Adrian Hamilton: Bahrain's uprising is about power not religion

International Studies

Thursday 17 March 2011 01:00

Sunni. Shia. Every time the protests in Bahrain are mentioned, they are made into a battle between these two branches of Islam, as if this was a war of religions.

It's not about religion, it's about power and the desire for political change. Of course, in terms of power, it matters that 65 per cent of the population of Bahrain is Shia but 95 per cent of authority and most of the wealth belongs to the Sunni royal family and its close circle.

But to put it in terms of a religious division is not only misleading, it also plays into the hands of those in Washington, as in Riyadh, who want to see everything through the prism of the confrontation with Iran and the fear of a so-called "Shia arc" emerging through the Gulf.

It's grossly exaggerated. The Iranians, ethnically Indo-European, have always had problems of influence among the Arab Shia of the region. So far Iran seems to have played virtually no part in this uprising.

To put the Bahraini demonstrations in Muslim terms is simply a diversion from the real problem, which is that a major part of the population has had it up to the neck with a corrupt and self-serving regime which has garnered the wealth of the island to a small group of royal rich and left the majority excluded. As Ibrahim Shareef, leader of the largest non-religious party in the country, the opposition Waad, put it succinctly this week: "This is not about the Shia versus Sunni; it is about conserving the status quo."

It is the same as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the difference being that Bahrain – or rather the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa, the King's uncle – is beholden to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has its own problems with minorities and has every fear of the same thing happening there.

The decision to send in Saudi troops, together with police from the United Arab Emirates, makes it depressingly clear where we now stand in the Gulf region so far as protests are concerned. The royalist regimes are not going to tolerate them. There's now a state of emergency in Bahrain, demonstrations have been banned in Saudi Arabia, there's a violent crackdown (also encouraged b y the Saudis) in the Yemen.

Talk of moderate reform, of keeping King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain but firing his wealthy, long-serving prime minister, is now being swept aside. Sheikh Khalifa will survive (which in itself is an interesting comment on the relative power of uncle and nephew), as may the Yemeni president.

That is not entirely good news for the Obama administration, which had urged the idea of compromise, partly to make its support for the Gulf regimes more acceptable back home and partly to forestall total revolution in the future.

As in Libya, it's also deeply dispiriting for those outside, as within, who looked for peaceful change in the Arab world. Yet the latest events in Bahrain should not be the cause for total pessimism. Even if protest is suppressed for the moment, it has happened and has been seen around the world to have happened. That must aggravate the feeling of anger among a resentful people within the country, for whom violent oppression has given added grievance.

It must also affect confidence among investors abroad, who must now put a question mark over the future stability and security of these royalist regimes. That applies to western governments as well, particularly the US for whom the base in Bahrain and the oil in Saudi Arabia is of crucial importance. Alternative strategies for security and for energy are bound now to be considered.

That may not be of enormous comfort to the protesters brutally ejected from Pearl Square, or the doctors and nurses desperately trying to care for the sick and the wounded in the hospital surrounded by security forces firing tear gas into the building.

But the story isn't over. Far from it. The genie is now out of the bottle and a thousand Saudi soldiers are not going to be enough to put it back in.

The real nuclear fears in Japan

The Japanese response to the threat of a nuclear explosion has been fundamentally shaped, commentators keep saying, by the experience of the atomic bombs. Of course it has, but not really as far as civil nuclear power is concerned. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taken as images of monstrous attack by foreign powers. They have had the effect of turning the Japanese towards pacifism, total destruction being seen as the product of war. Less constructively they have also allowed the Japanese to see themselves as victims as much as perpetrators of violence in the last war, in a way the Germans could not (although recent books on the atrocities in Germany committed by the invading Russians are being used to open up thoughts of victimhood).

Nuclear power, on the other hand was viewed as a Japanese technical response to the outside threat from dependency on oil imports. Traditional attitudes towards man and nature have, it is true, given the country a strong Green movement of its own. But in this case the real damage from threatened nuclear meltdown is confidence in the government and the companies. To have to bring the emperor onto the airwaves showed just how seriously the authorities are now taking the incident and the concern over possible public panic. That may be the real legacy of this crisis, not confidence in nuclear power as such (the Japanese still feel the danger from reliance on imports for their energy) or some intrinsic sense of atomic terror.

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