Last Updated: 12:11am BST 22/07/2007
[ Clashes in Bahrain: Riots reinforce Bahrain rulers' fears of asummer of trouble]
The acrid smell of tear gas hung in the air as a group of young men drifted across a street where piles of garbage and tyres were burning.
Storm of protest: Shia youths carry an injured man after a clash with the security forces in Bahrain
Not far ahead stood a line of riot police. An officer wearing a balaclava gestured at the youths to stop and as his colleagues fired off a volley of tear gas canisters, he shouted: "You have no permission to be here. Leave now."This was the scene in Malkiya, a small Shia fishing village on the outskirts of Manama, the capital city of the Gulf state of Bahrain.
Known in the West as a booming business centre, Bahrain is increasingly being promoted as an upmarket tourist destination, with luxury villas built on land reclaimed from the warm blue sea. Yet the country's authorities, bolstered by an almost entirely Sunni muslim police force and army, are being forced to step up security in preparation for a summer of unrest by the country's Shia majority.
As riot police clashed with Malkiya's protesters, Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist, said: "They want you to see Formula One and the Financial Harbour. But that's not the real Bahrain. What you see here? This is the real Bahrain."
Bahrain, an island linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway, is the strategically sensitive home to the American Fifth Fleet. More than half its 750,000 population are Shia - one of only three such countries in the region, along with Iran and Iraq. But its ruling elite are Sunni, and for decades they have suspected that Iran, from just across the Gulf, is fomenting dissent among Bahrain's Shia.
Since the beginning of this year, dozens of riots have taken place in Shia villages across the kingdom, most of them unreported by the tightly controlled local media. Human rights watchers say that hundreds of people have been injured.
Since the first oil well began production in Bahrain in 1931, its ruling al Khalifa royal family has grown enormously. Mustafa al Sayed, the chief executive officer of Bapco, the government-owned petroleum company, said: "Bahrain was, before and after oil, a garden of Eden. Even today when you enter you feel you are in paradise."
Yet the Shia disagree. They complain that the Sunni elite have discriminated against them for years, and Malkiya has become a dangerous flashpoint.
For the ruling family, land has become the new oil. Land reclaimed from the shallow sea can be sold to the highest bidder to build another business complex or tourist resort, and 97 per cent of the country's coastline is now in private hands.
So the fishermen of Malkiya were infuriated when a cousin of the king, a powerful member of the royal family, seized coastline to which the villagers had always had access, potentially threatening their livelihood. When villagers protested - peacefully, they insist - they were met by riot police deploying tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets.
Even worse, say the villagers, many of the police are foreign Sunni, some of the thousands being lured in to shore up the security forces and help offset the population imbalance.
One young Shia protester, surrounded by his mostly unemployed friends said: "They bring people from the outside and give them jobs. Why do they have priority over us? It's not right."
For years, the authorities have recruited Sunni from Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Pakistan to police Bahrain. Opposition activists point to the exclusion of Shia from the defence force and the police as evidence of systematic discrimination.
But Hassan Fakhro, the minister for industry and commerce, said: "There is a lack of confidence between the ruled and the rulers. It is not unusual. There is a small percentage who do not have loyalty to the state. Sometimes, for good reasons, you have to be careful who you employ."
Many Shia feel they have been betrayed by King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, who promised democratic reform when he took over from his father in 1999. He gave women the vote and organised limited parliamentary elections but now, critics complain, reform has been stalled - there was gerrymandering in last year's elections and Shia votes were heavily discounted.
Ghanim al Buainanin, the first vice-speaker of Bahrain's parliament and leader of a Sunni Islamist bloc, denied any discrimination and said there were other reasons for the unrest. He pointed the finger at Iran, whose coast lies less than 100 miles away and whose intelligence services have long been suspected of exploiting Shia grievances to foment trouble for the West.
Asked if he blamed Iran, he said: "Yes, 100 per cent. I have the feeling Iran is involved directly in destabilising Bahrain."
However, Shia leaders insist they are loyal to the country. Jalila Said, a lawyer and outspoken critic of the government, said that she believed that questions about loyalty masked another agenda. "Denying people their rights on the pretext that they are a tool of the Iranian regime is a joke."