As Bahrain experienced paroxysms of revolt in the midst of the Arab Spring, Toby Matthiesen was on the ground in the small island kingdom, watching the events of 2011 unfold.
Inspired by the domino-chain of the Arab Spring, in 2011 Bahrainis rallied for political reform. Last week marked the three-year anniversary of the start of what have now become ongoing protests, a benchmark which thousands of Bahrainis observed by taking to the streets. Unlike Libya and Egypt, the political aspirations of Bahrain’s protesters (which run the gamut from moderate reform to complete regime-change) remain largely unsatisfied, and on the eve of February 14, 2014, 29 protesters were arrested in police clashes. Meanwhile dialogue between the ruling family and oppositional groups is stymied by sectarian antipathy between Sunni and Shia—a schism that undergirds much of the country’s instability.
In 2008, three years before the Arab Spring and Bahrain’s dovetailing protests, Toby Matthiesen, professor and author of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t, visited the small island kingdom, where 60-70% of the population is Shia.
“As I got into the taxi, I wondered what the discussion with the driver would bring, and if, like many modern travelers, I would see his opinions as representative of the current state of the country, if they would confirm what I had read previously about the region. From the ring the cab driver wore on his right hand, I knew that he was Shia. The ring, which can be made of various gemstones and has references to the oneness of God engraved, was a tradition first established by Shia imams. When I asked him about this, he looked puzzled. His typical foreign customers—Western businessmen, oil workers, and soldiers—generally were not interested in local religious and political affairs. He replied with a lowered voice, ‘Yes I am a Shia, we are the majority in this country, but the ruling family is Sunni. Therefore, we have many problems with them.’ I would learn much more about the history and politics of the Gulf Shia over the next years, but even this first conversation made me wonder whether the political marginalization of the Gulf Shia was not a ticking time bomb.” (Sectarian Gulf, 4)
In a recent article for the Middle East Research and Information Project Matthiesen attributes the unrest that erupted in 2011 to decades of neoliberal economics that produced a have/have-not dichotomy that fell, in large part, along sectarian fault lines, with the Sunni royal family and a handful of prominent business families (also largely Sunni) comprising the haves, and the Shia-majority making up the beleaguered proletariat.
Matthiesen maintains that Bahrain’s more oil-rich neighbors have been able to recycle petroleum profits into high salaries for the civil service sector and “cushion the blows of neoliberalism” for the non-élite. Without a comparable revenue stream, not only was Bahrain not able to quell working class unrest, but the government added metaphoric oil to the fire, by importing cheap labor (mostly Sunni immigrants from poorer South Asian and Arab countries) to undercut the domestic (and predominantly Shia) work force.
When he visited Bahrain again in February 2011—three years after his conversation with the Shia cab driver—a Facebook page calling for a Day of Rage in the capital city had amassed thousands of followers. By the time Matthiesen arrived, large-scale protests, consisting mostly of Shia Bahrainis and a smattering of Sunni opposition groups, were already underway in Manama.
After a few days of mostly peaceful protest, security forces began a sudden battery of violent crackdowns on February 17, 2011, to disperse the dissidents.
“Shocked by the sudden turn of events, I stayed in my hotel room that day, as Bahrain television was urging people to stay away from busy intersections and my friends were not answering their phones. From a jubilant mood, Bahrain had moved to a state of lockdown. The other guests were leaving the hotel, and soon I was almost the only one there. The South-Asian employees at the hotel were scared. When I asked one waiter from Kerala about his opinion, he replied, ‘It’s the Shia, they always make trouble. They don’t like the ruling family, and they want to take our jobs. They don’t like us, they want all foreigners to leave. But the country works because of us; if we were not here nothing would function.’” (Sectarian Gulf, 34)
The Kerala-native waiter’s comments represent a pervasive attitude shared by many Bahraini immigrants (most of whom are Sunnis from poorer South Asian and Arab countries), whose migration and assimilation are frequently expedited by sponsors inside the regime and, as a result, harbored sympathies for the existing government.
In Sectarian Gulf, while Matthiesen distills the cultural perceptions and stereotypes that inform the Shia and Sunni’s schismatic opinions of one another, he develops the case that the original protest movement was significantly less divided by creed than it eventually came to be in the intervening years. But, as Matthiesen reveals in his book, a perfect storm of factors reified the Shia-Sunni divide creating the diplomatic gridlock that has frustrated reform and reconciliation ever since.
As popular uprisings spread across the Middle East, popular wisdom often held that the Gulf States would remain beyond the fray. In Sectarian Gulf, Toby Matthiesen paints a very different picture, offering the first assessment of the Arab Spring across the Gulf region with first-hand accounts of events in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.