MANAMA (Reuters) - Seventeen years have passed and Bahraini government clerk Saeed is still waiting to move out of his ramshackle house in Barbar, a Shi’ite village outside the capital Manama, and into government housing.
For Saeed and other Bahraini Shi’ites, the interminable waiting time is just another sign of the discrimination and neglect by a government which they say gives priority in housing, jobs and services to Sunnis.
Saeed is one of about 53,000 mostly Shi’ite Bahrainis out of a national population of 600,000 who are waiting to receive housing from their Sunni-led government because they cannot afford to buy land or houses themselves.
“When I went to the government the last time, I told them I’m going to die before I get a government house, it’ll end up going to my children,” Saeed said.
With a family of 14 crammed under his roof, and a salary of 250 dinars (419 pounds) a month, he is barely able to provide for them. A new flat or house is a distant dream for Saeed.
The housing issue, high unemployment and attempts by the government to grant Sunnis from outside the country jobs and citizenship in order to change the demographic balance lie at the heart of deep-seated discontent among Bahrain’s Shi’ites.
The divisive issues, denied by Manama — a close ally of Washington and Riyadh — will dominate Bahrain’s October 23 parliamentary election.
Bahrain, with its majority Shi’ite population ruled over by the Sunni Khalifa dynasty, has been afflicted by sporadic rioting since the mid-1990s, which the government has portrayed as an Iran-inspired plot to overturn the monarchy.
Rivarly between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam dates back to the period after the death of Prophet Mohammad 13 centuries ago. Sunni rulers share Western fears that Iran — a non-Arab Shi’ite state with considerable influence in the Arab world — is seeking to become a nuclear weapons state with ambitions to dominate the region.
Attempts to contain widespread Shi’ite discontent in Bahrain by the restoration of parliament and a managed democracy have sharpened appetites for a change in a system where the ruling family still calls the shots.
The vote for lower house will be the third in the Gulf Arab country since King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched a reform process a decade ago to help quell Shi’ite protests. Besides Kuwait, Bahrain is the only Gulf Arab country with an elected parliament but laws must pass through a Sunni-dominated upper house appointed by the king.
Housing Minister Sheikh Ebrahim bin Khalifa al-Khalifa said there was no prejudice in awarding government housing and that any delays were caused by the increase in population.
“We are going (down the list) by name, without any other considerations,” he told Reuters.
But many Shi’ites cannot shake off the suspicion they are being discriminated against, and as the country gears up for the election, Bahrain’s sectarian rift — or rather the divide between its rulers and their Shi’ite subjects — looks set to deepen further.
The resentment, analysts say, is fuelled further by the appalling living conditions endured by Shi’ite villagers while they see housing, health care and other benefits being allocated by their government to Sunnis from elsewhere.
“Most Shi’ites feel that their situation is caused by discrimination and because nationalised foreigners are taking up most of the housing projects,” said Nabeel Rajab from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).
“I think this is one form of discrimination. In some areas there’s no housing and also no infrastructure like sewage systems or water supply,” said Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
In the past two months, Bahrain, also home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a regional offshore banking centre, has cracked down on some Shi’ite opposition groups, accusing their leaders of plotting to overthrow the Sunni monarchy.
Any hope someone like Saeed had of buying a piece of land was dashed when land prices shot up during a five-year property boom that ended only when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. In the aftermath of the debt crunch, housing loans also became more difficult to obtain.
“There is a big disconnect between the loans people can get and the prices at which developers can build,” said Mike Williams, senior director at property consultants CB Richard Ellis Bahrain.
Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition also says the housing shortage is further aggravated by the extensive land ownership of the ruling Khalifa family.
There is no reliable data on land ownership available in Bahrain, but the ruling family holds stakes in property developments on newly reclaimed land on Bahrain’s north coast, land which the Shi’ite opposition says the government allocated for investment purposes.
Bahrain’s business registry shows that Emar Bahrain, owner of the Bahrain Financial Harbour development, is linked to the royal family. A probe by parliament in March concluded that 65 square kilometres (25 square miles) of state land had been given to private companies without appropriate compensation since 2003.
“Not a single (penny) out of this reclamation and public property being transferred to private companies went to the public budget,” said Khalil Marzooq, a member of parliament from Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq.
He said this land could have been worth at least 10 billion dinars, money which could have been used for housing projects.
Ali Fateel, a Shi’ite who lives in Bani Jamra village, said he applied for government housing 20 years ago and is desperate to move out of his three-room flat as his family grows.
Fateel said he thought villagers were slow to be awarded government housing because the leader of the Shi’ite opposition in the 1990s, Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, was born there.
Fateel’s three teenage sons and his daughter still have to sleep in the same small room at an age when sexes are normally separated in his deeply conservative society.
“I applied before my son was born, almost 20 years ago. What if he wants to marry soon, then I need to rent another flat for his family,” he said.
He did not expected to get government housing any time soon. “I don’t see it coming,” Fateel said.
Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Samia Nakhoul