Sectarian Divide and Rule in Bahrain: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

By Kylie Moore-Gilbert | Researcher - University of Melbourne | Jan 19, 2016
Sectarian Divide and Rule in Bahrain: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
Bahraini protesters, August 27, 2013

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


While solidarity with other Arab Spring protest movements certainly served as inspiration for Bahrain’s own uprising in 2011, the continued unrest experienced in this tiny resource-rich state has much deeper roots. Indeed, the Bahraini uprising is but one of a number of interconnected political crises which have gripped the Kingdom at least once a decade since the colonial period. Unlike most other Gulf states, Bahrain’s political scene has long been characterized by robust opposition to government policy, with a firmly established tradition of utilising public protest as a means of expressing dissent, regardless of government prohibitions on popular assembly. Some of this can be explained by Bahrain’s unique demography; while the exact proportion of Sunni to Shiʿi citizens is unclear,[1] Bahrain is widely considered to be the only Gulf state with a Shiʿa majority, and is also now the only Shiʿa majority-Arab state ruled by a Sunni minority. Calls for reform and attempts to participate in the political process in Bahrain, dating as far back as the 1930s, have typically been cross-sectarian, involving representatives from both Bahrain’s Sunni and Shiʿi communities. The development of an effective cross-sectarian opposition movement, with precedence in the fledgling alliances that most prominently emerged in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, would put serious pressure on the al-Khalifa monarchy’s ability to maintain its absolute grip on power. As such, the Bahraini government has long pursued a strategy of divide and rule as a means of preventing the country’s various interest groups from uniting in their demands. This essay will contextualize current sectarian tensions in Bahrain by demonstrating that they are a product of the country’s lengthy history of divide and rule politics, and will suggest that the 2011 uprising marks a dangerous development in this strategy, which could ultimately entrench political instability for years to come.

... contrary to the popular narrative on Bahrain, sectarianism was not the dominant motivating factor behind the 2011 uprising or the protest movements which preceded it.

Sectarian tensions have featured in the country’s periodic political crises, though, contrary to the popular narrative on Bahrain, sectarianism was not the dominant motivating factor behind the 2011 uprising or the protest movements which preceded it. The al-Khalifa tribal monarchy, ever-sensitive to perceived threats to its rule and keenly aware of Bahrain’s demography, has pursued a strategy of divide and rule in order to maintain its grip on power since the country’s independence from Britain in 1971. Inflaming sectarian animosities has long proven to be a useful method for dividing Bahrain’s opposition factions and preventing nationalism from unifying cross-sectarian interests against unpopular government policies. Prior to the 2011 uprising, when for a time the downfall of the al-Khalifa was not entirely implausible, the government’s sectarian policies were more discreet, and equality of opportunity for all Bahraini citizens was strongly asserted, despite the abundance of practical examples to the contrary. The 2011 Arab Spring protests however appear to have shaken the monarchy to its foundations, leading to an escalation of sectarian rhetoric and largely doing away with the pretence that the government serves all of its citizens equally. In spite of the al-Khalifa’s heavy-handed response and the continued presence of Saudi-led GCC troops in Bahrain, the unrest has entered its fifth year. Crackdowns on moderate opposition groups have combined with the intensification of sectarian policies to transform the uprising into an almost exclusively Shiʿi movement with an increasingly radical worldview. Bahrain’s tradition of non-violent activism and cross-sectarian cooperation appears to be in danger, as a sectarian conflict which has largely been manufactured by government policy threatens to transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contextualizing Divide and Rule: The Colonial Period

The al-Khalifa arrived at the strategy of promoting divisive sectarian policies, including discrimination within the workforce, education and social security systems, electoral district gerrymandering and attempts at utilizing citizenship for purposes of demographic engineering, because they recognized that cross-sectarian civic or political cooperation is the biggest internal threat to regime survival. In the colonial period Bahrain’s authorities typically employed force to subdue opposition factions, particularly those which succeeded in building alliances that traversed interest groups which the government would ordinarily seek to play off against each other, including Islamists and secular-nationalists. Organized activism against the British-backed al-Khalifa monarchs emerged in Bahrain in the 1930s, much of it driven by Sunni and Shiʿi notables who called for the reform of the judiciary and education system and the right to establish trade unions.[2] Sectarian sensitivities were evident in a petition presented to British officials by prominent community leaders in 1938, which included demands for a cross-sectarian education council, a cross-sectarian mechanism for liaison with government and a proposal for a mix of Sunni and Shiʿi judges to sit on each of Bahrain’s courts.[3] In this instance the British pursued a successful tactic of divide and rule along sectarian lines, convincing the Shiʿi representatives to break from the cross-sectarian bloc by agreeing to some of their demands, such as the appointment of Shiʿi judges, and arresting several Sunni reformers.[4] Further initiatives during the colonial period, including a 1943 general strike by Bahraini Sunni and Shiʿi oil workers and the establishment of a business-focused cross-sectarian “Cooperative Compensation Society” were similarly exposed to colonial divide and rule tactics.[5]

The al-Khalifa learned from the success of the British efforts at divide and rule, and pursued a similar approach following the emergence in 1954 of the National Union Committee (NUC),[6] Bahrain’s first cross-sectarian formal opposition organisation. The NUC demanded parliamentary elections and the right to establish trade unions, and according to Khalaf “considered the national unity of all Bahrainis the first requirement for their liberation.”[7] Thousands of citizens of both sects attended a number of rallies in Sanabis and the capital Manama and signed petitions pledging their support for the NUC’s demands.[8] The al-Khalifa initially attempted to split the NUC through the creation of a parallel organization called the National Convention Committee (NCC), comprised of Shiʿi merchants, notables and clergy as a sectarian alternative.[9] This initiative met with limited success at the time, but the NCC could arguably be seen as a forerunner of the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, currently the largest Shiʿi political party[10] in Bahrain. Following a general strike in December 1954 the government decided to enter into talks with the NUC, ultimately extending it recognition and authorizing the establishment of a cross-sectarian trade union.[11] The British, however, banned the group two years later and exiled its leadership, after the NUC organized demonstrations against British involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis.[12] In spite of its short-lived influence, the NUC is significant in that it demonstrates that a cross-sectarian political movement, built on the principles of Bahraini nationalism rather than sectarian affiliation, was able to effectively negotiate with and win concessions from the al-Khalifa monarchy. The risks posed by such a precedent, in particular at a time in which Imperial Britain had begun to lose control of some of its other colonial possessions in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, were keenly understood by Bahrain’s ruling elites. In light of this, in subsequent decades the al-Khalifa would seek to identify and prevent the emergence of further cross-sectarian political blocs, cognizant of their potential to challenge their absolute grip on power.

Carrot and Stick in Post-Independence Bahrain

Given the effectiveness of the British approach, it is no surprise that the post-independence Bahraini government sought to adopt a divide and rule strategy in its attempts to prevent the emergence of cross-sectarian opposition movements.

Given the effectiveness of the British approach, it is no surprise that the post-independence Bahraini government sought to adopt a divide and rule strategy in its attempts to prevent the emergence of cross-sectarian opposition movements. This strategy typically followed a pattern in which force and repression were first used to subdue opposition factions, followed by some form of concession designed to further divide various sectarian or interest groups within an opposition blocessentially a classic carrot and stick approach. At times the carrot was employed before the stick, as in the case of the al-Khalifa’s initial negotiations with the NUC; however, symbolic concessions and dialogue increasingly came to be extended only after a perceived threat to the monarchy’s power had been sufficiently subdued or co-opted.

This tactic can be seen in the Bahraini government’s approach to the Constitutive Committee for the General Federation of Workers (CCGFW), set up in 1972 in an attempt to harness the prevailing goodwill of the post-independence period to push for the establishment of a national labor union. The CCGFW staged a number of large protests and general strikes, and according to Shehabi was “the first truly secular public coalition in Bahrain, where sect and religious issues did not play any notable role in its composition or goals.”[13] A fierce crackdown by security forces, including the arrest of CCGFW and other protest leaders, enabled the al-Khalifa to subdue the CCGRW and bring the demonstrations under control. However the government afterwards sought to placate nationalist voices within the movement by undertaking to safeguard freedom of association in the new constitution of 1973, one of the CCGFW’s key demands.[14]

The elections of 1973 brought an array of interest groups into the newly-formed National Assembly, a result which was initially interpreted as favouring the al-Khalifa’s ability to maintain its dominance over the legislature. In addition to pro-government independents and fourteen directly-appointed ministers, eight secular-nationalist and leftist representatives were elected alongside nine conservative Shiʿi Islamists. Unable to unilaterally pass legislation, it was expected that a National Assembly, divided between fractious and ideologically-opposed interest groups, would function as no more than a symbolic outlet for debate. Yet, in spite of ideological differences, which initially appeared to be irreconcilable, the secular-nationalist and Shiʿi religious blocs came to collaborate on a number of issues, frustrating government attempts to rubber stamp legislation including the widely unpopular State Security Decree of 1974.

The al-Khalifa initially sought to split the bloc by unsuccessfully appealing to the Shiʿi representatives’ Islamic values, arguing that the security law would criminalise the “dissemination of heretical principles,”[15] and accusing the secular nationalist bloc of blasphemy. As in the case of the NUC, the government feared that the opposition had accrued too much power and posed a direct threat to absolute monarchical rule. In 1975 the Emir responded by dissolving the National Assembly, abandoning Bahrain’s experimentation with parliamentary democracy in favor of rule by royal decree.[16]

Bahrain’s Intifada: Prequel to the Arab Spring?

The best example of the al-Khalifa’s carrot and stick approach to divide and rule can be seen in the response to Bahrain’s first large-scale popular uprising, often referred to as the Bahraini Intifada. The Intifada began in 1994 with a petition calling for the reinstatement of parliament, before descending into years of unrest marked by mass demonstrations, general strikes, rioting and violence. The 1994 petition had the support of a diverse cross-section of Bahraini society, including Islamists, secularists and liberals of both sects; however, most of the protesters who would become the driving force behind the crisis were Shiʿi youth, many of whom would come to dominate Bahrain’s opposition in subsequent decades.[17] The government employed tactics that included the use of live-fire on demonstrators, the blockading of Shiʿi villages and the arrest and detention of hundreds of activists. However, following the Emir’s death in March 1999, his son Hamad switched from stick to carrot, attempting to engage with the moderate opposition with promises of constitutional reform and an elected parliament. These early steps toward political liberalization in Bahrain, manifest in the 2001 National Action Charter, resoundingly endorsed by popular referendum, are generally credited with bringing the Intifada to an end.[18] Hamad however ultimately failed to meaningfully implement his promised reforms. Bahrain’s new constitution was drafted unilaterally and without consultation, and the “fig leaf” lower house was subordinated to an unelected Shura council, revealing the National Action Charter to be simply another hollow manifestation of the carrot and stick strategy of subduing opposition.

The Bahraini government initially adopted a similar approach in their response to the Kingdom’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011. The al-Khalifa needed a sizeable carrot to match the unprecedented violence of their military crackdown, in which security forces cleared the protest camps with tanks and live-fire, and kept Bahrain in lockdown for months with the help of GCC troops. King Hamad’s major concession was setting up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a fact-finding mission headed by independent international legal experts, with the power to make public recommendations to the Bahraini government.[19] The Commission’s report was cautiously welcomed by some opposition groups, and ignored by others. The government’s failure to meaningfully implement its recommendations ultimately served to deepen mistrust, and arguably represented the abandonment of the “carrot” in their carrot and stick approach to divide and rule, with violence now heavily emphasized at the expense of concessions. Indeed the entrenchment of the unrest post-2011, including its increasingly sectarian attributes, appears to be a worrying sign that Bahrain is transitioning into a space in which the old tactics of both sides, whether it be carrot and stick or cross-sectarian engagement, are becoming redundant.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

After decades of manipulating sectarian affinities for political gain, it appears the al-Khalifa may have succeeded in exacerbating divisions to the extent to which it is unclear whether Bahraini society is able to recover its earlier spirit of sectarian cooperation. By seeking to divide and rule, it is possible that the Bahraini government has divided society too deeply, and as a consequence may have set itself up to rule over a fractured and unstable polity, continually plagued by violence and unrest. The Bahraini government appears to have been too successful in manufacturing divisions, and risks endangering what it ultimately seeks to protect: its grip on power.

Decades of sectarian government policy, including divide and rule tactics and discrimination against Bahraini Shiʿa in the workforce and provision of government services, have strengthened sectarian affiliations at the expense of the more inclusive narrative of Bahraini nationalism. This enabled the government to very swiftly eliminate the cross-sectarian undercurrent to the 2011 uprising, immediately arresting Sunni participants at early Arab Spring protests such as Muhammad al-Buflasa and Ibrahim Sharif, who gave speeches at the Pearl Roundabout, and promoting the narrative that the protests were a Shiʿi uprising orchestrated by Iran. The brutality of the crackdown on protesters and the free rein given to state media outlets shrilly proclaiming that the unrest was a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by Shiʿi traitors quickly saw the Sunni contingent disappear from the Roundabout, and with it the early rallying cry of “not Sunni, not Shiʿi, just Bahraini.”[20]

The ferocity with which the al-Khalifa pursued divide and rule during the uprising and the continued unrest which has persisted since, has led to the development of an atmosphere of deep mistrust and fear between Bahrain’s Sunni and Shiʿi communities, which is arguably unprecedented. While individual activists interviewed by the author continue to assert that their movement is not sectarian but is based on universal values including democracy and human rights, wider political developments appear to suggest that the nation has become deeply polarized along sectarian lines. One unintended consequence of the extreme, government-sponsored sectarian rhetoric which has prevailed since 2011 has been the emergence of Sunni activist movements, including vigilante groups seeking to pit themselves against Shiʿi protesters, and extreme elements condemning the government for not doing enough to crack down on Shiʿi “traitors.”[21] Gengler observes that “constantly warned of the Shiʿi danger, many Sunnis see a contradiction between the alarms and the government’s simultaneous unwillingness to stamp out the threat once and for all.”[22] The political awakening of Bahraini Sunnis, once content to stay out of politics in exchange for the benefits of their preferential status, has the potential to further entrench Bahrain’s increasingly dangerous sectarian politics. If the al-Khalifa do at some point decide to return to a carrot and stick approach by offering meaningful concessions to the Shiʿi opposition, their ability to diffuse the conflict will be constrained by the potential for a Sunni backlash. In such an event, it is unlikely that the al-Khalifa will risk alienating their core support base. The Bahraini government appears to be caught in a catch-22 of its own design: In an attempt to strengthen its grip on power it has entrenched destabilising social tensions which now threaten its ability to maintain control of the country. Decades of divide and rule in Bahrain is transforming the spectre of sectarian conflict into a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

[1] The only occasion in which the government conducted a census measuring sectarian affiliation was in 1941, when it reported that Shiʿa made up 53 percent of the population. More recent academic studies have attempted to quantify Bahrain’s sectarian distribution, for example Gengler’s 2009 demographic survey concluded that the Shiʿa are between 53- 62 percent of the population. A 2008 cable leaked from the US Embassy in Manama however has suggested that the Shiʿa are “60-70 percent of Bahrain's citizen population.” See Justin Gengler, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), p. 96; US Embassy Manama, “Rivals for Bahrain’s Shi’a Street: Wifaq and Haq,” Wikileaks, September 4, 2008,

[2] Falah Al-Mdaiers, “Shiʿism and Political Protest,” Digest of Middle East Studies 11:1 (2002), p. 23.

[3] Omar Al-Shehabi, “Political Movements in Bahrain: Past, Present, and Future,” Jadaliyya, February 14, 2012,

[4] Al-Mdaiers, “Shiʿism and Political Protest,” p. 24.

[5] Al-Mdaiers, “Shiʿism and Political Protest,” p. 25.

[6] The NUC is also known by its original name, the Higher Executive Committee (al-Hai’at al-Tanfidhiya al-῾Ulya). The group changed its name to National Union Committee (Hai’at al-Itihad al-Watani) in 1955 following negotiations with the government over official recognition.

[7] Khalaf, Abdulhadi ‘Contentious Politics in Bahrain: From Ethnic to National and Vice Versa’ Fourth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, Oslo 13-16 August 1998 p.9

[8] Al-Shehabi asserts that up to a quarter of Bahrain’s citizen population (then some 25,000 people) signed the NUC’s petition. See Al-Shehabi, ‘Political Movements in Bahrain.’

[9] Khalaf, “Contentious Politics in Bahrain,” p. 9.

[10] Formal political parties are technically prohibited in Bahrain, and legal political organisations refer to themselves as societies instead. However the difference appears to be little more than semantic.

[11] Al-Mdaiers, “Shiʿism and Political Protest,” p. 26.

[12] Khalaf, “Contentious Politics in Bahrain,” p. 10.

[13] Al-Shehabi, “Political Movements in Bahrain.”

[14] Khalaf, “Contentious Politics in Bahrain,” p. 13.

[15] Khalaf, “Contentious Politics in Bahrain,’ p. 16.

[16] Gengler, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf, p. 143.

[17] Christopher M. Davidson, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (London: C. Hurst & Co, 2012), p. 32.

[18] Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 10.

[19] Hamad bin ʿIsa Al-Khalifa, Royal Order No. 28 of 2011, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, p. 481,

[20] Justin Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” in David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers, eds. The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 234.

[21] Wehrey, ‘Sectarian Politics in the Gulf,’ p.98

[22] Justin Gengler, “Bahrain’s Sunni Awakening,” Middle East Research and Information Project, January 17, 2012.