This month, a Bahraini court dissolved the main Shi’ite Muslim opposition group ‘al-Wefaq’, accusing it of contributing to ‘terrorism, extremism and violence’.
The move comes after authorities suspended and confiscated the society’s assets in June. In addition, in the last few months a wide range of human rights activists and Shia figures were either jailed or stripped from their citizenship; notably a top Shi’ite cleric’s citizenship was revoked and the prison sentence of al-Wefaq’s secretary general and political leader was more than doubled.
In addition, authorities are banning Shia clerics from collecting Muslim tax ‘khums’ and are confiscating these funds.
Without this funding, Shia clerics can struggle to provide social services to the Bahraini population, an essential mechanism for maintaining internal support.
Impact on country risk
Al-Wefaq is Bahrain’s largest legally recognised opposition political society. It is a Shia opposition group in a country with a Shia majority population but a Sunni-led government and ruling al-Khalifa dynasty.
In response to the ongoing unrest and growing regional Sunni-Shia tensions since the lifting of the nuclear sanctions on Shia Iran, the authorities are adopting an increasingly hardline approach towards dissents.
The latest developments are intensifying the already edgy domestic Shia-Sunni tensions in Bahrain.
This can lead to increasing unrest as it marginalises the Shia population and closes the remaining outlet for peaceful opposition to the government, especially as it occurs in a time where unpopular austerity measures ¬– necessary due to the low oil prices – will affect the poorer communities which are dominantly Shia.
However, renewed protests on the scale of that seen in 2011, when neighboring Sunni-led Gulf states restored order by brutally crushing the demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring, are unlikely.
The opposition is probably too fragmented to organise a full-scale uprising. Furthermore, similar protests would probably retrigger violent repression of Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, as Saudi Arabia still sees Bahrain of strategic importance.
Bahrain is not likely to retract soon from its hardline approach towards Bahrain’s Shia population as it depends on Saudi Arabia – notably for security, oil and finance – and greater political rights could risk emboldening Saudi Arabia’s own Shia population.
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Jolyn Debuysscher , Country risk analyst