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L’Orient Le Jour, Lebanon, 12/03/2007
Gulf monarchies: Shiites are in conflict with the regimes, not with the Sunnis

I- Overview:

- Middle East countries fear the increasing Iran threat
- These fears impact the Shiite population of the countries located on the western bank of the Gulf (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein), creating some tensions inside these countries:

1- Kuwait, where a third of the population is Shiite:
For instance, a Shiite minister recently made Islamist (Sunni) MPs angry, thus triggering a political crisis in the emirate

2- Saudi Arabia, where an important minority is concentrated in the eastern part of the country, an oil rich region:
For instance, recent local elections revealed the socio-economic discriminations towards Shiites, and brought back memories of the 1979-1980 Shiite riots and uprising

3- Bahrein, where about 70% of the population is Shiite:
It is in Bahrein, which is regularly claimed for by Iran, that the Shiite question is the most obvious since, on many occasions, the current Sunni regime severely repressed rebellions from the predominantly Shiite population

II- How to explain these tensions?

1- These tensions are often read in a regional geopolitical context, especially after the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sunnis accusing Shiites to be working for the Tehran regime

2- But according to Laurence Louër, research fellow at CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales [France’s foremost center for research on the international political system]), and an expert on Gulf monarchies:
- “It is local causes” that provoke conflicts between the Shiite populations and the current Sunni regimes
- These conflicts are not new and are not the result of an Iranian manipulation
- The source of the problem lies in “the conflictual relationship of the Shiites with the regimes, not with the Sunnis”

3- Also, contrary to some alarmist opinions, the situation of the Shiites in these monarchies is actually better than in the past, because some old demands were finally satisfied:
“The fact that some regimes got concerned triggered a positive reaction on their part”

III- Detailed analysis by Laurence Louër of the Sunni-Shiite-regime relations in the Gulf monarchies:

1- Old vs. present conflicts:
“In Bahrein and Saudi Arabia, the old conflicts, that are not particularly stronger than in the past, between Shiites an the regime, are still present.
In Bahrein for instance, there has been tensions that were much stronger than the present ones, since there was a quite serious uprising between 1994 and 1998”

2- Inter-community conflict…
-“Except for Iraq, there is no resurgence of the community conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in the Gulf monarchies”;
“An inter-community conflict, where the civilian population is directly implicated, is perceived only in Iraq”
- “There might be an uprising in Bahrein. Many people say so. With the current political crisis and the socio-economic issues, the situation leads to social unrest. This is possible, keeping in mind that, in this country, there often are population uprisings which do not turn into civil war”
- “In any case, inter-community conflicts only break out in situations where the regime is not strong. This is what happened in Iraq after the collapse of the baathist regime, and also in Lebanon. This is absolutely not the case in Gulf countries where there are strong regimes upon which communities are very dependent. A situation caused by the oil income, which gave ruling families means to build State apparatuses which run very deep into society ”

3-…vs. political conflict:
- “There is, on the other hand, a political conflict between Shiites and the regime in some Gulf monarchies”
- The solution: integrate in the State:
But this does not depend only on Shiites, it also depends on the regimes, since Shiites have long been marginalized or looked down on, pushed aside of power in some countries;
Exception: Kuwait, where Shiites, who are an integral part of the regime, do not have the vengeful views that can be found in the other monarchies

4- Kuwait: Shiites participate in the creation of the State:
Even if Shiites only have 5 MPs out of a total of 50, and about 40 mosques vs. more than a thousand Sunni ones:
They are well integrated in this tiny emirate stuck between Iraq and Saudi Arabia:
- Louër explains that some Arabic tribes, who fled the drought, settled in this region and invested in trade;
also, some families from Chiraz (Iran) settled in Kuwait for economic reasons;
these 2 communities worked together to get the State institutions that they built to function
- “According to common views, it is thanks to Shiites that the Al-Sabah ruling family was able to build a State”
- “There are converging founding myths” between Sunnis and Shiites:
for instance, the Jahran fight in 1920, where all the Kuwaitis gathered to build a wall around [Kuwait city] in order to defend it against a Wahhabi attack;
Shiite participation was key since they were skilled in construction;
Moreover, they resupplied fighters on the front, and helped them win the war
- However, some Sunni historians contest these myths, stating that the Shiites cowardly avoided combat

5- Bahrein: conquerors vs. conquered:
- Historically speaking, Shiism is a very old fact in this small monarchy headed by the al-Khalifa family, a Sunni tribe who conquered the island for economic reasons
- Arabic tribes are considered as foreigners by the local population,
whereas Shiites are considered as Iranians by the Sunnis ;
the difference can be felt in the dialects used by Sunnis and Shiites;
moreover, each community has a specific name: “Bahreinis” vs. “Baharna”
- The religious split fits into this social and political difference
- However, on a religious level, the Shiite community can freely practice its customs, contrary to Saudi Arabia where there are many constraints towards Shiites
- The Shiite community is today substantially represented in the Parliament, whereas it had been for a long time relegated to only opposition after the creation of the Parliament in 1973

6- To summarize:
- “The religious difference plays a part in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in the Gulf monarchies, but it is only one element amongst many others”
- The community disputes include other conflicts:
conquerors vs. conquered in Bahrein
Bedouin population vs. rural population in Saudi Arabia
local vs. foreign…
- “The religious conflict is more a way to express things nowadays, in a precise historical period marked by a tendency to view everything in religious terms. A tendency, which is the result of the presence of Islamist movements, Sunni and Shiite.”

7- Iran’s role?
Louër is positive: Iran does not manipulate Shiites:
“It is very clear that in Gulf countries, the conflict between Shiites and the State has nothing to do with Iran’s influence”
[The Croissant’s note: facts seem to counter this statement especially in Bahrein where Iranian influence is quite present]

8- A positive impact for the Shiites:
- “We notice that the regimes, worried about possible maneuvers by Iran through the Shiite population, give them guarantees, trying to satisfy their demands and to better integrate them.
This strategy is the opposite of the one used in the 80s, when the regimes use repression to shut off Shiite claims”
- “So paradoxically, the situation goes in the right direction”

Translation and summary provided by The Croissant. © Copyright 2020. The Croissant LLC.

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Translation and summary provided by The Croissant. © The Croissant 2007. All rights reserved.