In an article from early April, Marina Ottaway gives some good background on Bahrain:
The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75 percent in the past to about 65 percent at present—but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. While the government has never admitted the existence of such a program, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants—estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure. What is clear, however, is that many of the new citizens were recruited into the security forces and have become the hated face of the repression.The ruling al-Khalifa family is Sunni, as are all ruling families and republican governments in Arab countries—with the exception of Syria and Iraq. It thus receives strong support from the Sunni population, including from Salafis and Muslim Brothers who tend to be strongly anti-government in other countries. Discrimination against Shias is rife. They are mostly excluded from high government positions and the military and security forces. They also constitute the bulk of the poor.
It is interesting that the Islamists support the monarchy in Bahrain given what I learned this weekend at a Middle East institute. One of the presenters, Barbara Petzen, told me that Bahrain offers Saudis pleasures forbidden in Saudi Arabia with the full knowledge of the government.
Ottaway also writes there is a Bahraini branch of Hezbollah supported by Iran (there’s also one in Iraq). Saudi concerns about Iran pop up more than once in Ottaway’s piece. Here is one example:
By March 8, radical groups closed the door to any possibility of reconciliation and compromise by announcing the formation of the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic—the name clearly explained its goal.The coalition included three organizations: al-Haq, al-Wafa’a, and the Bahrain Freedom Movement, all Shia organizations that had rejected political participation under the 2001 constitution. A key player in the coalition’s formation was Hassan Mushaima, an exiled al-Haq leader who was unexpectedly and surprisingly allowed to return to Bahrain after the outbreak of protest and became the group’s most public face until his arrest on March 17.The call for a republic was an open challenge to the Bahraini ruling family and to all other Gulf rulers. The idea of a true constitutional monarchy—one where the king rules but does not govern—remains anathema to all Gulf monarchies, including in Kuwait, where the ruling family has been forced to co-exist with the cantankerous parliament.With the exception of Saudi Arabia—where theological arguments deny that the king’s power can ever be limited or shared because it emanates from God and the sharia—most Arab monarchs, including Bahrain’s, have proven willing to accept façade reforms as long as most power remains firmly in their hands. By calling openly for a republic, the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic crossed a red line: republic meant the overthrow of the ruling family. Furthermore, although the coalition did not call for an Islamic republic, Sunnis in Bahrain and beyond are convinced that republic can only mean an Iranian-style theocratic system.
Hat tip: Hussein Ibish