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Can Bahrain’s division between Sunnis and Shias be healed?

For the first time since her childhood, Mariam recently went back to the shrine of Nabi Saleh, a tiny island off the shore of Bahrain’s capital, Manama. She reverentially held green drapes over the tomb of the 14th-century holy man whose name was given to the island. She stopped near the spring where her family used to barbecue a sacrificial goat. She remembered tasting the sweet dates from the orchards and looked at the waves lapping the island where she once swam. So much had gone. The sea is sullied with sewage. The spring is a dry hole. A car park has replaced most of the orchard. And Sunni families, like hers, gave up visiting the shrine decades ago. “Why did we stop?” she asked the custodian of the shrine, a Shia. “We were together. It was such a beautiful age.”Since the Islamic revolution of 1979 that convulsed Iran and threatened the thrones of Sunni Arab monarchs across the Gulf, Bahrain has been on the fault line of the Sunni-Shia division. It is the only country in the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council where the indigenous majority is Shia; most of the people in the other five are staunchly Sunni. And it lies awkwardly squeezed between two large ideological foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the ayatollahs took over Iran, Bahrain’s two sects sought succour from those bigger brothers, sometimes accusing each other of unbelief. Narrow-minded Sunni clerics denounced shrines, like those of Nabi Saleh, as insults to monotheism.Yet sectarian feeling may be softening. Saudi Arabia has muzzled its more extreme Islamists and embarked on a more secular drive. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain’s other big patron, has banned Sunni Islamist parties and encouraged other Gulf governments to follow suit. Sunni Islamist parties did badly in Bahrain’s recent election to choose members of an assembly that advises the all-powerful monarch, Hamad al-Khalifa. Bahrain’s Sunni clergy may be shedding its sectarianism too. Younger Shias may want their own clergy to reciprocate. The cries of protesters seeking to topple the Shia theocracy in Iran are being heard in Bahrain. Some Bahraini Shias are annoyed by the support their theologians are giving to the Iranian ayatollahs. “It’s hypocrisy,” says a Shia activist. “They have slogans for human rights here, but they’re very conservative and don’t want women to have better chances.” So Bahrain’s Shia religious establishment is also under pressure to be more liberal and less in thrall to their counterparts in Iran. Social harmony between Shias and Sunnis in Bahrain would be enhanced still more if the ruling family bestowed equal political rights on the Shia majority. The main Shia party, al-Wefaq, is banned, so the recent election took place without its participation. Moreover, the ruling family grants most of the top army and security posts to Sunnis. Radio and television are broadcast in a Sunni dialect. The Sunni version of Islam is the one taught in schools. The names of Shia villages are often erased from signposts; medieval Shia mosques are unmarked on maps. Maryam wants Sunnis and Shias to worship together at the island shrine. That may not be to the taste of the Khalifas. If the sects co-operated in politics as well as in religion, the people of Bahrain would find it easier to hold their ruling family to account. They might even demand a constitutional monarchy. The recent election is a long way from allowing that. ■

While Iran’s turmoil persists, the jitters spread through region

In most revolutions there comes a point when the regime under threat moves from trying to control the crowd without spilling too much blood to sending in the army to crush the revolt. Iran may be nearing that point. Swathes of the country already look like a war zone. Armoured-car columns of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard, roll into cities including Mahabad and Javanroud in Iran’s Kurdish north-west, firing with machineguns on protesters. Helicopters fly overhead. Circling drones broadcast martial songs.The death toll across the country is rising sharply. Iran Human Rights, a watchdog based in Norway, reckons its tally of 342 dead in the first two months has jumped to at least 416 in the past week. The true figure could be much higher, it says, because internet blockages have interrupted the flow of information.Protesters are fighting back. “You can’t ask a brutal dictator for your rights peacefully,” says a Kurd, echoing the intensifying militancy. Street-fighting manuals have begun to circulate. There are increasing reports of security forces being stabbed and shot at. Supporters of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), based in neighbouring Iraq, say they are smuggling weapons and protective gear across the mountains into Iran. Some 60 Iranian soldiers and police have been killed, according to Iran’s state media and outside monitors.While turmoil spreads at home, Iran’s rulers are hitting back—and trying to stir up trouble—abroad. The IRGC is regularly firing missiles and drones at armed camps manned by Iranian exiles in Iraq’s Kurdish north. Its commanders have threatened a ground invasion. They may be signalling to other governments in the region that, were the regime to totter, it could still lash out against its enemies across the Middle East. Visitors to Kurdistan say its leaders fear that their Western allies are too preoccupied with the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine to come to their rescue.Elsewhere Iran is trying to show it can still make trouble for those who are taking cheer from its current discomfiture. It has hit an Israeli-owned tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. It has shipped parts for missiles to its Houthi allies in Yemen, who have previously struck the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The IRGC has posted a video showing how its drones could attack Saudi oil installations. Iran has also brazenly announced that it is enriching uranium at close to weapons-grade and is spinning more advanced centrifuges. “The more the regime in Tehran is under pressure, the more it’ll lash out,” says Christian Koch of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation in Switzerland. “It will do whatever it takes. It’s a survival game.” Armageddon, some fear, could beckon.Yet Iranians are also signalling to foreigners the benefits of keeping the regime on their side. The militias they have long sponsored in Iraq used to fire at the American “occupiers”. But now that they are ensconced in the government in Baghdad, the militias are courting them. Iraq’s new prime minister, Muhammad al-Sudani, is said to have had several productive meetings with the American ambassador. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah, has also tacitly engaged with America, which recently mediated an agreement between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime border. “Iran is telling the Americans: don’t miss the opportunity...to reach agreements you could never have dreamt of,” says a former senior Iraqi official. Several of his colleagues think Iran is hoping that America’s deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, may make it more open to engaging with Iran.Some hardliners in Iran’s government, including Ali Shamkhani, the national-security chief, have sought to bring reformers back into government. Official media have been quoting Muhammad Khatami, the most moderate of past presidents, after censoring him for almost a decade. A few reformers have proposed a referendum on the future type of government. Others suggest snap elections. A number of analysts think the IRGC will waive some Islamist requirements, such as women having to wear the veil, as the price for staying in power. But protesters say the regime must go, hardliners and reformers alike. Western governments are anyway unlikely to re-engage with Iran while turmoil rages within it. Technical differences between America and Europeans over nuclear negotiations have all but disappeared. Both have tired of Iran’s foot-dragging and are angered by Iran’s supply of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. Some also question whether Iran has the ability to make good on its threats to wreak havoc abroad. Since the assassination in 2020 of Qassim Suleimani, the powerful long-serving commander of the IRGC’s foreign strike force, many of Iran’s satellites have anyway concentrated on their own affairs rather than act as a cat’s paw for Iran’s ayatollahs. “Even if the regime recovers, [Ali] Khamenei is no longer the linchpin,” says an Iranian analyst, referring to Iran’s supreme leader. Hizbullah, too, may be constrained by Lebanon’s deal with Israel. Another Iranian protégé, Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction running the Gaza Strip, has been relatively quiescent. The IRGC is struggling to maintain its leading position in Syria, where it is often pummelled by Israel. Now that the fighting has subsided, Syria increasingly favours ties with Arab Gulf countries that have deeper pockets. Iran is also struggling to rouse its Shia brethren in Gulf states, such as Bahrain. To the IRGC’s ire, they mutter against the normalisation of relations with Israel under the Abraham accords, but rarely take to the streets. “Shias no longer chant ‘Death to America and Israel’ in Friday prayers,” says a Shia Bahraini politician.In sum, Iran’s ayatollahs are facing an increasingly daring enemy within. Yet their friends in the region are displaying a growing reluctance to come to their aid. The Iranian regime’s struggle to survive may be becoming a lonely affair.■

While Iran’s turmoil persists, jitters spread through the region

In most revolutions there comes a point when the regime under threat moves from trying to control the crowd without spilling too much blood to sending in the army to crush the revolt. Iran may be nearing that point. Swathes of the country already look like a war zone. Armoured-car columns of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard, roll into cities including Mahabad and Javanroud in Iran’s Kurdish north-west, firing with machineguns on protesters. Helicopters fly overhead. Circling drones broadcast martial songs.The death toll across the country is rising sharply. Iran Human Rights, a watchdog based in Norway, reckons its tally of 342 dead in the first two months has jumped to at least 416 in the past week. The true figure could be much higher, it says, because internet blockages have interrupted the flow of information.Protesters are fighting back. “You can’t ask a brutal dictator for your rights peacefully,” says a Kurd, echoing the intensifying militancy. Street-fighting manuals have begun to circulate. There are increasing reports of security forces being stabbed and shot at. Supporters of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), based in neighbouring Iraq, say they are smuggling weapons and protective gear across the mountains into Iran. Some 60 Iranian soldiers and police have been killed, according to Iran’s state media and outside monitors.While turmoil spreads at home, Iran’s rulers are hitting back—and trying to stir up trouble—abroad. The IRGC is regularly firing missiles and drones at armed camps manned by Iranian exiles in Iraq’s Kurdish north. Its commanders have threatened a ground invasion. They may be signalling to other governments in the region that, were the regime to totter, it could still lash out against its enemies across the Middle East. Visitors to Kurdistan say its leaders fear that their Western allies are too preoccupied with the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine to come to their rescue.Elsewhere Iran is trying to show it can still make trouble for those who are taking cheer from its current discomfiture. It has hit an Israeli-owned tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. It has shipped parts for missiles to its Houthi allies in Yemen, who have previously struck the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The IRGC has posted a video showing how its drones could attack Saudi oil installations. Iran has also brazenly announced that it is enriching uranium at close to weapons-grade and is spinning more advanced centrifuges. “The more the regime in Tehran is under pressure, the more it’ll lash out,” says Christian Koch of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation in Switzerland. “It will do whatever it takes. It’s a survival game.” Armageddon, some fear, could beckon.Yet Iranians are also signalling to foreigners the benefits of keeping the regime on their side. The militias they have long sponsored in Iraq used to fire at the American “occupiers”. But now that they are ensconced in the government in Baghdad, the militias are courting them. Iraq’s new prime minister, Muhammad al-Sudani, is said to have had several productive meetings with the American ambassador. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah, has also tacitly engaged with America, which recently mediated an agreement between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime border. “Iran is telling the Americans: don’t miss the opportunity...to reach agreements you could never have dreamt of,” says a former senior Iraqi official. Several of his colleagues think Iran is hoping that America’s deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, may make it more open to engaging with Iran.Some hardliners in Iran’s government, including Ali Shamkhani, the national-security chief, have sought to bring reformers back into government. Official media have been quoting Muhammad Khatami, the most moderate of past presidents, after censoring him for almost a decade. A few reformers have proposed a referendum on the future type of government. Others suggest snap elections. A number of analysts think the IRGC will waive some Islamist requirements, such as women having to wear the veil, as the price for staying in power. But protesters say the regime must go, hardliners and reformers alike. Western governments are anyway unlikely to re-engage with Iran while turmoil rages within it. Technical differences between America and Europeans over nuclear negotiations have all but disappeared. Both have tired of Iran’s foot-dragging and are angered by Iran’s supply of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. Some also question whether Iran has the ability to make good on its threats to wreak havoc abroad. Since the assassination in 2020 of Qassim Suleimani, the powerful long-serving commander of the IRGC’s foreign strike force, many of Iran’s satellites have anyway concentrated on their own affairs rather than act as a cat’s paw for Iran’s ayatollahs. “Even if the regime recovers, [Ali] Khamenei is no longer the linchpin,” says an Iranian analyst, referring to Iran’s supreme leader. Hizbullah, too, may be constrained by Lebanon’s deal with Israel. Another Iranian protégé, Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction running the Gaza Strip, has been relatively quiescent. The IRGC is struggling to maintain its leading position in Syria, where it is often pummelled by Israel. Now that the fighting has subsided, Syria increasingly favours ties with Arab Gulf countries that have deeper pockets. Iran is also struggling to rouse its Shia brethren in Gulf states, such as Bahrain. To the IRGC’s ire, they mutter against the normalisation of relations with Israel under the Abraham accords, but rarely take to the streets. “Shias no longer chant ‘Death to America and Israel’ in Friday prayers,” says a Shia Bahraini politician.In sum, Iran’s ayatollahs are facing an increasingly daring enemy within. Yet their friends in the region are displaying a growing reluctance to come to their aid. The Iranian regime’s struggle to survive may be becoming a lonely affair.■

What Saudi Arabia’s football victory means for the Middle East

LAST MONTH Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, summoned the national football team to deliver an odd pep talk: no one expects much from you. The Green Falcons were preparing for their sixth World Cup appearance. The past four ended in the group stage, with just a single win in 2018. This year they drew a tough bracket that included Argentina, a favourite to hoist the golden trophy.Prince Muhammad told the squad to “play without pressure”. The setting may have undermined the message; meeting a monarch with a ruthless reputation is not a low-pressure situation. Still, he sought to reassure. The kingdom had long-term hopes for its football programme, he said, but for now simply qualifying was victory enough. “We hope the future is better,” he concluded.The future came sooner than expected. On November 22nd the Saudis beat Argentina 2-1, among the greatest upsets in World Cup history. Saudi fans reacted as if they had just won the trophy itself. One widely shared video showed a Saudi man tearing the door off his home in joy (which perhaps later turned to regret). King Salman announced a national holiday on November 23rd.This year’s World Cup, in Qatar, is the first in the Middle East, a football-mad region where the local teams are often underdogs and a fractured region where rivalries too often play out on battlefields. At least for a brief period, the tournament has brought a dollop of goodwill.Since Prince Muhammad became heir-apparent in 2017, Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on sport. Some of that has gone to glitzy events, like a Formula 1 race in Jeddah and an upstart golf tour meant to compete with the PGA, that appeal to the rich and to foreigners. But the kingdom is also spending to build a pipeline of local athletes, particularly in football.For decades the Saudi royal family kept power through a Faustian pact with dour conservative clerics. Prince Muhammad has sought to sideline them, fashioning a Saudi identity that is more nationalistic and less religious. He was surely pleased to see Saudis of all stripes celebrating a national achievement. There were celebrations elsewhere, too, from Cairo to Amman to Fallujah in western Iraq. Even many Arabs who loathe Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy celebrated the win.The unlikeliest cheers came from the Houthis, the Shia rebel group in Yemen that has fought an almost eight-year war against a Saudi-led coalition. Several Houthi officials tweeted their congratulations. Though the praise was later deleted, it was perhaps a bit of football diplomacy: the Saudis are desperate to end a war that has become an expensive quagmire, and there is talk that they may begin direct talks with the Houthis.When the World Cup began, on November 20th, Prince Muhammad was meant to be in Japan, the second-largest buyer of Saudi oil. Officials from both countries had worked for months to arrange the visit, which featured a meeting with the prime minister and a high-profile business forum. Days before he was to arrive, though, Prince Muhammad abruptly cancelled. Instead he flew to Doha to attend the World Cup’s opening ceremony.Five years ago Saudi Arabia led a group of four Arab countries in imposing a blockade on Qatar, long the bête noire of the Gulf over its support for Islamists and its patronage of Al Jazeera, a satellite news channel that often criticises Arab regimes (other than Qatar’s). In the early days of the embargo, there was talk of a possible Saudi invasion. State-linked newspapers in Riyadh ran lurid claims that the kingdom might dig a canal on the border, turning Qatar into an island, and perhaps build a nuclear-waste dump there to boot.All that seemed forgotten as Prince Muhammad sat smiling in the ruler’s box in Doha, two seats away from the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The emir returned the gesture during the Saudi-Argentina match, waving a Saudi flag from the stands and draping it around his neck.One day before the Saudi match, Iran faced off against England. Many Iranians were anxious to see if the team would make a gesture towards months of protests at home, which began in September after Mahsa Amini, a young woman, died in the custody of Iran’s “morality” police. Ehsan Hajsafi, the squad’s captain, had already said that he “sympathised” with protesters.The gesture, when it came, was a simple one: when Iran’s national anthem was played in the stadium, the players stood silent rather than sing. In the hothouse environment of today’s Iran, even that proved divisive. Some thought it brave. Others saw it as a middling gesture and chanted insults at the players. The controversy overshadowed the match itself (perhaps a good thing, since Team Melli lost 6-2).Fans are fickle; monarchs are mercurial. Euphoria over Saudi Arabia’s win will not end the war in Yemen, nor will silence during Iran’s anthem topple a rotten regime. The bonhomie between the crown prince and the emir could end as abruptly as it began. It is true that small gestures matter. That they matter so much in the Middle East, though, is a reminder of how divided the region is. ■

Why the African cocoa cartel is a bad idea

Big commodity buyers do not usually pay their suppliers to produce something that they will never buy. Yet Nestlé, one of the world’s biggest chocolate makers, is paying 10,000 cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast to do exactly that. Among them is Tanoh Kouadio, a 45-year-old cocoa farmer whom Nestlé will pay about 67,000 west African francs ($104) to start raising chickens.Eating chocolate is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Selling it can be rather profitable. Alas, growing the beans that go into it is neither particularly profitable nor pleasurable. Most cocoa farmers are poor; many of those who work for them are children. The reason that Nestlé is moonlighting as a pro-poultry NGO is because it worries its customers may see chocolate as a guilty pleasure in more ways than one. Cocoa farmers’ woes are painfully clear in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest producer. The country has roughly 1m cocoa farmers, who support about 5m people, or one-fifth of the population. More than half of Ivorian cocoa farmers and their families subsist on less than $1.2 francs a day. Poor parents often send their kids to work in the fields. They also hack down other trees to make more room for cocoa. In Ivory Coast and Ghana, which between them grow about 60% of the world’s cocoa, some 1.5m children do dangerous work in cocoa-growing areas. Many of Ivory Coast’s forests have been destroyed (see map).In 2018 Ivory Coast and Ghana agreed to set up a cartel, dubbed coPEC after the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), in a bid to push up prices. They later demanded that buyers pay a premium of $400 a tonne over the going rate (about 16% at current prices). They recently turned up the heat, saying that unless buyers began paying the higher price by November 20th, they would halt the sustainability programmes that big chocolate companies run. They hope this will shame the big firms in the eyes of their consumers, some two-thirds of whom say they are willing to pay more for chocolate that makes them feel virtuous (though when in shops, far fewer seem to do so). This is not the first time cocoa-producers have banded together to force up the price, with attempts to form cartels and other price schemes going back at least to 1945. Not one has worked. copec’s recent effort is staying true to form. When it was first announced most big chocolate outfits, including Mars, Hershey and Mondelez (which owns Cadbury and Toblerone), loudly praised the plan. However, most big firms have subverted its spirit by paying the COPEC premium while also trimming a separate payment. This is known as the country or “origin” premium that goes to Ivory Coast and Ghana, ostensibly to reward their growers for reliability and quality. These cuts have largely cancelled out the feel-good copec premium. “They say, yes, they will pay,” fumes Yves Brahima Koné, the head of the Coffee and Cocoa Council (CCC), the Ivorian regulator. “But they don’t tell the truth.”Ivory Coast and Ghana hope that by enlisting other producers they will get more sway over the market. Nigeria and Cameroon are talking of joining coPEC, which would raise its share of world production to 75%. Yet even if this time is different and copec manages to push up prices, it could struggle to sustain them. Higher prices would probably encourage more farmers to plant cocoa, further oversupplying the market. Even those buying ethical, or fair-trade, cocoa at higher prices have had to stop taking on new farmers because demand for these pricier beans has lagged behind supply.Chocolate is not like oil, and not just in the sense that it tastes nicer. Saudi Arabia, the world’s swing producer of oil, can simply turn off the taps if it wants higher prices. Oil can remain underground, and does not rot. Cocoa trees, by contrast, cannot be turned off. If COPEC governments try to squeeze the market by banning exports, they will probably still have to keep buying and stockpiling beans to keep their farmers happy. Doing so could quickly overwhelm their budgets. As it is, cocoa prices are weak because there is an abundant supply. And cocoa buyers have proved adept at sidestepping the new cartel by buying beans elsewhere or running down their own stocks, according to the International Cocoa Organisation, an intergovernmental outfit. As a result last year Ivory Coast sold its cocoa at a heavy discount. Ivorian civil-society groups say big chocolate “made the Ivorian government bend”. Big chocolate and cocoa processors, although paying lip service to the premium, prefer instead to publicise their own charitable programmes to help farmers. Nestlé’s programme, one of many, pays farmers like Mr Kouadio not only for diversifying but also for three other worthy activities, including pruning to improve cocoa yields and sending their kids to school. Such programmes may make for good press releases, but do not get to grips with the scale of the problem. Nestlé’s pilot project has 10,000 farmers and it plans to expand to 160,000 globally by 2030. Yet that is a tiny fraction of the farmers in Ivory Coast. Alex Assanvo, the head of COPEC’s secretariat, claims such programmes reach a mere 15% of farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana, though other estimates are higher. “Sustainability programmes cannot be the answer,” says Francesca Di Mauro, the European Union ambassador in Ivory Coast, “they’re welcome, but they’re not systemic.” The grim truth is that small farmers will never grow rich selling unprocessed beans. In most countries where rural folk have dramatically improved their lives, they have done so by moving to cities and finding better-paid jobs there. Encouraging them to remain in the countryside and grow more cocoa than people want to eat is an unlikely path to prosperity.Ivory Coast is hoping to move up the chocolate value chain. It is now one of the world’s two largest cocoa grinders (the other is the Netherlands). Yet grinding adds only a little of the value that is found in a bar of chocolate. And in any case, there is little reason to think that because the country is good for growing cocoa it is also going to be better at making chocolate than, say, Switzerland (which grows almost none). In focusing so doggedly on cocoa, Ivorians may be overlooking other industries where its firms and people might be more competitive. Farms can generate wealth, but they typically do so by becoming bigger, more efficient and more mechanised. This means having fewer farmers. Mr Koné of the Ivorian regulator thinks this is a bad idea. “We must not change our economic model,” he insists.After tense meetings this week, Mr Assanvo of COPEC is claiming victory, mostly. He says the companies have agreed to pay the premium properly, at least until an expert group on pricing reports early next year. This looks like a fudge with a short shelf-life that will do little to eliminate poverty—or end the long-running chocolate wars. ■

Iran’s protesters are painting for freedom

At first they tried performance art. Across Iran, young women and men crouched down, heads hanging in submission, arms cuffed to trees or lampposts. When the police began rounding them up, protesters padlocked mannequins bent double to street signs. In sports matches players adopted similar poses when they scored, re-enacting the fate of Khoda Nour, a protester the mullahs’ men tied to a flagpole without food or drink, a glass of water placed before him, just out of reach.Listen to this story. Enjoy more audio and podcasts on

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