Belfast Telegraph

Bahrain violence 'used to force Shia out' of Sunni kingdom

By Patrick Cockburn

Shia leaders have accused the Bahraini government of using violence, intimidation and mass sackings to drive their community out.

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa met David Cameron in London yesterday in an attempt to restore the island's tarnished reputation, but there is no sign of government repression easing. Critics of the regime say that Prince Salman – once an advocate of dialogue with the majority Shia community – has lost influence to Saudi-backed hardliners within the al-Khalifa royal family.

A former minister in the Gulf state, who did not want to be named, said: "The government assault on the Shia only makes sense if the government intends to alter the demographic balance in Bahrain against the Shia and in favour of the Sunni." By alienating the majority community the al-Khalifas were making themselves wholly dependent on Saudi Arabia, he said.

Shia politicians in Bahrain say that demographic change is already under way. Ali al-Aswad, a Shia MP, said that about 2,000 employees, mostly Shia, had been dismissed or suspended. "The government is trying to force them and their families to leave Bahrain. Some have already gone to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and others are applying for visas to get work elsewhere." This figure is confirmed by the International Labour Organisation.

Mohammed Sadiq, of the Justice for Bahrain group, said that about 850 Bahraini students in Britain are having their grants withdrawn for attending pro-democracy rallies. Many are likely to apply for asylum. He says: "A further 1,500 Bahraini students in UK are funded privately but their future is often in doubt because their relatives at home who pay their fees have been arrested or sacked."

The bulldozing of at least 27 Shia mosques, along with many other religious meeting houses, since the start of the crackdown in mid-March has sent a message to the community as a whole that its future on the island is in doubt. Youssif al-Khoei of the al-Khoei Foundation, a UK-based charity, said: "One of the mosques demolished was 400 years old and its destruction, along with so many others, is deeply frightening to the Shia community in Bahrain which is one of the oldest in the world."

The population of Bahrain is 1.2 million, of which half are native Bahrainis and of these some 70 per cent are estimated to be Shia. The al-Khalifa monarchy is Sunni, as are almost all the 60,000-strong security forces. A long-standing Shia demand is that the government stops fast-tracking the naturalisation of foreign Sunni and refusing to grant citizenship to Shia. Mr Sadiq says that at least 10,000 and possibly 20,000 foreigners have "been granted Bahrain citizenship since the crackdown". In Pakistan a report that 1,000 security men were being recruited by Bahrain led to Shia-Sunni riots and may have led to the killing of a Saudi diplomat.

The excuse for the mass sackings in both the state and private sectors is their participation in a general strike in favour of democracy and reform on 13 March. Trade unions in Bahrain say that private employers have come under intense government pressure to dismiss workers who supported the protests. Mass firings have taken place at companies such as the Bahrain Petroleum Company and Gulf Air.

The severity of the crackdown in Bahrain is mystifying, say local politicians in the Gulf. "I expected the King to try to stay above the conflict rather than wholly join the Sunni side," said one political leader.

The pro-democracy protests were milder in Bahrain than in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya or Yemen and demonstrators made only limited demands for a change of regime. But the Saudi and al-Khalifa royal families appear to have panicked after the fall of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. "The explanation for what happened is that the Saudis flipped," said one observer.

The Sunni kings of the Gulf rule in the only place on earth where absolute monarchies are still the norm and are paranoid about any threat to their status. Though there is no evidence of Iran's interference in Bahrain, they believe much of their own propaganda about it manipulating the pro-democracy protests. In reality the Bahraini Shia look to Najaf in Iraq for religious leadership. They have so far insisted that the Bahraini Shia response should be non-violent, but warn that this restraint cannot go on for ever.

Belfast Telegraph

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