In an April 4 commentary published by the Carnegie Endowment from Peace, for example ("Bahrain: Between the United States and Saudi Arabia"), we find the following note:
The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75 percent in the past to about 65 percent at present—but these figures are imprecise.And yesterday in the New York Post:
Shiites account for 75 percent of the population -- but for only 14 of the parliament's 40 members.Six days ago in the Bloomberg news:
Shiites make up about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population and many retain cultural and family ties with Iran as well as with Shiites in Saudi Arabia.The New York Times three weeks ago:
The Farhan family is poor, like many in Sitra and like many of the 70 percent of the country that is Shiite.And in Lee Smith's recent (and highly-recommended) article in The Weekly Standard:
The opposition says that it is not a sectarian uprising, but a political reform movement, and points to members of the country’s Sunni minority (roughly 35 percent of the population) who support their demands.A long story short, then: no one knows exactly what proportion of Bahrain's population is Shi'i (or Sunni), an ambiguity complicated only further by the government's decade-long program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis for work in the police and military. Once but a rumor, al-tajnis al-siyasi (or "political naturalization," as it is termed by opponents) is today widely-accepted fact. (See the Carnegie Endowment piece referenced above, for example.) Because Bahrain's Sunni-Shi'i balance is not simply a product of nature, therefore, there is no obvious way to estimate it based on, say, natural birth or immigration rates.
Fortunately, among the other insights afforded by my 2009 Bahrain mass political survey is a much more accurate estimate of the country's current ethno-religious demographics. So we may now cease quoting the "estimated 65% to 75% Shi'a" figure; for it is wrong.
First, I will repeat for the uninitiated what you will learn elsewhere in this blog: that in early 2009 I conducted as part of my dissertation on ethnic conflict and political mobilization in the Arab Gulf the first-ever mass political survey of Bahraini citizens, administering the widely-used Arab Democracy Barometer survey instrument that aims to measure the political attitudes and orientations of ordinary citizens in the Arab world. This same instrument has been administered to date also in Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Kuwait, Algeria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The survey was conducted based on a nationally-representative sample of 500 Bahraini households, which were interviewed by local field interviewers. (Of the sample of 500, 435 interviews were actually completed; see point #5 below). For more information on the sample, see here.
As for the findings regarding Bahrain's Sunni-Shi'i balance, then, we see this below. Bahraini Shi'is comprised 58% of my survey sample, Sunnis 42%--a ratio far different from that commonly cited. (Note that these categories do not differentiate between Arab and Persian Shi'a, Hawala, tribal vs. non-tribal Sunnis, and so on.) The estimated sampling error is 0.0238, or about 2.4%. So, the 95% confidence interval for the estimate of the Sunni proportion is approximately 37.7% to 47.0%, or 42.4% ± 1.96 * 2.4%. Correspondingly, the 95% confidence interval for the Shi'a proportion would be 57.6 ± 1.96 * 2.4%, or between 52.9% and 62.3%.
Or, with 95% confidence intervals:
I appreciate that this conclusion that (at least as of early 2009) Shi'is comprise less than 60% of the Bahraini population is likely to be controversial--and, given what it implies, it probably should be--so I will attempt to preempt some of the more obvious questions and criticisms now.
- Why should we trust your sample?
This has already been covered here. The short version: the 500-household sample is nationally-representative, and there is no reason to think it would have been manipulated. If 500 data points seems small, recall that Bahrain is about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., and its citizen population according to the 2010 census is just 568,339. So our population-to-sample ratio is around 1,137:1. To achieve this ratio in the U.S., for example, you would need to interview over 270,000 people.
- But how do you know if a Bahraini is a Sunni or a Shi'i? You're not even a Bahraini!
All interviews were conducted by local fieldworkers, who are more than capable on the basis of location, language/accent (see Clive Holes' work on dialect in Bahrain; or Lee Smith's series in The Weekly Standard), and other cues to determine whether a given respondent is a Sunni or Shi'i. Indeed, as one gathers from the map above, there are but a few places in Bahrain where there can be any question of ethnic membership simply on the basis of location alone. For reasons of sensitivity, however, individuals were not asked directly. If field interviewers were unsure (as happened in several cases with respondents of Persian background), they simply marked ethnicity as unknown. These cases (3 only) are excluded from the proportion reported above.
- Why does your estimate differ from the standard figure of between 65-75% Shi'a.
The most obvious answer we have already alluded to above, namely that this figure fails to account for the high rate of Sunni naturalization of the previous decade or more.
- But this just can't be right!
Well, if it helps at all, I am not the first person to make this point. In a conversation with a well-known Bahraini political leader (a Sunni no less), he warned me against believing this standard proportion, saying:
"By the way, you mentioned that you believe ... that [the] Shia population may represent some 70% of the population. You should take into consideration that up to 20,000 Bahrainis may be Saudis residing in Dammam and other Saudi cities and are used as a voting reservoir. In my opinion the population mix is closer to 40-60% given the fast pace of naturalization. ...
The end result [of the naturalization program] is some 100,000 [naturalized] citizens in the last 10 years, more than 90% of which are Sunni (in 2001 thousands of second and third generation Bahrainis of Persian Shia origin were naturalized). The effect may have brought the ratio closer to the original 1970 balance of 60-40%. I believe the project is not complete and it is likely naturalization is still taking place at a rate of 10,000 per year. Compare this to Canada and Australia, the two developed economies with the highest naturalization rates, and theirs are around 0.75% for Canada and 0.5% for Australia. And these are countries that have lots of land for people; Bahrain is already too crowded and the land too expensive for anyone to afford, and we’re bringing in even more people."
As evidence of this rate of around 10,000 per year, he said:
"In September 2007 Sheikh Ali Salman asked what was the population of Bahrain to the Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid, and his answer indicated that around 60,000 people were naturalized between then and 2001. This is based on the fact that the average population growth rate for the preceding years was around 2.4%; however, the Interior Minister’s figure indicated a jump in the annual growth rate to about 4.2% from 2001 to 2007, meaning there was a 1.8% naturalization rate during these years. This equals out to around 9,000 citizens per year."
Of course, this Bahraini is not the only one to acknowledge or complain of the government's naturalization policy. In the article published by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace mentioned already, for example, Marina Ottoway notes that:
"The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75 percent in the past to about 65 percent at present—but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. While the government has never admitted the existence of such a program, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants—estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure. What is clear, however, is that many of the new citizens were recruited into the security forces and have become the hated face of the repression."
Thus the issue of "political naturalization" is no political bogeyman used by the Shi'a opposition to rally supporters. For one thing, its existence is now common knowledge; for another, it is not just Shi'a who worry about its effects.
- But you only completed 435 interviews from the 500 household sample. Maybe your figure is skewed.
Perhaps, although the remaining interviews are randomly-distributed so there should be minimal influence on the aggregate estimate of the Sunni-Shi'i ratio. That is to say, the 65 remaining interviews we failed to complete because my funding and residence visa in Bahrain were running out, not because we were systematically unable to reach certain respondents. (In fact, looking at the locations of the uncompleted interviews, they are probably more concentrated in Sunni-populated areas than in Shi'i-dominated areas.) Finally, even if we were to say for the sake of argument that, for example, ALL of the remaining interviews were somehow Shi'is, our overall estimate of Bahrain's Shi'a population increases only 5 percentage points to around 63%, which even then is still lower than the typical 65-75% estimate.
In the aftermath of the violent crackdown in Bahrain following the arrival of the GCC's "Peninsula Shield" force several weeks ago, media coverage of the continuing conflict there has all but disappeared amid competing crises in Japan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This lack of attention has given the false impression that Bahrain's political struggle has somehow run its course, resolving itself through who knows what means. Yet as evidenced by my survey finding here, the crisis has been brewing for no short while in Bahrain, its leaders having long ago taken, as it were, preventative measures in their program of al-tajnis. One should therefore not be lulled by the current lack of press into thinking that it is likely to end soon.
Note: to see some preliminary substantive results of the survey, go here.