Bahrain Repression Belies Government Stand on Dialogue

by Emile Nakhleh

Bahrain remains a repressive state, and civil rights are violated daily. Forty-one years ago, Bahrain celebrated its first year independence as a budding democracy.  This December it will celebrate its forty-second independence as a practitioner of repression and reprehensible autocracy. For all intents and purposes, Washington unfortunately continues to tolerate Manama’s undemocratic actions.

The June 18 report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights depicts a deteriorating situation in Bahrain accentuated by mass arrests, excessive force against civilians and protesters–including children–torture of prisoners, and trials in military courts. Bahrain is heading down a dark path of instability, sectarianism, violence, and potential terrorism under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa, uncle of King Hamad and great uncle of Crown Prince Salman.

Despite these policies, the demands of Bahraini reformists, Sunnis and Shia alike, are reasonable and doable. In fact, they offer al-Khalifa an opportunity to turn the country around. Most analysts judge the demands for a return to the 1973 constitution, a freely elected national legislature, an independent civilian judiciary, and a transparent government the backbone of good governance and the basic ingredients for democracy. Yet in order to stay in power, Prime Minister Khalifa is not interested in dialogue with opposition activists despite their reasonable demands.

Public opinion polls indicated over the years that majorities of Bahrainis and other Arabs supported these principles and hoped the United States would urge Arab governments to implement them. During my government service I briefed senior Bush administration officials on these points and their long-term implications.

The glimmer of hope for democratic reform that existed in Bahrain in those years has all but faded. The US’s relations with that country remain very friendly. The Fifth Fleet continues to operate out of Mina Salman, falsely giving Khalifa and his hard-line faction within the ruling family the impression that America stands by Bahrain despite its systematic mistreatment of the majority of its people.

Demands for good governance and social justice have been advocated as far back as the early 1970s, when the first fair and free election for the Constituent Assembly was held. Then and now Sunni and Shia opposition called for democracy under the umbrella of the ruling family. Then and now, the Prime Minister has strenuously objected to meaningful reform and accused the opposition of treason and sedition.

Bahrain enjoyed a short-lived democratic experience right after independence in the 1972-75 period because of the leadership of the Amir of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, father of the King and brother of the Prime Minister. He overruled his brother’s opposition to political reform and insisted that family rule and democracy are not incompatible. Bahrain’s brush with democracy forty years ago, which included a constituent assembly to draft a constitution in 1972 and a constitution and a national assembly in 1973, ended in 1975 with the dissolution of the national assembly and the suspension of the constitution.

Following the demise of the democratic experiment, al-Khalifa ruled by decree, and the country was gripped by fear and systematic violations of human rights. The Prime Minister, with the support of a coterie of Sunni hardliners, emerged as the key decision maker in the economic, political, and national security life of the country.  The Shia were (and are) excluded from serving in the armed forces and the security services, including in leadership positions and in key ministries.

Three factors led to the end of the democratic period in the early 1970s:  a) the questioning of the domestic security law, including the agreement with the US to station elements of the US Navy at the Jufair facility in Manama; b) calls for a transparent national budget, including the personal budget of the Amir; and c) pressure from Saudi Arabia to scuttle the democratic experiment. Then and now, Saudi Arabia has used its economic hold on Bahrain and military hegemony within the GCC to oppose all democratic tendencies in the Gulf Arab states.

The stillborn democratic experiment of the early 1970s was repeated in 2001-2002 when King Hamad raised false hopes for reform. The only consequence of those “reforms” was a change in the ruler’s title from Amir to King! The Prime Minster and his Saudi supporters, however, remain the real power behind the throne.

To counter the ruling family’s fears of a Shia avalanche, it’s good to remember that the first free elections in the early 1970s—arguably the only free and fair elections in Bahrain—showed that neither the Sunni minority nor the Shia majority were monolithic groups. They voted for different candidates and different lists, ranging from religious, to nationalist, to leftist, and to Ba’thist.

Pro-reform activists since the early 1970s have included Sunni and Shia. They did not call for removing the al-Khalifa from power or establishing a Shia majority rule.

Where Do We Go from Here and Why Should We Care?

If the al-Khalifa persist in opposing genuine reform, the window of compromise will rapidly close and hope for dialogue will vanish. Violence will escalate, calls for regime change will become more vocal and the US will be blamed for the impasse.  This is a recipe for lawlessness and terrorism.

The pro-democracy demands that most Bahrainis agree on have been identified in three key documents since the Arab Spring touched Bahrain a year and a half ago.  They are the Manama document, the Crown Prince’s statement, and the National Encounter statement. They called for a representative parliament with full legislative powers, fair and free elections through equitable electoral districts and a review of the naturalization law; merit, not religious affiliation as basis for employment in the government and the military and security agencies; and addressing administrative and financial corruption as well as the sectarian impasse.

More recently, demands have included calls for the removal of the Prime Minister who has been in power since the country’s independence 41 years ago. Opposition figures believe no credible dialogue can be conducted under the auspices of the Prime Minister who, in their eyes, is no longer a legitimate leader of their country.

As a backdrop to potential dialogue, the al-Khalifa ruling family in reality have been fortunate in that most observers judge the demands for reform fair and reasonable.  They’ve called for democracy and so far not regime change.

Since the democratic experiment was aborted in 1975, real power in the country has been concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. His corruption, patronage, control of internal security, dictatorial running of the cabinet, visceral hatred of the Shia and Iran, and dependence on Saudi military and financial support have helped him cement his position. Khalifa objected to the promulgation of the constitution in 1973 and views genuine reform as a threat to him and to the family. The King and his son Crown Prince Salman, for all intents and purposes, have been marginalized.

The untold story in all of this is the pervasive and sinister influence of Saudi Arabia on Bahrain. Such influence dates back to 1971, one year before independence, when Saudi Arabia even objected to Bahrain declaring its independence because the Saudis wanted Bahrain to become a member of the United Arab Emirates. Of course, Bahrain and Qatar left the three-year unity talks with the other emirates and declared their respective independence.

The Saudis have controlled the purse of the Bahraini Amir over the years by giving him the oil from the Saudi Abu-Sa’fa field. Saudi influence is more pervasive now than ever with the presence of Saudi troops on the island and with the talk of unification between the two countries. A unity with Saudi Arabia appeals to al-Khalifa and his old guard colleagues but is strongly opposed by mainstream liberal Sunnis and the Shia majority.

Washington has several opportunities to help Bahrain institute genuine reforms. It should reach out to the King, his son Salman, and the deputy Prime Minister Shaykh Muhammad bin Mubarak, who for many years was the foreign minister of Bahrain.  They should be strongly encouraged to initiate dialogue with different segments and personalities of Bahraini society, especially some of those who are part of the “National Encounter” including Ali Fakhroo, Jassim Murad, Hasan al-Jishi, Ali Rabi’a, Mansoor al-Jamri, Ali Salman, and others. The Sunni and Shia supporters of the National Encounter represent the center of Bahraini society and are highly respected by their countrymen. Prime Minister Khalifa cannot be a legitimate or credible partner in this dialogue.

The administration should make it very clear to the king and his son that Arab autocracy has run its course and that if no genuine reforms are instituted, calls for reform could quickly turn to regime change. They should be told unequivocally that, the Saudi anti-Shia, Sunni-based, counter-revolution policy will fail and that al-Khalifa will be unable to stem the tide of protests despite the bloody crackdown and continued arrests, torture, and kangaroo trials.

Although Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain are different cases, Washington’s support of democracy in the first two countries is not similarly pursued in Bahrain. Consequently, the US is beginning to suffer from a perception of hypocrisy and a double standard. If Manama continues to respond to its citizens’ demands violently and repressively, frustrated citizens will come to view the US naval presence in their country as part of the problem.

The Fifth Fleet would then become a magnet for potential terrorism against our people. While it would be naïve to expect the Fifth Fleet to leave the island anytime soon, a conversation with the ruling family about our presence should give them pause.

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.



  1. Despite his credentials, the author’s myopic views have been shown in many parts of the his comments.Excluding the Prime Minister from the dialogue is pouring petrol into the fire.Thousands and thousands of Bahrainis are ready to die for him.As a mature person, the author should say that all sectors of the society should participate including the Premier.Sunnis believe that the Shia protesters are pro -Iran.What have the Alwefaq and Co.done to prove that they are NOT Iranian stooges? If this is proved all Bahrain can come under one umbrella and face the Government, then the Premier will listen to them.IN the presence of pro -Iranian feelings among the Shia protesters, political settlement is unlikely.To think thata the US can play a constructive role is unlikely, because what concerns the US is maintaining its foreign policy.The call by the US for democracy and respect for human rights are tools to promote its intersts, it has nothing to do with solving the national issues.

  2. Sir, As a Bahraini of 65 years old, now living overseas, I can assure you we, Bahrainis don’t do terrorism. We are just brought up not to do such vile acts and I truly speak for all my countrymen.

    Descency, justICE and honour means a lot to us. It is true that we feel let down by the US but we still believe in the descency of human being and ofcourse expect those who run the US government not to confuse political expediency with justice.

    For sure, autoctratic rules have done their time. I left Bahrain in 1986 and always expresszed my sentiment as such: My father tolerated such rule, I struggled with it and certainly I do not expect my children to live through it.” It simply limits ones freedom and creativty which is God given and sacrosanct.

    I thank you for exressing your views which I can boldy say mirrors majority of Bahrainis. The US can not remain a force for good when it chooses to define justice according to its own interests and devoid of the lives in the balance.

    Thank you
    Ahmed Asgher

  3. With respect, Dr. Nakhleh, I have to question any article that starts with the unsubstantiated claims of an obviously biased political organization like the BCHR as established fact. The truth is that by the date Rajab published this report, there aren’t any “mass arrests” or “Military Courts”. The National Safety Courts closed last year and all cases are being retried or appealed in ordinary civilian courts. The vast overwhelming majority of arrests for some time now have been for acts of violence or instigating civil unrest that disturbs the peace and access to certain areas.

    You are also confused about the role shi’a citizens have in our society. They do actually serve in the security forces and many are well known in the Ministry of Interior – including some who have been targeted by their fellow shiites for their work on behalf of the MOI. They also hold important positions in the government, including serving as Ministers and even a Deputy Prime Minister. If HRH Prince Khalifa “hated shiites” as you so unfairly stated, do you think he would have one as his deputy? I know your simplistic view of Bahrain sells in the West where people don’t know any better, but we Bahrainis know better.

    Were there excesses and mistakes last year? Yes, and the government has admitted theirs and is making amends. We are all still waiting for the Opposition to do the same. Only then, will we be able to learn from ALL our mistakes and move forward.

  4. I would like to remind you that Bahrain began progressing towards a constitutional democracy 13 years ago, before any of the regional upheaval. The reforms implemented at that time were more than a simple “change in the ruler’s title from Amir to King” as you claim, but upon King Hamad’s succession, he a) released all political prisoners, domestically and internationally; b) abolished a 1975 law that denied citizens a fair trial; c) improved reforms on freedom of speech; d) created the Lower House of Parliament, the elected body of the National Assembly.

  5. One of the victims of the ruling family intransigence and resistance to any form of reform, let alone genuine reforms, is Alwefaq society, the main player within the opposition camp. Alwefaq’s moderate agenda, which focuses on the demand for a constitutional monarchy under the Alkhalifa family, is being marginalized not by extremist opposition factions but rather by the hawks in the ruling family led by the Premier.
    Shiakh Ali Saman, Alwefaq’s gen. Sect. Was almost killed by a rubber bullet last Friday during a peaceful opposition rally. One his escorts lies in coma in hospital and is unlikely to recover!!

    Soon, Alwefaq will join opposition groups calling for the downfall of the regime!!!

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