By Richard Johnson
The persisting political stalemate in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, the tiny island kingdom near the western shores of the Persian Gulf, threatens to become an arena for proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
While Saudi Arabia is allied with the Al Khalifa ruling family and provides most of the government’s income, Iran has an interest both in defending a “Shia cause”, popular with its domestic public, and in criticizing its traditional rivals, the Gulf monarchies, says a new study published by the London-based Chatham House.
In fact, Saudi officials have accused Iran of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain, while Iran’s state-run media have accused Saudi Arabia of trying to annex its much smaller neighbour through the much-discussed ‘union’ proposal. In a sign of the intensifying tensions, in May 2012 an Iranian newspaper seen as close to the country’s top cleric revived an old Iranian territorial claim to Bahrain, says Jane Kinninmont in the study titled ‘Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse’.
The report warns that in the absence of any serious process of political reform, the situation in Bahrain is increasingly fragmented and violence is gradually escalating – raising the spectre of civil conflict that could draw other regional actors into a strategic financial and military hub.
“From being a country buffeted by sectarian tensions from elsewhere, Bahrain has begun to export them. Sunni-Shia tensions and mistrust have increased in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE since February 2011,” says the author, adding: “The situation offers a stark warning about the problems that could arise in other Gulf states if the transition to a post-rentier economy is not well managed; Bahrain’s sectarian problems partly reflect efforts to concentrate the state’s limited wealth in the hands of a (largely Sunni) few.”
Since the report of the royally established Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (the ‘Bassiouni report’) in November 2011, the government has taken some steps to address human rights abuses and to create new mechanisms for the oversight of the security services. However, the effect of these potentially important mechanisms will depend on the political will invested in them. So far the indications are negative, avers the report.
But, according to the author of the report, Jane Kinninmont, there is still scope to find common ground between the different elements of Bahraini society in support of a constitutional monarchy, based on a revitalized social contract, not on sect-based power-sharing.
In fact, there may now be an opportunity to develop a fresh mediation effort by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the context of discussions on greater unity among Persian Gulf states. Conversely, the failure to reach a political solution to the problems in Bahrain may undermine the drive towards GCC unity by contributing to both political and sectarian tensions within the GCC, warns Kinninmont.
She is of the view that the repression in Bahrain, a Western ally, complicates and hinders the efforts of the U.S. and UK to sketch out a new policy towards a Middle East where demands for democracy have become increasingly vocal.
Jane Kinninmont is Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme at Chatham House, where her research focuses on the Gulf countries and the political economy of the Arab world. Previously she was Associate Director for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Group, directing a briefing service for senior executives operating in the Middle East.
The report points out that most Bahraini Shia do not adhere to the Iranian political-religious doctrine of wilayet-e-faqih (rule of the jurists), but fear of Iranian interference is a major complicating factor. The government has been unable to substantiate claims of an Iranian coup plot, but this narrative is widely accepted among Bahrain’s Sunni population, mindful of Iran’s machinations in Iraq and Lebanon.
But efforts by the authorities to portray even the most mainstream and conciliatory Shia opposition leaders as traitors and foreign agents have helped to weaken Sunni support for the uprising, but have badly damaged social cohesion. “A better defence against Iranian interference would be to ensure that Shia Bahrainis are equal citizens with equal political representation, job opportunities and a stake in the nation-state,” notes Kinninmont.
She adds: “The problems in Bahrain can be solved if there is the political will to compromise, reform and share power within the existing state, which is one of the oldest in the Arab world, rather than relying on external support. There is still scope to find common ground between the different elements of Bahraini society in support of a constitutional monarchy, based on equal citizenship and a revitalized social contract.
“Conversely, options based on sect-based power-sharing, or well-meaning suggestions that the issues could be fixed by appointing a few more unelected Shia to positions of power, are likely to be counterproductive – entrenching the importance of sectarian affiliation, casting religious groups as rivals for power, and failing to respond to genuine demands for institutional reform.”
The report does not expect a political consensus in Bahrain “any time soon”. But that makes it all the more urgent for a process of political negotiation and reform to begin, so that there is a way forward for resolving political conflict without violence, the author argues. “The current political fragmentation creates uncertainty and weakens the ability of leaders to negotiate. But it also raises the possibility that surprising coalitions of interests may emerge in negotiations that deal with specific issues rather than focusing on identity politics.”
Elements of a political solution
The report recommends the following steps to achieve a successful political solution:
– Ensure that nationals have a stake in the country’s political and economic system, regardless of their political views or religious identity;
– Focus on common interests and building a middle ground, rather than taking actions that push actors towards the extremes;
– Involve genuine power-sharing in response to the clearly expressed demands of much of the population for greater political representation (all the more so since the 2011 crackdown has damaged the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of many);
– Address socio-economic issues such as land reclamation, corruption, naturalization and labour-market discrimination in conjunction with political issues;
– Take account of the genuine fears of a large part of the population – both the anti-uprising factions and some independents – that democratization would empower theocrats or result in the ‘tyranny of the majority’;
– Obtain support from the country’s GCC neighbours, possibly through a conference or dialogue process that involves advice from GCC diplomats and politicians as well as Bahrain’s own factions, but emphasize Bahrain’s distinct national identity and ability to reach its own political settlement.