Louay Bahry. Middle East Policy. Washington: May 1997.Vol.5, Iss. 2; pg. 42, 16 pgs

While the bombings of U.S. military facilities and potential Islamic unrest in Saudi Arabia have captured public attention, a little-noticed but much more serious opposition movement is taking shape in neighboring Bahrain, with the potential to reshape political dynamics in the Gulf. While Bahrain has seen periods of political disturbance in the past, this post-Gulf-War unrest has new and distinctive features. What is different today is the formation of a genuine mass movement that has become a Shia phenomenon, a factor that could have repercussions elsewhere in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Like most such phenomena, however, the unrest in Bahrain has complex local causes political, social and economic. This article will attempt to put the current movement in historical context; to unravel its various components, and to assess the effectiveness of the regime's efforts to deal with it.


Reform movements in Bahrain have a considerable history. In every decade since 1920, Bahrainis have protested and petitioned their emirs for political reform and social and economic modernization. Early efforts at political reform can be traced to 1919, when Bahrain was still a semi-protectorate of Britain. In that year, the emir allowed the establishment of Bahrain's first advisory council, although the attempt lapsed under objections from Britain. In 1923, the British themselves introduced limited legal reforms, including a mixed court and a municipal council. Responding to these steps, on October 23, 1923, a number of Bahraini notables drew up a petition asking the emir to establish a consultative council and to limit the powers of the British agent in Bahrain. The leaders of this reform drive were mainly Sunni merchants, clerics and tribal leaders.

Under advice from the British, the emir rejected these demands and arrested some of the petitioners. Two of them were sent in exile to India. It is interesting to note that while the Sunnis rejected some of these legal reforms, the Shia tended to favor them as a means of weakening the emir's authority. For a time, the Shia got the support and sympathy of the British.

Popular confrontation with government authority resumed again in the 1930s, this time driven by economic pressures resulting from Bahrain's first steps into the global economy. In 1934, Bahrain became the first Arab Gulf country to export oil. This event had an immediatesocioeconomic and political effect on the country and played an important role in fosteringmodernization of Bahrain's institutions and infrastructure. One unintended social consequence was to bring together the Sunni and Shia who worked in the oil industry, a significant rapprochement, given their previous history of mistrust and feuding. It was not long before this new Sunni-Shia working class began to ask for higher wages and union rights. In 1938 they staged the first workers' strike in the Gulf.

In the post-World-War-II period, Bahrain saw further protests. In February 1956, popular pressure led to elections for members of an education and health council, but these gains proved ephemeral. Shortly thereafter there were strikes to protest the rising influence of the ruler's British adviser, Sir Charles Belgrave. Then there were protests over the attack by Britain, France and Israel on Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal in 1956. During this period, Sunni and Shia Bahrainis demonstrated together in the streets in huge numbers, but the protest died out with the arrest and exile of the movement's leaders. Although the movement excited a good deal of popular enthusiasm in the short run, it failed because it had little long-term commitment to reform, no political program and above all, little organization.

In 1968, Britain decided to withdraw its forces "east of Suez", and in August of 1971, Bahrain became fully independent. With the establishment of independence, the emir, Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifah, evinced a desire for constitutional reform, possibly influenced by a similar movement in Kuwait. In 1972 he held a general election for a constitutent assembly, which then drafted a new constitution modeled after the 1961 Kuwaiti constitution. The new Bahraini instrument came into effect in December, 1973. Elections were then held for a 44-member National Assembly. Thirty of these members were elected by all-male suffrage; the remaining 14 were chosen by the government. The current unrest finds its origin in the subsequent history of this Assembly.

From the start, relations between the Assembly and the government were contentious. While the Assembly wanted to assume the fullest responsibility delegated to it by the constitution, the government wanted a weak and pliant body. Although the Assembly and the emir quarreled over a number of issues: foreign policy; the U.S. naval presence, and the budget, the biggest clash came over the State Security Law. The Assembly refused to ratify a government-sponsored law, which allowed, among other things, the arrest and detention of people for up to three years, (renewable) without a trial. The legislative stalemate over this act created a public crisis, and on August 25, 1975, the emir dissolved the Assembly. The emir then ratified the State Security Law by decree, and suspended those articles in the constitution dealing with the legislative powers of the Assembly. In that same year, the emir established the State Security Court, whose judgments were not subject to appeal. Since that time, Bahrainis accused of taking part in opposition activities have been judged by this court which has come under heavy opposition criticism. Critics have also attacked the special antiriot police force, under the control of Ian Henderson, a 68-year-old retired British officer who has headed Bahrain's Central Investigation Department since 1966 and is known for heavyhandedness in dealing with the Shia opposition.


Revival of the National Assembly and the constitution of 1975 has become the rallying cry and the focal point of the current opposition movement. However, agreement on this basic principle masks different opposition tendencies. Today's drive for political reform in Bahrain is a combination of two movements that intersect and gain strength from one another. The first is a direct descendant of the events of 1975, and encompasses traditional opposition groups that have existed in Bahrain since the 1960s and 1970s. People in this category are generally secular in orientation (except for some members of the Muslim Brotherhood) and comprise both Shia and Sunnis. Their members either belong to or sympathize with older political trends in the region, such as the Arab nationalists; the Nasserites; the Baathists, the communists, and the independent secular reformers who have nurtured Bahrain's tradition of moderate political protest. Nowadays, these groups demonstrate their opposition mainly through intellectual discourse, through publishing, either openly or in the underground press, through signing petitions and through other non-violent activities. Their basic demands are for the restitution of the National Assembly; the release of political prisoners, and full activation of the constitution of 1975.

Until the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, this secular opposition unquestionably led the drive for political reform. They were the force behind street demonstrations, public petitions, strikes, and the formation of delegations to meet with officials. However, the success of the Iranian revolution was a turning point for the opposition in Bahrain, because it introduced an entirely new concept into the opposition lexicon - the use of religion as a political tool. Under the impact of this phenomenon, the traditional opposition leadership in Bahrain has increasingly lost the initiative; in fact, it has been overtaken by a new, more populist, movement that is, at its core, Shia in composition and inspiration. The first signs of a distinctively Shia protest movement surfaced as early as 1980, when President Saddam Hussein of Iraq executed a respectable Iraqi Shia authority, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr alSadr. Bahrain's Shia leaders staged an impressive street demonstration at the Iraqi embassy to show their disapproval. Since that time, this Shia-based and Shiaorganized movement has been gathering strength.


The new Shia movement constitutes the second strand of opposition in Bahrain. Since December 1994, the Shia have repeatedly descended into the streets of Bahrain to protest various actions of the government and to formulate demands for change. While some of these demands overlap with those of the secular opposition, not all do; in many cases the Shia go beyond constitutional demands to address social and economic concerns as well. It is these Shia actors who are confronting riot police to achieve their objectives. And it is Shia who are being arrested and killed. By the end of 1996, these tactics had resulted in at least forty deaths. But the Shia have also used persuasion and advocacy, operating through international media and humanrights organizations, such as Amnesty International, to protest human-rights abuses by the government.

In general, the secular leadership has welcomed the new religious opposition, but, not surprisingly, there are some who fear that Shia domination of the reform movement could in the long run, change the face of Bahrain, a country known for its religious tolerance. In short, there are some fears that if extremists in this Shia movement are successful, Bahrain could end up with a regime similar to that in Iran.

The use of religious symbols as a political tool, combined with the ability to mobilize large numbers of people is the key characteristic of this new movement in Bahrain. Moreover, mobilization of the Shia population has not come about accidentally, nor is it episodic, as in earlier historical periods. Rather, it is the product of patient work and considerable organization by a new Shia religious leadership, which has now established a substantial organizational framework inside and outside the island state.

Outside Bahrain, two political opposition organizations dominate their activities. The first is the Harakat Ahrar alBahrayn al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Freedom Movement of Bahrain), known in the West as the Bahrain Freedom Movement. Founded in 1981, this group is based in London, and is headed by Said alShihabi and Mansur al-Jamri, son of Sheikh Abdul emir al-Jamri. Both have higher degrees in engineering from Western universities. The Bahrain Freedom Movement has moderate Islamic views. It does not demand the application of Sharia (Islamic) law, but would be satisfied with the application of the 1975 constitution and a better distribution of wealth among Bahrainis.

The second group, founded earlier in 1976, is al-Jabhah al-Islamiyyah li Tahrir al-Bahrain (the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain). The Front is based in Damascus, but has offices in London and Tehran. The secretary general of this organization is Muhammad Ali alKhadhari; its London office is headed by Abd al-Hamid al-Radhi, an electrical engineer who has been living in exile for seventeen years. The Front advocates more radical changes, calling for the application of Sharia law, and the replacement of the Sunni Al-Khalifah family, if they refuse to abide by a constitution limiting their powers. In general, it works for greater Islamization of society and "Shia power" in Bahrain. In 1981, the Front was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and some of its members were arrested and jailed. Ironically, the religious movement may have gotten its impetus from government encouragement. In the 1960s and 1970s, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain encouraged Islamic movements in the Gulf as a way of combatting leftist tendencies that were gaining strength and popularity in the region.

In addition to the main Shia organizations, a few smaller Shia groups are in operation as well.' The Committee for Human Rights in Bahrain is quite active in England and Denmark. There are also a few secular leftist groups, chief among them Jibhat al-Tahrir al-Watani alBahrainiyyah (the Bahrain National Liberation Front) and al-Jibhat alSha'abiyyah fil Bahrain (the Popular Front in Bahrain).


Whatever their origins and their constituencies, both the secular constitutional movement and its Shia offshoot have achieved their current impetus in the ferment for change and constitutional development that has struck the Gulf in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Bahrain reform movements have undoubtedly been influenced by constitutional developments elsewhere. Mostimportant was the promise of the newly reinstituted Kuwaiti government for restitution of its Parliament, which became a fact in 1992. Oman also established a majlis al-shura (consultative council) with fairly wide representation in 1992. In March of the same year, Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of the Gulf countries, made a decision to establish its own appointed majlis al-shura. All these political reforms created a sense of urgency inside Bahrain where no such development was on the horizon. The outcome of this political dynamic was the popular petition of 1994.

The vehicle of a petition was natural for the Bahrainis. Petitioning the emir either on personal or policy issues has been a time-honored process in Bahrain, and, in fact, has been encouraged by the emir himself as a way of maintaining direct contact with the people. Since the 1920s, public petitions have been used to ask for reform, a release of political prisoners, jobs for the unemployed or respect for human rights. Since 1975, they have included demands for the restitution of the National Assembly and the full constitution.

The general popular petition of 1994 was preceded by a more modest petition signed by 300 noted personalities. These included both men and women, Sunnis and Shia; all were professionals (teachers, lawyers, doctors, religious leaders). Hence, it became known as the "elite petition." The promoters of the petition were Sheikh Abd al-Latif al-Mahmud, a Sunni cleric, Ahmad al-Shamlan, a Sunni lawyer, and Sheikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, a Shia religious leader.2 In the fall of 1992 a delegation of six people took this first petition to the emir. It asked for restoration of the National Assembly and the constitution of 1975, and participation by the population in decision making. After listening to their demands, the emir responded that the government planned to establish a consultative council (majlis alshura), which would be the appropriate institution to serve the population, and that there could be no further discussion on the subject.

The failure of this first petition led to the second petition, the so-called general or popular petition. This time the organizers aimed at signing up the largest number of Bahraini adults possible. Initially, small groups of people gathered for substantive discussions on political reforms, including the potential legitimacy of the emir's consultative council. Human rights and foreign policy, including the situation in the Gulf, also came in for scrutiny. In the absence of political parties and a free press, such meetings were the only form of discourse possible. As the process gathered momentum, it acquired the attributes of a mass movement. Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shia cleric and a leading spirit behind the drive, was fully aware of the need for political mobilization and consensus building. In his words, "It was very important to create common concepts and common conclusions about political matters and to spread these ideas among the largest number of people; in other words, to make it a popular action."3

A draft of the new petition was prepared by Ahmad al-Shamlan. After completion, it was adopted by a selected group of people (Sunni and Shia), most of whom had signed the 1992 petition. A special effort was made to gain acceptance of the petition by all opposition currents in Bahrain. Sunnis took the final draft to their Sunni communicants for discussion and approval while Shia did the same in their communities. Leftists, socialists and secularists followed suit. The need to involve women in the political process was suggested by Dr. Munira al-Fakhro, a professor at the University of Bahrain, who urged that the petition include political rights for women, such as the right to vote and to be elected to the National Assembly, which had not been included in the Bahrain constitution of 1973.4

Copies of the petition were circulated throughout the island. The campaign for signatures took place over two months, from October to December 1994. On December 5, the drive came to a sudden halt with the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman.

The exact number of people signing the petition is not known. Opposition sources put the figure at around 25,000 signatures, but it may have been somewhat lower. In any case, the number is extremely high, almost 10 percent of the native adult Bahraini population. This number justifies calling the petition a popular movement, especially in a country where everyone knew that the petition was not wanted by the government. As a result, Ali Salman rapidly became one of the most influential Shia religious leaders in Bahrain, with a formidable number of followers. At times, he alone would meet up to three thousand people a week, spreading his political ideas through mosques and urging people to sign the petition.' In effect, the petition drive transformed Bahrain's mosques into places not only for worship but also for politics and discussion of public problems. The young Salman was assisted by the elderly Sheikh Abd al-emir al-Jamri, who also put his weight behind the drive for signatures. Among other Shia clerics who worked relentlessly in spreading the petition and its ideas were Sayyid Ahmad al-Sitri and Sheikh Hamza al-Dairi.

In addition to the mosques, the petition was distributed to Matams or Husainiyyas, smaller religious gathering places where Shia meet for social occasions and to celebrate religious events such as the birthdays of the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Imam Ali. Copies of the petition were also sent to private homes, to enable women to sign. As a result, female signatures equaled those of men, a remarkable achievement. The petition was also taken to villages. Thus the process spread not only new ideas but new participation in the political process. It also demonstrated the capacity of the movement to build a consensus among disparate elements of society. The petition movement provided the impetus for the emergence of a new popular political leadership that may be difficult for the regime to control.


The newly emerging opposition leadership consists primarily of a younger generation of Shia ulama who have finished their Islamic studies in Qom (Iran) and have adopted the Iranian revolution's idea of religio-political activism as a means of bringing change to Bahrain. Sheikh Ali Salman is an example of this leadership. Born in 1965, Salman started his career in 1984, studying chemistry at King Saud University in Riyadh. While still a student, he underwent a soul-searching experience and disovered that he did not want to study chemistry but rather the Sharia. He left Riyadh for Syria to explore the possibility of studying Islam there, but found the Damascus Islamic hawzah too small. He was thus left with two choices: Najaf in Iraq, or Qom in Iran. As the Bahraini students studying in Najaf (some 120) were subject to harrassment and arrest by the secular Baath government, Salman chose Iran, where he joined the Arabic Sharia seminary. The Qom "al-Hawzah alArabiyyah" depended on Arab teachers, some of whom were Iraqis trained in Najaf, while others were from the Gulf. Salman spent five years in Qom (1987-1992). After the 1991 Gulf War, the Bahraini government began to allow such students to return to Bahrain, gradually and in small numbers. Salman profited from this opportunity and returned in 1992, assuming the responsibilities of a traditional Shia alim. He preached in the mosques, led the prayers, spoke on Islamic occasions such as the Prophet's birthday, and "got involved in the political and social problems in the country."6

But Salman was not alone. Others, such as Hamza al-Dairi and Sayyid Haidar al-Sitri, followed. These shaikhs and other colleagues constitute a new clerical class with distinct characteristics and a new outlook. All are young (mainly in their thirties); all have studied in revolutionary Iran; all have seen a model in high Iranian officials like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of how to lead prayers and give political speeches on sensitive domestic and international issues. Ali Salman, for example, stresses that when he returned to Bahrain from Iran in 1992, he began giving Friday speeches not only on Islamic values and religious judgments but also on social issues such as the family, women's rights, unemployment and social solidarity, as well as contemporary regional and international problems. The latter included comment on the two Gulf wars and the Kuwaiti Parliament.

These issues were new to most worshippers and aroused intense interest. They gave the young shaikh a new, avantgarde reputation. At the same time, they aroused the fears of Bahraini authorities, who saw in the shaikh and others like him the seeds of "revolutionary Islam" with the potential to disturb the peace and stir up revolt against the government.


It was during this tense situation, in November, 1994, that a minor altercation between a group of runners and some Shia protesters set off an explosive outburst that has since become known as the Marathon Incident. The Bahrain marathon is an annual race organized by a Western company that has taken place for a number of years. Participants include both Bahrainis and Westerners, some of whom come from Saudi Arabia to participate. The marathon has always allowed participants of both sexes.

On November 25, 1994, the runners, traversing some Shia villages, encountered a group of Shia protesters objecting to the route taken by the marathon. They were also protesting mixing of the sexes and "indecent dress" (that is, shorts). An altercation ensued between the protesters and some of the runners which escalated into fist fights and stone throwing.7 That same night, riot police arrested several people whom they accused of participating in the protest. Those arrests triggered an instantaneous wave of demonstrations by the Shia community that led, on January 5, 1995, to the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman, whom authorities accused of having instigated the incident. In fact, Salman was probably arrested less because of his role in the marathon protest than because of his organization of the signature drive for the petition. He was deported from Bahrain on January 16 along with al-Sitri and al-Dairi, all of whom now live in exile in London.s Since that time, unrest has not ceased, and the movement has turned violent, although the violence had lessened by the end of 1996.

Thus far (April 1997), street protests and violence have left more than three dozen people dead, a proportionately large number for a small country like Bahrain, with 600,000 inhabitants. The climate of tension between the Bahraini government and its Shia opponents is creating an atmosphere in which terrorist groups, supported by outside countries such as Iran, can meddle in domestic affairs. On June 4, 1996, the Bahrain government gave TV coverage to a group of young Bahraini Shia who claimed that they were given support by Iran and military training in Lebanon, in the name of a group called the "Bahrain Hizbollah." Their mission was to recruit and train additional members.

The government of Bahrain has protested what it sees as a pro-Iranian plot to overthrow it. It has recalled its ambassador to Tehran, lowered the level of representation to a charge d'affaires, and called for Arab and international solidarity. While it is difficult to determine with accuracy whether such a plot existed, the acts admitted by the "plotters" and the political and military training they may have received in Iran and Lebanon conform to what is known of the ambitions and policies of the regime in Iran. Evidence of high-level involvement by Iranian officials in terrorist activities outside Iran was strengthened on April 10, 1997, when a German court in Berlin sentenced four members of the Hizbollah party, three Lebanese and one Iranian, for the 1992 killing of four Kurdish Iranian dissidents in the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin. The court said that Iranian officials, including the president of the Republic (Rafsanjani), and the supreme religious guide (Khamenei) ordered the execution.

Although the Bahrain government has continued its policy of no recognition and no direct contacts with the opposition, which it calls "terrorists" and "saboteurs," it did conclude a series of discreet negotiations with the jailed opposition leaders, including Sheikh Abd al-Amir alJamri and Abd al-Wahhab Husain. These negotiations took place in the summer of 1995 in the presence of the minister of interior. The essence of the agreement reached was that the leaders would be released from prison in return for using their influence to stop the demonstrations. The government, for its part, would discuss the demands formulated in the general petition.9 Some, but not all, of the leaders were freed on September 25, disappointing opposition expectation. In support of those who remained in prison, mass demonstrations against the government continued, with each side blaming the other for a breakdown of the agreement.

Subsequent to these events, on October 23, Sheikh al-Jamri and a small group of opposition figures started a hunger strike at his home to protest the detention of the remaining prisoners. The strike continued for ten days. On the last day, a huge gathering of Shia came to al-Jamri's residence to express their solidarity. According to eye witnesses, the crowd totaled between 60,000 and 80,000, the largest such gathering in the history of Bahrain.


While the petition movement, with its call for political reform and a restoration of the constitution, is the proximate cause of the uprising, there are, of course, underlying social and economic causes for the discontent of the Shia population as well. To understand them, it is necessary to review some four decades of the island's social dynamics and how changing patterns of growth have affected the Shia community.

The population of Bahrain in the early 1950s was about equally divided between Shia and Sunni, with a slight Shia majority (the ruling Al Khalifah family belongs to the Sunni sect). Since that time, however, the number of Shia has steadily increased, and today they constitute some 70 percent of the population.'o Of these a slight majority are native Bahama; about 8 percent are Persian speakers.

The rapid increase in the Shia population is the result of several factors. One is the continuation of traditional practices such as early marriage and multiple wives. Particularly for the poor, maintenance of the extended family is important for economic and social survival. Shia are more often rural and less well educated and have lower levels of income and skills. The Sunnis, generally more urban and better educated, have adopted more modern ideas of the nuclear family and birth control. Like upwardly mobile populations elsewhere, they have allowed aspirations for a higher standard of living to reduce their birthrate.

While the numbers of Shia have increased, the community has not adequately benefited from the economic boom enjoyed by Bahrain during the 1970s and 1980s, when Bahrain's oil production was at its peak." Some of this relative deprivation may be due to a more traditional lifestyle, but the Shia blame their worsening economic condition on the government, which, they believe, favors the Sunni community. Shia businessmen accuse the administration of favoring Sunni merchants by awarding them more government contracts and public-works projects than the Shia.


One result of these economic and social patterns is a high unemployment rate among the Shia - over 30 percent for Shia between the ages of 18 and 50, while among the population as a whole it is half that rate. At the same time, 63 percent of Bahrain's work force is foreign.12 Exacerbating the unemployment problem is the fact that, while prices have risen, public workers have not seen an increase in wages and salaries for several years. As Bahrain's oil resources are dwindling,'3 it can only increase its income from expansion into modern sectors such as finance and services. These require a skilled, technologically oriented workforce.

Many Shia complain that unemployment has led to a rise in crimes like robberies and car thefts in their locations. The unemployed get no help from the state, since there is no social-security system. Bahrain is the only Gulf country with native citizens employed in menial tasks; some are also panhandlers. Financial hardship has led many Shia adolescents to postpone marriage, putting them at odds with their parents and religious tradition, whose strict moral code promotes early marriage.

Corruption contributes to the unemployment problem as well. Foreign labor exists on the basis of permits given to officials and other influential people to import foreign workers, who are charged a fee to come to Bahrain. These workers then find jobs on their own and share their wages with the people who provided the permit. Such practices make it very difficult for Bahraini Shia to compete with foreign workers, as the latter are generally more qualified, accept low wages, and tolerate living in harsh conditions.14

The government is making a modest effort to train the Bahraini unemployed. It opened a training center in the summer of 1996, but the results of such efforts are yet to be seen. Thus far, new job creation cannot keep pace with new entrants to the labor market, disproportionately Shia. In some government ministries (health, works and transportation, education, and electricity) the Shia comprise about 80 percent of the labor force. But these ministries are considered "non-sensitive" by the government. The Shia are virtually barred from employment in "sensitive" ministries such as defense and interior.

The unwillingness of the Bahraini government to employ Shia in the lower ranks of the army and the police force, presumably because of doubts about their loyalty to the regime, makes Shia feel they are second-class citizens. These ranks are staffed by foreigners, primarily Pakistanis, Indians and other southeast Asians, with a sprinkling of Britons, Jordanians and others. This issue is an old one, going back to the days before independence, when Bahrain was under British control. In the unrest of 1938 and again during 19541956, one of the demands of the protesters was the Bahrainization of the police force.15 The government has started to recruit some Shia into the police force, but they comprise only a small minority. Service in the army and the police could mean an almost immediate end to the Shia unemployment problem. It would be easier for them to be integrated into these bodies than to compete with foreign labor in the open market.

The problem of Shia unemployment will not disappear on its own. With a Bahraini fertility rate of 4.2 (even higher among the Shia), and with 60 percent of the population under twenty, there is an ever-greater need for new job creation each year.


Whatever the underlying causes of the unrest, it is the outlook for the future of the movement - and of Bahrain - that is of concern. Here one must look to the ideology or, more accurately, the political orientation of the opposition and the government. At the heart of the dispute between the mainstream opposition movement, whether Shia or Sunni, and the emir are two different concepts of how to rule the country. While the opposition advocates political modernization of constitutional institutions, the emir adheres to traditional ruling methods, which he sees as the product of Bahrain's Arab and Islamic heritage. The emir and the ruling establishment believe that their method of rule is a form of "direct democracy"; in fact, it could be called "tribal democracy." In their view, elections and representative assemblies are Western imports which may not necessarily be good for a traditional society like Bahrain. The main issue of contention is the National Assembly.

As previously indicated, the emir dissolved the elected Assembly in 1975 and has since ruled by decree. In its place, he appointed a 30 member Consultative Council (majlis al-shura) with 15 Shia and 15 Sunnis. The council "advises" the emir and the government on issues referred to it by the administration. The emir also oversees a traditional open majlis, where all citizens can meet with him and other responsible persons to express their concerns about issues and to demand justice on personal problems. On this subject, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman AlKhalifa, prime minister of Bahrain, has stated:

We have known democracy since ancient times, before it assumed different shapes and was recorded in different forms....We knew democracy and practiced it through our direct contacts with the citizens without barriers and bureaucracy. Our fathers and grandfathers practiced it, and we have followed their path. We are practicing it in different ways that enable us to sense the opinion of the citizens and their needs and aspirations.16

Another writer sympathetic to the government, speaking about the majlis system, has posed the following question: "Is this not a direct democracy where there are no differences between the ruler and the people and differences between them are demolished?"17

On September 28, 1996, hoping to make the Consultative Council more representative, the emir increased its number to 40; 21 Shia and 19 Sunnis. However, the responsibilities of the Council remain the same: to advise the government on certain (mainly nonpolitical) matters. Its decisions have no force beyond simple advice to the government. The government sees in this form of "consultative" a substitute for a Western type parliament and shows little sign of transforming it into a more effective decision-making institution. Writing in the spring of 1996, Adnan Yusif, the information attache of the Bahrain embassy in London, said: "The comparison between a parliament and a consulatative assembly is a matter that needs long discussion in an objective way, taking into consideration the history, geography, culture and civilization of the country."18

For the opposition, the concept of an open majlis, whether held by the emir or any other official, is little more than an occasion to ask the emir for personal favors or merely to pay respects. On this subject Mansur al-Jamri has written:

These open majlises have been unable to solve one single important problem, how can the emir, through the majlis, solve all the problems with each visitor? Modern life requires a change in the means [of government]. The British prime minister does not have enough time to receive 60 million Britons. Their political institutions and their system [of government] reach people's opinions through modern methods.19

At its base, of course, the clash of views is not merely cultural. It is also a struggle for power between those who exercise it and do not want to give it up, and those who do not have it and want some real participation in decision making. This fundamental fact has been masked by discussions of the proper role and functions of the National Assembly. In the view of offcial circles, the annulled National Assembly of 1975 exceeded its duties. This view was aptly summed up by one Bahraini official who claimed that "they [the deputies] were asked to enter the living room and instead they entered the bedrooms."" A closer look at this example reveals two misconceptions about the role of a modern parliament. First is the assumption that deputies do not "belong" in the house. To participate in Bahrain's political institutions, deputies must be invited as guests. Second, deputies went too far in undertaking their duties, exceeding what had been expected of them. In Arab custom, as elsewhere, the bedroom is the most private part of the house.

A Bahraini opposition figure has put the difference succinctly:

The elected assemblies that we are seeking are nothing but a natural development of the idea of consultation (shurah). The society of Bahrain that has accepted the achievements of twentieth-century civilization, such as industry, trade, education, and the administration of information and health, is well prepared to accept modern political institutions, such as parliament, multiple parties and trade unions. These have been the demands of the Bahrainis since 1938. Moreover, Bahrain's neighbor, Kuwait, which enjoys a parliamentary system, is not more developed than Bahrain."

These views indicate that, at least for the bulk of the opposition, the issue is one of a modern versus a traditional system, a difference of opinion that is not likely to disappear behind the facade of a majlis al shura.


What is the likelihood of the opposition's success over time? And how is the government dealing with this unprecedented challenge to its rule? Here, too, there are new features involved in the government's handling of the situation with potential repercussions for the rest of the Gulf. The Bahrain government understands that it is dealing with a mass movement, increasingly sectarian in its orientation. In its effort to stop the Shia unrest, the government is taking a series of measures aimed at controlling the movement at the street level. It is also attempting to control the mosques and matams, and to reshape and influence the minds of the Shia population. These measures can be subsumed under three headings:

1) The government is using force to curb street violence, including arrests and incarceration, as well as bringing to trial people accused of commiting acts of violence or participating in demonstrations. Using tear gas and even live ammunition, the police now suppress any gathering of protesters almost immediately. At least 25 Shia protesters have been killed since December 1994 in addition to five members of Bahrain's security forces and ten expatriots. The government hopes to weaken the movement by maintaining absolute control over the streets.22 However, it is not clear that these measures will work over the long term. The protesters are using imaginative ways to combat the government, including demonstrating at unpredictable times, such as midnight and sunrise. The opposition is also using civil disobedience and passive resistence, sporadically cutting off electricity, telephones and water for a few hours a day. These actions indicate a continuing commitment and a domestic network to put it into effect. Government opponents are also attempting to isolate persons they believe to be government informants.

2) The government is tightening its administrative control over the country. On June 12, 1996, the emir published a decree dividing the country into four provinces (muhafidhahs), each with a governor (muhafidh).23 The new muhafidh is directly responsible to the minister of interior. Notable among their duties is the preservation of order and public security. The minister of interior has been given the right to appoint an unspecified number of local administrators (mukhtars) within his jurisdiction, also responsible to the muhafidh.

Bahrain is a country of only 694 square kilometers. Its division into provinces with a multitude of local mukhtars gives the government intensified security control over villages as well as urban areas. Some opposition sources believe that the government may nominate a large number of provincial mukhtars - possibly up to 15 in each province - to cement its control. Muhafidhs have also been given the duty of overseeing economic development and encouraging "religious education," which could lead to government intervention in the affairs of Shia religious associations, steering them in the direction the government chooses.24

3) The Bahrain government has a longterm strategy to weaken and control the Shia religious establishment. On April 24, 1996, a decree was announced creating a Higher Council of Islamic Affairs, attached to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Both Shia and Sunni religious establishments are to be placed under the control of this council. This is not new for the Sunni religious establishment, which has always been under the control of the government. The Ministry of Justice nominates the imams in the Sunni mosques, pays their salaries, and promotes or fires them. By contrast, the Shia religious establishment has always been outside the emir's control. The local Shia population nominate their own imams on the basis of consensus. They pay their salaries through their own financial resources, mainly by means of private donations, thus insuring their independence." According to the new decree, a government council will be responsible for screening nominations for Shia clerics in the mosques and matams. The income and expenditures of the mosques and matams will be under the control of the council as well. The council will also distribute scholarships among theology students, whether they study inside Bahrain or abroad. The government will also undertake to find jobs for them when they return. This may well constrain students who want to study in "unfriendly" countries such as Iran.

These moves are unprecedented in Bahrain. It seems clear that the government has put the responsibility for the Shia mass movement primarily on the shoulders of Shia clergy, who have "used" the mosques and matams as a point of departure for the protest drive.26 In a statement published on April 8, 1996, Sheikh Abd Allah bin Khalid al-Khalifah, the minister of justice and Islamic affairs, stated:

"Some Islamic movements are taking an extremist path to spread their ideas by force, inciting rebellion and using ...circumstance to justify acts which are contrary to the Sharia. I believe that these deeds should be dealt with wisely by closing the door to those who believe in those ideas...especially since many of these movements are supported from abroad."

At the same time, he recognized that "many of the graduates of religious sciences are not able to find self-sustaining jobs; thus they become easy prey for movements willing to use them to promote their objectives."27

The reaction among the Shia opposition establishment has been absolute and total rejection of the new council and its responsibilities. Sheikh Ali Salman has stated, "They want to nationalize the Shia religious establishment, deprive it of its freedom, and put it under the control of the government."28 Other religious opposition leaders, such as Sayyid Ahmad al-Sitri, Sheikh Hamza al-Dairi, and Abd al-Hamid al-Radhi have expressed similar fears and vowed that people will boycott the imams nominated by the government and that no one will pray behind them.29

When asked whether the government might be able to find enough imams for the Shia mosques and matams, the three opposition leaders indicated that the government might simply close down some of them and "import" some imams from abroad. The establishment of the Higher Council of Islamic Affairs has also provoked a reaction from abroad. More than a dozen religious opinions (fatwas) have been issued against it by prominent Shia religious authorities in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Notable among them is a fatwa by Ayatallah Muhammad Husain Fadhlallah, a leading Shia authority of Lebanon, denouncing the council, "forbidding" prayers behind the imams nominated by the council, and barring any contact with the council or its representatives.


Whether these government measures will put an end to the unrest remains to be seen. They may restore some stability in the short term at the expense of driving the opposition movement underground. The Shia religious establishment is well known for its ability to develop informal independent networks and links outside the reach of government. Moreover, by curtailing cooperation between moderate Sunnis and Shia and open political activity, these measures may intensify the Shia orientation of the movement and make it more religious. Above all, by its failure to address the opposition's moderate goals, the government may radicalize the movement and drive it into alliance with extremist Shia elements, such as Hizbollah in Lebanon. The history of such movements in the Middle East (Algeria, Egypt) suggests that the regime may be in for more, not less, instability in the future.

Moreover, the direction taken by the movement will not be limited to Bahrain alone. Events in Bahrain are being closely watched by other governments and people in the Gulf. The protest movement in Bahrain is in its third year and shows considerable staying power. It could become a source of inspiration for similar protests in other Gulf countries, where a restless middle class is already making demands for political institutions and participation. At the same time, political reforms in other Gulf countries will reverberate in Bahrain, giving Bahrain's protesters encouragement. Kuwait, with its relatively free elections and open parliament, is a major argument in the hands of the Bahrain protesters, who see a place in Bahrain for a similar system. In 1996 Qatar announced that it will have elections for a municipal council, setting another precedent for Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia will be the country most concerned about Bahrain, for two reasons. First, Saudi Arabia is providing the Bahrain government with unconditional support in its policies toward the opposition. Should instability threaten the ruling establishment in Bahrain, Saudi forces are likely to be employed to support the regime, an action the Saudi monarchy does not relish. Second, unrest could spread across the causeway to Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, home to the largest concentration of Shia in the Kingdom. Here even more discrimination exists than in Bahrain; press reports periodically indicate disturbances. Contacts with the Bahrain opposition and a transfer of the techniques used in Bahrain could cause trouble for the Saudis.

Finally, the situation is not without repercussions for the United States as well. The U.S. Fifth Fleet now has its headquarters in Bahrain. Iran allows no opportunity to pass without indicating its opposition to U.S. political and military policies and to its military presence in the Gulf. Thus far, Bahrain's unrest has not touched U.S. citizens or military installations, at least not in a violent manner. This is not a coincidence. According the movement's leaders, they are not against the United States or its interests. This could change in the future, however, if extremists gain the upper hand.

While the Bahrain government assures the outside world that it is confronting a group of "saboteurs" and "terrorists," the facts indicate that it is facing a large-scale popular movement with a high degree of organization. Bahrain opposition groups, although possessed of different aims, have shown a remarkable degree of unity on minimum demands. They also demonstrate strong resolve to continue their confrontation with the government. It is in the interests of the West to keep the movement focused on moderate demands and not drive it in the direction of greater sectarianism and extremism.


1 These include Harakat al-Madhlumin fil-Bahrain (the Movement of the Oppressed in Bahrain), al-Shabibah al-Ahrar (the Free Youth), Harakat Talabat al-Bahrain fil Kharj (the Bahrain Student Movement Abroad), Ulama al-Bahrain fi Qum (the Bahrain Ulama in Qum), and alDimuqratiyyun al-Muslimum (the Islamic Democrats). The activities of most of these groups are confined to publishing newsletters and issuing statements.

2 Sheikh Abd al-Amir Mansur al-Jamri is now considered Bahrain's most important Shia cleric and a religious authority (marja). Born in 1936, he studied Islamic law in the famous Hawzat al-Najaf in Iraq. He returned to become a member of the Bahrain National Assembly 1973-1975. After the dissolution of the Assembly, he worked as a judge in the Shia Sharia court until 1988. Although he was among the ex-deputies who petitioned the emir for a return of the Assembly, he did not express opposition views at that point. He did, however, gain notoriety as a judge, as people would come to him asking for fatwas. Since 1992, he has been a strong opponent of the regime. In and out of prison in the last two years, al-Jamri has contact with most of the Bahrain opposition groups. He is the author of a book on the rights of women in Islam, and his speeches and articles were published in a volume in London in 1996. His son, Mansur al-Jamri, is now the head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement based in London. Two other sons are in prison in Bahrain, one of them, Muhammad Jamil, for eight years.

3 Sheikh Ali Ahmad Salman, communication to the author, London, June 28, 1996.

4 Munira al-Fakhro comes from a distinguished Sunni family. She holds a Ph.D. in social services from Columbia University and was one of the first women to sign the second petition. Subsequently, she was asked by Bahraini authorities to withdraw her signature, and, when she refused, she was fired from her position as a professor at the University of Bahrain in the fall of 1995. She now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. She is the author of Urban Society and Democratic Evolution in Bahrain ([in Arabic]; Cairo: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1995).

5 He was able to gather some 1,200 signatures in one day at the al-Imam al-Sadiq mosque, the largest in Bahrain. Beginning in October 1994, he would speak in five different mosques a week.

6 Interview with Sheikh Ali Salman, London, June 28, 1996.

7 Protesters were holding banners with slogans such as: "You are guests in our country but you have no respect for our feelings," and "We are not against sports, just disrobing."

8 The three were supposed to be exiled to Syria, but they profited from a stop-over by the plane in Dubai. Here they boarded a plane to fly to London, instead of Damascus. Their exile in London constitutes an embarrasment for the Bahraini government.

9 Lord Eric Avebury, "Bahrain, the House of Pain," (in Dialogue, published by the Public Affairs Committee for the Shia Muslims, London, April, 1996.).

[Footnote] 10 In the absence of official statistics, these numbers are estimates. Bahraini officials tend to lower the figures for the Shia population, and some Bahraini officials even doubt a Shia majority. Adnan Yousif, the information attache in the Bahrain embassy in London, wrote that "in Bahrain...the population census does not have a question on the person's sect. Also, all other papers and personnel documents do not mention a person's sect." Al-Quds al-Arabi (London daily), May 31, 1996.

11 Bahrain's limited oil production reached a peak of 76,600 b/d in 1970; by 1993 it had been reduced to about half that - roughly 40,000 b/d. Like other Gulf countries, Bahrain enjoyed high oil prices and revenues prior to the mid-1980s and a sharp decline thereafter. Bahrain's oil revenues rose from 6,000 Bahraini dinars in 1965 to 374,000 BD in 1985; they declined to 306,000 BD in 1990. Per capita GDP reached a high of 3,600 BD in 1981 and dropped to 2,737 BD in 1994.

12 All estimates of Shia unemployment are for men; the rate among Shia women is much higher.

13Bahrain's Awali oil field has proven reserves of 70 million barrels. At current production rates it will be exhausted in five years. Bahrain is now refining oil from the Abu Safa field, half owned by Saudi Arabia, but this totals only 140,000 b/d.

14 Non-Bahraini workers are mostly from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Arab workers are mainly Egyptian.

15 The Bahraini police force comprises some 9,300 people; the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), 10,700.

16 Excerpts from an interview in al-Siyasah, (Kuwaiti daily), August 8, 1979, published in the Journal of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies, 5:20, (October 1979, University of Kuwait, p. 197).

17 Mahmud Murad, Interview with the Bahraini prime minister, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifah, alAhram (daily) Cairo, November 5, 1996, p. 6. While the emir holds his weekly majlis on Tuesdays twice a month, the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifah, holds his each Sunday morning.

18 Adnan Yusif, al-Quds al-Arabi, May 8, 1996.

19 Dr. Mansur al-Jamri, al-Quds al-Arabi, April 13, 1996.

20Interview with Adnan Yusif, information attache of Bahrain, London, June 27, 1996.

21 Hani al-Rais, representative of the Committee on Human Rights in Bahrain, al-Quds al-Arabi, April 11, 1966.

22 The government is using the method of sending into exile some of those it considers leaders of the movement, refusing to allow them back into the country. There are some 300 Bahrainis families and children included - in exile in countries such as Iran, Syria and England.

23 The four provinces are Muhafidhat al-Asimah (the capital); Muhafidhat al-Muhariq (alMuharaq); al-Muhafidh al-Junibiyyah (Southern Province); and al-Muhafidh al-Shimaliyyah (Northern Province).

24 Interview with Dr. Said al-Shihabi, Bahrain Freedom Movement, London, June 26, 1996.

25 There are about 300 Sunni mosques in Bahrain and about an equal number for the Shia. In addition, there are around 300 matams.

26 The role of the imam in the Shia mosque is not limited to preaching. These religious clerics are very close to the people. They are allowed to enter their houses and participate in settling family affairs. Thus they exercise more influence over the Shia population than do their Sunni counterparts.

27 Statement of Sheikh Abd Allah Bin Khalid al-Khalifah, minister of justice and Islamic affairs, (photocopied statement), Manama, April 8, 1996.

28Interview with Sheikh Ali Salman, London, June 26,1996.

29 These concerns were expressed by the three sheikhs during a series of interviews in London, June 26-30, 1996.

[Author Affiliation]

Dr. Bahry is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He has written extensively on the Middle East and has taught at universities in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.