For the past six months, I've lived in a country nicknamed the Las Vegas of the Middle East, replete with neon lights, clubs and prostitutes. But I've also been living in a country of sandy villages, lined with black flags and small mosques. This is Bahrain. The country's name means "two seas" in Arabic, but it might as well be a metaphor for its division between two sects.
After the first protester died on February 14, the existing tensions between the Sunnis and the Shia have heightened. Some observers say this clash has its roots in a geo-religious power struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia; the more likely story is one of tension between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
The country is rife with rumors that every Shia household has either a Hezbollah flag or a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini hanging in the living room. But as hard as journalists tried to press at Pearl Roundabout, the locus of the demonstrations, protesters just shrugged when asked about Iran's influence. "This isn't about Iran. This is about me being able to feed my children," one woman said.
On Monday night, there were allegedly 300,000 people protesting around the Grand Mosque in favor of the government. Only 20 minutes away, a hundred thousand, if not more (no Bahraini newspaper has provided an estimate), were protesting against the regime.
Shias will say that the pro-government rally was half comprised of wealthy Sunnis who benefit from the status quo, made clear from their accessories of Gucci sunglasses and Hummers. The rest of the rally-goers were Sunnis from Pakistan, India, Yemen, Syria and other countries, speed-tracked to citizenship by the government to increase the Sunni percentage of the population.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, there has been a palpable fear among Sunnis that Bahrain is one step away from becoming a mini-Iran, where women are required by law to wear black chadors and the only alcohol to be found is fermented in the neighbor's bathtub.
An allegiance between Bahrain and religiously strident Iran is the Sunni minority's worst fear -- much of the country's wealth is dependent on its vices. The money generated from Saudi weekend tourists looking for a good time consists of nearly 25% of the economy according to the U.S. Embassy. If democracy comes to Bahrain, the majority Shia population could, conceivably, end all the fun and harm the economy.
My co-worker, a Sunni and a former financial trader, thinks that democracy is a good thing -- "Arabs need reform and modernity; in thousands of years, not even one word has been added to the Arabic dictionary" -- but she just applied for papers to move to Australia. If democracy comes to Bahrain, she doesn't want to be here for it.
The lynchpin that is keeping this country the way it is -- the home of a Formula One race track, the base of the U.S.'s Fifth Naval Fleet and a favored place in the Gulf for business meetings -- is the monarchy.
The royal family has two faces, however. The first is busy promoting the country as "Business-Friendly Bahrain," as its visa stamp reads. The second is systematically and deliberately oppressing a portion of its population, largely because of fears of an Iranian coup.
In 2001, King Hamad put forward the National Action Charter, a referendum that signified political reform and his wish to distance himself from his father's reign of terror against dissidents in the '90s. The U.S. applauded him for his efforts in correcting his family's legacy of human rights abuse.
Since then, the regime has painstakingly dismantled any serious political opposition through cleverly-placed veto powers, arrests, torture, and other dictatorial tricks. In late January, police blasted a 15-year-old Shia boy in the face with birdshot. Things like that happen all the time.
The main Shia demand on February 14, at the outset of the protests, was simple: an elected Prime Minister, rather than an appointed one. This was a reasonable request. But once the mercenary Sunni riot police fired rubber bullets at sleeping men, women and children in Pearl Roundabout, there have been cries for the whole regime to step down.
It is unlikely that the monarchy will fall any time soon (if it even comes close, Saudi Arabia will allegedly roll its own tanks over the causeway), but the government could assuage the situation and keep the country from civil war, or from grinding to a complete stop as the numbers in Pearl Roundabout grow daily.
The recent release of 23 Shia political activists is a step in the right direction, but the most important thing the government can do is focus on closing the income gap by boosting its human capital development and training programs, like Tamkeen. Forget about the Iran Boogeyman and bring in the opposition for genuine dialogue and debate. The more the monarchy alienates the opposition, the more radical and eastward-leaning the opposition will become.
Regardless of the tactics the monarchy takes, it needs to start soon. It cannot just keep its finger plugged in the dike, or else the sea may just well come crashing in.