The Current State of Affairs in Bahrain

Lobe Log contributor Emile Nakhleh, an expert on political Islam and Middle Eastern society, recently provided a fascinating primer on Bahrain to the Bahrain Mirror (Arabic version), an e-newspaper run by Bahraini dissidents. As discussed in the Mirror’s introduction, prior to becoming the CIA’s former chief regional analyst, Dr. Nakhleh conducted field research in Bahrain from 1972-73 as the first US scholar to do so, with complete access to the country’s societal benchmarks. This ultimately resulted in Nakhleh’s book, Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society, one of the most important references on Bahrain to date. Following is the unedited interview, which has been translated into English from Arabic by the Mirror.

Bahrain Mirror: Does the “Urban Tribalism” model that you discussed in your Bahrain book in the 1970s still
apply today?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: Despite the passage of 40 years since I researched and wrote my book on Bahrain, the tribal model, unfortunately, still applies to the rule of Al Khalifa family in the country. The hopes that Bahraini citizens—Shia and Sunni—had pinned on the elections of the Constituent Assembly and the National Assembly in 1972-73 and on the constitution which the late Amir Shaykh Issa bin Salman Al Khalifa promulgated in 1974, were dashed two years later. By 1975, the Al Khalifa reverted to its autocratic rule of the country without any input from the citizens. After 1975, when the National Assembly was dissolved and the constitution was frozen, the ruling family continued to view the country and its people as part of Al Khalifa domain.

In fact, many of the key posts—including in the Royal Diwan, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, etc—are currently held by children and grand children of the early founders of Al Khalifa rule. Bahrainis have generally expressed loyalty and allegiance to the head of the Al Khalifa tribe because of at least four reasons. First, Bahrainis generally liked and respected Shaykh ‘Issa. Second, the people were committed to the nationalist idea of an independent Bahrain. Third, many human rights activists in the 1970s, both Shia and Sunnis, remained hopeful that Shaykh ‘Issa would resurrect the National Assembly and re-instate the constitution. Fourth, most human rights activists and a majority of Bahrainis did not view calls for political reform and government accountability as a reflection of a sectarian divide in the country. On the contrary, most activists called for freedoms of speech and assembly and an accountable and transparent government for all Bahrainis. My field research at the time showed that many Bahraini business people resented the pervasive political and financial control that Shaykh Khalifa, the Prime Minister and brother of the Amir, exercised over contracts, dealerships, and projects—from hotel construction to land reclamation and development.

Many of them privately described him as “Mr. 10 percent, 40 percent, or 50 percent” depending on the perceived percentage they thought he got from specific contracts. Pro-reform dissidents maintained the Al Khalifa tribe ran Bahrain as a fiefdom without accountability to the public. After the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, Shaykh Khalifa and his security forces justified their control as a way to thwart what they perceived as Iran’s support of Shia activism on the Arab side of the Gulf.

Mirror: How will the Arab Spring touch the Gulf Arab states? The 2001 National Charter promised a new reformist constitution, but unfortunately, the people were disappointed because the Amir (renamed King after 2002) reneged on the reform promises he made to the people in 1999. What trajectory will the pro-reform movement take and what impact will it have on the country?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: Despite the tribal and dynastic nature of rule in Bahrain, the Arab Spring has touched the country, whether the ruling family likes it or not. Demands for dignity, respect, equality, and freedom of expression know no national boundaries. In a sense, the ruling family has been fortunate in that the key demands of the Bahraini opposition initially did not call for regime change. They focused on establishing a nationally elected parliament with full legislative powers, re-instating the 1974 constitution, replacing the Prime Minister, an independent judiciary, a transparent and accountable government, and an end to discriminatory practices against the Shia majority, especially in employment in the security services, the armed forces, hospitals, universities, and government-controlled corporations and financial institutions.

Those demands were neither sectarian nor driven by Iran. Continued regime repression and unlawful arrests of demonstrators have caused some protesters to raise the slogan of “regime change.” Whereas popular upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and now in Syria from day one called for regime change, in Bahrain the regime change demand is very recent. If wise heads and pro-reform leaders within the ruling family do not prevail, and if the King and the Crown Prince remain marginalized, Al Khalifa rule would become much more tenuous, violence would spread, more Bahraini blood would be shed, and radical elements would become a stronger voice within the pro-reform opposition. What is more troubling is that the authority of the King and his son the Crown Prince is slowly eroding and the anti-reform faction within the ruling family, whether the older generation represented by the Prime Minister or some of the younger senior ministers represented by the so-called “al-Khawalid,” are becoming more rabidly anti-Shia and more influential.

This faction is following the Saudi guidelines on how to oppose democratic reforms. Once Saudi troops entered Bahrain under the guise of the GCC security agreement, Bahrain for all intents and purposes fell under Saudi suzerainty. While the Al Khalifa old guard has welcomed this intervention, pro-reform elements within and outside the ruling family resented the Saudi military presence and accused the Prime Minister of engineering it. Although the Saudi military presence might serve Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran and anti-Shia policy, in the long run it will bring immense harm to Bahraini stability, society, and government. Egypt’s more powerful military and security services failed to silence the youthful awakening at Tahrir Square. Bahraini security forces would equally fail to silence the opposition. The window for genuine dialogue between the King and the opposition over meaningful political reform is rapidly closing. Once the window closes, Bahrain will find itself in real economic and political trouble, and Al Khalifa leadership would lose the bay’ah of its people–Sunni and Shia.

Mirror: How do you assess US-Saudi troubled relations over democracy and reform in the region and how do you
envision the relationship to evolve?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: Saudi-American relations over Arab Spring uprisings upheavals and democratic transitions
became soured since the US President endorsed the pro-democracy movement in Egypt and urged the Egyptian dictator to abdicate. Because of their close relations with Mubarak, the Saudis were angered by the US position and claimed the President was too quick to “throw Mubarak under the bus.” President Obama’s position was that the US would support a leader as long as he enjoys the confidence of his people. Once he loses that, he should go. That was the case with Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Qadhaffi in Libya, and now Assad in Syria. The Saudis find it difficult to accept any meaningful role for the people in determining what type of government they should have and who the country’s leader should be. Despite the decades-old strategic relationship between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudi leadership has yet to get over what happened to Mubarak.

This strategic relationship is grounded in a shared American-Saudi view about regional stability, strong military cooperation, oil exports, and Iran’s perceived hegemonic posture in the Gulf region. The US and Saudi Arabia work closely in the military-to military area, coordinate regularly on Iran, and generally see eye to eye on Syria. They disagree on government response to unrest in Bahrain and on the harsh crackdown by Al Khalifa against the Shia majority. Washington did not support the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and believed such a step would inflame the situation further and would foment sectarianism. Riyadh has not shown any willingness to start a genuine dialogue between Al Khalifa and the opposition, nor does it to envision any meaningful role for the Shia majority in government. Because of concern over Iran’s nuclear program, the horrendous violence in Syria, the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and the 2012 presidential election campaign in the US, the uprising in Bahrain was put on the backburner, at least for the time being. Washington, however, has consistently pushed the Bahraini government, albeit ever so gently, toward a dialogue with the pro-democracy movement and has encouraged the Crown Prince to play a more active role in promoting such dialogue. On the other hand, the US maintains a robust military presence throughout the Gulf and coordinates with Gulf governments in fighting terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and in countering potential destabilizing actions by Iran.

The US so far has not used its considerable leverage with Al Khalifa to force a dialogue with the opposition. As many analysts had anticipated, the Saudi military intervention has failed to quash the uprising despite the virulent attitude toward the Shia community. On the contrary, it has energized the opposition despite continued regime repression, has empowered the anti-Shia hardliners within the Al Khalifa family, and has indirectly marginalized the King and his son the Crown Prince.

Mirror: Has Saudi Arabia used US dependence on Saudi oil and the huge US arms sales to the Kingdom to blackmail the US into taking a seemingly more tolerant attitude toward the Al Khalifa harsh tactics against pro-democracy activists? Is it possible to divorce US-Bahraini relations from Saudi-American relations?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: Saudi Arabia has not attempted to influence US foreign policy toward the Bahraini uprising through blackmail. Such an attempt, if ever done, would be futile and will certainly backfire. As the US becomes self-sufficient in energy, as the war in Afghanistan winds down, and as Iran searches for a negotiated compromise with the international community over its nuclear program, the US would begin to explore strategies to reduce its military presence in the region.

Budgetary and fiscal decisions within the US government could also reduce US American military presence in the Gulf, to include the Fifth Fleet. According to some reports, in a decade and a half from now Saudi Arabia is expected to need between 6-8 million barrels of oil a day for domestic consumption, mainly in power generation and desalination. Consequently, the Kingdom would have less oil to export and less oil revenues. Within the same timeframe, the Saudi government would need more money to provide for the welfare of its citizens, especially in unemployment assistance, education, and health. With less money to spend and a potentially more peaceful relationship with Iran, The Saudi government would be less inclined to spend on massive arms purchases from the US or anywhere else. The government also would be unable to spend billions of dollars on pacifying the restive segments of its population, as King Abdallah did in response to the Arab Spring in 2011. If these projections materialize, the Saudi government would be forced to minimize its support for Sunni hardliners in Bahrain.

Al Khalifa would then be forced to respond to their people’s calls for democracy and justice without Saudi support. Currently, US-Bahraini relations seem to be tied closely to US-Saudi relations because of the pervasive Saudi economic and security influence in Bahrain. As the balance of power changes in the region over the next decade, and as the US reviews its strategic interests and commitments in the region, Al Khalifa would need to explore strategies for genuine reform and economic and social justice. The main challenge would be whether Al Khalifa would have the luxury of time to wait until then. The window of dialogue might close much sooner. If that happens, calls for regime change would trump calls for dialogue. Bahrain has assumed more significance than its size in the past two years because of the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia; once, this struggle abates, Bahrain would again revert to being a small player in regional power configurations.

Mirror: How do you assess the pro-democracy forces and the democracy movement in Bahrain?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: Like every Arab protest movement in the past two years, Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising started peacefully demanding genuine political reform and government accountability. Like every regime where protests occurred, Al Khalifa resorted to violence and repression. As the government crackdown turned harsher and bloodier, and as the Al Khalifa Sunni government began to whip up the flames of anti-Shia sectarianism and shoot and beat peaceful protesters and torture prisoners, some in the pro-democracy movement began to question whether the ruling family was at all interested in reaching a compromise with the opposition. Calls for justice and dignity in Duwwar al-Lu’lu’ in Manama were not different from those in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The responses of the Egyptian dictator and the Al Khalifa, however, differed significantly. Mubarak was convinced to abdicate before much blood was shed , while Al Khalifa, especially the Prime Minister, continue to cling to power. Although the Bahraini pro-democracy movement is indigenous and genuine, it is not monolithic. It consists of numerous Shia and Sunni religious and secular groups ranging from al-Wifaq to al-Wa’ad, al-Minbar, and al-Haqq, among others. As confrontations with government became more violent, some within the opposition began to opt for violence as a justified response to government repression. Others rejected violence and responded positively to some government calls for dialogue. There is also a generational divide within the uprising, with the youthful generation becoming more supportive of violence and opposed to dialogue. Al-Wifaq seems to have lost some of its influence, and the Sunni secular movements are becoming more marginalized.

The democracy movement is divided ideologically and generationally. Some factions still hope for a democratically reformed Bahrain under the umbrella of a “constitutional” Al Khalifa monarchy but without the current Prime Minister. Others, who consider the establishment of a constitutional monarchy as highly improbable, have come out for regime change. Despite the deep disagreements within the democracy movement over which strategies to pursue, most factions agree the current situation in Bahrain is unsustainable. The Al Khalifa dynasty can no longer maintain its grip on power as it did before February 2011.

Mirror: How do you assess the regime use of Iran as a scare tactic to gain Western support for its crackdown against the opposition?

Dr. Emile Nakhleh: The democracy and human rights movement in Bahrain has never been about Shia or about Iran despite regime claims to the contrary. Calls for political reform and labor rights started decades ago while Iran was still under the Shah. Most Bahraini Shia do not turn to Iranian Grand ayatollahs as their marja’. In fact, Bahraini Shia for the most part have followed Iraqi religious leaders in Najaf and Karbala as their source of emulation. Since the advent of the Arab Spring, the Al Khalifa government has parroted the argument of their Saudi benefactors that Iran was behind the protest movement in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The West believes human rights advocates in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere are indigenous groups and not necessarily directed or controlled by Tehran. While continued unrest on the Arab side of the Gulf could benefit Iran’s short-term interests, the current Iranian regime is wary of pro-democracy protests lest they spread to Iran.

The Islamic Republic would not want to see a repeat of the June 2009 massive protests that followed the elections. Iran has already lost much of its influence in the Arab world because of its support of the Assad regime in Syria. Even Shia Hezbollah has lost much of its luster in the Arab street that was built following the 2006 Lebanon war because of its support of Assad. The Bahraini government’s argument that Iran is behind the unrest has not gotten any traction among policymakers in Washington, London, and other Western capitals. The West’s disagreements with Iran and international sanctions against that country are driven by Iran’s nuclear program, not by its perceived support of domestic unrest in Sunni Arab countries. The specter of the so-called Shia Crescent that was raised by Saudi Arabia, Mubarak’s Egypt, and Jordan a few years back has all but faded. In fact, many analysts in the West t now argue that a “Sunni Crescent” is on the ascendancy in the Arab world, and that Iran is becoming more isolated in the region.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.