The ‘Other’ in the Gulf


‘Entrenched Hatreds’


These “deep rooted emotions” and “entrenched hatreds” could have withered over time

had the shia minorities been accommodated by the states and societies in the Gulf

through policies of tolerance and mutual co-existence


We know about the ‘Other’ in the Western discourse. It is the Muslim minority in the West which is discriminated for possessing alien race and religion as well as foreign language and culture. Now, we hear about another ‘Other’ in the Persian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. This ‘Other’ is the shia minority. The shia of the Gulf possess the same race and religion and language and culture as that of the sunni majority but despite possessing these core ethnic and cultural similarities, the Arab shia are discriminated against just because they adhere to the shia doctrine, the roots of which can be traced back to the differences over the rightful claim to caliphate in the aftermath of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) demise. Why and how the shia ‘Other’ has been created is the subject of a fascinating study by a senior researcher Justin J Gengler.

To say that the sectarian conflict in the Gulf has its origin in the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 is partly true. It is true that in the post-revolution period, there were shia uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but both were of modest nature and thus easily crushed. The real energy of the Iranian revolution was sapped in the eight-year war that was imposed on Iran by Iraq and supported by the Gulf Sheikhdoms. Though the Shah of Iran was the hegemon in the Gulf before the Islamic revolution, the sectarian differences never flared to conflict due to his secular approach. What really unnerved the Gulf monarchs in the post-Shah period was, first, the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and later the Ba’athist regime in Iraq because these states had hemmed Iran from two sides. These worrying developments were followed by the Arab Spring which was coupled with the rise of the shia movements in the Middle East such as Hezballah in Lebanon, al-Wifaq in Bahrain and the Huthis in Yemen. Though the shia are the largest minority, barring Bahrain where they are in a majority; nowhere in the Gulf do they pose any serious threat to the ruling sunni monarchs yet the bogey of shia threat was raised by Jordan’s King Abdallah II in 2004, when he referred to the emergence of a “shia crescent” from Syria and Lebanon through Iraq and Iran into the Arab states of the Persian Gulf carrying threatening signs of shia revival manifested through various “coordinated” events, whereas, in actuality, the events described as “coordinated” were quite disparate and unconnected, however, scholars like Vali Nasr weaved them “into a coherent tale of  coordinated shia emboldening” through his work “The shia revival.”

The nervous Gulf monarchs view the efforts of their shia citizens meant for social and political empowerment as the twin attempts to serve the Iranian expansionist designs and create opportunities for Iranian meddling in their internal affairs. To these Sheikhdoms, the struggles for rights by their shia populations are nothing but “political heresy”, so all shia communities are suspected as the “veritable fifth columns” ready to aid and abet the schemes of their arch geopolitical rival — Iran. With this mindset, the Gulf rulers took deliberate measures to marginalise and suppress their shia citizens.

To blame the shia populism for suppression is partly true because this populism is a twenty-first century phenomenon whereas the suppression and discrimination of the shia citizenries by their Gulf kings date back to the times when these monarchies were created in the twentieth century. This suppression has less to do with the Iranian “imperial” ambitions in the Gulf and more to do with “entrenched hatreds”, “group solidarities” and “deeply rooted emotions” between the two sects.

All the six Gulf monarchies lack coherent national identities because their state boundaries were either determined by fate, accident or the expediencies of their departing colonial masters. Thus, they had to invent official accounts of their local histories in which those events, traditions and ideas were glorified which promoted and patronised the sunni majorities at the expense of the shia minorities. The shia reacted by developing a parallel folklore that highlighted a glorious past. For example, the shia of the Gulf take pride in a “golden age” when the shia of eastern Arabia from Basra to the Trucial Coast ruled over a united state of Bahrain which was snatched from them by the “foreign” sunni conqueror Ahmad bin Muhammad Al Khalifa in 1783, who, subsequently assumed the title of “al-fatih” (the conqueror). The title assumed by Ahmad had an intriguing significance. Though “al-fatih” in military sense means “the conqueror” or “the victor”, its literal meaning is “the opener” and when the Muslim conquerors spread their nascent faith across the Arab and non-Arab lands in the seventh century AD, the euphemism used was “fath al-Islam”, “the opening of Islam” which when used in the Bahraini context meant that not only Ahmad Al Khalifa and his sunni supporters conquered the Bahraini shia militarily but also “opened” the country for “true Islam.” The deeper meaning of this title was not lost on the shia. That is why, even today, a popular Bahraini shia cleric Shaikh Abd al-Wahab Hussain, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the February 2011 uprising in Bahrain, explained the difference between the sunnis and the shia as the difference between “al-fatih wa al-maftuh”: “the conqueror and the conquered.” Another example which shows that the sectarian gulf is based on the “deeply rooted emotions” between the two communities is the sermon of a Bahraini shia “marja” (source of religious emulation) Shaikh Isa Qasim in which he observed, “The battle of Karbala is still going on between the two sides in the present and in the future. It is being held within the soul, at home and in all areas of life and society. People will remain divided and they are either in the Hussain camp or in the Yazid camp. So choose your camp.”

These “deep rooted emotions” and “entrenched hatreds” could have withered over time had the shia minorities been accommodated by the states and societies in the Gulf through policies of tolerance and mutual co-existence. That did not happen. On the contrary, such electoral laws have been designed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that not only prevent cross-sectarian political cooperation but are also disadvantageous to the shia minorities. Public sector employment is a source of livelihood as well as social prestige and it is generally denied to the shia minorities because they can be easily identified on the bases of certain markers such as names, genealogies, accent, dress, descent, tribe and regional location. The Iranian factor has, in fact, worsened their situation because now the already marginalised shia minorities are also looked upon as a “security problem” that requires special preventive measures at national, regional and international levels. This paranoia has further deteriorated the already tense relations between the two sects in the Gulf.

The situation can take a turn for better if civil society organisations are allowed to work independently among the people along with political parties, free media, etc. That is not visible on the horizon because the Gulf monarchies have just shut their doors-hard and fast — not realising that the situation cannot remain like this for long because the law of change takes its own course.