A Primer On Bahrain

Host Michele Norris speaks with Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, for some context on Bahrain — its people and its history.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For some context on Bahrain, its people and its history, we turn now to Salman Shaikh. He's director of the Brookings Doha Center and he joins us now from Qatar. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SALMAN SHAIKH (Director, Brookings Doha Center): It's a pleasure to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, as we just heard in the Peter Kenyon piece, police reacted to the square with rubber bullets, shotgun shells, canisters, very violent reaction today. Is that in line with how the security forces have traditionally treated people who question or protest against the government?

Mr. SHAIKH: There has been a history of protests in Bahrain for a number of years. But I think these incidents since yesterday and last night show perhaps a greater disproportionate use of force than we've seen in Bahrain before.

NORRIS: We're hoping that you can help us understand a little bit more about Bahrain. We call it a kingdom because it's been ruled by the same family for more than 200 years. Can you tell us a little bit more about its political structure?

Mr. SHAIKH: Yes, of course. You're absolutely right. It has been ruled by the Khalifa family for more than 200 years. It's currently headed by a king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who took up the thrown in March 1999 after his father.

Bahrain is a country which assumed its independence from the British in 1971. But what has been significant about the rule of the current king is that he actually has championed a program of democratic reforms since taking over. Despite the reforms, I think there is a feeling that there needs to be much greater representation of the citizens in the political structures.

NORRIS: Now, this is a country which is ruled by minority Sunni. But the Shia represent the majority, so there are inherent political tensions there.

Mr. SHAIKH: Absolutely. The Shias constitute about 70 percent of the total population of Bahrain; the Sunnis, probably just under 30 percent. And there are other smaller groups, which include Christians and even a very small Jewish minority as well. But, again, Shias have felt that they've not been represented adequately.

NORRIS: And as we've seen in this uprising, the king has hired foreigners, usually other Sunnis to help constitute the security forces. Is that to prevent arming or empowering the Shia?

Mr. SHAIKH: I think, well, you could say that. The Shia is going to constitute a large part of the security forces. And, yes, the ruling family has relied on people from other nationalities and backgrounds - Pakistanis, Indians and others - to constitute a large part of their security forces.

NORRIS: Is regime change something that - to your mind, is a possibility in this country?

Mr. SHAIKH: I mean, I would've - if you had asked me this yesterday even, I would've said, it's not likely. And in these sort of heady days of revolt, who knows where we're going? What I can certainly say that is that the current events, I think, do pose an existential threat to the ruling Khalifa family for the first time in probably since it took to the throne 200 years ago.

So, yes, this is a very serious crisis for Bahrain and for its ruling family.

NORRIS: Salman Shaikh, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. SHAIKH: My pleasure.

NORRIS: We were speaking with Salman Shaikh. He's the director of the Brookings Doha Center. And he's a fellow at Brookings' Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

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