Friday, 20 May 2011

"Reform, Not Repression"?

In addition to those who have arrived in the last 40 years or so, Bahrain has at least eight indigenous ethnic groups, including a small but very ancient and entrenched Jewish community which maintains the Gulf's only synagogue and Jewish cemetery, and also including a community of black African descent, part of the East African diaspora in the East hardly known about by those very used to the West African diaspora in the West. Around one fifth of the inhabitants of Bahrain is non-Muslim, and around half of that is Christian. The women's headscarf is strictly optional. No one disputes that Bahraini Muslims are two-thirds Shi'ite. Correspondingly, no one disputes that Bahraini Muslims are one-third Sunni.

All legislation requires the approval of both Houses of Parliament, and, while one of those Houses is entirely appointed by the monarch (as in Britain or Canada), the other is entirely elected by universal suffrage. The Upper House, to which women are regularly appointed to make up for their dearth in the elected Lower House, includes a Jewish man and a Christian woman; the latter was the first woman ever to chair a Parliament in the Arab world. The Ambassador to the United States is a Jewish woman, the first Jewish ambassador of any modern Arab state, although the third woman to be an Ambassador of Bahrain. She was previously an elected parliamentarian. Notably, she describes her Jewish identity as unconnected, either to the State of Israel, which Bahrain does not recognise, or to the Holocaust, of which she knew nothing until she was 14.

Her British higher education and British husband, as well as the fact that the synagogue brings in its rabbis from Britain, point to the very close ties indeed between that country and this. We installed the Al Khalifa (that is not a solecism - it is Al Khalifa, not al-Khalifa) in 1783, and they have done everything to keep up the link ever since. Saudi Arabia is America's, and really so is Kuwait, which had only brief ties to Imperial Britain, and those only towards the end; we more or less said "good riddance" to the place as early as 1961. Yemen is, to say the least, complicated. But from Bahrain, via Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to Oman is Britain's natural and longstanding sphere of influence, as their rulers would and do tell you. It is beyond me why they are not in the Commonwealth. Of course the King of Bahrain has been invited to the Royal Wedding, and of course he should attend it as an honoured guest.

I do not welcome the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. Or anywhere else, for that matter. I have no wish to see a Wahhabisation of Bahraini Sunnism, since at present all of the above is perfectly acceptable even to the Salafi Members of Parliament. But which part of it do the demonstrators wish to conserve? Do they wish to conserve any of it? Or do they wish to overthrow it in order to replace it with something else entirely? We have not asked. We never do. It is very high time that we did.

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