by Emile Nakhleh
Amid the Saudi-caused horrific human tragedy in Yemen and the ongoing investigation into the premeditated murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Bahraini regime has imposed a life sentence on Shia cleric Sheikh Ali Salman on the flimsy charge that he colluded with Qatar. This illegal sentence by the Bahraini Court of Appeal was handed down yesterday after the Bahraini High Court of First Tier had acquitted him of these charges. The case has attracted little media attention.
For all intents and purposes, Bahrain has become a Saudi vassal state, politically and economically, and has towed the Saudi line on every regional issue, from the war in Yemen and the repression of the Shia population to the siege of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar. Bahrain is the least effective member of the GCC. It has failed to demonstrate independence of action like Kuwait and Qatar or adopt a neutral stance like Oman. The Al Khalifa minority regime relies on Saudi Arabia for its internal security and for financial support to shore up its budget deficits. It has the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United States in its unending repression of the Shia majority and the stifling of all forms of peaceful dissent. The Al Khalifa ruling family’s bloody attacks on peaceful protests and the silencing of their demands for democratic reform go back to 2011 when the Bahraini people joined protesters in other autocratic Arab states in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.
The cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, along with two of his colleagues Ali Alaswad and Sheikh Ali Sultan, led the al-Wefaq Shia opposition group in demanding fair and free elections and a halt to illegal arrests, sham trials, and lengthy prison sentences. The group, together with its secular counterpart Al-Wa’ad organization, called for a return to the 1973 constitution, popular participation in decision making, an independent judiciary, and a recognition of the freedoms of press, speech, and assembly. As the protests spread across the country and the Al Khalifa regime—headed by King Hamad bin Isa and his dreaded and notoriously corrupt prime minister and uncle, Khalifa bin Salman—came under siege, the ruling family called on its Saudi benefactor to send troops to safeguard the brutal regime. Saudi troops remain in Bahrain today.
In response to the peaceful protests, the regime dissolved al-Wefaq and al-Wa’ad and arrested many of the two movements’ leaders and activists. Sheikh Ali Salman at the time was the secretary general of al-Wefaq. His two colleagues Ali Alaswad and Ali Sultan went into self-imposed exile. The Bahraini Court of Appeal earlier this week sentenced the three of them to life in prison (Alaswad and Sultan in absentia).
Ironically, the initial charge against Ali Salman focused on his involvement in the 2011 protest movement, in which the regime claimed he was “undermining the constitutional rule in Bahrain.” This spurious charge was used to convict him in 2015 and sentence him to four years in prison. That conviction had nothing to do with the current false charge of aiding Qatar. He was supposed to be released late this year.
After Bahrain joined in the Saudi political and economic aggression against Qatar with the goal of isolating it and starving its people, the Al Khalifa regime decided to charge Ali Salman with spying for Qatar, which Bahrain currently views as an enemy state. After the Bahraini High Court of First Tier acquitted him of these bogus charges a few months back, the regime appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal. He was retried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. This travesty of justice is yet another example of the Bahraini regime’s relentless and brutal crackdown on dissent.
Why the Harsh Sentence and Why Now?
As the Bahraini regime prepares to hold parliamentary elections late this month, it realizes that the legitimacy of such elections is in question because the opposition has refused to participate. The opposition has based its refusal to boycott the elections on the valid argument that the regime fully controls the elections, which are neither fair nor free. The opposition is signaling pro-democracy countries, especially the United States and Britain, that Bahrain, which used to defend the constitution under the late Emir Isa bin Salman, has moved away from democracy and the one-person-one-vote rule to an apartheid regime in which the majority has no rights or freedoms. King Hamad and his regime are following in the footsteps of the strongman rule in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and in the UAE under Muhammad bin Zayed.
Another factor driving this harsh and illegitimate sentence is the regime’s determination to break the back of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition movement in Bahrain. During my government service, my colleagues and I viewed al-Wefaq as a mainstream, peaceful political group committed to reform. We occasionally spoke to leaders and members of al-Wefaq because we correctly believed that they were committed to working within the system to bring about political reform and equality for all citizens under the law.
Al-Wefaq had no animus toward the Al Khalifa regime and often reached out to the King’s eldest son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, to have a dialogue about the future of Bahrain under the umbrella of Al Khalifa rule. Salman was often receptive to such offers. But every time he carried these ideas to the family council, the powerful prime minister and his conservative supporters within the ruling family and the Diwan Amiri or royal court, especially among the so-called Khawalids, would shoot them down.
Despite Al-Wefaq’s olive-branch offers to work within the system for the future of Bahrain, the regime doubled down on its animus toward the Shia. As the regime’s false propaganda that Iran directs the Shia movement or that it was involved with terrorism did not stick, it began to arrest more members of the opposition, including clerics and parliamentarians.
In the past year, the regime has felt emboldened in its massive crackdown against the Shia by the rise of MbS in Saudi Arabia and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. MbS uses repression to silence all forms of opposition in his own country and outside its borders, including within the Al Saud family. The murder of Khashoggi at the behest of the Saudi regime inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is but one example of MbS’s brutality toward his perceived critics. President Trump has signaled to the tribal potentates of the Gulf and to other autocratic Arab regimes that human rights are no longer a driver of American foreign policy or a litmus test of his dealings with Arab dictators. As long as they continue to buy American weapons and support Trump’s anti-Iran hysteria, he will have their backs.
Is There a Path Forward?
By upholding the life sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman, the minority Al Khalifa regime is pouring gasoline on the fire and putting the future of that island country at risk. By snuffing the hope for a peaceful transformation of the country into something resembling good governance, the regime is foolishly leading the country into the abyss of instability and chaos. The Al Khalifa regime will not be saved by outside actors, no matter how powerful. The army of American, British, and other foreign consultants—as well as advisers, academics, retired diplomats, military officers, and lobbyists in Washington, London, and elsewhere—who are paid handsomely by the regime to lobby on its behalf will not be able to save the regime if the Bahraini people decide enough is enough. The hordes of consultants won’t stick around when the money dries up or when Western media begins to expose the advisors’ shady deals with brutal regimes like the one in Bahrain.
If U.S. policy makers, especially in the national security community, believe that America’s long-term national security regarding Bahrain is better served when the island country is internally stable and peaceful, they should urge the Al Khalifa to set aside the life sentence of Ali Salman and his two colleagues immediately and initiate a dialogue with the opposition—Shia and Sunni—before the upcoming parliamentary elections. Right after independence in 1971, the late Emir Isa bin Salman wisely concluded that domestic peace in Bahrain can only be attained through a partnership between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority. He promulgated a constitution following lengthy consultations among Sunni and Shia representatives who were freely elected by their communities and who were members of both the Constituent Assembly in 1972-73 and the National Assembly in 1974.
I witnessed firsthand most of those consultations and meetings and marveled at the tribal Bedouin wisdom of Emir Isa, whom I met several times. At the time, Washington supported Emir Isa’s approach and thought he could be an excellent example for other tribal rulers to emulate. His son, Hamad, who became the emir of Bahrain following Isa’s death, declared himself king in 2001 and has since used his security services and foreign mercenaries to rule Bahrain with an iron fist. Hamad should ask himself whether the country’s descent from sectarian harmony and collaboration into confrontation and violence will save his rule.