HISTORY and geography determine the relationships between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The two countries are proximate to each other and many Saudis and Bahrainis have familial relations. It was and still normal to see Bahraini nationals living and working in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. This has become part of everyone's history in this part of our country.
Bahrain has long been known among the Gulf's inhabitants as a modern and liberal society, even way before the discovery of oil in the 1940s, and the subsequent boom in oil prices in the 1970s. Bahrain was a British colony and gained independence on Aug. 15, 1971. The British were practically running the civil services, including security and traffic systems. Subsequently the English language dominated the management system and the Bahraini social life. So, Bahrainis' first exposure to Western lifestyle and the English language was through the British, and many of them spoke their language.
Those British traditions inherited by Bahrainis proved to be economically practical, specifically for Western companies, who were engaged in mega projects in the oil industry and the construction sectors, since early oil exploration in Saudi Arabia, and eventually in the rest of the Arab Gulf countries in the 1970s. Moreover, Bahrain has become a regional trade center, involving maritime agencies, offshore banks and other international trade business.
Over the years, Bahrain became a tourist attraction for Westerners and others from neighboring countries. Bahrain receives millions of visitors every year, and the total number of visitors reached eight million in 2008. Considering its small area — with a length of 34 miles and a width of 11 miles — and absence of natural resources or advanced industry, this island can be described as an economically thriving country that has a GDP of $ 31.101 billion and per capita income of $ 27.556.
However, many Saudis and Bahrainis sometimes wonder whether Bahrain is still nostalgically connected to their history or is drifting away. Since the outbreak of Iranian revolution, Bahrain has not been the same, specifically the Bahraini Shiites. Most Saudis did not distinguish between Bahraini Sunnis or Shiites, who were working in the Eastern Province. Both were considered as part of the local Saudi community.
Now, that affinity is not as strong as in the past. Bahraini Shiites are engaged in clamoring over victimization and presenting themselves to the world, particularly Westerners, as victims of allegedly oppressive political regime. They have succeeded. The characteristics of Bahrain as being an international trade center and a place of tourist attraction, provided Bahrainis with an opportunity to learn and speak the English language, exposed them to Western lifestyles and modes of interacting and communicating with Westerners. Their relatively less restrictive religious traditions also permitted male and female Shiites to socialize and communicate with Westerners. In addition to using those social skills, Shiites use their computer skills to convey their alleged grievances to Western journalists and human rights groups in English and give them their version of the story. Hence, communication with Westerners take both direct or indirect forms. The direct form is through establishing personal relationships with journalists covering events in the Gulf region while the indirect communication is via the Internet, including e-mails, Facebook, twitter, and other social media outlets.
Those social media outlets are inundated with stories of alleged victimization of Shiites, human rights issues, as well as call for social movements. Subsequently, many journalists become convinced by their stories and present them as human rights violations. In February 2011, Bahraini Shiites marched in a pro-democracy protests, taking advantage of the Arab Spring that swept many Arab countries and oppressive regimes, namely the former rulers of Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and now Syria.
These protests are misleading the international community who see it with a wrong perspective. First, it compares those oppressive regimes with Bahraini rulers, and this is an unfair comparison. Second, while peoples' participation in the government and the decision-making process in countries hit by Arab Spring is virtually non-existent, the protests in Bahrain call for democracy as if it has kept its people away from political participation, which is a call that would resonate with Western governments and media. Finally, these protests are compared with mayhem that took place in Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, and this is again illogical and an unfair comparison.
These Shiite protests continued since lifting of emergency law on June 2011. The number of such weekly protests reached 88. These continuous demonstrations led the Bahraini government to ban protests inside the capital Manama city to avoid disruption in the flow of traffic, government work and business activities. The Shiite protesters, however, defied the ban. Now, finally, the Bahraini government has banned all protests.
The protests Al-Wefag party is carrying out will only hamper development in Bahrain, and the prolongation of the current demos might expose the country to security threats. Bahrain's economy is heavily dependent on banking services and tourism. Protests in Manama will chase away foreign investors and discourage tourists from visiting Bahrain. Hence, the Bahraini government would be deprived of the much-needed financial resources to carry out development and services.
Moreover, Bahrain hosts a vital US naval base in the Middle East, and protests make every party involved uneasy. Now, the Shiites' case is confused. Do they protest for democracy, grievances, or both?
What Al-Wefag must know in clear terms is that the Bahraini form of government is a constitutional monarchy that permits the people to participate in the political and the decision-making process regarding their affairs, through National Assembly (Legislature), Upper house (Consultative Council) and Lower house (Council of Representatives). This arrangement engages people in the political process; hence, it is a functional form of government
Additionally, the Bahraini government and the opposition must come together to address all grievances with respect to jobs, housing, education, medical care and social services. Workable and long-term solutions ought to come out of their discussions. The Shiite Bahraini affinity with Iran should not hamper the progress of the entire Middle East.
n Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan is a Saudi academician based in Riyadh. This article is
exclusive to Arab News.