Essential Readings on Bahrain: Origins of a Crisis

Posted on March 20, 2018 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Essential Readings: Bahrain: Origins of a Crisis

by Sandy Russell Jones
[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org]

When I lived in Bahrain a few years ago, the Pearl monument was for me a reliable landmark that helped me navigate the streets of Manama in my rented compact car. Standing 300 feet high, the single white pearl was supported by six dhow sails, representing the six member countries of the GCC who share the heritage of the gulf seafaring culture. The pearl symbolized the Bahraini people’s past as renowned pearl divers and merchants. That past extends back hundreds of years, before the formation of the GCC, before the arrival of the Al Khalifa, before the arrival of European colonial powers looking to secure control over the vibrant Gulf trade. When Bahrainis began to take part in the recent “Arab Spring” sweeping the region, they chose the Pearl Roundabout, named after the monument, as their rallying point. Like demonstrators elsewhere, the Bahraini protesters gathered for political and economic reasons: greater political participation, more jobs, less corruption. Unlike demonstrators elsewhere, Bahrainis faced an additional challenge: the deliberate, carefully calculated political, economic, and social oppression of the kingdom’s Shii majority population by the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa.  

Whether the Pearl Roundabout had been chosen by protesters because of its symbolism, its proximity to the Shii villages from which many demonstrators came, or simply because it is the only public space in Manama large enough to host such a rally, the Roundabout today is ripe with symbolism. Much like the hopes and aspirations of those who stood freely in this space to ask for their right to participate in their country’s future, the monument has been destroyed and bulldozed away by order of the Al Khalifa, leaving an ugly scar where the proud monument once stood.  


The ugliness does not end there: in order to silence these voices, the Al Khalifa called in Saudi troops, arrested bloggers, and confiscated many of those wounded in the demonstrations from their hospital beds and reportedly interrogated, insulted, and tortured them, some to death. Just as disturbing, if not more so, are reports that the U.S., whose 5th Fleet Navy base is located in Manama, cut a deal with Saudi leaders to refrain from criticizing Bahrain’s handling of the protests in exchange for Saudi Arabia’s, and thus the Arab League’s, agreement on operations in Libya.

What are we to make of this heartbreaking outcome of the Bahraini Spring? The following sources offer readers some historical background of the current crisis. This background was not easy to come by. Partly due to its small size, and partly due to its location in a generally understudied region (the Gulf), Bahrain has not received much scholarly attention. Archaeologists have examined its past as the possible seat of the ancient Dilmun civilization, naturalists have studied its flora and fauna, and scholars of the British empire have written about its status as a British protectorate, but few scholars have examined its more recent social or political history. Of those who have, I have chosen the works that best help explain the origins of the current crisis. Also included in this list are sources that present analysis of the international significance of the events currently taking place in Bahrain. For example, a claim that has been repeatedly bandied about by the Al Khalifa is that the mostly Shii demonstrators are taking their cues from Iran. That there is little basis for this claim, and that in fact Bahraini Shiis’ concerns have been decidedly local, has not allayed the fears of Sunnis in the region, or of the U.S.

Today, Bahrainis continue to gather in public to seek justice and greater freedom, despite brutal crackdowns implemented not only by their own government’s forces, but also those of foreign nations. For the interested reader, these few sources will provide a glimpse into Bahrain’s past as a vibrant center of commercial life, transnational trade, and Shii intellectual thought. The era of Al Khalifa rule is also explored here, as well as references to the specific actions, policies, and events that led to the current conflict. For example, while reading the first paragraph of Munira Fakhro’s analysis of the uprising of the 1990’s, one is struck by the similarities between the issues at stake and the response of the state then and that of now, twenty-one years later. This is despite the government’s claims that Bahrain has entered an era of reform. As for Bahrain’s future, analysts here suggest that all depends on the Al Khalifa’s willingness to finally institute real political reform. As long as the U.S. agrees to turn a blind eye and Saudi forces remain on Bahraini soil, regrettably, there is little hope of such an outcome.  

Yusuf al-Bahrani, Lu’lu’at al-Bahrayn fi l-ijazat wa tarajim rijal al-hadith (Najaf: Dar al-Numan, 1966)          
Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772) is the renowned ancestor to a Shii family of religious scholars and pearl merchants whose descendents still live, study, and publish in Bahrain today. In this biographical dictionary of famous Shii scholars, al-Bahrani offers us a view of eighteenth-century Bahrain at the time of the Sunni tribes’ first appearance on the islands. At the time of al-Bahrani’s birth, Bahrain was known in the region for its vibrant intellectual life and its many Shii centers of learning. Al-Bahrani’s own short biography, which he includes here, is punctuated by political unrest, as Sunni tribes begin to vie for control over the islands and their pearl trade. 

Munira A. Fakhro, “The Uprising in Bahrain: An Assessment,” in The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security, and Religion, Gary G. Sick, Lawrence G. Potter, eds. (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)
In this piece, respected Bahraini activist and scholar Munira Fakhro analyzes the origins of the political uprisings of the mid-1990’s. She sees the uprisings as the outcome of a basic struggle between a broad-based democracy movement and the ruling authoritarian elite that resisted any limitation of its powers. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Fahkro surveys the democracy movement and categorizes this movement into six phases. She also considers the effects of external forces on Bahrain’s domestic political developments.
Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
In this very smart urban history of Bahrain’s capital, Fuccaro challenges the standard view that sees the agents of historical change in Gulf cities as either the British Empire, the tribe, and/or oil wealth. Fuccaro instead analyzes the city as an instrument of statecraft and the embodiment of historical developments. Through examining the social and political life of Manama, Fuccaro demonstrates the gradual elision of the city’s cosmopolitan, transnational, and pluralistic civic tradition in favor of a stratified, class-based, decidedly Arab character bolstered by state-sponsored nationalism. 
International Crisis Group, “Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt” (MENA Report No. 105, 6 April 2011)
This thorough and incisive report examines the recent history of relations between the government and its majority Shii population. While it points out that Bahrain has at times boasted an open society, at least relative to its neighbors, the report also details key incidents and policies initiated by the ruling family that have specifically oppressed the Shii population, or were designed to alter the country’s demographic composition in favor of Sunnis. The report also outlines the many legal opposition groups and explains their relationship with the newest members of the opposition: the youth of the street.

Fred H. Lawson, Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy (Westview Press, 1989)                                      
In this book, Lawson provides a look at the creation of the post-independence Bahraini political structure. He considers the way in which the formation of political alliances were influenced by British involvement, and demonstrates that the Al Khalifa managed their rule by distributing favors and patronage, achieving a delicate balance between competing domestic forces and various foreign interests. In Lawson’s description of the nationalist movement of the 1950’s and its aftermath, we see the familiar refrain of the strong and rapid response of the rulers to a perceived threat to their sovereignty. See also Lawson’s “Repertoires of Contention in Contemporary Bahrain” in Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, Quentan Wiktorowicz, ed. (Indiana University Press, 2004).

PBS Newshour, “In Bahrain, Protesters Look to Tap into ‘Regional Momentum,’” An interview with Toby Jones and Simon Henderson (February 16, 2011)                                In this brief interview, Toby Jones and Simon Henderson provide an early analysis of the February 14, 2011 uprising and discuss its implications for the country’s and the region’s future. After identifying the demonstrators as mostly youth inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the important point made by Jones is that what could have remained a small street flare-up exploded into a broad-based national movement for political change when the state decided to respond with brutal violence. Jones has many recent pieces analyzing the current uprisings, which can be found in MERIP, Foreign Policy, Al-Masry Al-Youm, e-International Relations, and here in Jadaliyya.

Sandy Russell Jones, a Fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis and a lecturer in Rutgers’ History Department, provides a list of sources for readers interested in exploring the background to the current crisis in Bahrain. Jones` own writing on Bahrain can be found here. 

[This article was originally published on www.Jadaliyya.com

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