Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group has an interesting blog entry on the New York Review of Books (thanks to my friend A_ for passing this along). His main thesis is that the sectarian aspect of the conflict in Bahrain is a recent invention of the regime to win the PR battle:

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.


In fact, this overtly sectarian discourse has far less to do with longstanding communal differences than with the regime’s attempt to deflect attention from its own record of mismanagement and corruption…. By whipping up sectarian sentiments, the government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.

While I think Hiltermann makes a good point about the complicated social fabric of Bahraini society, I fear he severely underplays the extent of sectarian politics. He seems to suggest this is a recent phenomenon mainly in response to the recent protests, but the regime has for a very long time had a practice of importing Sunnis from other states and granting them citizenship if they participate in the security forces. The sectarianism involved is not just about the regime deflecting attention away from its own record of mismanagement and corruption; it is a bullying attempt at ethnic cleansing turned violent and bloody.

Hiltermann has a couple of real gems, however, like his analysis of the inner workings of the royal powerbrokers:

So where are these allegations coming from? One explanation is that there has been a marked shift in the power center of the regime itself, with those who want to seek accommodation with the opposition increasingly sidelined by hard-liners. When the opposition movement began last year, the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his allies were considered a leading force for reform within the government. But his failure, in March 2011, to persuade Al-Wefaq and other opposition societies to agree to a dialogue with the government on reform fatally undermined his position.

And his conclusion that “in seeking to escape Iranian interference, the Al Khalifas are rushing headlong into a Saudi embrace” is spot on.