Bahrain at the crossroads

As the National Dialogue begins, both Shia and Sunni groups must stop pointing fingers and find common ground.

bahrain protests
Although sporadic violence continues in Bahrain, the king has been engaging with opposition groups  [GALLO/GETTY]

Four months of protests and violence have left Bahrain, once regarded as one of the most progressive nations in the Middle East, in a sorry state.

Sectarianism has split the country at the seams, leaving bitterness and anger on both sides. The Sunni have, for the most part, rallied around their king – accusing the nation’s Shia population of treason, deliberately injuring and killing policemen, of targeting violent assaults on expatriate labourers, and working with their “co-religionists in Iran to blacken the country’s good name”.

The Shia, for their part, have suffered at the hands of the state’s security apparatus. As many as 35 have died, hundreds more have been wounded, and countless others detained. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s courts have sentenced those who protested, spoke out or otherwise played a leading role in the disturbances to lengthy jail terms, to much international opprobrium.

With the National Dialogue launched on July 1 by virtue of the king’s order, the first steps towards a new Bahrain can tentatively begin.

Every Bahraini has been encouraged to come together under the spirit of national unity to discuss whatever issue they see fit. Citizens had until June 26 to submit topics to parliament speaker Khalifa bin Ahmed al Dhahrani who “received (among others) views and recommendations about issues related to parliament, cabinet, electoral districts, citizenship, financial and administrative corruption, and sectarian affliction”.

This is certainly a positive development, given that recent images emanating from Bahrain have been almost overwhelmingly negative: 27 Shia mosques have either been bulldozed or burned down, and stories of people going missing in the middle of the night proliferate in western media outlets. The recent sentencing of 20 Shia doctors in a military court, with the suggestion that many had been tortured into signing confessions does not elicit hope that the problems enveloping the tiny Gulf State can be surmounted quickly.

Bahrain, like its Arab neighbours, has a deeply ingrained antipathy towards Iran, which the Bahraini Sunni see as spreading its hard-line brand of Shia Islam at the expense of the moderate modernising forces in the Gulf, who seek to encourage Western presence in the region, not fight it.

There is some evidence to merit to this worldview. On March 29 an Iranian spy ring that infiltrated the Kuwaiti military was exposed – and its perpetrators, two Iranians and one Kuwaiti, were sentenced to death. Furthermore, Bahrain’s relations with the West are certainly better than Tehran’s; the Bahraini government does not, for example, engage in weekly incitement of its citizens to confer death upon the USA or the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, the numerous claims made by the Bahraini authorities and their media outlets concerning the meddling mullahs in Tehran go too far. Other than rumours, no evidence to corroborate these stories has been presented.

The Bahrainis submitted two letters to the United Nations, purportedly showing definitive proof of Iranian involvement in the incitement of protesters and of encouraging acts of violence. Yet, despite this, many security sources based in the Gulf are sceptical. In short, much like Iraq’s famous WMD, there has been no Iranian “smoking gun”, and the expectations of one being found are extremely low.

Shia invited to National Dialogue

Further to this, the main Shia political groupings Wa’ad and al Wefaq have continually stressed their Arab identity as being of paramount importance, rejecting the Sunni-Shia divide and specifically rejecting the notion of any Iranian interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs. On June 27, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, reiterated once again: “I strongly believe in the ruling family and its governance.”

Privately, there is widespread acknowledgement that Wefaq squandered an opportunity to meet Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad when he offered to initiate dialogue back in February.

Seen as a more moderate figure, Wefaq had hoped that the crown prince would lead the National Dialogue, only to be disappointed when the king named the more conservative al Dhahrani instead. The crown prince, for his part, has felt similarly sidelined, seen by hardliners as too soft on “treachery”, his influence over the course of events diminished in recent weeks.

Save their participation in the National Dialogue, little more can be done by the Shia groupings at this point. Presently, the dialogue is a curious mixture of groups – and some 300 participants are due to take part, with the opposition political block comprising around 100 members. Yet Wefaq‘s allocated number of participants consists of just five seats, a pitifully small number for the country’s largest political party.

Indeed, in each of the four areas of dialogue: political, social, economic and human rights, Wefaq will be granted just two per cent of the vote.

Given that, in each of the four areas, a majority consensus must be reached in order to officially endorse any recommendation, Wefaq has almost no say in the outcome of any decision. This is well understood by Wefaq‘s members. “The National Dialogue has already started on the wrong track, we see very little chance of our demands being met,” Khalil Marzooq, Wefaq‘s spokesman, told me on July 2. 

Should the National Dialogue fail, however, Crown Prince Salman may be the nation’s only chance to move towards some form of reconciliation. That Wefaq has insisted on his participation in the National Dialogue is testament to the degree in which they feel able to trust him to offer the country’s Shia population a fair hearing. Without his presence, Wefaq has little faith that the dialogue can amount to anything of substance.

If it is the case that the National Dialogue proves to be nothing more than a repainting of the façade rather than an effort to introduce significant and meaningful reforms, there is little doubt that both Wa’ad and Wefaq will toughen their stance once more in an attempt to placate the growing anger of their constituents.

This scenario, unfortunately the most likely result at this time, means that a resumption of violence is inevitable. However, in truth, the violence has not really stopped, but lulled. Two recent conflagrations in Sanabis on July 2 and 3 have seen the worst disturbances in two months; the escalation has perhaps already begun.

Economic troubles

Further instability will be catastrophic for Bahrain. The economy, already suffering from the loss of the Formula One Grand Prix, has been badly hit. Twice this year already Bahrain has had its growth forecasts downgraded, making it the worst performing state in the region. Its sovereign bond rating has suffered similarly having been cut from A3 to BAA1.

For a country proud of its reputation as “a good place to do business” and ever more economically reliant on its financial sector in a post-oil age, the news is damaging enough, but further instability could push the country into serious economic hardship. Many western banks and businesses, unconvinced by the regime’s promises of stability, have already pulled out large numbers of workers and relocated them to other hubs in the Gulf – leaving only a skeletal workforce in Manama.

Perhaps most ominously are the noises coming from policy elites in the United States. Al Khalifa, long a trusted friend and ally is becoming viewed by some as a burden.

Suggestions threatening to remove the United States Fifth fleet from the country, so long the key guarantor of Bahraini security, have surfaced in outspoken statements, op-eds and analysis pieces. For now, these are just the musings of foreign policy intellectuals. But, as most evidenced by the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for a New American Century in the late 1990s, the views of the analysis community often serve as a trial run for later transformations into policy upon the assumption of those analysts into power.  

This should give Al Khalifa pause for serious thought. A withdrawal of the United States from the country and the likely commensurate desertion of yet more Western financial institutions would leave Al Khalifah with no choice but to offer up yet more of independence and sovereignty to Saudi Arabia in return for economic assistance and security guarantees.

Robert Fisk, the firebrand British journalist, recently termed Bahrain “a Saudi palatinate”. He was incorrect in this assertion, but more political instability may well bring such a result to fruition.

Blaming Iran for Bahrain’s internal problems can no longer be used as a suitable reason for suppression of protests. As real as the Iranian threat may seem to many in Bahrain, it is simply not the case that Iranian interference can be adduced as the primary cause of Bahrain’s troubles.

Bahrainis must reject this line of thinking and instead work toward solving the social issues that have so profoundly divided them.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia, despite their looming presence, is able to prize apart those who seek to reject sectarian illusions. Reconciliation must therefore be built, not only at the level of the National Dialogue, but also between individuals. A top down solution to this bitterly divided country will not be enough to draw in those whose disenchantment is so great that anger and violence are all they can countenance.

Should a holistic approach be shunned, then the Bahraini fear of Iranian influence becomes very real. Disaffected young Shia will turn their heads toward those who offer them emotional and logistical support in return for undivided loyalty, and the chances of radicalisation become yet more likely.

If the Bahraini state does not quickly realise this, their nightmare scenario might very well come true.

Michael Stephens is a Qatar-based researcher at RUSI, The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.