21 Jun 2009 By Andrew Hammond DUBAI, June 21 (Reuters) - Majority Shi'ite Muslims in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain, home to a U.S. navy base, are increasingly agitated over what they say are government efforts to give Sunni foreigners nationality to dilute Shi'ite numbers.

Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni family and its fragile sectarian balance concerns neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the largest Sunni Gulf Arab country which fears the growing influence of Shi'ite Iran in the region.

Six political groups -- two overtly Shi'ite -- presented a petition to Bahrain's royal court last month over naturalisation that analysts say heightens competition for jobs and benefits.

"The naturalisation is a social problem -- it creates friction and destroys the fabric of the society," said Ebraheem Shareef of the National Democratic Action Society (Waad).

The petition, rejected on the grounds that parliament should deal with such protests, asks for a freeze to all naturalisation until there is national consensus on the issue.

Officially, 5,000 citizens received nationality in the five years to 2008. Bahrain's total population is around 1.2 million.

But the petitioners say the figures don't add up and suspect the real number is 60,000.

They say that the official population growth rate of 2.4 percent does not make sense if there were 406,000 Bahrainis in April 2001 and 529,000 in September 2007, according to official figures. The gap, they argue, is made up by settling Sunnis.

The Ministry of Interior said in May in a response to the petition that all naturalisation had taken place transparently in accordance with Bahraini law.

"The Ministry of Interior has said on various occasions that naturalisation is a legal process subject to conditions," it said in a statement. "Such issues should be approached through the legislative authority."

The Bahrain Center of Human Rights estimates that some 50 percent of the 20,000-strong security apparatus are Baluchi Pakistanis, plus some Syrian and Jordanians from certain tribes.

Backed by its Saudi ally, Bahrain rallied Gulf support this year over remarks in February by an Iranian official staking a claim to the island, joined to Saudi Arabia by a causeway.

Seen as the Achilles heel in the region's front of Sunni-led states facing Shi'ite Iran, Manama halted talks with Tehran over importing 1 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas imports.

Bahrain has been host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet since 1995, ensuring close ties between Manama and Washington.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran as Western powers fear its nuclear energy programme could allow Tehran to build a nuclear bomb. Iran denies that intention.

TENSION AHEAD OF ELECTIONS

Observers say the naturalisation controversy is set to rise to the top of the political agenda in elections due next year, where the citizens could affect outcomes in voting districts.

"The big issue ahead of the parliamentary elections will be how the election districts are divided. There could be a whole new population pattern among Bahrainis and non-Bahrainis," said one who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Shi'ites in the Najran region bordering Yemen in south Saudi Arabia also say the authorities have settled Sunni foreigners -- Yemeni tribesman -- in an effort to dilute the presence of a people seen as a security threat and reviled by Sunni clerics.

Saudi Arabia Eastern Province adjacent to Bahrain has over two million Shi'ites, with close links to Bahrain. The region produces virtually all of Saudi Arabia's oil output.

Tensions in Bahrain rose in recent months with nightly clashes with police during the trial of an opposition figure, a Shi'ite cleric and 33 protesters in detention. Some were accused of planning to use violence to overthrow the government. The protests largely ended when the king pardoned them in April.

Neil Partrick, a U.K.-based analyst, said the situation in Bahrain was less tense than the 1990s. The tensions eased when ruler Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched reforms, including pardons, a new constitution and parliamentary elections.

"Should the risk of military action against Iran by the United States or Israel increase, then Bahrain would again raise substantial internal security fears among its neighbours and the United States," Partrick said.

(Editing by Samia Nakhoul) http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/LH633091.htm