What Lies Beneath: Bahrain’s “New Citizens” Fuel Unrest

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If you want to know more about one of the fundamental issues at the center of Bahrain’s protest movement, it might be worth taking a look at some of the Pakistani newspapers. Today’s Tribune is running a story about a recruitment drive in Pakistan for Bahrain’s security forces. To be sure, there is nothing new about how the Gulf States import labor—from the UAE to Qatar the ratio of immigrants to citizens can be as high as three to one. Bahrain is no different. But Bahrain’s Shia majority sees something more sinister at work when it comes to bringing in Pakistani (or Jordanian, or Syrian or Yemeni) immigrants to fill the ranks of the nation’s security forces: they are all Sunnis, and they are all offered a fast track to citizenship.

Ibrahim Sharif, a parliamentarian and a human rights campaigner (and a Sunni, though he prefers not to be reduced to a sectarian identity) estimates that over the past decade, some 60,000 foreign Sunnis have been offered citizenship. An economist and statistician by training, Sharif came up with that number by examining natural growth rates and population increases. “If you look at census statistics over past twenty years the Shia population has a faster growth rate. But the make up of the population has not changed significantly,” says a Bahrain-based diplomat. “So it’s not like they are trying to bring in enough Sunnis to dominate, but they are trying to naturalize enough numbers to maintain the status quo.”

No real figures are publicly available, and other estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000, but even at the most conservative count, it would still have a significant impact on a population of half a million Bahrainis. So what is gained from this Sunnification campaign? Popular support for the royal family, which is Sunni, posits Sharif. “It means the government wants to bring in loyalty from outside. The social base of the Al Khalifa regime is thin. In order to widen it they have to import support.” And what better way to ensure loyalty than to bring in foreign labor and offer them jobs, housing, medical care and ultimately citizenship in a country whose GDP per person blows their own native per capita out of the water?

“If Sunnis were demanding their rights in Pearl Roundabout, then the government would be giving in to them,” grumbled Ridha, a teacher. “But Sunnis don’t have these problems. They have housing, they have jobs and they are in the BDF [Bahrain Defense Force].”

When I was reporting on Bahrain’s protests in February, demonstrators often complained to me that the riot police firing on them didn’t even speak Arabic. They say that the government uses foreigners in the riot police because they are less likely to have divided loyalties. But others point out that few Bahrainis would want the job for the exact same reason. And it’s not like foreign soldiers have an easy go of it – some have been firebombed, and one was actually pulled out of his car by a would-be lynch mob.  So while there are some legitimate grievances, there is also an underlying sentiment of resentment and racism. Still, according to the US state department 2009 Human Rights report less than one percent of new recruits in the armed forces were Shia. And while the Ministry of Interior increased efforts to recruit Shia into the unarmed security agencies such as traffic and community policing, those positions are paid poorly in comparison.

Another problem is integration—the “new citizens” as they are often referred to by native Bahrainis (a more derogatory “new passports” is also used) live in isolated communities and are rarely offered language and cultural immersion courses. While the numbers of immigrants has grown, existing infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, has not. Bahrainis are well known as the most welcoming and generous in the Gulf, but the recent conflict has put a strain on the national characteristic. “I teach the children of these new citizens,” Amal Mohammad, a teacher at the protests told me. “And they say thanks by killing our children?”

Of course, from a human rights angle, its great that at least one Gulf country is offering full benefits to imported labor. In other countries, like Qatar, it takes a personal intervention from the King to gain citizenship no matter what service you provide the country. But in a way, that’s the problem in Bahrain as well. There is no transparency in the process, just a lot of estimates, speculation and rumor. And these days, rumor is a powerful fuel for unrest.