Thousands stage rally in Bahrain

Mostly Shia protesters demand changes to naturalisation policy, which they say favours foreigners at their expense.

Bahrain protests
Protesters in Bahrain chanted Sunni-Shia unity slogans, emphasising they were against government policies [Reuters]

Thousands of mostly Shia Bahrainis have protested against the granting of citizenship to Sunnis from other countries serving in the country’s military.

Bahrain has seen weeks of protests by its Shia Muslim majority, which says it is discriminated against by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa ruling family.

The naturalisation question has long been raised by the country’s Shias, who say large numbers of foreigners are being given citizenship solely in order to boost the minority’s numbers. Shia’s currently account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens.

During Wednesday’s protests, thousands of demonstrators marched on the immigration office in the capital, Manama, shouting slogans and carrying signs that said “The naturalised must get out”. The march began at the Ras Roman mosque.

Protesters also shouted slogans about Sunni-Shia unity, in order to emphasise that the protest was against the government’s naturalisation policy, and not against Bahrain’s native Sunni population.

Emboldened by youth-led uprisings in nearby Egypt and Tunisia against their autocratic governments, Bahrain has seen a youth movement hold massive public protests in the last few weeks, leading to the worst unrest in the country since the 1990s.

Though initial protests were met with a brutal crackdown by government security forces, subsequent demonstrations have largely been peaceful. Protesters occupying Manama’s main Pearl Roundabout say they will not leave, however, until the Al-Khalifa family is ousted from power.

The country’s largest Shia opposition group, Wefaq, has demanded that a new government be installed and that a new constitution be drawn up to set up a constitutional monarchy, where an elected parliament has more powers. It has not demanded that the ruling family stand down.

Call for reform in UAE

Meanwhile, in the nearby United Arab Emirates, intellectuals have petitioned their ruler for free and democratic elections on Wednesday.

“The group [of intellectuals] calls for comprehensive reform of the Federal National Council (FNC), or parliament, including demands for free elections by all citizens in the method of universal suffrage,” a statement from the petitioners read.

The 40-member FNC had its first elections in 2006, when about 6,500 (less than one per cent of the 800,000 UAE citizens) elected half of its members. The other 20 were appointed.

Some 160 people signed the petition, many of them academics and former members of the FNC, which acts in an advisory capacity to the government and lacks a legislative or regulatory role.

“The group demands reform of legislation governing the work of parliament to include legislative and monitoring authorities and calls for necessary constitutional amendments to ensure this,” the petitioners said in the document, sent to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, the UAE president, and his ruling council.

Recent reforms to the electoral system have tripled the number of electors who are eligible to vote for FNC members, raising the number to about two per cent of the total population of the seven emirates.

Saudi government warning

In yet another development in the Gulf on Wednesday, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, cautioning those threatening to protest against the Saudi government, saying that dialogue, and not protests, is the route to reform. He said the government would not tolerate any street protests against it.

Activists from the kingdom’s Shia Muslim minority have called for a “Day of Rage” to be observed on Friday to demand that the current government be removed.

“Reform cannot be achieved through protests … The best way to achieve demands is through national dialogue,” al-Faisal said in Jeddah.

The interior ministry on Monday reiterated that demonstrations are banned in the kingdom on the grounds that they contradict Islamic laws and values and said in a statement that its security forces will act against anyone taking part in them.

The warning came after about 100 Shia protesters held a small demonstration in the eastern part of the kingdom.

On February 24, a group of influential intellectuals urged Abdullah, the country’s 86-year old monarch, to adopt far-reaching political and social reforms.

Source: News Agencies