Bitter Divides Persist Below Bahrain’s Relatively Calm Surface

When Bahraini ambassador Houda Ezra Nonoo arrived in Washington three years ago, she was greeted as the representative of a close U.S. ally with a reputation for more openness and tolerance than most Gulf nations.

Nonoo was also a novelty as a woman representing an Arab country, and even more unusually, a Jew — one of only 37 in Bahrain.

These days, however, her job is considerably more complicated. Demonstrations followed by a bloody crackdown have tarnished Bahrain’s image and shaken its social cohesion. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party, pulled out Sunday from a national dialogue convened by the government only two weeks ago to try to bridge a sectarian divide between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shi’ite majority that has widened into a chasm since the spring.

Welcoming an audience composed largely of business people and congressional staffers to the embassy Tuesday night, Nonoo appealed for patience. “My request to you as Americans is … try to understand what it means to be such a small country with powerful neighbors and wounds to heal,” she said.

The ambassador spoke after guests watched a glitzy video about Bahrain that even she conceded was jarringly out of date.

The video touted Bahrain’s “political stability” and called the island nation “the only real democracy in the Gulf region.” It showed scenes from Formula One racing, which canceled its scheduled Grand Prix event in Bahrain this spring because of the political unrest. Bahrain is “a country undergoing dynamic changes,” the video said, a land of business opportunities, five-star hotels and luxury homes built on land reclaimed from the sea.

The video, Nonoo noted, had been made in 2006, long before the current turmoil. However, she underlined its pitch for foreign investment and tourism, insisting that “Bahrain is open for business” and that its lifestyle is more relaxed and comfortable for foreigners than that of straight-laced Saudi Arabia across a 16-mile causeway to the west. What’s more, she added, Bahrain has no taxes of any kind.

The economy has begun to recover, but it’s hard to see Bahrain resuming its former allure while its population of half a million citizens (plus 200,000 expats) remains so bitterly divided.

At least 24 Bahrainis died in this year’s disturbances and more than 1,200 people, most of them Shi’ites, were fired from their jobs, according to a report on Bahrain last month by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Human rights groups have described gross abuses including security personnel dragging out seriously wounded demonstrators from a Bahraini hospital. At least 50 doctors and nurses are among about 600 people detained during the protests, which began on Feb. 14 and largely ended on March 14. On that day, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops at Bahrain’s invitation to guard infrastructure and free local forces to restore order.

Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy — led by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa — blames the demonstrations on Iran, which ruled Bahrain before the Al Khalifas arrived in 1783. Iranian officials have sometimes spoken of Bahrain as Iran’s 14th province, Nonoo said, and have stirred up local Shi’ites since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Only after 1979, she said, did Bahrainis start asking “are you Sunni or are you Shia? … It’s not a figment of our imagination that Iran is there.”

Another Bahraini official, parliament spokesman Fahad Ebrahim Shehabi, told the Los Angeles Times that Iran was to blame for the withdrawal of al-Wefaq from the national dialogue. He said the decision was “in the hands of the Wilayet Faqih,” a reference to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Neither Shehabi nor Nonoo presented any evidence for their allegations. Iran has certainly provided rhetorical support for the demonstrators, but the only military intervention thus far has come from the “Peninsula Shield” force of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert who wrote the CRS report on Bahrain, told IPS that there was no evidence that Iran had instigated the protests but that there are concerns that a growing role in government for al-Wefaq would lead Bahrain to be “less friendly to the U.S. and more friendly to Iran.”

Such a government, he said, might be less willing to allow the U.S. to expand its 100-acre base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — a crucial installation protecting traffic in the Persian Gulf, deterring Iran, and supporting U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given such concerns, the Barack Obama administration — while calling for nonviolence and reform — has not reacted to the deaths and arrests in Bahrain with the same outrage that it has shown toward crackdowns in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.

Bahraini Shi’ites “do not have the same relationship with the U.S. that there is between the U.S. and the Al Khalifas,” Katzman said.

Al-Wefaq says it withdrew from the national dialogue because opposition groups were granted only 35 of 300 seats and it had little confidence that the forum would result in meaningful change. Before this year’s unrest, there were only four Shi’ites among 23 cabinet ministers plus one of four deputy prime ministers. According to the CRS report, Shi’ites are “also highly underrepresented in the security forces, serving mainly in administrative tasks.”

Under a 2002 constitution, an elected lower house of parliament has the same number of seats as an appointed upper house and little power to affect policy. In addition, gerrymandering has kept Shi’ites — who constitute 60 to 70 percent of Bahrain’s citizens, according to CRS — from winning a majority even in the lower house.

Katzman predicted “a very long stalemate” punctuated by more protests, although not on the same scale as in February and March, when demonstrators paralyzed the financial district of Manama, Bahrain’s capital. In the end, he said, some compromises are possible, including increasing the size and powers of the lower house of parliament and replacing as prime minister the king’s hard-line uncle, who has been in office since Bahrain became independent from Britain in 1971.

The Bahraini ambassador also pointed to an independent commission of inquiry into the demonstrations that is to issue a report in October as another potential contributor to reconciliation. She conceded, however, that “my role as ambassador has changed dramatically since February. … It’s clear that the question of who is Shia and who is Sunni will remain with us for a long time.”

(Inter Press Service)