(No) Dialogue in Bahrain

by Toby Matthiesen | published February 13, 2014

For background on the 2011 uprising, see Cortni Kerr and Toby Jones, “A Revolution Paused in Bahrain,” Middle East Report Online, February 23, 2011.

For a report on Bahrain after the Saudi intervention, see Gregg Carlstrom, “In the Kingdom of Tear Gas,” Middle East Report Online, April 13, 2012.

For more on Gulf investment in Arab countries, see Karen Pfeifer, “Petrodollars at Work and at Play in the Post-September 11 Decade,” Middle East Report 260 (Fall 2011).

And for deep background on Bahraini political economy, see Rob Franklin, “Migrant Labor and the Politics of Development in Bahrain,” A Bahraini Citizen, “The Rulers Are Afraid of Their Own People” and ‘Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, “Labor Movements in Bahrain,” all in Middle East Report 132 (May-June 1985).

In the run-up to the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising on February 14, 2011, mass protests with tens of thousands of participants again engulfed the small kingdom. At the same time, a number of contacts between the opposition and the royal family sparked hopes of renewed high-level negotiations leading to the resolution of the long-standing conflict.

A January 15 meeting between Crown Prince Salman and opposition leaders, including ‘Ali Salman, secretary-general of al-Wifaq, the main Shi‘i Islamist party, was seen as particularly groundbreaking. The meeting came just a week after a year-long but fruitless national dialogue was officially suspended and less than a month after ‘Ali Salman had been briefly detained and banned from travel for a speech he gave during Friday prayers. It was an abrupt, and thus symbolic, break with what had seemed to be the hard line of the ruling Al Khalifa.

All groups invited to take part in a rejuvenated dialogue were asked to send a list of desiderata to the Royal Court. On February 8, the opposition coalition, made up of al-Wifaq and several leftist groups, published its road map for an exit from the kingdom’s crisis. Its key demands include a parliament with “full legislative powers,” an “elected government” and a referendum to approve any and all decisions that come out of the new national dialogue that is expected to begin.

In addition, the opposition wants a halt to the policy of naturalizing Sunni foreigners, many of whom have come to work in the security sector (from which native-born Shi‘a are largely banned). The mainly Shi‘i opposition accuses the government of trying to alter the demographic balance of the country from a slight Shi‘i majority to equal percentages or even a Sunni majority. The royal family is Sunni. Cynics say that the government will allow a one-man-one-vote system and redrawing of gerrymandered electoral districts only when the Shi‘a are no longer a majority. Understandably, the opposition wants a fairer electoral system sooner rather than later.

Web of Interests

Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf with a citizen population of around 600,000, symbolizes the complex web of strategic and economic interests that has linked the Gulf states to the West from the bygone days of the British Empire to the present era of US “hegemony.” The naval base in Bahrain was a key port for British warships and from the late 1940s it started to host American troops as well. In 1971, Bahrain became officially independent, and Britain retreated from the Gulf, leaving the base to the Americans, who made it the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, the American naval forces in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. The base has long ensured Bahrain’s status in British and US strategic thinking and together with Saudi support has underwritten the security of the Al Khalifa regime.

After the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Bahrain became a major, if not the major, banking center in the Middle East. Already, since the 1973 oil embargo, money was pouring into the oil and gas-producing countries of the Gulf. Though Bahrain’s oil production is modest, its economy, particularly finance, services, tourism and real estate, benefited from the boom in the region. In the intervening decades, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have taken full ownership of their natural resources and become powerful global players in their own right, forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (with Bahrain and Oman) in 1981. Using their sovereign wealth funds, the Arab Gulf states have bought up key assets in the West and across the world, recycling money from oil sales and gaining a lot of soft power on the side. They have also invested heavily in other Middle Eastern countries, where the neoliberal transformation of economies since the 1970s has opened up opportunities. [1]

Neoliberal economic policies were arguably the main cause of the Arab revolts of 2011 -- and in Bahrain, as well, they had a profound impact. Real estate speculation, land reclamation and the need of multinational companies for local middlemen strengthened a crony capitalist class made up of the ruling family and a small group of Sunni and Shi‘i business families. The wealth of the few visibly contrasted with the circumstances of most Bahrainis, who increasingly came to feel that they were being left behind. Without the windfall oil profits enjoyed by its neighbors, Bahrain could not afford the high civil service salaries and massive infrastructure and social service programs that its GCC partners put into place to cushion the blows of neoliberalism. The inequality was highlighted further by corruption on a grand scale, as shown by the results of an international investigation of ties between Alcoa, the largest US aluminum producer, and Bahraini officials and royals. Alcoa was accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes and finally agreed to pay a $384 million fine in the United States to resolve the matter. The inquiry revealed the high commissions regularly charged by gatekeepers of the Bahraini economy. [2]

Unlike the other small Gulf countries, Bahrain has an indigenous working class, which has long been unionized. Throughout the twentieth century, strikes, anti-colonial movements and leftist parties played a key role in Bahrain’s history. So the Bahraini government imported cheap labor from abroad not to augment the domestic work force, but partly to replace it, and to weaken the restive labor movement that represents it. The foreigners were often Sunnis (largely from South Asia or poorer Arab countries) who were dependent on sponsors inside the regime. Hence the migrant workers were much more loyal to the ruling family than the rest of the population. The policy fueled resentment among poorer Bahrainis, many but not all of whom are Shi‘a.

Gulf Offensive

When these people, and particularly the younger generation, revolted in 2011, the Bahraini regime and its allies in Gulf and Western capitals did not quite know how to react. After an initial crackdown, thousands of protesters were allowed to converge on the Pearl Roundabout, a symbol of Gulf modernism in the capital city of Manama surrounded by highways, flyovers, the so-called Financial Harbor and skyscrapers full of expensive apartments for wealthy Bahrainis and Saudis. Many of these mega-projects are owned by members of the ruling family, in particular Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, whom many protesters blamed for the country’s malaise. Pearl Roundabout became a Gulf version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square until martial law was declared on March 13, 2011. Saudi troops, under the nominal banner of a little-known GCC joint task force, rolled over the causeway that links Bahrain to the Arabian mainland to crush an essentially peaceful protest movement. The movement largely called for democratic process and gradual change; the pretext for intervention was the occasional clashes with protesters that caused the slogans to become more radical.

The weeks before that tragic day saw secret negotiations between Crown Prince Salman, who presents himself as a reformer, and al-Wifaq. At the same time, hardliners in the ruling family, centered around the prime minister and a security-minded branch of the royals known as the Khawalid, called upon their Gulf neighbors for help. Not all of the Gulf states were in favor of intervention. Oman, Qatar and Kuwait preferred a negotiated solution with limited political reforms, not least because they themselves fear Saudi dominance in the GCC. But as one Gulf official said, “When the Saudis and the Emiratis threw all their diplomatic weight behind this issue, we gave in.”

The affair was embarrassing to Bahrain’s two main Western backers, the US and Britain. Despite denials at the time, it now seems likely that the Americans knew about the Saudi plan to send troops into Bahrain, and did not veto it, even if they did not approve. It is naive to think that the US, with 6,000 military personnel and contractors stationed at the naval base, now known by the acronym NSA-Bahrain (Naval Support Activity-Bahrain), could not have stopped their close Gulf allies from invading the encampment in Pearl Roundabout. Ever since, the Obama administration has called for “dialogue” in Bahrain, all the while embarking on a massive expansion of the naval base, partly to house units that need to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Apart from the security aspect, however, the enormous economic and political power built up by the wealthy Gulf states was put into effect to ensure that few in the Arab world or the West would dare to denounce the repression in Bahrain. The Saudis used their Arabic-language media empire to spread a narrative of an Iranian-engineered takeover of Bahrain that would endanger all the Arab Gulf states. The other GCC states largely followed suit. Gulf ruling families intermarry, and so criticism of the Bahraini ruling family is seen as an insult to other royals as well (and is treated as a crime throughout the GCC countries).

The Gulf public relations offensive had far-reaching consequences. Academics were discouraged from speaking out on Bahrain by Western universities with heavy reliance upon Gulf funding; Western news outlets practiced self-censorship due to high-level pressure from investors and advertisers; and Western politicians, keen on injections of Gulf cash into ailing economies and dependent on donations from companies with interests in the Gulf, ventured very little reproach of the Al Khalifa. The British government, faced with economic crisis at home and diminished power projection abroad, did almost everything it could to maintain its strategic relationship with the Bahraini elite. Many in the British establishment had long seen Bahrain as one of the most pleasant spots in the erstwhile Empire, with a “tolerant” atmosphere and an Anglophile ruling family. The king attended the military academy at Sandhurst; the crown prince studied at Cambridge (and American University in Washington, DC, where the courtyard of a main building bears his name). Tellingly, one of the biggest worries of the British ambassador in the spring of 2011 was whether or not to invite the Bahraini king to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Britain also expanded its security cooperation with Bahrain, with former Scotland Yard commander John Yates advising the Al Khalifa on how to “reform” the security services. Scotland Yard sent officers to Bahrain, and Bahraini activists blame the increasing number of arrests of protest organizers in 2013 on better intelligence obtained with British help. Meanwhile, John Timoney, the former Philadelphia and Miami police chief infamous for forcible dispersion of protests in those cities, also became a security adviser to the Bahraini royals. Leaked documents indicate that his appointment found support at the highest levels of the US government. [3]

Solution or Square One

The January 15 meeting and the prospect of a new national dialogue have to be seen in the light of these geostrategic, political and economic networks. The main drivers of the 2014 parleys seem to be the Americans and the British. One would like to think that these powers want to move toward a more balanced Bahrain policy. After all, the repression of the Bahraini uprising has claimed a hundred lives and the opposition claims there are 3,000 political prisoners, some of whom show signs of torture. But the push comes not because of human rights concerns but because the stability of Bahrain is essential to Western security interests. While a police state can usually keep the lid on unrest, there is always the possibility of a revolution or sustained civil strife. Bahrain’s Western and some of its Gulf neighbors think that a deal is more durable, one that involves power sharing with the opposition without undermining the dominant position of the ruling family. Similar “dialogues” started in the summer of 2011 but fizzled out because the regime was unwilling to make significant political concessions. Negotiations restarted in early 2013, in time to generate good publicity during the protests in remembrance of the start of the uprising and during the Formula 1 race, which brings an annual influx of journalists looking to spice up their reporting from the circuit with a visit to the tire-burning youth in the villages around Manama.

Parallel to the official dialogue, secret talks between the crown prince and the opposition progressed between March and July 2013. According to confidants of both sides, these talks had almost led to an agreement, when on July 17 a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in an upper-class neighborhood of Manama where many members of the ruling family live. The regime blamed terrorist elements among the opposition, and handed down life sentences to people allegedly involved in the attack. The opposition disputes the official narrative and argues that hardliners inside the regime carried out the attack in order to sabotage the negotiations. Whoever planted the bomb indeed achieved that aim: The secret talks stopped and one group after the other withdrew from the public dialogue, which had degenerated into a talk shop without a meaningful agenda or a clear timetable.

Looking at events since 2011, and indeed past decades, it is hard to be optimistic about the meetings between the crown prince and the opposition. It seems that, as in previous years, the ruling family is in need of positive news that the public relations firms hired by the government can spin as evidence of an “ongoing reform process.” Parliamentary elections are supposed to be held in October, and the ruling family wants the opposition to participate. The last elections after the crackdown in 2011 were boycotted by the opposition and thus returned a loyalist parliament. As ‘Ali al-Aswad, London representative of al-Wifaq, explained: “The ruling family tells us that there can only be reform once the opposition is in Parliament again. They essentially want us to forget three years of struggle and suffering, and go back to square one, to where we were before 2011.”

Even if al-Wifaq and the leftist groups in the opposition alliance were to agree to such a scenario, and that is far from certain, the people who are driving the protests in the streets every night in the largely Shi‘i villages will not be appeased. The demonstrators dream of the downfall of the regime, though they acknowledge that this outcome is unlikely any time soon. Only if genuine political concessions were on the table could they be persuaded to stop protesting. These concessions would include the release or fair retrial of political prisoners, in particular 13 leaders of unlicensed political groups who have received long jail terms for their role in the uprising. The ruling family is angry at these opposition figures, who called for their downfall, but these men will have to be included in the political process if there is to be long-term stability in Bahrain. Even President Barack Obama argued in May 2011 that “the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” At the moment, however, release of the “Bahrain 13,” as activists have dubbed them, is anathema to the ruling family. Given the regional balance of power, the unconditional financial, military and political support of the GCC, the US, Britain and others, and the deep divisions within the ruling family as well as within the opposition, the stalemate in Bahrain is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Matar Matar, a charismatic former al-Wifaq MP who is now the group’s spokesman in Washington, adopted a different stance: “Actually, our problems are relatively easy to solve.” How could that possibly be? “In regional comparison,” he added. In other Arab countries that have experienced revolts, such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, political struggles have descended into large-scale violence, internationalized conflict and civil war. “Compared to these countries,” Matar continued, “there is no real push to use violence as a revolutionary tool and no real civil war in Bahrain. I believe we can include the demands of all Bahrainis in a future settlement.” The words of a politician, to be sure, but they should inspire anyone who wants this country to stay intact. History says that if oppressed people see no avenue to a political solution, if trust in established opposition parties and government institutions is eroding, and if international state and non-state actors are willing to back competing groups, then countries can slip into violent conflict almost overnight. Increasingly, all these factors are coming together in Bahrain. The West’s position is that a bad dialogue is better than no dialogue at all, and that in the meantime everybody should get on with business as usual. But a bad dialogue also undermines those who believe in compromise and strengthens the hardliners on both sides, both of which groups command a sizable social base. The hardliners at least agree on one slogan that has emerged from their rallies and social media accounts: la hiwar (no dialogue).

Endnotes

[1] Adam Hanieh, “A Petrodollar and a Dream,” Jacobin 13 (January 2014).
[2] Bloomberg, January 10, 2014.
[3] Alastair Sloan, “New WikiLeaks Revelation Exposes Big State Department Lie, This Time in Bahrain,” Policy Mic, February 6, 2014.

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