Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

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The oil-producing states of the Arab Gulf are said to sink or swim on their capacity for political appeasement through economic redistribution. Yet, during the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, in Bahrain and all across the Arab Gulf, ordinary citizens showed an unexpected enthusiasm for political protest directed against governments widely assumed to have co-opted their support with oil revenues. Justin Gengler draws on the first-ever mass political survey in Bahrain to demonstrate that neither is the state willing to offer all citizens the same bargain, nor are all citizens willing to accept it. Instead, shared social and religious identities offer a viable basis for mass political coordination. Challenging the prevailing rentier interpretation of political life in the Gulf states, Gengler offers new empirical evidence and a new conceptual framework for understanding the attitudes of ordinary citizens.

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1 Group-Based Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf

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BORN OF THE newfound importance of oil-exporting nations in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of the “rentier economy” arose in economics as a description of those countries that rely on substantial external rent, the latter defined broadly as a reward for ownership of natural resources, whether strategically located territory, mineral deposits, or, more to present purposes, oil or natural gas reserves.1 A special category of the rentier economy, a “rentier state,” came to describe those economies in which only a few are engaged in the generation of this rent, the archetypal examples of which were, and remain, the oil- and gas-rich monarchies of the Arab Gulf. In rentier states, then, the creation and control over wealth is limited to a small minority of society, that is to say, to “the state,” or, in the case of the Gulf regimes, to the ruling family qua state, while the vast majority of residents and citizens play the role either of distributor or consumer.

 

2 Al-Fātiḥ wa al-Maftūḥ: The Case of Sunni-Shi‘i Relations in Bahrain

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TINY THOUGH IT is, the 33-island archipelago of Bahrain, situated 15 miles off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, is an ideal location in which to examine the disruptive influence of group-based political mobilization on the normal function of the rentier state. Indeed, for a kingdom but half the size of London, Bahrain holds a number of distinctions: the global center of pearl production and trading until the 1930s; the first Gulf country in which oil was discovered and mined; the former home of colonial Britain’s Residency of the Persian Gulf and present base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet; and, since the 2003 fall of Iraq’s Ba‘athist regime, the only Middle East nation still ruled by a Sunni minority. While the exact proportion is itself a much-debated and highly divisive issue, it is generally agreed that, despite a decade-long campaign of naturalizing Sunni foreigners, Shi‘a still comprise somewhere between 55 percent and 65 percent of the total population of Bahrain, making it one of just three Middle East states, along with Iran and Iraq, wherein this perennial minority holds an absolute majority.1

 

3 Religion and Politics in Bahrain

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IN BAHRAIN ONE may readily distinguish Sunni from Shi‘i from any number of details: speech and accent (the former pronounce the Arabic kaf as the English k, e.g., the latter as ch1); facial hair and dress (Salafis keep unkempt, often henna-dyed beards, while Shi‘a are less likely to wear the typical Gulf Arab head-dress); given (Husain versus Khalifa) and, if all else fails, family name. Yet among the most straightforward methods is to observe the unmistakable adornment of private property.2 Shi‘a houses, clustered together in tight formation, fly black or multicolored flags bearing the name of the Imam Husain and other religious figures, eulogizing, “O Husain! O Martyr!” Sunni houses, often with gated entrances and garden courtyards, fly the red and white national flag of Bahrain.

Vehicles driven by Shi‘a are decorated invariably with an embossed sticker decal bearing the words “God bless Muhammad and the House of Muhammad.”3 This line, with which they conclude each prayer and whose invocation of the family of the Prophet flies in direct defiance of Sunni practice, reiterates that they are indeed the Shi‘a: shī‘atu ‘alī, or “the partisans of ‘Ali” and the hereditary line of the Prophet against rival claimants to the Islamic caliphate.4 For their part, Sunnis don their vehicles with the familiar Muslim profession of faith and first pillar of Sunni Islam, the shahāda bearing witness that “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger.”

 

4 Surveying Bahrain

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PRESENTING AS IT does simultaneous advantages and disadvantages from both a practical and methodological standpoint, the choice of Bahrain as empirical testing ground for the study of group conflict in the rentier state requires some preliminary words. We may begin by considering the more important, methodological implications of our selection. Foremost among these is the dialectic implied in the title of the following section between Bahrain as a model case of group conflict in the rentier state—as the Platonic idea of the failed oil state—and Bahrain as a case that is simply sui generis.

In the former instance, we may imagine Bahrain as a contested rentier state whose internal dynamics apply in degrees to the other Gulf nations according to the extent of group division having arisen there either exogenously by chance of history or endogenously as a result of exclusionary allocative policy. The other GCC states, then, while less perfect forms than Bahrain, share its underlying potentiality and so remain of the same class of state. That Qatar thus fails to exhibit the sort of popular political agitation born of sectarian wrangling so evident in Bahrain, then, is so largely by the historical accident that its national population is both small and by Gulf standards quite homogenous. The central upshot of this interpretation is its admission that the insights gleaned from the case of Bahrain necessarily inform the study of other rentier states.

 

5 Rentier Theory and Rentier Reality

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MORE THAN SIMPLY offer empirical evidence of a general sectarian political disagreement in Bahrain, the present chapter seeks to evaluate the specific theoretical arguments elaborated thus far in explanation of the larger case of Bahrain—the case of the failed rentier state, unable to buy its way to political quiet. It aims to understand both how the state distributes economic benefits at the individual level as well as the political payoff of these allocations from the standpoint of the regime. What factors make Bahrainis more likely to receive the rentier benefits of citizenship, that is to say, and to what extent do economic circumstances even determine citizens’ political attitudes and behaviors in the first place? In answering these questions, the analysis to follow also serves the greater purpose of revealing how far longstanding assumptions about individual political behavior in the Arab Gulf states accord with the reported views and actions of real-life Gulf Arab citizens.

 

6 Political Diversification in the Age of Regime Insecurity

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IN LATE APRIL 2011, six weeks into a brutal period of martial law that effectively ended the existential threat to the regime posed by the February 14th uprising, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman took the opportunity to thank the Bahraini people—government supporters, that is—“for their honourable mobilization against wicked plots,” and “for standing united as a bulwark defending their country against subversive conspiracies.” Speaking on state radio, he said, “The recent unrest has revealed the genuine mettle of citizens and revealed to the world the unity between people and the leadership in times of adversity.”1 For the premier, the affection was both genuine and personal, as his political head was atop the list of demonstrators’ demands.

The month prior, Bahraini Sunnis had followed protesters into the streets—not to support the Shi‘a- and secular-led movement but to help ensure it did not gain further traction. Mass pro-government rallies based at the Al-Fatih Mosque, namesake of the ruling family’s famed conqueror, promised to preserve “al-baḥrayn al-khalīfiyya”: Bahrain of the Al Khalifa. Before long this counterrevolution, which rivaled in numbers that of the opposition camp at the Pearl Roundabout, took on a more confrontational character, with armed loyalist mobs standing side by side with riot police in skirmishes with protesters. Sunni-Shi‘i clashes at schools, on the campus of Bahrain’s main public university, and in the streets threatened to culminate in open sectarian conflict.2

 

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