After being completely unplugged and out-of-touch for the better part of last week, I have returned to find that among a number of interesting (really, horrifying) developments in the Middle East, a Bahraini military court has sentenced four protesters to death for the alleged murder of two policemen. The fact that all four are Shia is only going to aggravate already rather tense relations between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority. I traveled to Bahrain a bunch of times in the mid-2000s and while it had a reputation for being a more open and generally laid back place than either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the ruling Khalifa family have long ensured the island’s security with an iron fist. Although the protests in Bahrain have coincided with uprisings around the region, they are nothing new. The Bahraini authorities have often resorted to the use of force to keep the streets quiet.
King Hamad made a good show of undertaking political reform in 2001, promulgating a new constitution in 2002, and also in 2002, reinstating a parliament that had been suspended for 27 years. It did not amount to much. Parties were banned, though something called “political societies” were permitted. Human rights activists who highlighted the shortcoming of the Bahraini system were often harassed and arrested. The whole window dressing quality to Hamad’s reform was brought into sharp relief for me in 2005 when I visited members of the Shura Council—the upper house of the parliament. They didn’t seem to know exactly what they were supposed to do and broke into an argument about it among each other as I munched on sweets and watched the back and forth .
At around the same time, Bahrain’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Salman (The American University in Washington class of 1991), sought to ameliorate the sectarian tensions on the island with a program of “Bahrainization” of the workforce. The goal was to create more employment opportunities for the Shia majority in order to give them a “stake in the system” thereby reducing political tensions. Salman asked the consulting firm McKinsey to help out, but the Crown Prince’s efforts did not have the desired effect. This was mostly because, Bahraini employers have become hooked on cheap labor from South Asia and were reluctant to pay the higher wages—Bahrain’s overvalued dinar makes Manama the London of the Middle East in terms of cost of living and doing business— that citizens demand.
Although Salman deserves credit for trying to address Shia economic dislocation, he made the fundamental mistake that Middle Eastern leaders have long made by emphasizing economic solution to political problems. These guys are either the last Marxists—they believe every political development has some underlying economic explanation—or they are manifestly unable to confront reality. To be sure, Bahrain’s Shia have economic grievances as do many people all over the Middle East, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of ideas in this season of Arab unrest. Bahrain’s protests like those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are about politics—people are demanding their freedom and basic human rights. If it was anything else, Bahrain’s military tribunal would not be sentencing protesters to death.