MANAMA, Bahrain - Among the marchers pledging loyalty to Bahrain’s embattled king were many from afar: other Sunni Arabs and South Asians granted citizenship and jobs in the tiny Gulf nation.
But here also lies one of the most deep-seated grievances by the nation’s Shiite majority, who strongly object to the royal policies to boost Sunni ranks and offer jobs-for-life posts that include the security forces that have opened fired on protesters.
It’s not known whether any nonnative soldiers were among the units that turned their guns on demonstrators last Thursday, injuring more than 50 people and bringing some hospital workers to tears. But it matters little within the Shiite-led uprising that is calling to sweep away the entire dynasty that had ruled for more than 200 years.
The generous outreach to Sunnis is widely viewed as a profound betrayal by Bahrain’s rulers and feeds Shiite perceptions of second-class status and being under siege from what they call a “mercenary” security force.
It also underscores a fundamental challenge for any attempts to settle the first major political unrest in the Gulf since the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
Bahrain’s leadership is strongly backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni regimes across the Gulf, which all share major concerns about the growing military and political ambitions of Shiite powerhouse Iran. Bahrain - with the only Shiite majority in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council - is viewed by many Sunni rulers as a bulwark against Iranian influence even though Bahrain’s Shiites and Tehran have no history of strong political bonds.
“They see us as Iranian agents. This is totally wrong and is only a justification for discrimination,” Sheik Ali Salman, the leader of the largest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, said after parliament elections in October. “We have nothing to do with Iranians, but it's an easy excuse for the government.”
Few policies anger Bahrain’s Shiites more than bestowing citizenship to outside Sunnis, mostly Arabs but also from Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
On the broadest level, it’s a clear attempt to offset the lopsided demographics with Shiites comprising 70 percent of the country’s 525,000 citizens. But to many Shiites, it also reflects a cynical view by Bahrain’s leaders that it’s possible to buy loyalty and use that to strengthen their grip over the country.
“The problem is that this army is not a national one,” said Sheik Hassain al-Dahi. “It is made up of people who do not share our traditions or culture, and do not have the best interest of the people at heart. They are foreigners who have been brought in to be loyal to protect a certain number of people. They are merely civil servants who are slaves to their orders.”
Al-Dahi said the end to “political naturalizations” would be a key demand in any negotiations with rulers. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa offered to open talks after last week’s bloodshed in central Manama.
Bahrain has not released figures on the number of Sunnis granted citizenship, but an opposition activist who studies the issue, Hamad Mohammad, estimates tens of thousands of people have been granted passports in recent years.
Bahrain’s citizenship laws were created in the early 1960s, but it was “nearly impossible” to meet the criteria until a wave of Shiite-led protests in the 1990s to demand greater political rights.
“The government started to use the king’s power to hand out nationalities using an exception clause. The exception now has become the rule,” Mohammad said.
The influence was clear at Friday prayers at Manama’s Grand Mosque. Many South Asians were among the worshippers draped in Bahraini flags and carrying portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Ironically, the cleric giving the sermon denounced the protests as opening the way for “foreign influences” - interpreted as a reference to Iran. The worshippers chanted: “Long live the king!”
Abdelrahman Ahmed, a 21-year-old student of Pakistani origin, was born in Bahrain while his father was working for the interior ministry, which oversees police forces.
“We always support the government and they are always on our side,” said Ahmed, who has Bahraini citizenship.
Osman Adel, a 20-year-old Pakistani waiting for his Bahraini passport, added: “Bahrain does so much for us and we feel equal to the Bahrainis in the country.”
Offering Bahraini citizenship goes beyond politics, however. It’s also used for instant access to talent and international prestige.
Bahrain has recruited top athletes for decades to compete under its flag. At the Beijing Olympics, Moroccan-born Rashid Ramzi stood on the podium as Bahrain's first Olympic track and field gold medal after winning the 1,500 meters, but he was later stripped of the medal after testing positive for a blood-boosting drug. Ramzi was given Bahraini citizenship after moving to the island kingdom in 2002 to take up a post in the armed forces.
A popular Syrian-born singer, Asala Nasri, was reportedly given Bahraini citizenship after the king enjoyed one of her performances.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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