Citizenship as a Bahraini Government Tool
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, on Sept. 18
The Bahraini Royal Charity Organization and the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization signed an agreement Sept. 10 to build four schools for children at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. The agreement highlights Bahrain's increasing involvement with Jordan's Syrian refugees. More important, Bahrain -- with the support of Saudi Arabia -- has begun a process to naturalize Sunni Syrian refugees in an effort to augment the minority Sunni population amid rising Shiite dissent.
These efforts are only one way in which Persian Gulf countries are trying to capitalize on the crisis in Syria. However, this initiative is unlikely to make a significant impact on Bahrain's Sunni population for several years. In the meantime, it could upset the country's delicate security situation.
Shia make up a majority of Bahrain's population of more than 1 million, but the government is primarily Sunni. However, the government is unwilling to acknowledge Shia as the dominant sect, so specific numbers of Sunnis and Shia are unknown. Shiite opposition groups have challenged the Sunni al-Khalifa government several times throughout the kingdom's history. The current challenge is one of the longest and has lasted 19 months so far.
Bahrain's naturalization law, which was enacted in 1963, has been a point of contention in the latest incarnation of government opposition. The law stipulates that a naturalized citizen must own real estate and must have lived in Bahrain for 25 years, or 15 years if the individual is Arab. The law does allow the royal family to make any Arab a citizen if he has rendered Bahrain "great services" -- a stipulation that leaves room for wide interpretation. For more than a decade some Shia have accused the royal family of strictly enforcing every condition of this law when it pertains to Shiite citizenship while expediting the citizenship process for Sunni Arabs, including Sunni foreign nationals. While the exact number of naturalized citizens is unknown, the U.S. State Department estimated in January 2011 that Bahrain has naturalized roughly 40,000 individuals in the past 50 years.
The conflict in Syria has afforded Bahrain -- and Saudi Arabia, by extension -- a unique opportunity to try to address its demographic dilemma. A Stratfor source indicated that the Bahraini government is working to naturalize more than 5,000 Sunni Syrian refugees living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The source added that the government has even established a cultural center at the camp to acquaint the refugees with Bahraini culture. Saudi Arabia has directed Bahrain to naturalize Sunni refugee families with children in order to increase Sunni representation without adding to the work force, since the country is already facing a jobs shortage. Bahraini involvement with Syrian refugees in Jordan corresponds with financial investments Bahrain made Sept. 10 when the country agreed to help fund four schools for 4,000 children at Zaatari.
As is the case with many of the Bahraini government's decisions, Saudi Arabia has had input in this initiative and has chosen to back it in an effort to reduce sectarian tensions in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has also attempted to influence the Syrian revolution since it began, by rhetorically and financially supporting Syrian opposition elements. Saudi Arabia views supporting the Syrian opposition as a means to bring down the Iranian-backed Syrian regime and thus weaken Iran's arc of influence in the region. However, recently Riyadh seems to have tempered its support for the Syrian opposition due to fears that it might lead to an uncontrollable jihadist resurgence in the region. Although Saudi Arabia has subdued its role in influencing the situation inside Syria, Riyadh's backing of Bahrain's naturalization initiative indicates that the Saudis are still trying to create opportunities to capitalize on the Syrian revolution.
Risks and Implications of the Initiative
Naturalizing 5,000 Sunnis could help bolster the minority Sunni population in Bahrain in the long term, as the naturalized Sunnis expand their families. However, the initiative also presents several domestic security threats and drawbacks in the short term. First, bringing thousands of refugees into Bahrain will be a financial burden. As refugees, the Syrians likely do not have much money, yet they will require transportation from Jordan to Bahrain, as well as homes and jobs once they arrive in the country. However, since Saudi Arabia supports this initiative, Riyadh will likely aid in the financing.
More important than the financial burden is the security risk associated with naturalizing 5,000 Sunni Syrian refugees. From a domestic security standpoint, Shiite-led protests in Bahrain are still happening, and many Shia continue to demand greater rights for their sect and continue to blame the regime for shifting the sectarian balance through the subjective naturalization laws. Since late 2011 the protests have grown increasingly violent and have featured violence against South Asian expatriate workers in particular and to a lesser extent against expatriates in general. Some Shia claim these expatriates are taking jobs from Shiite workers and that the regime only granted them citizenship to bolster the support for the government. Although the Bahraini government intends to keep this initiative quiet, the arrival of Syrian refugees could incite radical anti-government Shia to target them with violent attacks. But it will even more likely lead to a resurgence of large Shiite-led protests of the perceived biased naturalization by the government.
On a regional level, it is possible that some of these Syrian refugees have ties to Syrian rebel fighters or Islamist or Salafist jihadists -- some may even subscribe to such ideologies themselves. Although it can be expected that these refugees will be screened and evaluated, it is very difficult to ensure that none of the adult refugees are predisposed or connected to such individuals and ideologies. Any such individual poses a threat, not only to Bahrain, whose government still faces threats from radical Shiite elements, but also to the broader Gulf region. As new Bahraini citizens, the erstwhile refugees will be able to travel, live and work in any of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries using only an identity card. The last thing Saudi Arabia needs is an influx of people who have subscribed to or are sympathetic to the jihadist ideology. Jihadist sympathies can be exploited easily -- especially in the Gulf countries, where extremists are not difficult to find.
In several years, it is possible that having made these Syrian refugees Bahraini citizens will have helped grow the domestic Sunni population and will have limited opposition to the government; but there are serious risks involved with such efforts. Not only is such an initiative expensive, but it could further threaten the stability of Bahrain and the surrounding region -- a risk that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have shown they are willing to take. At the very least, it can be expected that once the Shiite opposition realizes this initiative exists, protests will increase and intensify, threatening the al-Khalifa government and Bahrain's security apparatus.