Evidence of widespread torture, arrests of dissidents or their presumed supporters (including medical doctors), lengthy prison terms meted out by military courts… To the extent that the ongoing conflict in Bahrain has retained international attention at all, it is these physical manifestations of the government’s moves to impose order, and the sometimes violent reactions they have elicited, that have dominated. But Bahrainis who poured into the streets in their hundreds of thousands during the Arab Awakenings two years ago were ignited by a different class of grievance. Acute economic injustice, or kleptocracy, so central to the uprisings across the region, was no less critical in Bahrain. It would be unwise to lose sight of that issue today. No solution to the current standoff between the Bahraini ruling family, hardline Sunni groups, and the Shia majority will stick if it does not address the distortions of the island nation’s political economy.

“When we entered parliament in December 2002,” says Abdul Nabi Salman, who was elected that autumn in Bahrain’s first nationwide vote in thirty years, “the first thing we had to address was corruption. That’s how important the issue was. Today, to be even plausible, every single candidate for public office—even regime loyalists—has to run on an anticorruption platform.”

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
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Outrage at the capture of national resources by networks wound tightly around ruling families fueled the 2011 protests across the Arab world. The phenomenon was remarkably consistent across diverse countries, though the structure of the corrupt networks, the institutions they harnessed, and the resources they co-opted differed from one to another. In Bahrain, the core element was—and continues to be—land.

And no wonder. There is very little of it. The tiny island nation measures approximately 766 square kilometers (figures vary), less than a quarter of the size of the state of Rhode Island. Bahrain’s population, however, estimated at some 1.3 million, outstrips Rhode Island’s by almost one-third (see figure 1).

The population has shot up recently, more than doubling since 2000, due largely to the import of South Asian “guest workers” during the economic boom years, and the naturalization of foreign Sunnis in what some see as an attempt to alter the demographic balance to reduce Shia predominance (see figure 2 and 3).

This exploding population is confined to less than half the land mass, since vast royal properties and local and international military facilities are off-limits to ordinary Bahrainis (see figure 4). The result is acute overcrowding and housing shortages.

In a 2011 Gallup poll, 41 percent of Bahrainis said they had lacked the money to provide adequate shelter for their families over the previous twelve months, in contrast to just 14 percent of Palestinian respondents in the famously cramped West Bank and Gaza. Extended Bahraini families are forced to pile into a single apartment—three or four brothers and their wives and children bunking with grandparents, one room per nuclear family—while applicants wait years or decades for public housing requests to be processed. So, Bahrainis were aghast to discover in 2010, via Google Earth photos circulated on social media (and quickly blocked), the contrast between their dry and teeming neighborhoods and nearby verdant tracts belonging to the royal family.

It is in this context that indications of gross corruption in the attribution of public land so infuriated Bahrainis in the years leading up to the 2011 protests. Two reports, one produced by an opposition economist in 2006 and another by parliament in 2010, tried to make sense of conflicting and frequently absent records in order to reach a quantitative appreciation of the amount of public land that had been transferred, often via the royal family, to well-connected private investors. The Bahraini government has dismissed the findings, refusing to consider the parliamentary report, for example, because the investigating committee took more than the allotted four months to complete its research.

The 2010 examination tracked 65 square kilometers that were transferred to private ownership; parliamentary investigators identified a further 100 square kilometers for which complete records were unavailable. The total adds up to roughly one-quarter of Bahrain’s landmass. Typically, the Land Registration Board, whose director is appointed by the king, reregistered public and even private lands to members of the Al Khalifa family, expropriating farmers’ plots and often changing the classification to allow for development. The royal recipient would then deed the acreage over to developers at a symbolic price in return for a share in the planned hotel or sleek office complex.

In a different tendency, detailed in the 2006 report, sand has actually been dredged up from the sea floor and added to the coast at public expense, increasing Bahrain’s total area by more than 12 percent in forty years. The vast majority of this additional land was privatized, while fishing communities were devastated by reduced access to the coast and environmental degradation. The value of these land reclamations and transfers was estimated in the two reports to total between $40 and $60 billion dollars—four to six times the Bahraini government’s annual revenues from oil and taxes, projected at $9.8 billion for 2013. A top beneficiary of the schemes is none other than the prime minister and uncle of the king, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has come to be known as “Mr. 50 Percent” for the share in businesses he is believed to routinely extract in return for the public land he provides.

Other types of high-level corruption in Bahrain follow this model. A similar agency to the Land Registration Board is the Tender Board, which awards public works contracts. Its former chairman, Abdul Hussain Ali Mirza, was credited with attempting to improve the transparency of the process, but opposition leaders say he could not deflect all of the prime minister’s requests on behalf of cronies, and even on his watch many tenders were inappropriately awarded. In any case, Mirza left this position, probably in 2008, and was replaced by someone less visibly concerned with transparency. The royal family is believed to camouflage its stake in companies that win the contracts by operating through loyal cutouts. The national pension fund, to which all citizens contribute, is criticized for making unwarranted investments in well-connected banks and businesses, or writing off loans, or transferring assets to Al Khalifa cronies without compensation—all signed off on by compliant international auditing firms. And approximately one-third of Bahrain’s oil revenues accrue directly to the royal family; independent oversight of the rest is absent.

To add fuel to popular concern, this run on public resources thrives in an increasingly troubled fiscal environment. Unusual among Gulf Cooperation Council governments, Manama is running a growing budget deficit.

Beneficiaries of the largesse constitute a small, homogeneous elite, welded to the Al Khalifa family by bonds of blood, religious orientation, and self-interest. More than half Bahrain’s cabinet positions are held by members of the royal family. It will be challenging for members of this clique to grasp that their ultimate survival depends on relinquishing some of their monopolistic control of national assets.

As for the majority of the population, economic and demographic pressures due to the international financial crisis and the influxes of the past decade are exacerbated by visible signs of unfair, unearned capture of Bahrain’s limited wealth by the ruling elite and discriminatory exclusion from employment and public life. Perceptions of injustice, as well as straight economic hardship, matter. For years, members of the Bahraini opposition sought increased political representation in part as a strategy for gaining some oversight over the allocation of national resources. But if that strategy dead ends—as it seems to be doing now—many of the country’s disenfranchised majority will see no alternative but to push a more radical agenda.

Matar Ebrahim Matar is a former member of the Bahraini parliament.