Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Quiet Before the Storm, Part I

With all that has unfolded in Bahrain over the past two weeks, it seems futile to try to catch up here at the outset. So instead of summarizing everything that's happened until now, it is worth considering where we stand now and what is likely to happen in the next week or few weeks. After all, things have seemingly quieted in Bahrain (though the prominence given now to events in Libya also has helped to displace Bahrain as the top news item). What happened?

What happened is a few things. First, the crown prince was sent on Bahrain TV to appeal for calm and "national dialogue," presumably because he is the least disliked (i.e., by the Shi'a opposition) of the three-headed monarchy that is the Al Khalifa, the other two being the king and prime minister. This, combined with the removal of the military from the streets of Manama as demanded by the opposition as a precondition for talks -- note that this order to recall the military was also explicitly portrayed as having come from Crown Prince Salman, again not coincidentally -- served eventually to calm things enough to bring al-Wifaq, who by then had left parliament, and other groups to the discussion table. Sure, there were still protests and counter-protests (i.e., by pro-government Sunnis), but once the police stopped shooting people, especially during funerals processions for people they'd already killed, it's amazing how things found a way of settling down.

Then, or concurrently, King Hamad headed to Saudi Arabia to meet with the newly-returned King Abdullah, nominally to welcome him back after his extended absence for medical treatment but more obviously (one assumes) to gauge the extent of his leash in negotiating with the Shi'a. That is to say, with the Saudis bankrolling some 60% of the Bahraini budget (according to an estimate I was given in 2009 by a Sunni parliamentarian) via the proceeds from the Abu Saafa oil field, King Hamad does not have a free hand to offer the Shi'a whatever concessions he thinks judicious. After all, the Saudis have their own Shi'a to worry about (who incidentally have just begun some small-scale demonstrations of their own in the Eastern Province), and they would likely sooner take over administration of Bahrain themselves than lose it to the Baharnah.

The most recent notable event is the return from exile slash medical treatment of Hasan al-Musheima', the fiery Secretary General of al-Haqq who until a week ago when he was pardoned along with other opposition figures was supposedly in charge of a "terrorist cell" plotting the overthrow of the regime. Seems likes a strange person to allow back in your country at a time like this if you really believe that. But that's another story.

To be continued..

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