Bahrain protest - Reuters - 20.2.2011
Thousands of protesters gathering in Pearl Square in the heart of the Bahraini capital of Manama, February 20, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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"You drive through a long desert road, pass a huge bridge and then, as if out of nowhere, a city with green gardens appears, with paved streets lined with villas and palm trees." That's the way in which a U.S. soldier described Bahrain in a letter to his parents.

Pamphlets published by the U.S. Navy go into great detail as to the favors awaiting those serving in Bahrain. You can rent, for a reasonable price, one of many wonderful villas, equipped with either open-air or indoor swimming pools, squash and tennis courts, bowling lanes, hot tubs and saunas.

There's also one of the finest education systems in the Arab world. And if that's not enough, the U.S. government pays a risk-factor bonus worth $150 a-month, along with such perks as "morale and adaptation" vacations to Europe or Thailand, servants, and special bonuses for remote service.

The tiny island which is the home of about a 1.2 million residents – aside from the 6,000 members of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, who also call it home – is indeed a paradise. If you're a Sunni Muslim or a foreigner, that is.

That's because the constitutional monarchy, which is how the island's ruler Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa likes to call it, isn't completely Bahraini. About half its population is made up of foreigners, the biggest community being the country's 290,000 Indian residents, alongside a tiny Jewish minority made up mostly by jewel traders.

Even three out of the king's four wives aren’t Bahraini. Two hail from Qatar, another from Kuwait, with the only members of the local monarchy being the mother of the kingdom's heir to the throne.

Within the Muslim population, 67 percent are Shi'ite, with Sunnis comprising the other 33 percent. This is another reason for recent violent protests in the kingdom, for the king treats the Shi'ite majority like a dangerous minority. When necessary, as was seen in the most recent protests, he also accuses Iran of attempting a Shi'ite overthrow of his country.

It is for those reasons that it wasn't so odd to see that pro-democracy demonstrators at the Pearl Square, most of whom were Shi'ite, pitted against a pro-monarchy demonstration comprised of Indian and Pakistani workers, who were ordered to raise the king's image alongside the kingdom's flag.

However, this isn't necessarily an ethnic dispute. In 2002, three years after assuming power from his father, Khalifa revolutionized the country's constitution, appointed himself king and ordered parliamentary elections be held. That's how Bahrain turned from an Emirate to a kingdom, and not just any kingdom at that: a democratic kingdom.

Elections for regional council heads and mayors were held in May of that year, and in October parliamentary elections were held, forming a house of representatives according to the country's new constitution: 40 representatives (which include only 18 Shi'ite) and an advisory council appointed by the king.

In addition, a constitutional court was formed, which was to judge whether or not the laws legislated by the parliament were in accordance with the country's constitution. It was also decided that men and women would have equal political rights, as well as the prohibition of any discrimination based on race, creed, or gender.

On the face of it, then, it all seems promising and fair. In reality, however, the regime handled itself in a stern and uncompromising manner. Shi'ites could not be appointed to high-ranking government or military positions; the monarchy controls the media and mans about 80 percent of all governmental positions, including the cabinet itself; and while the parliament has the power to fire ministers, such a move would require the king's authorization.

 

The kingdom is protected by a small army of 9,000 soldiers, but the royal family is guarded by internal intelligence, an intricate assortment of forces founded by a British officer by the name of Ian Henderson, who was in charge of suppressing the Mau Mau uprising in 1960s Kenya.

Henderson, whose modus operendi during the Kenyan revolt made him a wanted man in the U.K., is the one who advised the king to import Bedouins from Jordan and Syria in order to balance out the gap between Sunnis and Shi'ites. These new residents were immediately awarded luxury houses, generous grants and, of course, citizenship.

It is this portion of the Bahraini population that is at the center of the Shi'ites' complaints, wishing to even out their rights with those of the "newcomers."

While the king canceled the military courts, whose rulings could not be appealed, the judicial system is still led by one of the king's aides, the one who appointed Egyptian judges for senior positions in the kingdom. These are the same judges responsible for the severe sentences given to opposition members.

Over the weekend, the king offered to hold negotiations with protesters, after his tanks reoccupied the Peal Square. In the meantime, it seems that pro-democracy activists have no other choice. Here even the United States isn't on their side. It is too concerned for its naval base.