Members of the ruling family, the al-Khalifas, are rightly proud of what they’ve built here. Bahrain is modern, moderate and well-educated, and by Gulf standards it has more of the forms of democracy than some others. But here’s my question to King Hamad: Why is it any more appropriate for a minority Sunni population to rule over majority Shia than it was in South Africa for a minority white population to rule over a majority black population? What exactly is the difference?
Indeed, the language of the ruling party sounds a lot to me like the language of white South Africans — or even like the language of white southerners in Jim Crow America, or the language of militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There’s a fear of the rabble, a distrust of full democracy, a sense of entitlement. Apartheid isn’t exactly the right metaphor, because there isn’t formal separation (although neighborhoods are often either Sunni or Shia), and people routinely have very close friends of the other sect. But how can a system when 70 percent of the population is not eligible for the army be considered fair? How can a system in which the leading cabinet positions are filled by one family be considered fair?