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Labor Autonomy and Resilience in Bahrain
The literature on labor autonomy and the Arab spring has largely focused on what initially seemed to be the two most successful revolutions, Egypt and Tunisia. On the one hand, the recent reconsideration of these cases has a done a great deal to advance our understanding of labor and authoritarianism. However, the literature is held back by the relative neglect of the labor movement that was earliest and most open in endorsing a revolution with by far the highest level of popular participation, Bahrain. Neither the Gulf nor petrostates in general are typically associated with labor militance and revolution, making this case all the more generative. Much as recent literature has argued is the case for Tunisia, traditions of militance and autonomy in Bahrain date back at least to the 1930s, and less directly to the pearl diver uprisings of earlier decades. At the same time, unions only achieved legal recognition in 2002, forcing us to rethink several aspects of the current argument. Mainly, it forces us to consider how similar traditions can be developed underground within a single regime. In this paper, I seek to pose the question of why a durable tradition of labor autonomy emerged and reproduced itself in Bahrain. I do so using colonial, diplomatic and press archives from Bahrain, the United Kingdom and United States as well as several key memoirs by labor leaders. I then go onto to explore what this case can tell us about broader debates on union democracy, authoritarianism, and the resource curse.
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