Bahrain Debates How to Bridge Sunni-Shiite Divide As Iraq's newly empowered Shiite majority struggles to take control of the country, Sunni Arab leaders in other countries with significant Shiite populations have grown increasingly nervous. The Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, for instance, is ruled by a Sunni-led government, despite the island's Shiite Muslim majority.

Bahrain Debates How to Bridge Sunni-Shiite Divide

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Over the past 24 hours in Iraq, sectarian violence has killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi civilians and three more American troops have died. A roadside bombing in western Baghdad killed two soldiers, and a Marine died in fighting in the western province of Anbar.

The situation in Iraq casts a shadow over the entire region, and one thing that continues to rattle the leaders of Sunni Arab states with significant Shiite populations is the rise to power of Iraq's Shiite majority.


The Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain has a similar issue. It's ruled by a Sunni-led government despite the island's Shiite Muslim majority. As Bahrain prepares for parliamentary elections this month, the government says it is pushing ahead with reforms, but frustrated Shiites do not see much hope for improvement.

NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to Bahrain and has this report.

PETER KENYON: From a distance, Bahrain appears as an oasis of tolerance and relative modernity in the Gulf. Every weekend, large numbers of Saudi residents swarm over the causeway to Bahrain to enjoy freedoms they can't easily get at home. But a closer look reveals simmering political and sectarian tensions that some fear could boil over.

It doesn't take long to travel from the gleaming skyscrapers and sprawling shopping malls of Manama, the capital city that's becoming an important regional financial center, to the rundown largely Shiite village of West Ecker(ph). There, 26-year-old Mousa Abad Ali(ph) sits with his extended family in their cramped, concrete house that shelters his parents, their three sons and their wives and children.

A large roach zigzags across the stone floor in the hallway where visitors remove their shoes before entering. Ali says a housing shortage keeps many families waiting years for public housing, and he says all but the most underpaid jobs seem to go to Sunnis.

He's most upset by what he sees a slighting of Shiites in favor of foreigners who happen to be Sunni.

Mr. MOUSA ABAD ALI (Resident, Bahrain): (Through Translator) Our problem is not the Sunni Bahrainis. Most of the Sunnis here have been brought from abroad. They bring Kuwaiti's, Qatari's, even Saudi's. They give them all their rights for our rights, and they live very well off. And this makes us very angry.

KENYON: Ali has made enemies with his activism. Last year, after leading an unemployment demonstration near the Royal Court, he was severely beaten by masked men outside his house. He's convinced his attackers were from the security services. The government has made no arrest in the case.

Bahraini officials say their critics need to stop spreading conspiracy theories. Sheik Abdel Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, undersecretary at the Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says charges of systematic anti-Shiite discrimination are alarmist and unjustified.

Sheikh ABDEL AZIZ BIN MUBARAK AL-KHALIFA (Undersecretary, Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs): That's absolutely not true. I deny it totally. And I will just tell you one thing. Whether you're Sunni or Shiite, and if you come to me with a family of 15 or 20, and my free housing allows you to have a family of say six, I'm going to have a hard time. And therefore, the wait will be longer. If you come to me for a job, you have to have good work ethics. You're going to have to be disciplined. If these requirements are not fulfilled, you're life is just going to be harder no matter what sect you come from.

KENYON: Bahrain has been caught between Shiite and Sunni Muslim currents for centuries. Across the gulf lies Iran, once known as Persia, which renewed its long-standing claim of sovereignty over Bahrain after the Islamic revolution in 1979. To the west, the strict Sunni nation of Saudi Arabia, which has anxiously watched the Shiite rise to power in Iraq.

A Western diplomat in Bahrain says the toppling of Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni government in Iraq is confirming the fears of those who advocate a go-slow approach to implementing the political reforms promised by the Bahraini king five years ago. The diplomat said the parliament, first elected in 2002, is not terribly effective or confident. The diplomat added that some in Bahrain looked at Iraq and said, my God, we've got to put a stop to this. Well, the king said, see, my measured slow-approach to reform is exactly right.

The opposition, however, sees the king's caution not as gradual reform but as a facade designed to hide his efforts to consolidate power. Abdul Jalil al-Singais, head of a movement calling for a boycott of the November 25th elections, says the majority is still being disenfranchised despite the government's promises.

Mr. ABDUL JALIL AL-SINGAIS (Activist): After four years, nothing has changed. Rather, it's deteriorating. Only those who clap and support what's happening are enjoying the benefits of these mega-million projects around the country; whereas, the rest of the country, the normal people, are living below the poverty line.

KENYON: Sangais says he hopes the kingdom doesn't slide back into the pattern of rioting and violent repression that prevailed in the mid-1990s. But he says that's where things seem to be heading.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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