Sects and the City: Reflections from Manama
29th Feb 2020 by Simon Mabon
In 1982, a roundabout was constructed just south of the intersection of King Faisal Highway and the Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Highway in 1982 in Manama, Bahrain. At the centre of the roundabout was a monument serving as a symbol of the archipelago’s pearl diving tradition, also demonstrating unity across the nascent Gulf Co-Operation Council. In 2011, when the Arab Uprisings occurred in Bahrain, protesters gathered at the roundabout chanting “not Sunni, not Shi’a, just Bahraini”. The roundabout served as a space of unity for the island’s population who came together to demand political reform from the ruling Al Khalifa family.
After a month of protests, a GCC-led military force entered the roundabout and cleared it of protesters before destroying the monument. With the outbreak of protests, the monument quickly became a symbol of resistance around which protesters could coalesce, prompting the Al Khalifa to destroy it an effort to erode memories of the dissent; a 500 fils coin which also depicted the monument was also withdrawn from circulation. In the weeks that followed, a widespread crackdown on dissent took place across the island, with serious repercussions for the ordering of space (Mabon, 2020). The following report reflects on the role of the urban environment and urban spaces in efforts to regulate life across Bahrain in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings of 2011. It argues that the heavily urbanised population of Bahrain provides scope for the Al Khalifa to exert sovereign power over its population in a range of different ways as part of a process of sectarianization, from demographic engineering to the creation of a structurally violent environment, underpinned by sovereign power.
Since the British withdrawal ‘East of Suez’ in 1967, political life across Bahrain has been contested, in part, because of the existence of sectarian cleavages, yet predominantly because of a range of economic, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and ideological divisions. The population of Bahrain is divided roughly 50-50 along national and non-national lines. Of those with Bahraini passports, a further division takes place roughly along sect-based lines, with estimates suggesting that up to 65% of the population is Shi’a, albeit ruled by a Sunni minority ruling family. Across Bahrain’s history, unrest – in myriad forms – has typically been mapped onto religious divisions which provide a convenient veil for deeper political challenges facing the Al Khalifa. As we shall see, these concerns feature prominently within regime efforts to regulate urban environments and the ways in which the Al Khalifa deploys its biopolitical structures of sovereign power in an attempt to ensure its survival.
In the years after the Arab Uprisings, the manipulation of this sectarian identity has provided the Al Khalifa – and their Saudi backers – with the means of dividing protesters in pursuit of regime survival. This process, referred to as sectarianization has been widely documented by scholars including Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (2017), Toby Matthiesen (2017), Fred Wehrey (2007), this author (2019, 2020) and others, yet little has been undertaken on the ways in which urban environments have been manipulated by those in power in attempt to ensure their survival. To do this, political elites embarked on a process whereby Shi’a groups were framed as an existential threat to the state, perceived by some to be ‘5th columnists’ whose loyalty lay with their co-religious kin across the Gulf in Iran, much to the chagrin of the Al Khalifa. Forging a coherent national project from a society divided around religious, ethnic, tribal and class lines poses serious challenges to those in power. Across the Gulf, state building processes have sought to draw from – and reconcile - competing historiographies in an effort to fuse a coherent state, often commemorating historical processes such as pearl diving as a way of forging unity.
In spite of these efforts, the Kingdom of Bahrain is more recently associated with sectarian divisions stemming from the Arab Uprisings and the broader struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This rivalry has had a dramatic impact upon Bahrain. After the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia quickly embarked on the construction of the King Fahd Causeway, linking the Eastern Province of the Saudi Kingdom to the western coast of Bahrain, ostensibly to improve economic relations, yet more driven by a desire to provide the means for a swift incursion if necessary (Mabon, 2019). In the decades that followed, Bahrain has been caught within the geopolitical wrangling of a rivalry that has routinely impacted upon daily life across the island, most prominently seen in the ways in which sovereign power regulates the life of opponents of the Al Khalifa.
The Evolution of Urban Space in Bahrain
Bahrain’s population of around 1.3 million people is heavily urbanised with around 89.2% of country’s population living in cities; a recent estimate suggested that around half of Bahrain’s population live in the capital, Manama (CEIC). Despite its relatively small population, according to some estimates Bahrain is the 4th most densely populated sovereign state in the world. In recent years, Bahrain has experienced dramatic population increases, resulting in an increasingly urban based population which has exacerbated demographic concerns, posing an array of governance challenges in the process.
Much like other Gulf Arab states, the development of the Bahraini state across the 20th century occurred alongside the cultivation of urban environments. After the discovery of oil, housing compounds were built on the outskirts of Manama and Sitra (the site of the country’s oil refinery) for workers at BAPCO (the Bahraini Petroleum Company), perhaps most notably ‘Isa Town. As Justin Gengler notes, ‘Isa Town was a multi-cultural centre for workers at the refinery. Although mostly home to Shi’a workers, these were predominantly secular and leftist, the more pious predominantly resided in their family villages (Gengler, 2019).
After the failed coup d’etat undertaken by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain – with the help of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – a new community was established under the name of Hamad Town. According to Hasan Alhasan, Hamad Town was created as a home to the influx of members of Bahrain’s security forces, reflecting growing concerns about unrest and perceived Iranian influence across the archipelago, capitalizing on perceived divided loyalties amongst ajam, Shi’a Bahrainis of Persian heritage.
Long-standing security concerns are visible in reflecting on the design of the two towns. As Gengler (2019) eruditely observes, ‘Isa Town is a mélange of peoples, regularly interacting across an urban environment replete with the rhythms of everyday life. In contrast, Hamad Town is designed in a linear fashion, creating self contained units divided by roundabouts seemingly in an attempt to prevent cross-communal engagement. As a result, sectarian enclaves are formed within Hamad Town, preventing interaction with members of the out group, with serious social and political repercussions.
A maze of small passages replete with family run businesses, the souk is the antithesis to the global financial transactions taking place in the Financial Harbour. Built on land reclaimed from the sea, the Bahrain Financial Harbour is situated on prime real estate in central Manama, allegedly bought by the Prime Minister – Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa – for one dinar (around $2.6). When this news broke, protesters gathered outside calling for political reform, supported by others at Pearl Roundabout angry at the lack of political reforms which were promised after King Hamad came to power in 2002, along with a stagnating economy, bureaucratic inertia and corruption. Unrest had long played out across Bahrain, dating back to the 1950s when Bahrain was under British protection, continuing to manifest across the following decades and playing out in cities across the island. Yet the severity of protests in 2011 prompted a more draconian response from the Al Khalifa, fearing an existential challenge to their survival.
More recently, differences between sectarian communities are visible through the provision of housing. Supporters of the Al Khalifa, predominantly – although not exclusively – from the Sunni community, are provided with spacious houses in desirable areas such as Wadi Alsai and Madinat Khalifa, while those opponents fortunate enough to receive public housing are typically given much smaller houses in less desirable locations such as Sanabis. A number of these more contemporary building projects have been supported by international organisations, including Prince Charles, the British heir to the throne, whose architecture charity is heavily involved in Bahrain.
Sovereign Power in the Urban
As a range of scholars have argued, space is key in understanding political behavior, serving as a means for individuals and groups to articulate claims to legitimacy and for sovereign power to operate. Within this, cities operate both as incubators and platforms, spatial arenas for the interaction of myriad actors, engaging in a range of different performances. A key feature of this are efforts to subjugate cities to sovereign power, to capture all within a particular environment within the biopolitical structures of a particular regime.
Yet cities are also sites of the mundane as people travel to work, to shop, or to socialize (Lefebvre, . With an urban population of almost 90%, Bahrain’s population engage with urban environments on a daily basis. As such, the city provides a canvas for actors to compete in and over, seeking to lay claim to territory, power, and legitimacy. History, culture, narratives and ideas are central here as they interact with the world around them providing opportunities for people to act in particular ways and for political, economic and social structures to emerge and evolve over time, wherein symbolism plays an important role.
Underpinning all of this are expressions of sovereign power which, although often seemingly banal, are continued reminders of Al Khalifa power. During the uprisings, armed soldiers were positioned at entry points to Manama and at key points intersections across the city, operating under emergency powers. Over time, after the revocation of Emergency Laws this armed presence was relaxed, although security forces continued to monitor key sites across the city. Riot police were routinely mobilized across Manama in the following years seeking to address unrest, while raids into the predominantly Shi’a villages were equally common. Underpinning this expression of sovereign power, images of prominent members of the Al Khalifa are prevalent across Bahrain, adorning billboards along the sides of highways.
The destruction of the Pearl monument serves as an act of urbicide, a deliberate act of violence against cities. Yet the destruction of the monument was an act of violence against more than the city, seeking to erase a particular memory from the country’s recent past and eviscerating a memory of the country’s cultural heritage. Moreover, this act of violence was directed against the protest movement, seeking to eviscerate any semblance of unity amongst the protesters. What quickly followed was the widespread regulation of space across Manama as soldiers and members of the security services clashed with protesters before the regime embarked on a process of sectarianization, framing the other as an existential threat under the control of Tehran (Mabon, 2019; Matthiesen, 2017).
Unsurprisingly, protesters sought to contest this framing. Walls across Manama become canvases for expressions of political agendas. With the global media coverage of the Formula 1 race that takes place annually in Bahrain, political agendas were expressed in both Arabic and English, calling for political reform, the end of the Al Khalifa monarchy, recognizing the sacrifice of those killed in the protests while regime loyalists sought to cover up these messages to prevent their dissemination. Below is one example from a wall in the Manama souk, taken in May 2013.
Across Bahrain, widespread contestation played out across myriad currents, creating a set of parabolic pressures that impacted the ordering of space across the island. In return, these spaces shape the actions of people living and working across Bahrain, reinforcing a sense of inter-communal difference, albeit with loyalty to the state of paramount importance.
De-Sectarianization and Resistance
Reflecting on the history of Bahrain since the British withdrawal East of Suez, it is easy to see the ways in which sovereign power has operated across urban environments. From the coercive measures that resulted in urbicide in 2011 and the checkpoints that penetrate the city to the distribution of housing, the biopolitical structures deployed by the Al Khalifa ruling family are integral to the ordering of urban spaces across Bahrain. Yet this also has a more political dimension, emerging from longstanding biopolitical structures that have regulated all aspects of life across the island since the 1920s (Strobl, 2020; Strobl, 2018; AlShehabi, 2019). Efforts to challenge these structures, much like the on-going protests in Iraq and Lebanon face myriad problems, requiring the transformation of political, legal, judicial, and urban power structures.
Perhaps, though, the transformation of urban environments offers a semblance of optimism. While protesters in Lebanon and Iraq have been commended for their efforts to contest the sectarian ordering of life, an earlier effort to overthrow the yoke of sectarianism took place in Bahrain in early 2011. Through occupying prominent spaces across the state, protesters articulated a clear message of unity in the face of sovereign power that sought to propagate – and regulate – difference. Although ultimately unsuccessful, those moments of possibility in February and March of 2011 were achieved through a temporary spatial transformation of key sites across Manama, demonstrating the importance of space in protest along with the memory of possibility, albeit eviscerated by sovereign power.
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Matthiesen, T. Sectarianization as securitization: Identity politics and counter-revolution in Bahrain’, in Hashemi, N., and Postel, D. (Eds), Sectarianization: Mapping the new politics of the Middle East, ( pp.199-214).London: Hurst & Company.
Strobl, S. (2018) Sectarian order in Bahrain: The social and colonial origins of criminal justice. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington.
Strobl, S. (2020). A curious form of justice in modern Bahraini history: Being hard on Shi’a and soft on Sunnis. In Simon Mabon (Ed.) Sectarianism in the longue durée (SEPAD Report).
Frederic Wehrey. (2013). Bahrain’s decade of discontent. Journal of Democracy 24( 3), 116–26.
 Evidence of this transaction is here: http://twitpic.com/46s4gq with news coverage of the event from the national news agency here: https://www.bna.bh/AboutBNA.aspx?cms=iQRpheuphYtJ6pyXUGiNqladb1RZ0e3I