Sunday, May 27, 2012

The (Sectarian) Politics of Public-Sector Employment in Bahrain

A cartoon posted to an opposition forum depicts a representative of the “Ministry of Sectarianism” distributing “government jobs” to “unemployed graduates” “of the Sunni sect” and “clerical positions” to “those of the Shi‘i sect”

As usual, I am currently occupied with various writing commitments, one of which is a paper for the upcoming Gulf Research Meeting, 11-14 July at the University of Cambridge. Meant to be a frank and open discussion among Gulf scholars, hopefully my panel on youth unemployment in the Gulf will turn out to be such--otherwise, it will be a long few days.

My paper, titled "The (Sectarian) Politics of Public-Sector Employment in Bahrain," argues that present analyses of the problem of unemployment in the region--youth or otherwise--consistently fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room: the political prerequisites for employment, especially in the public sector. From the introduction:
Analysis of the problem of youth unemployment in the Arab states of the Gulf centers overwhelmingly, as of course it should, around the region’s unique political economy. The continued influx of foreign workers; the persistence of traditional gender roles that see women disproportionately excluded from the labor market; a resource-funded welfare state whose promises of government employment and other material benefits offer few incentives for educational achievement or indeed work itself—these and other structural features of Gulf societies are used to explain why, despite sustained economic growth and job creation that are the envy of neighboring Arab countries, youth unemployment here remains extensive even by Middle East standards.

Given this wide recognition that the region’s youth unemployment problem is rooted at least in part in the very institutional characteristics of the Gulf state, it is curious that another prominent feature of the Gulf landscape—the existence of social and political divisions on the basis of ascriptive group distinctions such as religion, ethnicity, tribal background, and so on—is conspicuously absent from such explanations. Yet in a different sense this omission is not at all surprising, for it reflects a prevailing conception of employment in the Gulf, including public-sector employment, as politically-agnostic.

“Every citizen” of a rent-based economy, tells Beblawi in his seminal study of rentierism, “has a legitimate aspiration to be a government employee; in most cases this aspiration is fulfilled.” By establishing an entanglement of bloated government ministries; subsidizing large, state-owned conglomerates; and spending huge sums on disproportionately large and well-equipped militaries, Gulf states can sop up a young populace that is easily disaffected, eager to marry and find housing, and generally college-educated yet nonetheless unprepared (or uninterested) in the private sector. The upshot, so the argument continues, is that the latter will be content to live their days as government pensioners and social welfare recipients, careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. For their part, ruling elites gain a political ally—at worst a self-interest-maximizing, apolitical animal—and need forfeit only a portion of their resource proceeds to guarantee continued enjoyment of the remainder.

In fact, however, the empirical record would indicate that public employment in the Gulf is better conceived as a privilege, extended to those citizens who demonstrate political support for the state (or at least do not demonstrate the opposite), rather than a right afforded to every individual qua citizen. To see the inherent political nature of public-sector employment in the Gulf one need only observe the aftermath of Bahrain’s February 2011 uprising led by the country’s politically-disenfranchised Shi‘a majority. Already by mid-May, more than 2,000 individuals had been fired from public-sector positions for suspicion of having taken part in mass protests in February and March, which authorities deemed an Iranian-backed coup attempt.

This summary termination of Shi‘a employees and beneficiaries extended, inter alia, to government agencies, publicly-owned companies, hospitals, schools, sports clubs, and university scholarship-holders. The response was so sweeping, in fact, that it prompted the U.S.-based AFL-CIO to file a labor rights complaint against the Bahraini government, contending that the firings violated its free trade agreement with the United States. At the urging of an independent commission tasked with investigating the state’s response to the uprising, Bahrain subsequently promised to bring back sacked workers, but few have been reinstated, and those who have were made to accept new contracts featuring downgraded positions and lower wages. Students returning to Bahrain’s only public university were even forced to sign a pledge of loyalty “for the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain represented in His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa.” The two-page document cautioned, “I acknowledge that not signing this document means I do not wish to continue my education at the University of Bahrain.”

Hence, in Bahrain and in other Gulf societies home to ascriptive social cleavages that are politically salient, the state has both the incentive and the ability to base hiring decisions in part or in whole on questions of religious, ethnic, tribal, or other group membership. Especially in light of mounting concern over the regional ambitions of Iran and its presumed support for local Shi‘a political movements, Gulf governments are increasingly wary of employing or otherwise empowering citizens whom they view as open or latent political opponents possibly serving foreign adversaries. As Bahrain’s minister of industry and commerce tellingly admitted during anti-government protests in 2007, “There is a lack of confidence between the ruled and the rulers. It is not unusual. There is a small percentage who do not have loyalty to the state. Sometimes, for good reasons, you have to be careful who you employ.” Fortunately for Gulf rulers, because citizens’ group affiliation is readily-observable via outward markers such as name, dialect, skin color, dress, and so on, this group-based discrimination in hiring is easily accomplished.

Using original, individual-level data from a 500-household mass survey of Bahraini political attitudes undertaken by the author in early 2009, this paper demonstrates that Shi‘i citizens are not only systematically less likely to be employed in Bahrain’s public sector, but they also tend to occupy lower-ranking professional positions when they are employed. For two citizens of identical age, gender, and education level, the probability of government-sector employment (given that one is employed) is predicted to be some 36% higher for a Sunni compared to a Bahraini Shi‘i. The professional discrepancy is estimated at about 15%.

Moreover, the data reveal, whereas 17% of working Sunni males who reported professional data indicated that they worked for the police or armed forces; and whereas 13% of all Sunni households reported at least one member employed in these services, not a single individual from among 127 employed Shi‘i males who offered occupational data reported working for the police or military. The patterns of government-sector employment in Bahrain thus tell a fundamentally different story from the one articulated by rentier theorists, and draw attention to a crucial feature of the Gulf context—social-cum-political divisions along ascriptive group lines—that remains absent from extant analyses of the problem of unemployment in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.
I've posted the full (draft) paper here.

Update: Still busy. In the meantime, see "The March of Bahrain's Hardliners" at the Carnegie Endowment. I disagree with it in places, but still useful.

Update 2: The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs has moved to dissolve the Islamic Action Society ('Amal). More interesting, however, is the language used to justify the move: namely, that 'Amal "follows a marja'iyyah that advocates violence." A clear reference to al-Wifaq and 'Isa Qasim?

Update 3: For those interested, the slides of my conference presentation are available here.


  1. Justin, curious for your thoughts on this piece:

    Are American conservatives drawing their "anything Obama did was wrong" line in the sand?

    1. Not sure that it's even that complex. According to her bio, the writer spent a lot of time at RAND and now is at the Heritage Foundation (though it's not clear from either source that she's actually spent time in Bahrain; but since when is that a qualification?). So presumably this is just a bit of good old fashioned political realism.

  2. Regarding marja~iyyah of Amal...
    I think they refer to Abdul Hadi Al Mudarrisi, who lives in Iraq, and demands the downfall of Bahrain's regime.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.