‘Post-Bahrain’: Examining Identity, Subalternity and Vision 2030 Post-Rentier Narratives

Andrew McIntosh,

Salam for Democracy and Human Rights

The following article is expanded from a conference paper presented at the annual Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) conference ‘Identities in Motion’ at the University of Lancaster in December 2023. 

The Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 was the first published iteration of regional socio-economic reforms, largely mirrored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the purported purpose of reforming economic and social life under the guiding principles of ‘competitiveness, fairness, and sustainability’. The official goals were nothing short of transformative: pivoting from a petrol-focussed rentier economy, highly reliant on low-skilled migrant labour, to a country with a diversified national economy, a robust, a competitive private sector that focuses on developing its citizens and attracting high-skilled migration. These statements and actions are connected. It is meant to reform what Kristian Ulrichsen describes as the ruling bargain that has provided unsustainable socio-political stability. This is felt most acutely in Bahrain, being the most resource poor GCC country and having had its investment credit rating downgraded over the past decade. The Bahraini government claimed that these socio-economic reforms would create the ‘basis for an inclusive and cohesive society, supportive of ambitious programmes for economic and social change while preserving the Kingdom’s traditional, one-family spirit’.

As of 2023, social and economic re-vitalisation has fallen short of the government’s stated goals. Although state services have decreased, the private sector has not reduced its debts and arguably has not increased efficiency either. Like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, the Bahraini government assumed that privatisation alone would increase national productivity and wages. In both cases, a clientelist public sector that often privileges Khaleeji Arab Sunnis has not been adequately addressed by the government, especially because it claimed high productivity in the future private sector would come from making Bahrain more attractive to foreign investment. That public sector remains saturated and primarily represented by Sunni elites. 

The language of Vision 2030, which espouses a multicultural and cohesive Bahrain, both draws attention to and subverts the primary obstacles preventing social change in the country. The new social contract first pronounced has not materialised and the promise of a Bahrain emerging from the old sectarian rentier model remains elusive. Instead, what I refer to as Post-Bahrain is based on a reconfiguration of what Antonio Gramsci refers to as ‘subaltern’ groups, attempting to reconstruct consensus through language and narratives that advocate neo-liberal reforms and co-opt anti-sectarianism. 

One of the main factors of Bahrain’s failure to achieve economic and social transformation is due to systemic material conditions among its subaltern communities. It’s Shi’a population, consisting of the Baharna and Ajam ethnicities, suffer from high unemployment, economic inequality, lack of meritocratic opportunities, and securitisation. Concurrently, pro-government narratives have consistently claimed that globalisation and increased competition will make the Bahrain’s current reliance on ‘cheap expatriate labour’ unsustainable, making the future of country’s migrant populations uncertain and more vulnerable. Although these subaltern groups are often in tension with each other over access to employment and living spaces, their exploitation, socio-economic insecurity, and anxieties around uncertain reforms, relegates them both to Bahrain’s securitised precariat, who receive little to no benefit from enduring systems of patronage. 

Using the neo-liberal language of privatisation, which promises ‘a high level of competitiveness in a global economy… driving economic growth, profitability and wages’, Vision 2030 repositions the language of Bahrain’s clientelist social contract, transitioning from ‘subject’ to ‘customer’, one who ‘can make a worth-while contribution to society given the means and presented with the opportunity.’ Although these statements could be dismissed as empty rhetoric from a government with little domestic accountability, the language is instructive. This neo-liberal terminology shifts responsibility for economic inequality onto the individual while ignoring systemic ethnosectarian segregation in the country, which reproduces economic inequality. For much of Bahrain’s Shi’a population, language of ‘fair opportunities’ ignores these factors and reinforces a narrative that those who do not succeed can, or even should, be held responsible for their economic and social misfortune, and subjected to further marginalisation. 

Bahrain’s Shi’a groups face exclusion from entire sectors of work, such as the military and law enforcement. Their communities are often segregated into poorer areas. Moreover, they have no political representation. Official opposition parties have been banned, with many of their leading members having been arrested or exiled following the Arab Spring. Moreover, an estimated that 6,000 to 11,000 Bahraini citizens have been retroactively barred from running for political office and sitting on the boards of associations. The narrative of Bahrain’s ‘level playing field’ provides a new means of obfuscating the economic and social, and political disadvantages the Shi’a face compared to their Sunni Khaleeji peers. 

Financially, this is well-represented by Bahrain’s commitment to constructing ‘outstanding road, sea and air connections to global markets.’ The government explicitly states this new infrastructure is meant for international business, meaning Bahrain’s rural, economically disadvantaged, Shi’a majority areas are unlikely to directly benefit from them. 

Socially and culturally, no examples have been provided as to how Baharna and Ajam Shi’a communities, whose dialect, sect, and history are largely excluded from Bahrain’s superstructure:  television, radio, and museums, will be effectively integrated into the language of a ‘cohesive society’.  Official government narratives consistently claim that Bahrain is diverse, cosmopolitan, and tolerant of all faiths and peoples, constructing narratives of unity and Shi’a accommodation, such as broadcasting that it permits the Shi’a community to observe Ashura in public. Simultaneously, visiting Shi’a pilgrims have been banned from entering Bahrain during Ashura, Bahraini citizens have been blocked from making pilgrimage to Karbala by border security, pro-government narratives claiming it to be a ‘sectarian’ act, and Shi’a activists continue to be labelled ‘foreign agents’ by the pro-government press. 

In Post-Bahrain narratives, Shi’a identity is probationary, tied to the boundaries of Bahraini nation, where forms of transnational Shi’ism are often socially and legally proscribed. State anti-sectarian narratives describe Shi’a as indistinctly part of Bahrain, with their history and culture frequently overlooked, while depicting Shi’a dissenters, especially those with ethnic-centric and/or transnational religious views, as sectarian actors, all while using sectarian language, such a describing them as ‘Iran-backed’ radicals and provocateurs. Those narratives are then used to justify Shi’a social and political isolation. 

Although promises have been made to invest in high-quality education, there is a considerable risk that Shi’a Bahrainis will not benefit from opportunities that appear bespoke to skilled migrants. However, the identity of so-called low-skilled migrants is also threatened by this development. 

Vision 2030 explicitly calls for decreased reliance on low-skilled migrants and immigration reform. Thus far, dependence on low-skilled migrants continues but government policy ensures that their rights are heavily curtailed. Despite officially abolishing the Kafala system, the informal practice remains prevalent, and migrant workers find that neither the Bahraini legal system nor the embassies of their home countries are willing to provide adequate assistance when they are victims of exploitation or charged with a crime in Bahrain. 

Promises of training Bahrainis for jobs and attractive skilled-migration do not address the country’s need for workers in the sectors low-skilled labour currently hold, making it unlikely these numbers will be greatly reduced. Instead, Vision 2030’s narratives officialise a degree of discrimination against them, possibly with the hopes of assuaging growing anti-immigration sentiments among Bahraini citizens. Systematically, this is already represented by the fact that of 13 foreign nationals who received a death sentence from 2011 to the end of 2020, 62% were Bangladeshi nationals, with Bangladeshis representing nearly 30% of the individuals currently on Bahrain’s death row facing imminent execution, several claiming their confessions were extracted under torture. These rhetorical and institutional practices are unlikely to mollify public opinion long-term, however.

Economically, Bahrain’s best chance of reducing its dependence on depleted oil reserves is from attracting foreign investment. This has resulted in loosened restrictions on migrants obtaining business licences while opposition narratives continue to claim the government is taking part in the ‘political naturalisation’, where citizenship is granted by extra-legal means to individuals considered especially loyal or useful to the state, of select migrants in the country’s business and security sectors. This form of recruitment, which also leaves migrants vulnerable to having their Bahraini citizenship removed by decree, has become an institutionalised component of one of Vision 2030’s clear promises that have been delivered: advancing security. 

Bahrain is already the most securitised country in the Gulf, with a ratio of 45 security personnel for every 1,000 residents. Vision 2030 promises to expand it further by adopting the latest technologies and modernising policing as well as promote a ‘culture of awareness for crime prevention’. Over the past decade, those efforts have materialised as prolific surveillance. This occurs in public and on social media, where religious social gatherings or cultural posts, such as blogs about Bahrain’s long Shi’a history, have resulted in arrests. Pegasus, an advanced Israeli spyware, has been utilised by security forces to monitor the communications of activists both within Bahrain and abroad.

It’s unclear if this new form of securitisation was pre-meditated or the result of Vision 2030’s economic shortcomings: failure to reduce clientelism, reduced government services, a falling standard of living, and a paucity of opportunities for both Shi’a and migrant groups to develop themselves and better their prospects ultimately create social and political volatility and ultimately necessitate further securitisation. In this respect, the Post-Bahrain narrative constructed by Vision 2030 is not of a post-rentier, post-sectarian society but the entrenchment of a post-Arab Spring security state that is modernising surveillance to police social and cultural expression in the country, co-opting the language of liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and anti-sectarianism to attract foreign investment, high-skilled workers, and to misdirect from activists narratives about systemic sectarian discrimination. These new narratives subsume Shi’a and migrant identities into service of an amorphous ‘modernising’ state while ultimately maintaining their subalternity.