Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.
Bahrain has fallen off the international news agenda in recent months, eclipsed by violent conflict in Syria, Egypt, and Libya. But its slow political deterioration deserves the attention of Western policymakers for two reasons. First, the country is closely allied with the U.S. and U.K. Inevitably—and regardless of whether it is fair—these larger outside powers will be blamed by a large section of both domestic and regional public opinion for the ongoing failures to resolve the political crisis. Second, this is not another intractable Middle Eastern political conundrum; the contours of a possible power-sharing compromise are not hard to imagine. The mainstream opposition party is calling for a constitutional monarchy, and reformers in government say they want the same thing. There are many options for addressing the opposition’s decades-old calls for greater representation and less discrimination without playing a zero-sum game between Sunni and Shia communities. Fears—stoked by Iraq—among many Sunni Bahrainis that elections would lead to a “tyranny of the majority” dominated by Shia clerics could be allayed by bringing in proper checks and balances on executive power. Instead, fears are deliberately fanned by state propaganda. It is not the impossibility of a solution that explains the failure to resolve the political crisis; it is the lack of political will.
Earlier this year there seemed some cause for cautious optimism about a possible political solution, compared with the stagnation that for two years had characterized the formal political process (though not the busy sphere of grassroots activism). A formal political dialogue was initiated in February, including the country’s main licensed opposition group, al-Wefaq. It was slow, halting, government-controlled, and included only a limited range of players that the government found acceptable; talks were preoccupied with methodology, with little progress on substantial issues. But the existence of such a process was at least an acknowledgement that the country needs a political solution, not simply a security-based approach to managing dissent. The appointment of the crown prince to the role of deputy prime minister—giving him a formal executive role—also appeared to empower a younger-generation royal leader willing to engage with the domestic drivers of unrest. Also encouraging were reports from diplomats that Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted a political solution. Although Saudi Arabia may place a ceiling on the level of political change, the question of what exactly it can live with in Bahrain has never been fully explored, and its role is sometimes exaggerated by Bahraini conservatives looking to justify their own behavior.
But just a few months on, the momentum has stalled. The dialogue took a lengthy summer holiday. During the same period, the conservative security-minded faction of the government took center stage, thanks in part to three car bombs that so far haven’t killed people, but have alarmed many. The parliament, boycotted by the opposition, said the authorities should have even stronger powers to combat terrorism—which Bahrain defines with convenient breadth. As opposition groups called for protests on the country’s independence day, August 14, hundreds of people were locked up on terrorism-related charges. These included one of al-Wefaq’s leading figures, Khalil al-Marzooq, a former MP. Prior to the 2011 crisis, al-Wefaq was the largest single group in parliament, with 17 out of 40 elected MPs. Today, four of them are exiled and two of those have been made stateless. Al-Wefaq is now boycotting the dialogue as well as the parliament. While the formal political processes stagnate, political disputes continue to play out on the streets instead.