Friday, March 25, 2011

Depicting Division

As I've mentioned elsewhere, in 2009 I conducted a mass political survey of ordinary Bahraini citizens, a survey based on a nationally-representative sample of almost 500 Bahraini households spread across the entire island, from al-Zallaq to Samaheej. As far as I know, this is the first independent, national-level, socio-political survey to have been administered in Bahrain since Fuad Khuri's work in the 1970s referenced in his book "Tribe and State in Bahrain."

The survey itself was rather lengthy, far too long to reproduce to any extent here. The results of it form the basis of my dissertation, "Ethnic Conflict and Political Mobilization in the Arab Gulf," and will be published officially sometime in the fall.

In any case, I thought it would be illustrative to share some survey results now, particularly as the insights from the survey project are as relevant now as they are ever likely to be.

The first illustration depicts the extent of Sunni-Shi'i division among ordinary Bahraini citizens regarding the question of government satisfaction. In particular, respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with overall government performance on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 meant "entirely unsatisfied" and 10 meant "completely satisfied." The Arabic is:

على فرض وجود مقياس من 1-10 لقياس مدى رضائك على أداء حكومة البحرين، بحيث 1 تعني أنك غير راضٍ على الإطلاق عن أدائها، و10 تعنى أنك راض ٍجداً على أدائها، إلى أي درجة أنت راضٍ عن أداء الحكومة؟

The picture that emerges, then, is one of near perfect ethnic polarization: whereas some 90% of Sunnis report being more satisfied than unsatisfied (i.e., report a score of 5 or above), an almost equal proportion (82%) of Shi‘a express exactly the reverse opinion, with a full 36% replying that they are “not at all satisfied” (“غير راضٍ على الإطلاق”). Thus, at the same time that a clear one-third of Bahraini Shi‘a assign the government the lowest possible grade of overall satisfaction, less than one in ten Sunnis supplies anything more negative than a neutral evaluation of government performance.

An even starker contrast emerges concerning the issue of human rights violations in Bahrain. Respondents were asked to what extent non-respect for human rights in the country is justified in order to maintain national security, today a timely question today indeed. In Arabic:

إلی أي درجة تعتقد أن عدم احترام حقوق الإنسان في البحرين للحفاظ علی الأمن مبرّر؟

At the same time that a combined 64% of Bahrain's Sunnis respond that sacrificing human rights in the name of security is justified to a “high” (25% of respondents) or “moderate” degree (39%), the vast majority (69%) of Shi‘is reject this notion outright, deeming it “not at all” justified, compared to less than one-quarter of Sunnis. Once again, then, we have a clear visual indication of the extent of ethnic division in Bahrain regarding the proper handling of the country’s political opponents and others whose “human rights” would be set aside in the execution of "public safety."

In the end, then, while Bahrain's Sunni-Shi'i gulf in political opinion is perhaps not surprising given the events of previous weeks, it is useful to know the exact extent of this division, and of course to understand its causes.

A common refrain of those analyzing the events unfolding now in Bahrain is that the country’s political conflict, if outwardly one of Sunni against Shi‘i, is rooted actually in the much more mundane—and, for U.S. and Arab leaders, much less worrying—problem of socio-economic inequality; that Bahrain’s Arab Shi‘a tend to be poorer, are disproportionately excluded from public sector jobs, and thus simply have more cause for political complaint than their Sunni counterparts. Were this underlying economic disparity to be rectified through more equitable government policy, so the argument continues, it would go far toward eliminating Bahrain’s apparent, but ultimately epiphenomenal, ethnic divide.

As it turns out, however, there is strong evidence--not least in the results of my Bahrain survey--that this is not the case.

Go to Part 2 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثاني) —>


  1. "As it turns out, however, there is strong evidence--not least in the results of my Bahrain survey--that this is not the case"
    Please explain in simple English what u mean?

  2. you should have asked the economic question, educational one too and lastly degree to secularism or religious --- would be interesting to your analysis --- Bahrain is not one or two dimensional which is what makes it an 'interesting' subject to study from your perspective and a real travesty in the breakdown of people's communication and understanding skills...

  3. Hello Isla and others,

    Perhaps I should have explained the graphics a bit better. These are just two questions of about 100 or so that were asked. The interviews themselves took nearly an hour. These questions included political, religious, economic, social, and demographic questions, so it is certainly possible to separate individuals by economic/religious status, etc. For my dissertation, for example, this makes up a large portion of the analysis.

    For the purposes of this article, though, I did not separate respondents into too many economic/religious categories because I thought it would make things too complicated.

    But in fact the pattern we see here is not influenced in a strong way by economics. For the question about overall government satisfaction, for example, wealthier individuals do no necessarily give higher ratings. And the Sunni-Shi'i difference does NOT disappear once you control for economics status.

    On the other hand, the Sunni-Shi'i difference is even FURTHER increased as the religiosity of respondents increases. More religious Sunnis tend to give higher government approval ratings, more religious Shi'a lower ratings.

    Perhaps I should write a new article demonstrating what I mean.

  4. as bahraini the survey and the data and graphs seems to be done in fair and reflect the actual reality, I hope i can read more of the reasercher work and hope the researcher the success, that makes me believe more in the role of such acadmic institutes and scientific and professionalism of those internationally repute university, i hope i can do it myself. Good Luck

  5. Hi, I was just wondering
    - How are you defining 'ethnicity'? Because as i'm sure you know there are Persian Shia (Ajam), Arab Shia (Baharna), and then Sunni tribal families, Arab Sunni, and Arabs from Iran Sunni (Howala) ...

    - Also, did you interview any of the other (tiny) minorities i.e. Bahaii, Christian, Jewish?

    - What about people who self-identify as politically secular?

    Interesting results, but in as much as this post shows it raises some skepticisim since you seem to have framed people into Shia-Sunni categories and so the answers file neatly into that division.

  6. 'Ethnicity' is used in order to avoid the term 'sect,' which traditionally carries connotations of religious heresy that some would likely find offensive.

    As I mentioned in the introduction, no specific individuals were targeted for inclusion in the survey. The interviews were conducted on the basis of a representative sample 500 Bahraini households. Note that I did not personally conduct the interviews.

    As for your more specific question, what is called here "Shi'i" ethnicity includes Ajam and Baharna; "Sunni" ethnicity Hawala, tribal Sunnis, Salafis, etc. This may not be perfect in that it lumps some categories together that ideally we might like to analyze separately. However it was decided that it would be impossible to ask people these more intrusive questions.

  7. Hi,

    I think this is really interesting and I am glad someone is doing work of this kind.

    I would like to respectfully question the assertion that the views are not influenced by economics. I think what you are really showing, through the data you present, is that the respondents' views do not seem to be be vastly affected by their own personal level of wealth. That's not quite the same thing. Views on economics are not limited to views about one's own income or wealth. An individual's judgement of the performance of a government may also be affected by their perception of the overall success of that government in creating an equitable, fair or just economic system.

    For instance, last year I met many upper middle class businessmen in Egypt who criticised the Egyptian government for presiding over a period where the gap between rich and poor had grown.

    Likewise, if a wealthy Shia businessperson in Bahrain identifies with a wider community of Shia, and believes that most of that group faces economic marginalization, they may well express a negative view of the government's overall performance.

    There are, of course, questions to be asked about why people choose to identify with particular groups (any of which only represents one aspect of an individual's identity).

  8. Thanks for your comment. My explanation of the data may make more sense in the context of the larger topic of my dissertation, which is the prevailing rentier theory of politics in the Arab Gulf. This theory posits an individual-level relationship between personal economy and government support--i.e., that individuals who are personally well-off are "bought off" so to speak politically. My project in Bahrain, then, is not so much a study of Bahrain per se but the notion that in rent-based economies individuals are easily pacified politically simply on a material basis.

  9. P.S. As you might guess, then, my dissertation uses survey data from Bahrain (and Iraq) to critique this idea.

  10. Justin - this looks like amazing work. Any chance you will be publishing more of your data soon? Or contributing to the Arab Barometer project?


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