In Bahrain, the majority of the people are Shia Muslims but the country’s rulers are Sunni Muslims, who are frequently accused of attempting to change the demographics by encouraging Sunni Muslim immigrants to take Bahrain nationality.
Discontent has been bubbling under the surface for many years. Shia leaders have long been agitating for changes: a new constitution, the release of all political prisoners, an enquiry into torture allegations, freedom of speech and an independent justice system.
These demands are the result of the stalled political reforms launched 10 years ago with the aim of calming tensions. Last October’s parliamentary elections were won by the Shi’ite party Wefaq, but this made little difference as parliamentary decisions have to be ratified by an appointed upper house.
Abdallah Eid, a Bahraini Shi’ite, said: “There haven’t been any substantial changes for the people. Over the last eight years we won a few little achievements in parliament. We can’t make any real decisions, but we still support the process.”
The legislative system is effectively controlled by an upper house which is appointed by the Sunni King Khalifa and which can block parliamentary decisions. Bahrain has 1.3 million inhabitants, half of whom are expatriates, and half of whom are under 30 years old. The Kingdom produces a very small amount of oil and gas. The revenues are insufficient to make up the public deficit without raising taxes.
Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which secures the area’s massive oil industry. Together with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is seen by the West as something of a bulwark in the region, an important stablising influence in the face of Shi’ite-controlled Iran.