Monday, May 6, 2013

Bahrain Re-Opens to (Pseudo-) Academics

Since I'm often compelled here to be the bearer of bad news, today I am happy to report a very positive development indeed, one certain to be welcome to everyone interested in Bahraini politics: the country is now reopen to academic research, even on the most sensitive of subjects. Apparently this decision was taken quite recently, as it was only three weeks ago that I received an e-mail from a researcher having just been barred entry into Bahrain for being "a journalist." But no matter, for we have already an example of the sort of work we can expect moving forward, namely a new empirical study (full .pdf here) of Bahrain's sectarian demographics by one Mitchell A. Belfer, which summarizes "the results of some eighteen months of field research in Bahrain."

If that name Belfer rings a bell, it should.  He is the author of an equally impressive work published last year by his Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, among the flagship publications of the Metropolitan University Prague (est. 2001), titled "The Fourteenth Province: The Irano-Bahraini Conflict in Perspective." This was subsequently parlayed into a Wall Street Journal op-ed of equal rhetorical vigor.

Continuing with the martial theme of the great "Irano-Bahraini Conflict," Belfer's new "policy analysis" is titled "Demographic Warfare," and aims to "falsify" "claims that Bahrain’s Shia community is underrepresented and/or excluded from the advanced elements of Bahrain’s economic life."  To this end, Belfer claims to have undertaken an extensive quantitative analysis of the sectarian demographics of dozens of public agencies and companies, namely
in four main areas of Bahrain’s economy: government (six ministries and five organisations were selected based on the number of employees), high income specialisation areas (the health sector, finance and accounting, information technologies etc), the private sector (the ten most successful companies in Bahrain were selected for investigation) and the banking sector (the five largest bank, in personnel and financial holdings, were selected for this research).
How could someone accomplish such a thing, you ask?  Using marriage certificates -- duh!  Criticizing the "bizarre techniques of unofficial 'census-taking'" (i.e., representative sampling?) employed by some researchers, Belfar explains that there is only "one way to determine (with only a small margin of error) whether a Bahraini national is an adherent of the Sunni or Shia denomination; through an inspection of marriage certificates since these are issued by the religious authorities of each denomination."  Thus, he says, he simply utilizes this previously-ignored source of provenance to determine the sectarian composition across a diverse array of Bahraini institutions.

And when I say "simply" here, that's exactly what I mean.  In fact, nowhere does Belfer describe how he actually goes from (the in principle reasonable idea of) marriage certificates to the extensive statistics he presents.  In describing his methodology he offers but a few lines:
six governmental ministries and five organisations were selected to better grasp the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni Bahrainis. These were selected based on three main criteria: first, that they are considered key agencies for governance and national development, second that the ministries employ more than 1,000 people and the organisations employ more than 300 people so that the research is more reflective, and third, for practical reasons, there was wide access to information in these ministries and organisations.
Thus, one is led to believe that Belfer has taken random samples of employees across dozens of Bahraini companies and ministries--thousands of individuals, assuming at least a few hundred from each organization to make the sample representative--asked the selected employees in each case to bring their marriage certificates to him for inspection, and then recorded their denomination. Apart from the irony that this sort of sampling is precisely the sort of "bizarre unofficial census-taking" that Belfer dismisses in his introduction; and apart from the question of unmarried workers, one wonders at the luck of this seemingly obscure Czech-based researcher granted "wide access to information" while others are turned back at the airport for no more than uttering the name Bahrain.

The possible explanations, accordingly, would seem to be three: either his data and study are entirely fabricated; or the study was done with the explicit blessing/sponsorship of the government; or both. The latter two alternatives would help explain (setting aside the question of his previous "work") his explicit aim here of trying to "falsify" claims of discrimination against Bahraini Shi'a, which is an odd aim for an academic study. If his purpose were purely intellectual, presumably he would have aimed simply to determine the actual sectarian composition of various Bahraini agencies and industries, not to falsify any particular argument.

On the other hand, the substantive results of his analysis are, surprisingly, not surprising.  Far from it, most would seem to confirm general perceptions in Bahrain regarding the relative over-representation of Sunnis and Shi'is, respectively, across various sectors of government and the economy.  That Shi'a are, for example, over-represented in the Ministries of Health and Municipalities but under-represented in the Ministry of Finance, is quite believable and in line with popular perceptions.  Likewise, that Shi'a dominate the staff of ALBA and BAPCO but not at the airport seems far from controversial.

In fact, then, one begins to suspect that Belfer's statistics--which apart from the Justice Ministry do not include data on sovereign ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Defense, and so on, nor on the police or military--are probably real, originating perhaps from the Central Informatics Organization or some other statistical authority.   One may recall, for instance, a July 2011 Al-Jazeera report, a report the Bahraini government vociferously denied, about a claimed government study into the sectarian composition of the country.  Moreover, government cooperation would also explain how Belfer actually acquired the data, given the impossibility of his purported methodology.

Whatever the case, the purpose of the Belfer paper is clear: to counter perceptions--local but probably mainly Western perceptions--of employment discrimination against Shi'a citizens.  Of course, insofar as the main grievance of Shi'a is not simply employment discrimination per se but disproportionate exclusion from politically-important positions--indeed, from precisely those ministries (and security services) not included in Belfer's report--it does not directly address this issue.

Yet the bigger problem with the paper would seem to be one for the government itself.  That is, what exactly is the lesson here? And to whom is it directed? Though the article's main audience is obviously Western, still if I were the Bahraini government I don't know if I would want to be advertising the fact that, in reality, Shi'a citizens seem to be doing better than Sunnis in many industries and agencies. For, as my own survey results showed, the political views and behavior of ordinary Shi'a Bahrainis are not systematically related to their economic status; those of Sunnis, by contrast, are, and one would think the state would be cognizant of this.

Thanks may be in order, therefore, to Mitchell A. Belfer, who seems to have substantiated the primary complaint of many of the government's fiercest critics: that Bahraini Sunnis are poorly rewarded for their staunch support of the government, which continues to patronize exactly those who oppose it.

Update: Speaking of random "scholars" given unfettered access to Bahrain, here's one for you: Moroccan freelance journalist Souad Mekhennet, now a Nieman Fellow based at Harvard University, has apparently conducted a lengthy interview with King Hamad in Bahrain. One can infer the gist of the article from its novel title, "Terrorism Has No Religion." In any case, there must be a good story behind this.

Update 2: Perhaps we're getting closer to the mystery of Mitchell Belfer's demographic "study." Friday's edition of Akhbar al-Khaleej featured an extended treatment of his work, including a front-page blurb with the headline "Academic study from Prague University: Opposition Societies Lying [or Liars]: No economic or employment discrimination between Shi'a and Sunna in Bahrain."  This was followed by a full-page treatment in the "local news" section, which you can read below:

Update 3: An alternative theory: perhaps Mekhennet and Belfer are angling for Bahraini citizenship?  Still in London, King Hamad announces that 240 British citizens will be given Bahraini nationality. Now there's some political naturalization for you!

Update 4: Al-Wifaq is reporting that the home of Sh. 'Isa Qasim was "raided" late last night by "tens" of security officers. As far as I can recall, this marks the first time that the government has taken physical action -- threats of legal action, of course, have been numerous -- against the ranking Shi'i marja' in Bahrain. (Apparently he was not home at the time of the raid.) According to a travel warning I received yesterday from the U.S. Embassy in Manama, there were already two separate rallies planned for today, Friday: one along al-Budaiyi' Rd (i.e., not far from 'Isa Qasim's home in Diraz) and one in the Manama Suq. This newest escalation will likely only redouble the enthusiasm of demonstrators.


  1. Actually, if, as often cited in media that the Bahraini national population is comprised of 70% shia (despite nationalization of mercenary sunnis from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria, and terminating the citizenship of prominent shia who criticize the regime) these graphs still support the view that shia are unrepresented in these Ministries and organizations...

    1. Hi,

      A few things:

      1) The 70% figure is probably far too generous. (And, depending on the source, one sees anything from 60% to 75% thrown around.) The 95% confidence interval from my 2009 survey gives a range of 52% to 62%.

      2) My larger point is that these data generally correspond to Bahrainis' perceptions about what tend to be "Shi'a" ministries and companies and what tend to be "Sunni" ministries and companies.

  2. Dr Mansoor al-Jamri said once that Bahrain's economy cannot function without two important demographic groups: The Baharna and Indians.

    Since Independence or even before that the Baharna (which these days mean Shia) dominated the technical sectors (health, education) while the tribal segment (Sunnis) dominated those with authority (army, police, customs, passports) as stated by Khuri (1980). Indians and south Asians in general filled the low wage unskillful jobs (construction).

    As you mentioned Gangler, the study statistics are not surprising at all, but they are (intentionally) deficient/incomplete in order to give a false impression/conclusion that there is no discrimination.

    Statistics should focus on 1. Ministry of Defense (the army), 2. Ministry of Interior and 3. Top/high positions in the rest of ministries. This would reflect clearly the level of discrimination. It could be as high as 90% Sunnis vs 10% Shia, especially after the uprising.

  3. To back up my claims about the percentage of Shia in high positions, here are two statistics:

    1. Al Wefaq (16 August 2012): The percentage of Shia appointments for high positions between 14 February 2011 and 15 August 2012 is 14%, while the rest 86% were Sunnis (
    2. Mansoor al-Jamri: After Independence the high positions in government controlled big companies was about half Shia and half Sunnis. Today, Shia compromise only 5% (

    1. Bapco and Alba have always been traditionally dominated by shia for a simple reason - the villagers, because of their economic status, are more willing to do the manual labor that is required in these jobs. Poor sunnis have the option of joining the army. The villagers do not - so they go to bapco and alba.

  4. nice piece, and the comments this time seem to be actually productive for a change =)

  5. In an Argo styled escape plan, Bahraini blogger Ali Abdulemam finally emerges from hiding and arrives at UK.