* King says Bahrain to curb naturalisation
* Shi‘ite opposition critical of naturalisation of Sunnis
MANAMA, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Bahrain’s King said on Tuesday the Gulf state would limit the number of foreigners to whom it grants citizenship, in an apparent gesture to the Shi‘ite opposition after recent sectarian tensions.
The island state, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has a Shi‘ite Muslim majority population but is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. Bahrain is seen by its main allies Saudi Arabia and the United States as a bulwark against the regional influence of Shi‘ite power Iran.
Bahrain’s Shi‘ite population complains of discrimination in government jobs and services, a charge the government denies. The Shi‘ite opposition has long demanded an end to Bahrain’s practice of granting citizenship to Sunni foreigners, which it sees as an attempt by the government to change the country’s demographic composition.
“It is unreasonable that a person enters the melting pot of Bahrain’s identity, of which we are all proud except if he fully espouses the great Bahraini national spirit ... and if the country needs him, then this should be done in very limited numbers,” King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa told the parliament’s opening session.
Analysts said the elections held in October were tightly controlled by the government in order not to let the main Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq win a majority of seats.
Wefaq won 18 out of 40 seats in the assembly, whose powers are limited as its bills need to pass an upper house whose members are appointed by the king.
Bahrain saw a rise in unrest and sectarian tensions before the polls, after authorities launched a broad security crackdown in August. It arrested a group of Shi‘ite activists charged with attempting to overthrow the government and also targeted human rights activists and publications of opposition groups.
“It is the first time for him to use this politically charged word (naturalisation), which is an opposition term par excellence. The government has always denied it (gives priority to Sunnis in naturalisation),” said Mansoor al-Jamri, editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Al-Wasat.
“This is a gesture to the opposition,” he said.
The Shi‘ite opposition has said that the government has in particular granted Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen who serve in the country’s armed forces and its security apparatus.
Observers said King Hamad also backed the recent tough stance of Bahrain’s security apparatus by his remarks, during which he thanked the ministry of interior for its efforts. (Reporting by Fredrick Richter)