Liquid Nationality and Fixed Precarity in Bahrain

Andrew McIntosh & Jawad Fairooz

The aftermath of the Bahrain’s Arab Spring, the Pearl Uprising, resulted in a major crackdown on Bahraini citizens. Apart from prolific, institutionalised violence from police, who suppressed protests, 990 Bahrainis, most of them Shi’apolitical activists, have had their citizenships revoked since 7 November 2012. Most were charged with terrorism or terrorism related offenses, whose definition is broad and ambiguous under Bahraini law. Some of these individuals were detained and summarily deported to nations where they had alternative citizenship. Those without alternativecitizenships were rendered stateless via revocation. As stateless individuals, they have no right to work or a pension. They cannot hold a bank account, have no right to housing allowances, and no longer possess official identification. In several instances, any money or properties they held in Bahrain were expropriated by the State.

Such individuals were forced to either seek asylum in other nations as stateless persons or were labelled illegal immigrants in their own country, in which they were usually arrested, tortured into false confessions of being illegal and subsequently deported to Lebanon, Iraq or Iran, countries theydid not necessarily have ties to. In such instances, these people were, according to Georgio Agamben, brought into the state of exception and reduced to bare life, having no rights or protection, yet subject to the authority of the system all the same. Rather than truly being banned by the nation-state, their exile is an example of rule in the form of rule’s exception. Put more plainly, the State sought to make examples out of them as a symbol of its absolute sovereignty, even in the face of national and international law, which prohibits such practices.

In April 2019, under international pressure, the Government of Bahraini restored citizenship to 551 people. However, they are no longer entitled to the same rights normally guaranteed by Bahraini citizenship. Apart from being monitored, they have received no compensation for pensions lost, assets confiscated, or economic hardship endured. Moreover, are reminded via formal and informal channels alike that they ability to live freely in Bahrain can be taken as easily as it was given. Their bare life and state of exception continues. As of total 343 Bahrainis have not had their citizenship restoredsince 2012 and have received no indication it will ever occur. They are either living in exile or are incarcerated in Bahrain as political prisoners.

Concurrently, the State has continued a systematic programme of naturalisation aimed of Sunni migrants in the Bahraini Security Forces, who are primarily utilised to police the country’s Shi’a population. Citizenship is conferred to them as a gift by the king. In many cases, this is bestowed because higher ranks in the military hierarchy can only be held by Bahraini citizens. There is no sense of permanence to this gift, however, as striking members of the security forces were stripped of their acquired citizenship and deported to Pakistan in 2013.

Although these developments are part of an ongoing trend in Bahrain, they also reflect a post-2011 paradigm, in which the concept of citizenship has grown increasingly fluid and contradictory. Citizenship in GCC countries such as Bahrainis sometimes described as a ‘pyramid’, where rights and privileges are intrinsically ordered by ethnic, tribal, and sectarian affiliations. However, this classification is incomplete in Bahrain: rather than a fixed hierarchy that determines the rights and identities of citizens, Bahrain is currently moving towards a liquid form of national identity, where citizenship is arbitrarily granted, revoked, and restored on the whim of the king, making the basis of citizenship precarious: any citizen can be reduced to bare life and the state of exception, placing them in fixed precarity.

This crystallises the sovereignty of the State. Bahraini has successfully centralised the States’ power in the executive branch, led by a member of the royal family. Neither parliament, the Shura council, nor civil society are truly independent from the royal family. Most of their members are government loyalists and speaking against the executive branch or royal family, whose members take up most positions of government, comes at a tremendous professional and personal risk. This gives the State the ability to grant, revoke and return citizenship at its discretion, even though it contradicts the Bahraini constitution. The royal family is the State and there no legitimate means to challenge it. Instead of living within an imagined community, rights and national identity are a sovereign commodity in both an autocratic and neo-liberal context: a commodified citizenship that can always be changed by the sovereign and provides neitherprotection nor identity.

Benedict Anderson theorised that that the identity modern nationalism creates, the imagined community, succeeded the concept of the sacred community, which emphasised the primacy of the monarchy and religion as a communal glue. Unlike Anderson’s analysis of European nation-states, however, Bahrain’s ruling elites never adopted the arguablyeuro-centric idea of the imagined community from below, determined by vernacular identities. Instead, practices such asthe revocation of citizenship demonstrate that Bahrain centralises the power of the State and the sovereign, allowing it to determine the value of citizenship and belonging within an imagined community from above, one that is designed and cultivated by Bahrain’s elites. That cultivation is currently belied via the construction of State narratives, where Bahrain is depicted as a transnational, cosmopolitan business hub. These narratives promote an alternative social contract, where fundamental rights and shared identity are waived in exchange for financial growth.

This social contract enables State media to construct narratives for international audiences that its society ispluralistic, diverse, and centred on economic development, which in turn promotes common prosperity. In practice, Bahraini residents and citizens alike are largely kept segregated from one another, based on their ethnicity and religious affiliation. The society is, by design, incohesive, where the State has historically utilised a ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Instead of an imagined community, Bahrain consists of siloed communities in precarity, for the vast majority of the people there are aware that their residency or citizenship canrevoked, reducing them to bare life. And in this case, bare life is not the state of exception by the rule in Bahraini society, where the fundamental activity of concentrated sovereign power is the production of bare life. Not only is this paradigm an affront to human rights and international law, but it also inhibits forms of inclusive nationalism and national identity, making its communities divided, afraid and ultimately easier to control.