Thousands of Shiite protesters in Bahrain demanded Wednesday that naturalized Sunnis be stripped of their citizenship and sent out of the Gulf country.
The latest demand comes after three weeks of marches for political change in the strategically important island kingdom. Bahrain is the host of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf.
Shiites of Bahrain have long demanded rights and opportunities equal to those of the kingdom’s Sunni citizens as well as Sunnis from Arab countries and Pakistan who have been naturalized in an effort to boost the minority’s numbers.
Thousands marched on the immigration office in the Bahraini capital of Manama, carrying slogans that said in Arabic “The naturalized must get out.”
Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy for 200 years. Tensions remain high after a clash last week between Shiites and Sunnis injured at least a dozen people.
The ruling Al Khalifa family is strongly backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni regimes across the Gulf, which all share major concerns about the growing military and political ambitions of Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Bahrain and Iraq are the only two Arab countries where the Shiites form a majority. Many Sunnis perceive Shiites as Iran’s Arab allies, even though — unlike the Shiites of Iraq — Bahrain’s majority and Tehran have no history of strong political bonds.
More than being accused of being Tehran’s agents, Bahrain’s Shiites have been angered by the bestowing citizenship to outside Sunnis. They claim the policy is a clear attempt to offset the lopsided demographics with Shiites accounting for 70 percent of the country’s 525,000 citizens.
Many also claim that the immigration policy reflects a cynical view by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers that it’s possible to buy loyalty and use it to strengthen their grip over the country.