Is Shia sectarianism singular to Bahrain?

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

For those interested in the history and politics of the Middle-East, we shift our focus today towards a small island state called Bahrain in the Gulf – and report on the nature of Shi’ism in the country.

Today throughout the Middle East, Shias represent the political minority; except for the few large exceptions such as Iran and Iraq. Another small exception lies close to Iran: that is the small island of Bahrain. Although in fact a political minority in terms of their position of influence in the country, in numbers they remain the majority: most academic sources agree that the proportions are at approximately 70% of Shia for 30% Sunni. In this context, knowing that Shias remain the minority despite their larger numbers, the question that could be asked is whether the story of the Shia minority identity is singular to the Bahraini context, or if this identity is closer to the one that is ‘universal’ throughout the Middle East.

The Sunni-Shia divide and the foundations of the Bahraini state

Photo by Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash

The foundations of the Bahraini state explain in part the current-day Sunni-Shia relationship in Bahrain. The current-day Al-Khalifa dynasty was founded in 1783 after the defeat of the Persians on the island. Persia at the time held Bahrain as a vassal state – and in the point of view of the dynasty, there was an idea of liberating the Arabs on the island from the Persians, an idea of “national liberation” (Louër, 2014). For the native Shia population however, that were being “liberated”, the vision was not shared: the Shias held the view that they were the “original natives” that inhabited the island since the Sunni-Shia divide post Mohamed’s death. The Al-Khalifa dynasty then, for them, remained conquerors and invaders that were alien to the island (Louër, 2014). As there are very few sources to verify which vision is the factual truth, it is difficult to ascertain which is correct, however academics generally agree that although the island was mainly inhabited by the Shia, there remained a certain level of cultural/religious diversity – which may imply Shias were not the only “true natives” to the country. This constitutes the foundations also of the Shia identity itself in Bahrain, where the bilateral vision of conqueror and the natives has become the first building block to visioning oneself as a Shia in the country. Following the conquest of Bahrain, a feudal system was established, where the arable lands were taken over by the dynasty and were divided and managed amongst their own clan as well as other allied Sunni tribes (Diwan, 2014). Most Shias were forced to rent this newly proclaimed owned land, creating a form of “debt bondage” (Louër, 2014) where they would have to work the land but also pay rent to inhabit and work on it. The pearl trade was mainly managed by Sunnis, that enjoyed relative freedom to the Shias working on land – those working in the pearling sector were given more freedoms as the sector was the economic stronghold of the country, and advantages had to be given to the workers to prevent them from leaving to other countries in the region that also had pearling industries. This series of events following the conquest however did not necessarily aim at direct discrimination or sectarianism but was rather a way to “reward the conquerors” and those allied to this group, as well as for the maximisation of economic priorities, which happened to be the pearling sector at the time in Bahrain. (Diwan, 2014). This can be shown by the fact that at the time, the dynasty tolerated most public Shia cultural/religious displays and activities, and in parallel also gave monetary donations to contribute to Shia festivals. The dynasty did not consider Shias as a threat at this point and were viewed as an accepted cultural/religious group (Louër, 2014). There existed still however, a sense of difference between the Sunnis and Shias due to the foundations and dynamics of the country – a divide, although not perhaps directly intended, present.

Shia sectarianism as a political strength and identity

Shia sectarianism started becoming more of a political force and identity starting with the colonial presence of the British in Bahrain from the 1920s: new policies were set up to facilitate commerce and arbitrate commercial conflicts – and the existence of an embryonic bureaucracy which aimed at judging according to clear and fair laws made sure more equitable laws applied for everyone, including the Shias (Louër, 2008). This led however to opposition groups forming, constituted by Sunni clans backed up mainly by another section of the ruling family clustered around the emir. In 1923 tensions led to a peak point where open riots started happening in Manama as well as small villages in Bahrain with Sunnis on one side and Shias on the other. These riots became the first public display of Shia grievance, and gave rise to tensions between the two groups. With the establishment of the oil industry in Bahrain in the 1930s, a second public display of Shia grievance became known: this was due to The Bahrain Petroleum Company’s (BAPCO) hiring choices (AlShehabi, 2017). Iranian employees were hired to work at the company at first, as they required little training and did not need to be paid as much as the locals. Such choice represented an undesirable outcome for the Bahraini rulers as well as the British, as they feared such hiring choices would lead to increasing Iran’s claim over Bahrain. The Iranian staff were therefore traded out for Indian ones, which gave rise to discontent among the minority Bahraini staff members of BAPCO, that were mostly Shia as they were either originally Iranian migrants or were born from Iranian parents (AlShehabi, 2017). As holders of what were often precarious contracts compared to their new migrant counterparts, strong trade unions and repetitive strikes were organised in response (Louër, 2008). These two instances in the 1920s and 1930s as we have seen, became the groundwork for the formation of a Shia sectarian identity, as a more active, visible force in the country, representing not only cultural/religious difference from the Sunnis but also as distinct group with the ability to form social and political opinions and participate actively in civil society.

This identity became further reinforced with the first parliamentary experiments of the 1970s. With the emergence of Marxist/nationalist Arab movements in the region, the state accepted the counter identity that was also strongly present as an opposition against the secular influence: the Shia movements that were forming at the time. Before the 1970s, the formation and activities of these groups were accepted by the state as they had thought of them as useful and necessary to counter the undesirable secular (equated in some ways with Western) influence. There were two main groups: Al Dawa with its founder Isa Qasem, related to the marja’iyya of Najaf and the Shirazi network, based on the figure of Mohammed al-Shirazi (Louër, 2014), both transnational politic-religious networks rivalling the ones in Iraq. Al Dawa was popular in Bahrain amongst the rural segments while the Shirazi Network was so in the cities (Louër, 2014). With the 1973 elections, two main blocs came forward: the progressive bloc (comprising of the Marxist/Arab nationalist movements) and the religious bloc (mainly formed by Al Dawa); however contrary to the regime’s intentions, the two blocs collaborated instead of facing each other off in vetoing a government bill that aimed at restricting civil liberties. In response, the regime disbanded parliament, announced a state of emergency and then began the repression of the progressive bloc, where many members were arrested and deported for their “radical” convictions. Again, completely contrary to the regime’s expectations, this led to turnaround attitudes in the religious bloc and in 1976 the Shirazi Network was reborn as the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB). The IFLB became increasingly radicalised and political over the years following, especially with the Islamic Revolution in Iran happening in parallel, increasing tensions in the region, between the regime and the movement furthermore (Louër, 2014). This escalated to a point in 1981 when the leader of IFLB, Hadi al-Modarresi, was exiled to Iran following a failed attempt at a coup in Bahrain; which led to the crackdown of both Shia networks in Bahrain. What the regime had originally intended as leniency due to the convenient opposability of the Shia identity to (Western) secular influence became the beginnings of a radical form of Shi’ism, and the building of a politically charged Shia identity – seeing sectarianism as not only cultural/religious but also as political with the interest in radically changing the status quo of the country, as a product of modernity, a driver of political identity.

Shi’ism as a political ideology and strategy: the 1990s uprising, the effects of the 2000s reforms and al Wifaq

Photo by mhrezaa on Unsplash

The 1990s was an era of reform for Bahrain, but also more specifically for the Shias in Bahrain: in 1992, a petition was signed by 280 society members – and a reinstatement of parliament was promised to the Shia. Contrary to the hopes of the Shia however, a Consultative Council was established instead where although notables were equally distributed between Sunnis and Shias, the Council had very little influence over actual policy decisions (Louër, 2013). Furthermore, during the 1990s, with the continuous socio-economic instability alongside spreading rates of unemployment amongst the youth, especially among the Shia, there was a growing dissatisfaction with regards to the preference of hiring Sunnis over Shias in the public sector. The Uprising of Dignity started in 1994 partly because of all these different tensions, where not only Shias but also leftists, joined to express their discontent (Louër, 2013). The uprising itself was viewed however by the regime as Bahraini as well as Shia in nature – especially as it was no longer at a time when the Islamic Revolution was active in Iran – demonstrating the changing nature of the regime’s view of the Shia majority (Louër, 2013). The vision of Shi’ism was viewed from the 1990s onwards more specifically by the regime as an opposing political ideology, a threat to the regime. For this reason, as a response to the uprisings, the Sunni identity was used as a counter, through policies that would marginalise Shias – such as the decision to dedicate naturalisation solely for Sunnis. This radical shift towards seeing the Shias as a threat to the state as well as to state identity explains many of the following policy decisions and the more active discrimination of the Shia. With the change of head of state in 1999, this sectarianism became more clearly defined as a decision of the state.

With the assumption of power of Emir Hamad following the sudden death of his father Isa bin Salman in 1999, a possibility to reform the country opened and was taken on by the new ruler (Diwan, 2014). The question of who would take over the throne post Hamad’s death also became important, the potential candidates being Sheikh Salman (crown prince) and the long-term prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman. Although Salman would be the first in line, he lacked the influence and wasta of Khalifa bin Salman – and to demonstrate his ruling strategy, taking inspiration from Dubai and with the support of a “new international patron in the United States” (Diwan, 2014, p. 155) – Salman launched economic reform initiatives to recall the support that was gathered around his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman. In parallel, some avenues for new Shia cooperation was promised with the aim of “incremental empowerment” and “local development” (Diwan, 2014, p. 155). With a goal of unifying the opposition and “co-opting [them] into the political and economic structure of the state, without threatening the prerogatives of the ruling Al Khalifa” (Diwan, 2014), Hamad, backed by Sheikh Salman, encouraged the formation of a unified alliance between the existing Shia opposition, by pardoning groups such as Al-Wifaq (society founded in 2001) of the political chaos of the 1990s; which facilitated the relationship between the regime and the Shias. However, soon after declaring Bahrain a kingdom, Hamad through constitutional changes gave a hand-picked upper house legal authority over the elected lower house (Diwan, 2014). Furthermore, within the lower house, various “gerrymandered districts” – clustering Shias and putting them in districts with higher numbers of voters, which ensured that it would be impossible for the Shias to ever gain a majority in the elected lower house (Diwan, 2014). This failure to materialise what had been promised as cooperative avenues led to further discontent amongst the Shia: after the boycotting of the 2002 elections, Al Wifaq, as an attempt to reform from the inside changed strategy and took most seats in the lower house with the 2006 elections. However, this did not change much ultimately for the Shia; as summed by Diwan,

“the reforms undertaken by the king and crown prince aimed to better integrate the Shi‘is into national politics and markets, but they did not eliminate the differential treatment of communities, nor did they address the exclusion inherent at the heights of the “tribal” system. Much as the political reforms brought the opposition societies into the parliament without relinquishing control over the levers of power, the economic reforms worked to better integrate Bahrainis into the economy without ceding control over key resources: land and oil. The result was a growing disillusionment with the accommodative approach of al-Wifaq, and growing disputes within the opposition over fundamental tactic […] Over the latter half of the 2000s, a new ideological coalition would cohere around the idea that the Shi‘i could not be trusted, and that integrating them into the state’s political and economic institutions was courting dangers” (Diwan, 2014, p. 161).

The Bandargate affair is an example that further emphasises this point: the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights received in 2006 a long document detailing the specific details of Shia marginalisation from Saleh al-Bandar, a worker at the Bahraini Royal Court Affairs Ministry. The document detailed that the Minister of Bahrain (Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa) at the time paid around $2.7 million for various initiatives encouraging marginalisation, amongst which included: election rigging, spreading internet hate speech against the Shia, creating fake government operated NGOs with the sole purpose of marginalising the Shia and hiring secret intelligence to spy on Shias involved in political activity (Louër, 2013). It showed ultimately that Sunnis were kept intentionally at the advantageous positions and Shias kept at the margins, preventing them from accessing the key sectors for political/social influence. Sectarianism can be seen within this context as a choice of the state, executed with intention.

Sectarianism as historical, identity building, strategic…and domestic

All these historical events culminated to, in 2011, the Pearl Uprising – following the wave of the Arab Spring in the region. Starting on the internet by the youth then to the streets, the uprising quickly gained traction, through the support vocal of veterans of previous uprisings such as Abdulwahab Hussain and Hassan Mushaima (Khalaf, 2015). It was a strong display of social organisation amongst the Shia, not only in numbers but also in anonymity and aptitude in making use of social media for demonstration. Their goals were to 1/ expose the brutality and ineffectiveness of security forces, 2/ end the ‘corrupted’ cooperation between the opposition and the royal family, 3/ gain the rights to collective protest, and 4/ minimise the influence of Al Wefaq as a representative of the Shia (Khalaf, 2015). The regime, on its side responded through, 1/ repression by the security forces followed by raids by the police, 2/ usage of social media to discredit the opposition, 3/ announcing political reform through a combination of material goods to opposition leaders perceived as ‘moderate’ (Khalaf, 2015). Rallies and smaller protests followed, all focalised around the Pearl Roundabout. As indicated by Khalaf, the results of the uprising demonstrated, most importantly, that the “crisis in Bahrain [was] another indication of the inherent weaknesses of rentier politics itself. The Bahraini regime lost its ability to mobilise its own infrastructural and repressive capacities to deal with domestic challenges” (Khalaf, 2015, p. xvii). Sectarianism in Bahrain with the 2011 Pearl Uprisings became explosively an issue of security – which was already visible from the example of the Bandargate affair. The actions of the regime following the 2011 Pearl Uprisings illustrates this image quite clearly: surveillance not only in real life but also on the internet, accompanied by other actions such as re-appropriation and reframing of existing Shia narratives (reframing pictures of peaceful protest into acts of terrorism), propaganda and disinformation, name and shame and trolling (Jones, 2015).

Many theories can be used to explain the previously outlined choices of the Bahraini state; Strand offers a few, including primordialism, instrumentalism by elite manipulation, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Strand, 2016). In the context of Bahrain, it is difficult to state that primordialism applies considering the historical context of the country and what we have discussed so far; however, instrumentalism by elite manipulation applies quite closely. Following the idea of instrumentalism as “the notion that identity and culture are created, not innate, and that individuals can create these identities for their own gains” (Strand, 2016) – the elite would be then, manipulating identities with the ultimate goal to divide and conquer – seeing sectarianism as the manipulation of government agencies. This follows closely in the Bahraini context not only in the 1970s with the formulation of Shia sectarianism as a more politicised and political identity, but also in the 1990s onwards with the elections and the following Bandargate affair. Sectarianism in this context can also be seen as a strategy to maintain authority on the side of the elites, following Matthiesen’s ideas (Matthiesen, 2013). Following these theories on domestic politics and policy decisions, the local context becomes relevant above all else. Strand’s third theory, on the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran however it worth mentioning despite its slight contradictory nature to the theory of instrumentalism, as it is still applicable and relevant in the Bahraini context. As discussed by Strand, although Iran may not be the main driving factor for the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain, it may be a considerable factor when speaking of the justifications for which domestically in Bahrain movements might have been pushed on – and created tensions in the country. Iranian religious figures as well as political figures have been vocal on their support of the uprisings in Bahrain throughout the years as a way of expressing competition with Saudi Arabia for regional influence. Saudi Arabia equally has been pushing for support of the Al-Khalifa as a way to protect their own domestic interest, an expression of the ruling powers’ stance towards the Shia present in the Eastern region of the country (Strand, 2016): “the direct involvement by Saudi Arabia and the co-religionist Shi’a protests between the two countries is part of the regional context that has further entrenched the saliency of sectarian identity” (Strand, 2016, p. 54).

Shia sectarianism in Bahrain is singular to the country, but also multi-faceted. It is singular in that a lot of how sectarianism works in the country and is expressed can be credited to domestic history and politics. From the origins of the Sunni-Shia divide in the 1700s to British colonial rule, the parliamentary experiment of the 1970s and the 1990s, the politicised security initiatives of the 2000s all the way to the Pearl Uprising of 2011 – the Shias in Bahrain can be viewed as forging their sectarian identity not only for religious/cultural reasons but also to ‘do politics’ as a civil group. Even within the Shia political opposition there is diversity, due to domestic influence: it is often divided based off ideology, class, age, and remains dynamic despite constant government constraints. On the other hand, the Bahraini state has also been shown to push sectarianism at times and at others, retract it, depending on the types of risks and questions that come up to counter the regime: whether it be questions of rule (countering secularism) or security (internal and external). It is however, as pointed out at the end of the paper, important none the less to recognise the potential external influence that has been the Saudi Arabian/Iranian one – as although it may not be the principle reason for sectarianism in Bahrain, may contribute to the building of tensions at certain periods more than others. Domestic context however, remains significant in the Bahraini case.

As summarised concretely by Wehrey,

“Like any social or political fissure, sectarianism is not an immutable feature of the Gulf landscape or a manufactured construct, as some have alleged. In times of uncertainty, political and media elites have manipulated/exploited it, and ordinary citizens have latched on to it as a safety net. Sectarianism’s ripples across national boundaries are most acute in conditions of political inequality and institutional weakness, among marginalized social groups/embattled elites. The Iranian Revolution, the Iraqi civil war, the Hezbollah–Israel war in Lebanon, and most recently, the Syrian civil war have echoed throughout the Gulf, exciting sectarian passions and stirring expressions of partisanship. But the ultimate roots of Sunni–Shia tensions lie in the domestic context rather than in regional events.” (Wehrey, 2014, p. 250)

What remains to be asked and investigated in the future is whether this sectarian identity in Bahrain could ever be reconciled with the state’s interests – and as the Pearl Uprising of 2011 has shown, this question may need answering sooner rather than later.

Keep learning,



AlShehabi, O. H., 2017. Contested modernity: divided rule and the birth of sectarianism, nationalism, and absolutism in Bahrain. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 44(3), pp. 333-355.

Diwan, K. S., 2014. Royal Factions, Ruling Strategies, and Sectarianism in Bahrain. In: L. G. Potter, ed. Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 143-177.

Jones, M. O., 2015. Social Media, Surveillance, and Cyberpolitics in the Bahrain Uprising. In: A. Shehabi & M. O. Jones, eds. Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf. London: Zed Books, pp. 239-262.

Khalaf, A., 2015. Foreword: On the Prelude to the 14 February Uprising. In: A. Shehabi & M. O. Jones, eds. Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf. London: Zed Books, pp. xiii-xvii.

Louër, L., 2008. Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. 1st Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Louër, L., 2013. Sectarianism and Coup-Proofing Strategies in Bahrain. Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(2), pp. 245-260.

Louër, L., 2014. The State and Sectarian Identities in the Persian Gulf Monarchies: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in Comparative Perspective. In: L. G. Potter, ed. Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 117-142.

Matthiesen, T., 2013. Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t. 1st Edition ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Strand, B. C., 2016. Explaining Sectarian Violence in the Middle East: a Comparative Study of Bahrain and Yemen, Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School.

Wehrey, F. M., 2014. Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. 1st Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

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