Arms and Athletes in Bahrain: Al Khalifa’s Deadly Game

by Emile Nakhleh

A few days ago, Bahraini officials announced they “foiled an attempt to smuggle explosives and arms, some made in Iran and Syria, into the country by boat.”  Around the same time, the government also contended it had defused a car bomb and seized weapons in different locations in the country.

The Al Khalifa regime maintains it is fighting terrorism, which it unabashedly equates with pro-reform activists. The regime accuses Iran of plotting and driving acts of “terrorism” on the island.  Regardless of Iran’s perceived involvement in the smuggling of weapons, it is important to put this latest episode in context.

First, although Iran might benefit from continued instability in Bahrain, since Bahrain became independent in 1971 Iran has not engaged in any activity to remove the Sunni Al Khalifa from power. In 1970-71, the Shah of Iran accepted the United Nations’ special plebiscite in Bahrain, which resulted in granting the country independence. Successive Iranian governments under the Ayatollahs since the fall of the Shah have not questioned Bahrain’s independence.

Furthermore, over the years most Bahraini Shia looked for Iraqi and other Arab, not Iranian, grand Ayatollahs as sources of emulation or marja’ taqlid. The Shia al-Wefaq political party, which some elements within the Al Khalifa ruling family have accused of being a conduit for Iran, has consistently supported genuine reform through peaceful means.

Al-Wefaq leaders, some of whom have studied and lived in Iran in recent decades, have supported the government’s call for dialogue with the opposition and have endorsed the Crown Prince’s initiative for reform and dialogue. The Al Khalifa’s response to al-Wefaq’s peaceful position has been to arrest its two most prominent leaders, Sheikh Ali Salman and Khalil al-Marzooq.

Second, regardless of the public relations campaign the Bahraini regime is waging against Iran, it continues its arrests and sham trials and convictions of Bahraini citizens. This includes doctors and health providers, young and old peaceful protesters, and more recently athletes. Their only “sin” is that they are members of the Shia majority in a country ruled by a Sunni minority regime.

In a recent article, James Dorsey of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies detailed the large number of Shia athletes, players and champions — soccer, handball, tennis, jiu-jitsu, gymnastics, beach volleyball, and car racing — who have been arrested and given lengthy jail sentences.  Many of these players, who hail from Diraz and other neighboring Shia villages, were hastily tried and convicted for expressing pro-reform views.

Third, in a recent interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas, Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, who headed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), expressed his disappointment at the government’s failure to implement some of the key recommendations in the report. As a reminder, King Hamad had created BICI and formally and publicly received and accepted its final report.

No one within the regime has been held accountable for the unlawful acts and crimes detailed in the BICI report. According to Bassiouni, the government’s inaction on the recommendation has raised serious doubts within “civil society institutions and human rights organizations” about the regime’s commitment to genuine reform.

Fourth, the Bahraini regime, like its Saudi counterpart, is stoking a deadly sectarian war in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region. The ruling family is very concerned that should Iran conclude a deal with the international community on its nuclear program, Al Khalifa would become marginalized as a Gulf player.

The regime is particularly worried that as a small island country with minuscule oil production, Bahrain might become a marginal player in regional and international politics. It behooves the Al Khalifa regime to know that if it fails to work with its people to bring stability to the country, it will lose its standing in Washington and other Western capitals.

As the Bahraini majority loses confidence in the regime, it would not be unthinkable for Saudi Arabia and other regional and international powers, including the United States, to consider Al Khalifa a liability. The key mission of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet is not to protect the repressive Al Khalifa regime. It serves regional stability, strategic waterways, and other global US interests. Its commitment to Al Khalifa or to the Bahrain port is neither central nor irrevocable.

As the Bahraini regime continues its campaign against Iran, it should remember that by refusing to engage the largely peaceful opposition for meaningful reform, it has created an environment for Sunni extremism and anti-Shia radicalism. The recent history of intolerant religious proselytization instructs us that such an environment invariably leads to terrorism. This is a domestic phenomenon regardless of whether the intercepted arms came from Iran or not. One also should recognize that growing frustration among dissidents will drive some of the youth to become more radicalized and turn to violence.

If regimes are willing to tear their countries apart in order to stay in power as the Al Khalifa ruling family seems to be doing, domestic terrorism is an assured outcome. Today, we see this phenomenon in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) did not emerge in a vacuum. Radical, intolerant, Sunni jihadism, which Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been pushing in Syria, and before that in Iraq, is the kernel from which terrorism sprouts. Eventually it will come home to roost.

As I wrote previously, the Al Khalifa regime’s survival remains possible only if the ruling family stops playing its repressive apartheid game and engage its people with an eye toward power sharing and genuine reform.

King Hamad still has an opportunity to implement the BICI recommendations comprehensively and transparently. He could assemble a group of distinguished Bahrainis, Sunni and Shia, and task them with writing a new constitution that would include a nationally elected parliament with full legislative powers and checks and balances over the executive branch. This should be done soon because the King and the ruling family are running out of time.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.