Bahrain's Rulers Last Chance to Save Their Country
While peace and stability has been restored in Bahrain, politics have all but ground to a halt in the country.
AT THE height of Bahrain’s riots and protests in 2011 and 2012, some, including certain figures in the U.S. government, argued that Bahrain’s royal family had to give way to the protesters’ demands or be swept away by the tides of history. They were wrong. The protests were suppressed; the parties that voiced their demands were banned and their leaders jailed. Bahrain is recovering economically. Repression, it was observed, worked.
Yet Bahrain’s story is more complicated than that. The simple narrative in the Western press of a democratic revolt crushed by a ruling minority is simplistic. Bahrain’s leaders do have a view of where they are going. It is a long-term strategy which faces some internal contradictions and, ultimately, may be insufficient to the need. But make no mistake: there is a strategy.
A three-day trip in February 2019 was certainly insufficient to pretend a complete understanding of a small yet very complicated country. But meetings with senior government officials, royal family members, old friends and some figures who were close to the opposition gave a broad enough, if still partial and admittedly impressionistic, picture. While some parts of this picture may be wrong or need correction, it is nonetheless worth recording—if for no other reason than that so little is now being written about Bahrain, and most of that from the single standpoint of human rights concerns.
THE CRUSHING of the opposition in Bahrain has been harsh. Prison terms are long. The stripping of citizenship (one contact claimed that there were some 800 cases, although the king restored nationality to 551 in April) leaves the victim free but hopeless; without a legal identity to open a bank account or a credit card, unable to send children to school or to work, or, if still residing inside Bahrain, to attain a passport and leave. In some cases, the standards of evidence are open to question. Things such as this have been reported before, leaving readers with a certain impression of Bahrain. What these stories leave out though is the broader context necessary for understanding the country—something that does not automatically change judgments but often makes them more difficult.
I, among others, have written elsewhere about the complexity of the struggle that broke out in 2011, and of various efforts undertaken to resolve it over several years through negotiations, dialogue and, in part, an election held last year.
There were many reasons for why productive dialogue was not achieved. The ruling government offered less than what demonstrators wanted, but the opposition was fundamentally unable to make compromises at key points, repeatedly overplayed its hand and made decisions that left it weaker. Suspicions were mutual, but power was in the hands of the government, and it ended up convinced that compromise was impossible. They could be right.
Before the leaders of the now-banned Al Wefaq—formerly the country’s largest and foremost Shia political party—were imprisoned, I asked some of them, more than once, a basic question: if they were able to make a deal, and others in their community refused it and took to the street, would they be able to stick with the deal, and therefore the government, against their former allies? They could never answer. And if they could not tell me that they could keep a deal, how could they possibly persuade a suspicious government that compromise would lead them anywhere except to a weakened government faced with further demands in a repetitive, downward cycle?
Compounding the problem was the matter of Iranian influence. Concerns about Tehran’s scheming were ever-present even when I served in Bahrain from 2001 to 2004. It may have been exaggerated, but the presence of some posters of Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in some religious processions in Bahrain did nothing to remove it. The most influential Bahraini Shia religious leader, Isa Qassim, looked to the Iranian city of Qom for inspiration. When he was finally released from house arrest for medical treatment in London in 2018, his subsequent trip to Iran and his April 3 statement denouncing Bahrain for hosting an Israeli delegation at an investment conference reinforced governmental suspicions.
As violence increased during the struggle, so did Iranian influence. Weapons from across the Persian Gulf began to show up in Bahrain in larger quantities. The combination of homemade and imported weapons killed and/or injured over 2,000 Bahraini policemen, at least according to the Bahraini government. While the monopoly of force remained overwhelmingly with the police, they were confronting something more than mere “peaceful” protesters. At one point, the Bahraini police uncovered the machinery to manufacture shaped projectiles to pierce armored vehicles; a technology that Iran has used against Americans in Iraq with deadly effectiveness.
In the end, the government moved for the complete suppression of all political parties. That is where things stand today: politics is dead, or at least exists in a state of suspension. Because of this, there is a sense of political suffocation among the country’s Shia. What I heard repeatedly is that they have, at least for the time being, given up on politics. One spoke of the fear of informants, meaning that discussion is limited even within groups.
Though physical violence has largely died out, a few flickers occur in the villages where the February 14 Youth Coalition—a youth group of activists that calls for demonstrations and the fall of the regime—appears still to have some followers. The overwhelming sentiment I heard is of a desire for normalcy and for people to be able to get on with their lives. The grievances, the sense that there is discrimination against the Shia in jobs and economic opportunity, has not gone away. But for now, it has little to no political expression. How much support remains for the imprisoned leaders of Al Wefaq and other political groups is very difficult to tell. I heard of Shia who reproached these leaders for making bad decisions and not exploiting opportunities for negotiations when they were possible.
While politics in Bahrain may be suspended in practice, it is nominally still active. The parliamentary elections in November of last year saw a large turnout. It is unknown whether it reached the 67 percent turnout rate claimed by the government, but foreign as well as Bahraini observers felt that, whatever the exact turnout was, it was indeed significant, and opinion polling taken before the vote had predicted a similar result. This large turnout was enough to allow the government to credibly claim that things are returning to normal in the country.
The National Assembly, Bahrain’s parliament, has had its powers reduced, and electoral districts have been redrawn to avoid a Shia majority. Critics say the Assembly is a tame creation, effectively amounting to a rubber stamp. Others say that it will be a force the government will have to reckon with, at least on economic and social issues—although certainly not on political ones. It will take time to see how the Assembly acts and whether either the claims of a somewhat representative or a reliably compliant body prove out. Yet even if the Assembly is fairly tame, it is nonetheless significantly ahead in terms of democratic development when compared to similar institutions in many other Arab states.
Outside of the political sphere, aspects of social liberalization remain strong in Bahrain. Christians and Jews are able to worship freely in the country, and the number of churches present might surprise visitors. Women are active both in business and in social affairs, and, to some extent, in politics. The current speaker of the lower house of the National Assembly is a woman. Yet despite these enviable advances, there is little space at present for the active civil society that characterized Bahrain before the protests of 2011 began.
In short, while peace and stability has been restored in Bahrain, politics, as a matter of fact, have all but ground to a halt in the country.
BAHRAIN EXISTS in the midst of a troubled region, which has a significant effect on how the nation’s leaders view their political choices. From the Bahraini perspective, Iran is more dangerous than ever. It has expanded into Syria and has a major presence (along with sizeable influence) in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Analysts may dispute exactly how great or significant the Iranian influence or control is in each of these places, but from the perspective of the Bahraini government, what matters is that Iran’s expanding influence, and its potential threat to Bahrain, is undeniable. “Iran has subverted the national character of four Arab states,” is how one senior interlocutor phrased it to me.
Iran is not the only worry. Saudi Arabia is critical to both Bahrain’s economy and security. For many, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is seen as an essential figure, driven to carry out vitally necessary reforms if the Saudi Kingdom is to develop as it needs to. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia is involved in a war in Yemen and an ongoing feud with Qatar. Both of these now involve Bahrain, which has little choice except to follow the Saudi lead.