The economics of Bahrain's Sunni-Shiite divide

Iraqi Shiite Muslims hold up the Bahraini flag as they protest in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad on March 16, 2011, in support of the Shiite protesters in Bahrain and against the violent crackdown by the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty in the Bahraini capital Manama.

Kai Ryssdal: King Abdullah made a rare appearance on Saudi Arabian television today. He promised new jobs and higher pay. In all, $93 billion worth of economic handouts. It's the second time in a month the Saudi government has offered, in essence, cash in return for political calm.

It's mostly working within the kingdom, but earlier this week Saudi troops were sent into Bahrain to help shut down the protests there. It was a political move loaded with religious and economic undertones. Most of the protesters in Bahrain are Shiites, while the ruling family there and in Saudi Arabia are Sunnis.

Gregory Gause teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. He joins us now as we continue our coverage of the region. Good to have you with us.

Gregory Gause: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: As we've been seeing on these protests in Bahrain -- there's a distinct political element, there's now a military element with Saudi troops involved -- I was hoping, though, that you could explain a little bit of the economic element, specifically the split between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims in that country.

Gause: Well the Shia Muslims are a majority of the citizen population, but they certainly haven't shared in the wealth of Bahrain. The Shia complain that they have a hard time getting jobs, certainly in the government, and they also complain that in the private sector many of these jobs go to foreign workers. Obviously it's the demonstration effect of popular protests in other parts of the Arab world that coalesced this movement in Bahrain. But there are these long-standing -- both political and economic -- grievances that underlie the mobilization of people into the streets.

Ryssdal: The differences between these two groups -- the Shias and the Sunnis -- go back centuries. But when you look at the broader context of the Middle East, can you say that when Sunnis are in power the Shia suffer economically, and where Shias are in power the Sunnis suffer economically?

Gause: I think that this polarization on sectarian grounds is much more recent. Back in the 50s, the opposition in Bahrain to the government was a across sects -- it was Sunni and Shia, it was Arab nationalists. In the last three decades -- the Iranian revolution, events in Iraq -- sectarian issues have come more to the fore. But it's not inevitable, and there are certainly many Sunni Bahrainis who share the desire for political reform.

Ryssdal: Interesting. You say there are Sunni Bahrainis who share the desire for political reform. Are there Shia Bahrainis who are not in political power who share the economic benefits of Bahrain's prosperity?

Gause: Certainly. There are some rich Shia in Bahrain just as there are some rich Shia in countries in the Gulf where they are a minority, as in Kuwait.

Ryssdal: Do the Shia in Bahrain have access to economic opportunity? I mean, can they get educations and go out and find jobs that would contribute to upward mobility or is it completely shut down?

Gause: Shia in Bahrain certainly have educational opportunities. They have access to the universities, they have access to the state schools. It's not an issue of education. I think it's an issue of the proportion of foreign workers in the labor force and that's something the government can do something about. If you cut down the number of foreign workers, you raise the chances of the Shia getting jobs. But of course, you also raise your labor costs. So the employers aren't necessarily in favor of that. But you need some kind of political grand bargain that will cut down foreign workers and compensate the local employers for the increased labor costs that they'll have to pay. And I think that actually while the politics of making the changes necessary to increase the economic opportunities for Shia are difficult, it's relatively simple to reduce the number of foreign workers in your country. You give out fewer visas, and you don't renew visas when they expire.

Ryssdal: What's the government's inclination to do that?

Gause: I think before this unrest, it was obviously much lower. One hopes that after this unrest settles down, the government will do a complete overview of its policies in this area and make some changes.

Ryssdal: Gregory Gause is a professor of political science. He teaches the politics of the Middle East at the University of Vermont. Professor Gause, thanks so much.

Gause: My pleasure.

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