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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 July 2007, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Grievances fuel Bahraini unrest
By Bill Law
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Periodic unrest in the Gulf state of Bahrain has been blamed by some on Iranian influence but local people speak of more immediate grievances.

Malkiya beach
A whole way of life is under threat for Bahraini fishermen

The smell of tear gas hung in the air that night. Ahead of us a group of young men drifted across a road. Piles of garbage and tyres were burning in the night. And up ahead was a line of riot police.

I approached the line and was stopped by an officer in a balaclava. As tear-gas canisters fired off in a volley he told me: "You have no permission to be here. Please leave now."

It was 2 July in Malkiya, a small Shia fishing village on the outskirts of Manama, the capital city of Bahrain.

Malkiya has been the scene of several of the riots which have occurred in Shia villages this year. This one is about a strip of beach that used to be open to the fishermen. It is now in the hands of a powerful member of the ruling family.

Known in the West as a booming business centre, Bahrain is increasingly an upmarket tourist destination with luxury villas built on land reclaimed from the sea.

The first oil well in the region was discovered in Bahrain in 1931. The royal al-Khalifah family has grown enormously wealthy on oil revenues.

And in a region where Iran is flexing its muscles, Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, is strategically important.

New oil

My guide in Malkiya was Nabeel Rajab, an opposition and human-rights activist.

Financial harbour
Bahrain has prospered on oil

"They want you to see Formula One and the Financial Harbour," he says.

"But that's not the real Bahrain. What you see here - this is the real Bahrain."

Bahrain is unique in all the states of the Arabian Peninsula in that it has a Shia majority, roughly 65% of the population. But the ruling elite is Sunni.

Many Shia claim the elite has discriminated against them for years. And Malkiya is a flashpoint for their anger.

A leaked government report revealed that the public has access to less than 3% of the coastline of this small island nation.

Ownership of the coast allows access to reclaimed land. It is sold on to the highest bidder to build business complexes or tourist resorts. For the ruling family, land has become the new oil.

In Malkiya, we were shown a piece of shoreline that was public only a few years ago. Efforts by the villagers to have it reopened have thus far failed.

'Living in fear'

When the people have protested - peacefully they claim - the riot police have come in with tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets.

Mohammed says Shia Muslims remain loyal despite the unrest

Mohammed is in his sixties. He has fished all his life in Malkiya. He told me that land reclamation is driving the fish away. His wife Nurgis talked to me from behind her veil.

"It's funny that a generation of fishermen have to go and buy fish now from another village," she said.

Nurgis went on to tell me how the tear-gassing is affecting the children.

"They can't breathe," she said. "We live in fear."

When I told a senior government minister, Hassan Fakhro, about the riots in Malkiya, he expressed surprise. And he denied it was evidence of discrimination against the Shia.

"It could have happened anywhere - to a Sunni community or a Shia community," he said.

"I don't think it was sectarian. Social yes, but not sectarian."

'Still loyal'

But many among the Sunni elite believe Iran is behind the unrest.

Rioting in the Manama district of Sanabis on 30 June
Shia areas like Sanabis saw rioting in late June/early July

The Shia told me those claims are nonsense.

They insist they are loyal to the country and the ruling family. Mohammed said if the coastline was returned to the people there would be no rioting. If he were to meet the king, he would "kiss his feet".

The government's tough response to situations like Malkiya is pushing the fault line between Sunni and Shia into the open.

The question now is whether the ruling family will make some kind of concessions - on land, on policing, on defusing sectarian tensions.

If they do not, the unrest looks set to continue. That is a dangerous situation for Bahrain and for the stability of the region as a whole.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 26 July 2007 at 1102 BST.

It will be repeated on Monday, 30 July 2007 at 2030 BST.

Crossing Continents


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