Popular movements strengthen in Bahrain

Popular movements strengthen in Bahrain

25 Feb 2011

anceschi_thumbDr Luca Anceschi

E-mail: l.anceschi@latrobe.edu.au

 

For the United States, Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family represents an invaluable ally; the US Fifth Fleet – through which Washington keeps an eye on Iran – is currently stationed in Bahrain. A new regime in Manama could introduce significant foreign policy change and downgrade its military links with the United States.

Such considerations might help explaining Obama’s ambivalent attitude towards popular unrest in Bahrain in stark contrast to his stance towards Egypt and Libya.  But how long can the al-Khalifa family hold onto power?

Since the demise of Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, popular movements have gained strength throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen continues to be in turmoil – with the regime headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh on the brink of collapse – and the intensity of demonstrations in the tiny island-state of Bahrain have escalated tremendously.

Although Yemen and Bahrain are equally crucial in the West’s strategic vision for the Gulf region, Bahraini unrest is more significant for the Arab world and the wider international community due to the oil-based nature of the national economy.

The way in which the Bahraini state addresses the demands of the local population – especially those related to a fairer redistribution of oil revenues – might open an important chapter in the political history of the Middle East.

The success of the revolution in Bahrain is all but dependent on a number of internal and external factors. Two such factors, in particular, appear critical to the introduction of change in the Bahraini political system.

First, the Bahraini protest movement will have to find  common ground when dealing with religion. Bahraini politics is based on a  power balance triggered by the two prominent religions that make up  society. The majority of the population is Muslim Shia, while the al-Khalifa’s follow the Sunni tradition. This conflict in the relationship between the Sunni and Shia populations is played out in many arenas.

The Shia claim to be under-represented and therefore marginalised in the Bahraini econom  and the Sunni minority accuses the monarchy of being more responsive to the grievances of the Shia. The al-Khalifa family are reluctant to allow the Shia population, more significant representationclaiming  a Shia-led Bahrain would rapidly become under the sway of neighbouring Iran.

This scenario is further complicated by the economic malaise Bahrain finds itself in with oil reservesrapidly depleting and export revenues  declining. The Shia majority and the Sunni minority have both been hit by Bahrain’s economic grievances and it is this fact that underpins the agenda of the Bahraini popular movement. If the movement is able to represent both sides of Bahrain’s religious divide equally, then its chances of success will greatly increase.

Second, the Bahraini protest movement is unlikely to obtain much external support within and beyond its immediate neighbourhood. Saudi Arabia is looking with anxiety at developments in Bahrain’s largest city, Manama.

The introduction of democratic reforms will almost certainly see the Bahraini Shia acquire more power and this scenario will possibly increase Iran’s influence in the Gulf which strikes nervous chords not only within the Saudi regime, but in Washington.

Dr Luca Anceschi is Lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University

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