Bahrain Drain

Why the King's Sunni Supporters are Moving Abroad

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

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