The first anniversary of the outbreak of demonstrations in Bahrain has moved the international spotlight back to the situation in the tiny Persian Gulf island-kingdom this week.
The so-called February 14 Revolution claimed the lives of several dozen civilians over the past year as a result of a brutal government crackdown. Sporadic demonstrations have continued into this year, with an uptick in activity in recent days leading up to the anniversary milestone.
Despite the implementation of a few reforms in Bahrain, experts believe that the underlying fault lines in Bahrani society have not diminished over the past year, and the potential for a political earthquake spurred by the majority Shi’ite population to topple the rule of Sunni King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa remains.
For the world, the stakes in the tiny island-state are high. Bahrain’s monarchy has long been a key strategic ally for the United States, and the US naval base hosted by the kingdom is home to the US Fifth Fleet – a keystone of Washington’s defence strategy in the Persian Gulf.
For his part, King Hamad maintains that the situation in his kingdom has stablised, and used an interview published Monday in Der Spiegel to downplay the perception of organised opposition to his rule.
“Arab Spring? That’s the business of other countries,” Hamad told the reporter. He also brazenly rejected the very notion of political opposition as alien to Bahrain’s way of government.
In a sense there is no “opposition” in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views. Such a phrase is not in our constitution, unlike say the United Kingdom. We only have people with different views and that’s okay.
King Hamad’s remarks notwithstanding, Middle East analysts agree the situation in Bahrain continues to be characterised by strong tensions and considerable risk, and will be for the foreseeable future.
On Monday, Simon Henderson, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program, assessed the situation to date.
Last year’s troubles exacerbated political resentment and what Shiites see as their low socioeconomic status, made worse by fast-tracked citizenship for Sunni immigrants. Under international pressure, King Hamad set up an independent inquiry to look into the causes of the unrest and propose reforms. The inquiry’s findings, presented last November, were critical of the government, and although changes have been made in response, the political stance of the Shiite opposition has become more hardline. Al-Wifaq, the main opposition bloc, has insisted on further concessions, which the government — responding, it says, to pressure from the Sunni community — has refused. One of the opposition’s main objectives has been to replace Prime Minister Khalifa [bin Salman, an uncle of the King who has served in the position for 40 years] with an elected official. And some elements resist any notion of engagement with the government and seem determined to provoke more violence.
In Henderson’s analysis, government reforms in Bahrain have so far been relatively minor. The US – Bahrain’s largest backer and strategic partner – continues to urge King Hamad to offer further political reforms to attempt to defuse tension with the demonstrators, and this is Henderson’s prescription as well.
It is indeed no coincidence that the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael H. Posner, was in Bahrain last week making the case for a solution to the problems in Bahrain that would not undermine the legitimacy of King Hamad or the kingdom’s alliance with the US.
However, this is the long view. For now, Henderson says, the first anniversary of the Bahraini uprising will represent a new challenge to King Hamad’s leadership, with the expected demonstrations putting his policies since last February to the test.
Washington is concerned that violence will set back the clock and ruin official bilateral ties, especially if U.S.-supplied weapons are deployed. Moreover, efforts to curb Iran’s regional influence and hamper its nuclear program would become awkward if Bahrainis began to question whether the Fifth Fleet should even be headquartered on the island.
In his commentary, Henderson touches upon Bahrain’s complicated ties with its neighbours, being heavily influenced by Sunni Saudi Arabia to its west and Shi’ite Iran across the Persian Gulf to the east.
Meanwhile, former senior US government official Elliot Abrams – in his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations – explores the nuances of this relationship further.
Bahrain’s internal situation is unquestionably complicated by the presence of larger and more powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found no direct Iranian intervention, Iran’s broadcasting certainly tries to exacerbate tensions and its history and practice of using terrorism and intervening in the affairs of neighbors (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) gives Sunni Bahrainis nightmares. Some Bahrainis fear that if Iran loses its Syrian ally with the coming downfall of the Assad clique, the ayatollahs may seek increased power in Bahrain-or at least increased turmoil there.
Meanwhile, those Bahraini officials, including in the royal family, favoring reform and compromise have faced great Saudi pressure against change-and things did not get easier when Prince Nayef became Crown Prince. For the Saudis, what we in the West might call compromise would be anathema: moving some political power away from a royal family toward elected officials, which is bad enough, and allowing for greater Shia influence in a country bordering on the Saudis’ Eastern Province with its millions of Shia. Compared to the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, the calls from the United States and United Kingdom for sensible accommodations have had little impact.
On the prospect of bridging the gulf between Bahrain’s government and opposition – official and otherwise – Abrams is not exactly optimistic, but but does believes there is a potential way forward.
If one outlines the realistic demands of Bahrainis – for more movement toward constitutional monarchy, for fuller implementation of the BICI recommendations, for justice, for an end to violence -a compromise path forward does not appear impossible.
For a fuller picture of the difficult situation in Bahrain, read both Henderson and Abrams in full.