- Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society
The huge protests which occupied the Pearl Roundabout at the heart of the Bahraini capital in February 2011 brought the spirit of the Arab Spring to the oil monarchies of the Gulf. But unlike the uprisings that preceded them in Tunisia and Egypt, the Bahraini protests failed to bring down the monarchy, or even to provoke its reform. Readers wanting a deeper historical context to better understand this revolt and its denouement in repression and sectarian strife will find few books on Bahrain to inform them. The re-issuing of Emile Nakhleh’s Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society, initially published in 1976, thus comes as a welcome addition.
In his preface to the new edition, Nakhleh states that the goal of the reprint is to “highlight the constitutional process that unfolded in 1972–73 and the hopes it raised among the Bahraini people” (p. xiii). The volume paints a picture of Bahrain at a particular point in history: shortly after its independence, to compose a constitutional assembly. The book’s recounting of Bahrain’s aborted foray into parliamentary representation offers some fascinating parallels with Bahrain’s current political tribulations.
In line with the modernization theory of the time, Chapters 2–5 examine education, social clubs and the press, labor, and foreign policy as inputs into Bahrain’s political socialization and development. The deficient political development of Bahrain’s modernized tribal system is demonstrated through the absence of political parties (hence the political [End Page 370] importance of social clubs), the restrictions on the press, the politicization of labor (due to its suppression), and the constraints imposed by the conservative regional political climate. More descriptive than analytic, much of this material is simply too dated to hold the interest of the contemporary reader. Occasionally, though, the presentation enlightens. The delayed integration of the Shi‘a villages into the education sector speaks to the persistent inequality in their treatment. And Nakhleh’s deft reading of Bahrain’s foreign policy concerns and commitments remains fresh and applicable today.
The final three chapters focus on the political dynamics unleashed by the constitutional elections. Decades of labor unrest had ushered in a harsh security law authorizing arbitrary arrest and the threat of expulsion. The ruling family was — and is — divided as to how to deal with political demands for representation and accountability, splitting into camps Nakhleh describes as “realists” and “tribalists” (p. 149). The relevance of the internal politics of the 1970s is amplified by the presence of Prime Minister Shaykh Khalifa atop the authoritarian rejectionists, where he remains today, resisting any devolution to popular governance which might impose constraints on his royal prerogative (and lucrative business interests).
Grounded in the Arab nationalist and leftist rhetoric of the time, the opposition sought a constitution that would guarantee basic freedoms and a more democratic form of government. The class orientation of the urban activists — and Nakhleh’s relative neglect of the exurban reaches and villages — mean that sectarian issues are muted in this account. Nakhleh himself seems surprised by the outcome of the constitutional assembly elections which returned a majority of the elected seats to rural Shi‘a conservatives.
For greater insights into the roots of sectarianism in Bahrain, readers must look elsewhere. A roughly contemporaneous anthropological study by Fuad Khuri contributes a masterful analysis of the differing socioeconomic bases of Bahrain’s Sunni tribal, merchant, and Shi‘a peasant communities which set their divergent orientations toward the bureaucratization of tribal rule and the developmental state.1 And a more recent book by Laurence Louer provides an astute picture of the Islamic forces which swept the Gulf after the Iranian revolution of 1979, as well as of the retreat back to national politics engineered by today’s Shi‘a Islamist oppositions.2
In his epilogue Nakhleh notes that the parliament formed in fulfillment of the new constitution provided a potent public forum for criticizing the policies of the government. However, this platform and the popular struggles that preceded it, proved insufficient to...