Friday, September 5, 2014

Bahrain Drain

Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted here, but that's what happens when you're traveling around the U.S. with a three-year-old and three-month-old.

Despite this preoccupation, I've managed to produce at least one thing over the summer, and it's something I've been meaning to write about for a long time (even alluding to it here on occasion): the matter of Sunni tribal emigration from Bahrain, rumors of which have been swirling for a year or more.  By all accounts, most or all of these migrants have headed to Qatar, giving an added dimension to the ongoing GCC dispute.

You can read the article at Foreign Affairs using the links above.  But, as is often the case, the published version differs considerably from my original formulation, so I thought I would also post the latter here as I'm in no danger of violating copyright rules.

I wouldn't say I prefer my original per se, but the focus and audience are certainly different, and the latter section especially examines some issues that are of more interest to people who care about Bahrain than people who care about foreign affairs generally, and thus didn't make the final cut.

So, without further ado:

Bahrain Drain

To the long list of maladies presently afflicting the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain – protracted political deadlock and violence, poisonous sectarianism, and a diplomatic row with longtime political-military patron the United States – one can now add this to the list: the country is losing citizens. Or rather, its citizens are, in increasing numbers, losing Bahrain. And those heading for the exits are not all whom one might expect.

There are, of course, the thousands of mainly Shi‘a Muslim opponents who have sought refuge or formal asylum abroad in the aftermath of Bahrain’s popular rebellion begun in February 2011, many of whom remain active from Washington, London, and other European capitals. So too have many younger Shi‘a left the country not for any immediate fear of punishment, but in pursuit of better economic and educational opportunities, Bahrain’s favorable jobs and scholarships – such as exist -- reserved disproportionately for “loyal” Sunnis. Finally, there are the one hundred or so individuals, among them academics and former parliamentarians, stripped altogether of their Bahraini nationality for crimes allegedly committed during or since the uprising.

Yet such exiles, if lamentable, are not unexpected or even recently unprecedented. Similar forces of exodus and banishment accompanied another Shi‘a-led intifada spanning the latter half of the 1990s, citizens returning home only after a series of goodwill pardons and reform promises by King Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifa upon his 1999 succession. In times of heightened discrimination and oppression, Bahraini Shi‘a have never shied from exercising the option of political exit – whether to ride out the storm elsewhere, or to start anew in friendlier lands.

These, however, are not the source of Bahrain’s present demographic troubles. Indeed, from the state’s perspective, if dissidents and job-seekers opt to burden some other government, all the better. Rather, the problem is that Bahraini Shi‘a are today being joined by a far less likely group of émigrés: tribal Sunnis. Indispensible allies of the Al Khalifa since aiding in the eighteenth century conquest of the island, the tribal element in Bahraini society forms the bedrock of support for the ruling dynasty by remaining essentially apolitical, a sturdy counterweight to perennial, destabilizing confrontations between religious and ideological factions.

In parliament, for instance, whereas non-tribal Sunnis and Shi‘is are organized into political societies defined strictly along confessional lines, tribal MPs run and serve euphemistically as “independents,” affording a reliable bloc of pro-government votes largely unmoved by the political battles of the day. Though typically controlling only around a third of seats in the elected lower house, the tribal bloc, which includes parliament’s three-term speaker, has remained a reactionary force successful in blocking unwanted legislation, topics of debate, and procedures such as the quizzing of ministers.

That some in this constituency have tired of playing the role of reserve division, faithfully helping to forestall needed progress to their own political and economic detriment, is understandably the source of no little consternation on the part of Bahrain’s rulers. Yet, still refusing to admit their own culpability in the social and economic disintegration of their country since February 2011, the Al Khalifa are laying blame for Bahrain’s Sunni flight elsewhere.

Tribal families are not fleeing the political dysfunction and economic malaise that has characterized the latter half of King Hamad’s reign, Bahraini authorities insist, but instead are being “lured” away by promises of nationality and attendant benefits by neighboring Qatar. This accusation, and its practical political significance to Bahrain, goes far toward explaining the latter’s otherwise odd involvement in the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Beyond the Brotherhood

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the unprecedented step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014, they were joined in their protest by the far less influential Bahrain. The unusual and unforeseen nature of this “family spat” between Gulf monarchs, combined with the apparently obvious cause of the dispute, overshadowed the curious nature of Bahrain’s involvement, largely ignored as less intrinsically consequential, a reflexive position of solidarity with political-economic patron Saudi Arabia, or both.

Indeed, if the diplomatic measure was uncharacteristically public, the reason behind it seemed clear enough: longstanding frustration over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its real or imagined affiliates in the Gulf. Officially, Qatar was accused of violating a GCC internal security pact agreed only several months prior, which barred “interference” in other members’ affairs. Yet such an offense applied not at all to Bahrain, where the Brotherhood’s political wing, al-Manbar al-Islami, enjoys an unblemished pro-government pedigree and, alongside tribal and Salafi blocs, forms the core of state legislative support. Outside of parliament, the group also was instrumental in organizing the popular Sunni counter-revolution of February and March 2011.

So it is that when Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared political war on the Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist organization just two days after their ambassadorial recall, Bahrain baulked. Speaking at a conference in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa indicated that his country would not follow suit, insisting al-Manbar was a strictly domestic actor with no link to the “global movement” destabilizing governments elsewhere. Subsequent clarifications attempted to bridge Bahrain’s tenuous position between GCC unity and domestic stability, achieving a sufficiently ambiguous policy on the Brotherhood as to allow it to maintain the status quo.

Bahrain’s clear interest in preserving good relations with one of its core constituencies, one moreover with close ties to senior members of the ruling Al Khalifa family, raises the question of why it joined the dispute with Qatar in the first place. If Bahrain’s perception of the Brotherhood differs wildly from that of its more skeptical neighbors, and if the latter seem at least to accept the realities behind Bahrain’s position, then why needlessly rattle the domestic political cage at a time when ordinary Sunnis continue to provide an essential pillar of stability in the face of continued Shi‘a opposition? Was Bahrain simply compelled to fall in line behind Saudi Arabia, whose oil subsidies provide nearly two-thirds of state revenues annually? Or did Bahrain have reasons of its own?

Reengineering a Nation

Until very recently, little of substance could be tied definitively to the latter possibility. Rumors of Bahrainis moving to Qatar to join local branches of extended tribes – prominent families such as the al-Manna‘i, al-Rumaihi, al-Muhannadi, al-Musallam, and al-Jalahma – have swirled for more than a year, some corroborated by Qatari contacts with familial ties to recent and soon-to-be migrants. Yet other Bahrainis insisted that the government had succeeded in dissuading citizens from leaving with promises of benefits in line with those offered by Qatar.

By early July, there remained little doubt where the truth lay. A hasty amendment to Bahrain’s nationality law stipulated stiff fines or forfeiture of citizenship for those who, without official approval, took the nationality of another country “whether of their own volition or through others’ incitement.” Less than a week later, Bahrain’s foreign minister gave a candid television interview in which he accused Qatar directly of engaging in “sectarian naturalization” for its explicit targeting of families with local tribal ties, employing the same term used by critics of Bahrain’s own program of naturalizing Arab and non-Arab Sunnis in return for police and military service.

Former Qatari Justice Minister Najeeb al-Nuaimi would acknowledge recent changes in both the scope and modality of his country’s naturalization of Bahrainis, telling Doha News, “Before, people had to move to Qatar, drop their Bahraini citizenship and then live in Qatar for three years before being granted Qatari citizenship, but now decisions are being made in just 24 hours.” Sitting officials were less forthcoming, yet it is no mystery why Qatar might seek to bolster a citizenry of around 275,000, which at less than 15% of the total population is vastly outnumbered by expatriates even by Gulf standards.

After a month of mutual recriminations played out over diplomatic and social media channels, on August 15 the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Qatar had agreed to stop offering citizenship to GCC nationals, among other concessions, and raised the hope that withdrawn GCC ambassadors may soon return to Doha. But Bahrain’s rulers ought to take little solace, for this forced cessation does nothing to address the underlying incentives driving Bahrainis abroad. Just as the promise of relative stability and better pay draws to Bahrain Sunni recruits from Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, so too will Bahrain’s own citizens — Shi‘i and Sunni — continue to be enticed by favorable social and economic conditions prevailing elsewhere in the Gulf and beyond.

This raises for Bahrain several worrying prospects. First and most obviously, Sunni defection could obstruct or at least delay the government’s key goal of reducing Bahrain’s historical Shi‘a majority to a demographic minority. Second, with an estimated 100,000 foreign Sunnis having already received Bahraini citizenship since the late 1990s, representing perhaps a third of the total Sunni population, a gradual exodus of indigenous tribes would mean that an ever higher proportion of remaining Sunnis are in many important cultural respects non-Bahraini and indeed non-khaleeji or even non-Arab, further complicating what is already a highly contested national identity and balkanized society.

Finally and most importantly, whereas prominent tribal families contribute a political and economic surplus for the state, being both stalwart supporters and major pillars of private industry, naturalized Sunnis are net extractors. Already Bahrainis of both sects complain bitterly of public housing and other benefits going disproportionately to new Sunni arrivals at the expense of “original” citizens. And while it true that the state can expect loyalty in return for its investment in the short term, the example of Kuwait demonstrates the long-term pitfalls of citizens purchased in this fashion, whose commitment is only so steady as the stream of benefits they expect to gain.

With the potential slow dissipation of its tribal element, Bahrain thus stands to lose more than just a reliable pro-government constituency. Allied tribes are the bedrock of the ruling regime, yes, but they also are productive in the non-oil economy, and represent – at least in the imagination of the Al Khalifa – the essence of what it means to be Bahraini.

In May 2013, eighteen months after revoking the nationality of 31 Shi‘a citizens for having “damaged state security,” Bahrain granted citizenship to 240 permanent British residents for “making a major contribution to the prosperity of the kingdom.” Personally announced by King Hamad on a visit to the United Kingdom, he insisted that their “loyal service more than justifies it.” Yet, unless the ruling family begins to focus similarly on the prosperity of its kingdom, instead of continued punitive measures against opponents, the notion of nationality will be an increasingly hollow one in Bahrain, as an ever greater number of its indigenous population is driven away.

Update: Citing a story at Al-Bawaba News, Akhbar al-Khaleej reports that patriotic Bahraini families are "refusing Qatari nationality despite all temptations," instead renewing their pledges of allegiance to King Hamad. According to the article, the "intransigent country" of Qatar continues to pursue Bahraini families despite earlier reports that it had agreed to end naturalization of Bahrainis; "nd thus the issue  ... is still ongoing and [the two sides] are at a standstill."


  1. Your article is on point today: check out the arrest of one Salah Al Jalahma on charges of acquiring Qatari nationality! Equally, check out the statistics put out by the pension fund on the growing number of Bahrainis working in other GCC states - it is a reliable measure of their number since these citizens have to make mandatory contributions to the Bahraini pension fund when working in any of the GCC states.

  2. imo the original version is better