Friday, February 18, 2011

Bahrain: When Global and Local Collide

Globalization and the regime in tiny Bahrain are colliding today, keeping this tiny country at the top of international news. The crisis reflects both global trends and very localized political grievances.

The reason Americans should care about Bahrain is that it's located just off the coast of Saudi Arabia and across the gulf from Iran, a volatile neighborhood full of oil. In fact, most Saudi oil exports are loaded onto tankers near Bahrain. If things go pear-shaped in Bahrain, it could easily spill over to Saudi. Gas prices have already gone up in the U.S. because of oil traders' unease over protests.

But what are the global trends driving the Bahrain protests? Information technology, satellite television, and higher education, among other things, are contributing to the growth of an educated, Arab middle class. Some of this growing middle class were my students in Bahrain in 2004-05, and I was impressed by their tech-savvy, their idealism, and their global awareness. The region is full of such bright, earnest, educated young people who are often underemployed and living at home. 

One young man, who had just graduated, became a very good friend. His struggles in finding a meaningful job seem typical of his generation. He's bounced around a bit but feels stifled in Bahrain. Like many young Middle Easterners, he's trying to find a meaningful job that matches his skills (he has a Bachelor's in banking and finance and did some graduate work abroad). And, yes, he spends time on Facebook. 

His experience speaks to this table from a report based on International Labor Organization data and created for a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan in 2007:

Employment of 15-24 year olds as a percentage of that group is the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa (the lowest of any region in the world). Which is one reason why young Bahrainis like my friend are frustrated.

But that's not the whole story. There are also very localized political issues driving the unrest in Bahrain, as I noted in an earlier post. (For a vivid photo essay on Bahrain, check out this Foreign Policy post.) It's only the Shiite community in Bahrain that is out in the streets, because they feel disempowered and discriminated against by the minority Sunni community. Unless their grievances are addressed and they gain some political power in Bahrain, this crisis will not end. One Bahraini Shia friend tells me that the young people are not afraid of the regime and will protest peacefully.

To get a sense of why the Shia are angry about the crackdown on the peaceful, sleeping Pearl Roundabout protestors, check out this disturbing clip from al Jazeera English or this disturbing clip from Nick Kristof of the New York Times. Reports today indicate that five people were killed in the crackdown. The Pearl Roundabout is now abandoned and surrounded by barbed wire. 

Compared to the 365 killed in crackdowns on the Egypt protests, five deaths might seem small in comparison. But consider the populations of each country. There are only 500,000 Bahraini citizens, so the five killed reflect a ratio of 1 death per 100,000 residents. Egypt's population is 80 million, so their ration is 1 death per 219,178 residents. In other words, the Bahrain crackdown had a more lethal impact relative to the total citizenry. 

Thousands of people are marching in funeral processions for slain protestors in Bahrain today. For the peace of our world, for our friends on all sides, let us pray that the death toll goes no higher.

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