editorial reaches a similar conclusion about the desirability of the incidents taking place in Bahrain: “In a country that sorely needs reconciliation, the bomb attack that injured seven on Monday has raised fears of further violence. It is not whether the Grand Prix goes forward that matters, but whether Bahrainis can begin to heal the wounds of the past year. And that is practically impossible if there are bombs going off in the street….This violence seems calculated only to produce more turmoil. A brutal response by security forces would only feed into the cycle of violence. Whether the Formula One race goes ahead or not, Bahrain needs dialogue and compromise, not violence, to achieve the national reconciliation that is essential for all sides.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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