Bahraini guards of honor march to welcome the visiting leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, December 2012
Hamad I Mohammed / Courtesy Reuters

More than three years after Bahrain forcibly ended the largest popular uprising in its history in February 2011, its political outlook remains bleak. The question of reforms continues to divide its ruling family, anti-government protesters and security forces clash on a regular basis, and a prolonged deadlock between the ruling al-Khalifa regime and the opposition is further amplifying persistent sectarian tensions. And now the government’s main support base -- its small but pivotal population of Sunni tribal groups -- appears to be slowly leaving the country, locking Bahrain in a bitter dispute with its historical rival Qatar. 

Bahrain’s authorities have good reason for concern. Although the country is dominated by the al-Khalifa family and its Sunni tribal allies, the citizenry is about 60 percent Shiite. More than two centuries of political and economic discrimination have fueled Shiite opposition to the Sunni-led regime, punctuated by intermittent rebellion. A prolonged uprising in the late 1990s forced King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to promise fundamental reforms that government critics continue to demand today: an empowered legislature chosen via fair elections, a more representative government, and greater equality of economic opportunity and public sector employment. 

On the other hand, Bahrain’s Sunni minority has long been an indispensable ally of the state. The alliance goes back to 1783, when the al-Khalifa family led a force of Sunni tribes (then based in present-day Qatar) to seize Bahrain from its Persian governor. Once their power was consolidated, al-Khalifa rulers rewarded the Sunni tribes with land, tax exemptions, and other political and economic privileges. In the modern period, the descendants of these tribal families form the bedrock of the government’s authority, their support a sturdy counterweight to the destabilizing confrontations between religious and ideological factions.

In the parliament, for instance, tribal MPs run and serve as nominally independent, in contrast with nontribal Sunnis and Shiites, who form political societies organized strictly along confessional lines. Tribal MPs provide the government with a reliable bloc of loyal votes, one that remains largely unmoved by the political battles of the day. Although the bloc typically controls only about a third of the seats in the elected lower house, it includes the parliament’s three-term Speaker and has successfully blocked reform-minded legislation, unwanted topics of debate, and contentious procedures such as the public quizzing of ministers.


But it appears that Bahrain’s prolonged political and economic malaise has begun to take its toll even on the state’s most steadfast constituency. A growing body of evidence suggests that members of Bahrain’s prominent Sunni families have begun moving abroad over the past year. Fueling Bahrain’s ire, most are reported to have resettled in Qatar, a state whose own Sunni tribes share a common lineage with Bahrain’s, and whose robust oil-based economy allows the government to lure newcomers with promises of generous welfare benefits. In 2013, Qatar’s revenues from oil and gas alone amounted to around $428,000 per national; Bahrain's stood at under $30,000.

Persistent rumors of this stealth migration gained more substance in March, when an elected member of Bahrain’s municipal council in the Sunni-dominated Southern Governorate, Ali al-Muhannadi, announced his resignation and left the country, reportedly after receiving Qatari citizenship. A week later, the daughter of Bahrain’s powerful prime minister publicly criticized the departure of Bahraini families to an unnamed Gulf country as “a big mistake” and called for an investigation. The full extent of the exodus is difficult to gauge, but with a national Sunni population of perhaps 250,000, the vast majority of which is nontribal, even a minor outflow carries profound political implications.

Although Qatar has remained silent on the matter, comments by former officials appear to justify Bahrain’s suspicions. For instance, Qatar’s former minister of justice told the online daily Doha News last month that the naturalization process for Bahrainis was recently greatly simplified: “Before, people had to move to Qatar, drop their Bahraini citizenship and then live in Qatar for three years before being granted Qatari citizenship. But now decisions are being made in just 24 hours.”

Another indication of the problem’s severity is the government’s rush to introduce countermeasures. In July, Bahrain amended its nationality law to impose stiff fines, including the possible revocation of citizenship, for those who took another nationality or remained abroad for an extended period of time without government approval. Less than a week later, in a candid television interview, Bahrain’s foreign minister directly accused Qatar of engaging in “sectarian naturalization” and explicitly targeting Sunni families with local tribal ties.

Precisely what drives Qatar’s new policy remains a matter of debate. First, the country has its own share of population woes. Qatar’s citizens (most of whom are Sunni) number only around 275,000 and represent barely 13 percent of the total population; native Qataris are vastly outnumbered by foreigners even by Gulf standards. This extreme demographic imbalance has given rise to feelings of cultural invasion and alienation among some native Qataris, stirring social tensions between the more conservative locals and the more liberal expatriates, especially the increasingly numerous westerners. This trend is set to only accelerate as Qatar recruits additional laborers in preparation for hosting its prized 2022 World Cup. The government could thus be attempting to counter this pattern, in part by bolstering the number of naturalized citizens.

However, many in Bahrain suspect Qatar of more nefarious motives. Although bilateral ties between the two states have warmed over the past two decades, their historical relationship was marked by conflict, including a series of wars following the al-Khalifa takeover of Bahrain. The two sides remained locked in a territorial stalemate until 2001, when Bahrain won control over the disputed Hawar Islands and agreed to abandon its claims to portions of the Qatari mainland. Most recently, Bahrain accused Qatar’s Al Jazeera network of bias in its English-language coverage of the 2011 uprising, precipitating a full-blown diplomatic crisis that August.

To the al-Khalifa government, then, Qatar’s decision to naturalize members of historically linked tribal families amounts, at the very least, to a tacit insult -- a claim to take better care of a rival’s subjects than it can do itself. And, at worse, some Bahraini Sunnis suspect that this strategy could be a ploy to acquire leverage over Bahrain’s domestic politics through tacit influence over its kinsmen.


However well-founded, such anxieties go far toward explaining Bahrain’s decision to enter the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Qatar and the region’s two other dominant states: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In March, the two countries abruptly withdrew their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s long-standing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional affiliates. Their accusation -- namely, that Qatar had violated a recently concluded security pact that barred interference in one another’s internal affairs -- stemmed from their fear of the growing strength of regional Islamist movements since 2011. 

Bahrain’s decision to join the boycott was curious, since its own position toward the Brotherhood is markedly different from that of its more skeptical neighbors. The group’s political wing in Bahrain, al Manbar al Islami, enjoys an unblemished pro-government pedigree, and its leaders maintains close ties to senior members of the ruling family. Al Manbar stands alongside tribal Sunnis and Salafists in helping form the core of state legislative support in the parliament, and was also instrumental in organizing the popular Sunni counterrevolution that helped quell the antigovernment uprising in March 2011. This might explain why, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE proceeded to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization two days after their diplomatic démarche, Bahrain refused to follow suit; its foreign minister insisted that al Manbar was a strictly local actor with no link to the global movement. 

Until now, the unusual and unforeseen nature of this dispute has overshadowed Bahrain’s involvement. Many assumed its participation to be a reflexive position of solidarity with its patron Saudi Arabia, whose oil subsidies provide nearly two-thirds of its annual state revenues. This near dependency certainly shaped Bahrain’s decision, but there is little doubt that fury over Qatar’s new naturalization strategy played a key role as well.


Six months into the diplomatic crisis, Qatar appears ready for compromise on several key points, including its naturalization policy for nationals of other Gulf states. But Bahraini officials would be remiss to celebrate this diplomatic victory as an actual solution to the problem. After all, restricting the cross-border flow of its citizens, both Sunnis and Shiites, does nothing to address the underlying incentives driving it in the first place. Just as thousands of Bahraini Shiites have gone abroad to escape persecution at home, so, too, will its Sunnis continue to seek out more favorable economic and political conditions prevailing elsewhere in the Gulf and beyond. At bottom, Bahrain’s demographic troubles stem not from Qatar’s immigration policies, but from the failure of the al-Khalifa regime to rebuild the fractured nation more than three years after the uprising.

The government’s priorities are all in the wrong place. Rather than seriously consider the opposition’s grievances -- unfair electoral rules, a powerless parliament, the al-Khalifa family’s domination of the government, and the exclusion of Shiites from the police and the military -- the state has focused on punishing activists and solidifying its Sunni support base. To accomplish the second goal, the al-Khaifa government has cultivated latent sectarian mistrust and bolstered a popular Sunni counteropposition that resists political change for fear that it would open the door to Shiite empowerment. And abroad, Bahrain has countered global criticism of its glacial pace of reform and human rights violations by vilifying the Shiite-led opposition as an Iranian surrogate (a message it's spreading with the help of Western PR firms).

Finally, to diminish the demographic clout of its Shiite majority, Bahrain has been courting an inward Sunni migration of its own, granting citizenship to an estimated 100,000 people from Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and other countries since the late 1990s. These naturalized citizens, often recruited specifically for the police and the military, now constitute as much as a third of the Sunni population and enjoy benefits inaccessible even to most native Bahrainis, including guaranteed public housing and employment.

Thus, even if Bahrain’s Shiites bear the brunt of political repression, the position of its native Sunnis can hardly be considered more enviable. The community finds itself under pressure to reject opposition demands even when they coincide with its own interests -- including calls to stem political naturalization, crack down on corruption, and expand popular involvement in decision-making. Yet the specific rewards, for those who don’t belong to a small governing elite, are scant and often limited to verbal gratitude for helping forestall the latest purported Iranian coup attempt. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that some in the al-Khalifa’s longtime reserve division have decided that they’d prefer the more substantial benefits, to say nothing of the more amenable social and political climate on offer elsewhere in the region. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JUSTIN GENGLER is a senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute of Qatar University.
  • More By Justin Gengler