SHAFAQNA– London-based Gulf House Studies and Publishing Center in an Arabic article titled “The Policies of the (Persian) Gulf Arab States Regarding Their Shia Citizens” has investigated the approaches adopted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain in dealing with their Shia communities. The article which is penned by Bahraini researcher, writer and journalist Abbas Al-Murshid, classifies these policies into three types.
There is no doubt that the regimes of the [Persian] Gulf Arab states follow a sectarian agenda regarding their Shia citizens and have been worried about Shia communities’ calls for equality and political participation [in governance] for quite some time.
In Kuwait, Shia Kuwaitis were banned from seeking candidacy in the country’s first parliamentary election in 1938 and were only allowed to cast their ballots. However, the 1962 Constitution gave all Kuwaiti citizens – Shia and Sunni- the right to political participation.
Unlike Kuwait, the Shias in Bahrain participated in the elections of the City Council, Consultative Council and National Assembly that were held in 1919, 1973 and 1974 in a row. Nevertheless, the most successful approach among the [Persian] Gulf Arab states belongs to the United Arab Emirates, where the integration process was carried out so smoothly that the UAE has never faced the so-called “Shia issue” in its history.
Despite various policies that [Persian] Gulf littoral states have adopted regarding their religious communities, they are undoubtedly worried about certain religious minorities particularly the followers of the Shia Islam. This concern turns into a direct confrontation with Shia groups who do not support regimes of their countries. We can assume clear differences in the policies of the [Persian] Gulf rulers based on the population of their Shia communities and the way the Shias deal with those regimes. These methods are classified into three models:
- Tolerance and rein-in the Shia community
- Isolation of the Shia community
- Limited openness toward the Shia community
1st Approach: Tolerance and rein-in Shia community:
This model includes a mutual policy between the ruling regime and Shia groups. Shias try to respect the social and political regulations of the country and the ruling regime, supports their religious and social rights while it controls them. Qatar, Oman and the UAE have implemented this policy vis-a-vis their Shia population.
This policy has its own goals that include boosting the political legitimacy of the ruling families via supporting the Shia minority and at the same time preventing them from joining big opposition groups. The Shia naturally tends to make a coalition with the ruling faction, which is the only power to protect them against the majority. As the result, there is a sort of mutual interests between the ruling regime and the Shia community.
Al Thani ruling family in Qatar and Al Maktoum family in Dubai (one of the seven emirates creating the UAE) are the ones that implemented this policy in its best way: they respect the Shia communities and in the face of pressures from Sunni groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood even allocated parliamentary seats to Shia members. A political coalition between the ruling elite and the influential Shia groups in Kuwait is another example of this policy.
The Shia communities for their turn are not very satisfied with this policy and know well that this policy works as long as the balance between the ruling regime and its opposition persists. Therefore, they usually keep their distance from the government and establish their links with the government based on the Constitution and the religious majority, which in this case is Sunni.
2nd Approach: Isolation of Shia community
This is a common policy in dealing with all minorities especially big Shia groups. Based on this policy, the ruling regime imposes a series of restrictions aimed at isolating the Shias. Main example of this policy is seen in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia where “the central government dominates its power on all sectors of society. At the same time, all bureaucratic systems along with cultural, social and legal norms are merged into the power of the central government and it cements its dominant structures on the elites. The government eventually chooses its new cultural, religious and political identity to other cultural, religious and social forms and stifles any sort of diversity.
3rd Approach: Limited openness to Shia community
This method is hidden within political structures made of different units that are sometimes very different from the social norms of the central government and as the result, there is a possibility of confrontations between the government and powerful groups who refuse to budge, while both sides are seeking social dominance. Kuwait and Bahrain are the major examples of these structures where the Shia have the majority.
In this “political survival” plan, the government opens new channels to Shia groups and supports them. Aiming to reduce the risk of Shia political revolts by and preventing the creation of independent political centers, the ruling government allows restricted political participation to the Shia. That would reduce possible threats while boosts the regime’s legitimacy. In this model, the government even sometimes makes a coalition with a small group within the Shia community, gives some members high positions, uses them against their coreligionists. The regime finally imposes its social dominance over all religious groups while seeking its own political agenda.
Although this policy is successful in the short term to suppress independence-seeking attempts among the Shia and prevents them from pursuing their political demands, in the long term it would prevent the creation of a modern Arab state.
Source: Shafaqna Farsi, gulfhouse.org
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