Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain

In an unprecedented development, tonight's Brookings event on Bahrain went off without so much as a single thrown shoe or sectarian epithet. This is likely due to the fact that the panel--myself, POMED's Stephen McInerney, and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi--did not include any actual Bahrainis (thanks to the government's refusal to participate and threats against any Bahrainis thinking of doing so). 

In any case, some attendees asked if I could e-mail my remarks, so I thought it would be easier simply to post them here.  Supposedly there will also be an audio and/or video recording (via Al-Jazeera Mubasher) of the entire event, so I will also post these once/if they materialize.

The theme of the talk was "The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain":

Update: Audio is now up via the Brookings website.

I will say a little bit about the underlying social and political dynamics reinforcing the present conflict in Bahrain, a conflict which involves many more parties than simply “the government” and “the opposition.”

This discussion is useful I think for two separate reasons:

First, rather than simply describing Bahrain’s lack of implementation of the BICI recommendations, and its reluctance to undertake political reform generally, it helps explain why it has failed to do so in a way that avoids recourse to moral arguments or judgments. That is to say, understanding the web of conflict in Bahrain helps explains why the country’s decision-makers presently have no real incentive to alter their current, post-uprising political strategy.

Second, it is useful in focusing the discussion away from the BICI specifically and back to the larger political picture. Obviously, the BICI arose to investigate the aftermath of the uprising, and to recommend changes to help ensure that the violent mishandling of the crisis would not happen again. Somewhat lost in all this attention on what happened after February 14, then, are the root causes of the uprising itself, which are well-known and have been since at least the early 2000s. It also distracts from what has gone on since the BICI recommendations were issued, including additional arrests of political activists and critics, the upholding of sentences against opposition leaders and medical personnel, legal threats against senior Shi‘i religious leaders and religious institutions, and most recently the stripping of citizenship from opposition figures, including former members of parliament and even academics abroad.

The misdirection afforded by disproportionate focus on the BICI process of course is to the government’s benefit, and fits into its larger strategy of simply working to become better prepared (from a security and to a lesser extent diplomatic standpoint) to handle the next large-scale uprising—as if such a thing were inevitable anyway—rather than working to rectify the underlying conditions and grievances driving political discontent. And it’s probably safe to say that, as a result, Bahrain’s leaders will achieve a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain

Since I’m limited here to ten minutes, I will briefly outline what I would describe as Bahrain’s three mutually-reinforcing political conflicts, each working to preclude resolution of the others. You’ll notice that none of these three is “the opposition” versus “the government.” This is for two reasons. First, I think both groups are sufficiently heterogeneous that it makes little sense to speak in these terms. Second, even if we were revise this formulation to be something more workable such as “the moderate opposition” versus “moderates in the ruling family,” still I think this is not the main sticking point today in Bahrain. Disagreement between, say, al-Wifaq leaders and Bahrain’s nominal leader King Hamad, is not the primary cause of political stagnation or regression in Bahrain.

The Intra-Al Khalifa Conflict

On exactly this point, the first and arguably most important conflict precluding resolution of Bahrain’s political deadlock is disagreement among senior members of the ruling family. Unfortunately, this disagreement is not simply over the best way to handle the political problem posed by the uprising, but over the much more fundamental question of how to understand the problem itself—how to understand the problem of Shi‘a political mobilization in Bahrain. When you look at the period following King Hamad’s succession, and at the political and especially economic reforms that were introduced, it is easy to see what was the thinking underlying these initiatives. The idea was that by offering opponents at least some political space in which to operate, and by improving the living conditions of citizens through economic revitalization, diversification, and efforts to stamp out corruption, Bahrain could escape from the chronic discontent that had plagued the country—and King Hamad’s father—throughout the second half of the 1990s.

However, there were two significant problems related to this reform agenda. First, King Hamad’s initiatives, ultimately superintended by the crown prince, were a direct challenge to the economic-cum-political interests of other senior members of the ruling family, namely the prime minister whose political influence originates in expansive patronage networks with links to Saudi Arabia. Thus each of the tenets of the crown prince’s economic agenda—diversification away from reliance upon natural resources generally and away from Saudi Arabia in particular; labor market regulation; and efforts to limit corruption—all served to undermine the prime minister’s economic and thus political position. And indeed one assumes that this was precisely the intention.

So this was one problem. The second problem is that not everyone within the ruling family was sold on the basic premise of the economic and political reform program—or alternatively one could hypothesize that even King Hamad and his son had doubts about the state’s ability to co-opt political support through limited political liberalization and economic improvement. In either case, the upshot was that on the political front at the state proceeded on two parallel tracks—the second being a sort of preemptive back-up plan in the event opponents were not satisfied with the changes instituted.

So, for example, at the same time that Bahrain reintroduced an elected parliament, it also took steps to ensure that the opposition could never gain a majority, by redrawing electoral districts around sectarian boundaries. Even though Shi‘a citizens comprise a majority of the overall population, for example, al-Wifaq has never bothered to field candidates in more than 18 of the 40 total districts, out of recognition that it cannot hope to win the others. Besides redistricting, other preventative measures included the onset of Bahrain’s now decade-long program of naturalizing Sunnis from Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere for work in the police and armed forces, as well as the near wholesale exclusion of Shi‘a citizens from those services. Finally, certain agencies of the state—in particular the royal court and its various public outlets, including the inflammatory newspaper Al-Watan—also worked to cultivate anti-Shi‘a orientations among ordinary Sunnis such that these citizens will be happy to fight the government’s battles for it if and when the need arises.

Perhaps the biggest substantive impact of the February 14 uprising, then, in my opinion, was to deal a real blow to the basic premise of Bahrain’s entire post-1999 reform agenda overseen by the king and crown prince. Those in the ruling family who opposed it on principle or out of self-interest, including not only the prime minister but also other security-minded individuals such as the royal court and defense ministers, were in their minds vindicated in their belief that citizens—in particular, Shi‘a citizens—will never be satisfied with anything less than wholesale political revolution, and that accordingly the only way to achieve social and political stability is through strong, proactive security measures and the incitement of ordinary citizens against the opposition as an imagined Iranian fifth column.

So, whether this means that King Hamad and his son have lost the internal Al Khalifa battle for political direction, or simply that they have finally come over to the view of more security-minded members of the family, the result is the same: Bahrain now working to solve its “Shi‘a problem” within a security, rather than a political, framework.

The Fractured Opposition

The second conflict underlying Bahrain’s political stalemate is the division within the opposition itself—namely, between those who hold out hope for the formal, moderate opposition represented by al-Wifaq, and who remain open in principle to political dialogue, and those who continue to pursue more radical and more violent means of protest and who would reject any political compromise. Certainly, there has been much talk lately about increasing radicalization and violence among members of the opposition, including among al-Wifaq leaders themselves.

But despite this attempt to paint al-Wifaq as mastermind of violence, the fact is that the increase in violence represents something even more worrisome to the state: a protest movement entirely out of the hands of the formal (and more moderate) opposition.

Indeed, from the state's perspective, it would be preferable if al-Wifaq WERE behind the violence, since then the group could credibly commit to ending it as part of political negotiations. As it is now, with al-Wifaq wielding almost no command over Bahrain's revolutionary youth, any promise by al-Wifaq to end violent protest activities in exchange for political concessions is entirely non-credible, giving the government no incentive to engage in dialogue in the first place. This is a classic commitment problem.

In short, not only does increasing violence give security-minded royals and citizens more fuel for their arguments in favor of an even harsher security crackdown against protest activities, but, even more importantly, al-Wifaq appears an ever more unreliable and inefficacious partner in political dialogue.

The Other Opposition

The third domestic conflict in Bahrain involves what are usually referred to simplistically as “Sunni loyalists” or “the Sunni counter-opposition.” In fact, the various groups and movements that arose in opposition to the February uprising—the largest and most important being the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih—are neither exclusively Sunni nor strictly-speaking pro-government. In a recent Chatham House paper, Jane Kinninmont offers an illustrative quotation from a National Unity Gathering supporter, who told her, “We are not for the government, just temporarily aligned with it.” And I think that is about right for many ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain, who share most of the same basic political grievances of the opposition, including discontent with corruption and wasted resources; continued naturalization of foreigners for work in the police and military; and a lack of say in political decision-making.

Both before and after the uprising, the government has been successful in dissuading Sunni citizens from joining the opposition in significant numbers—or of forming a parallel opposition based around Sunni identity—by raising the specter of Shi‘a empowerment. Prior to al-Wifaq’s resignation, the primary function of the two main Sunni political societies in parliament was to obstruct the opposition, and any Sunnis who dared oppose the government were branded as complicit in the larger Iranian conspiracy represented by al-Wifaq.

In the aftermath of the uprising, which saw an unprecedented and only partly state-sponsored Sunni mobilization, Bahrain’s leaders found themselves with two groups of discontented Sunnis: those that disagreed with what was perceived to be its lax security response to opposition activities, and those that harbored substantive political misgivings independent of this concern, such as those already mentioned. Even if the state could somehow broker some political agreement with the opposition, then, still it would face a different set of problems involving Bahraini Sunnis stemming from its very own efforts to mobilize the community.

The government learned this lesson the hard way during its most recent attempt to restart talks with the opposition in March 2012, where the problem was not intransigence on the part of al-Wifaq but the reaction of Sunni groups. Both the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih rallied against the dialogue—not because they symbolized compromise with the opposition but because they had not been invited. That is, Sunnis were angry that the state would seek a political bargain without their input, particularly given their decisive role in turning the tide of the uprising in February and March 2011.

Not coincidentally, reports of this new “political dialogue initiative” stopped almost immediately. The state is willing to do a lot of things to appease Sunnis, but allowing them a seat at the negotiating table alongside members of the opposition is definitely not one of them. Indeed, this scenario above all others is the one that the ruling family will work to avoid. The chance that Sunni and Shi‘i political leaders could agree some set of political demands is far too dangerous to risk by agreeing to multiparty talks. (According to longtime Bahrain scholar ‘Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, who incidentally is among those whose citizenship was revoked last week, the last time that members of the ruling family sat at a negotiating table with leading Sunni and Shi‘i figures was in the 1960s.) In this case, then, rather than reject the Sunni demand for inclusion directly, the state appears instead to have ended its pursuit of a new dialogue initiative altogether, and in the eight months since there has been no hint of another one.

The state thus seems to have decided that if it cannot placate both sets of Sunnis—that is, those unhappy with the state’s security response to protesters, and those simply unhappy—then it will have to take steps to appease at least the former group of more security-minded citizens. This group, then, can be conveniently mobilized against the latter more reform-minded Sunnis, who may be branded “traitors” or fools duped by the opposition. It was this dynamic, I would argue, that led to the high-profile arrest of Nabeel Rajab, and of the recent legal action begun against Sh. ‘Isa Qasim, against ‘Ali Salman, against al-Wifaq as an organization, and others accused of fomenting violence.

The problem, of course, is that the state’s capitulation to this pressure reinforces the larger self-perpetuating cycle ongoing for the better part of two years in Bahrain. Additional arrests and more stringent security measures fuel further radicalization, desperation, and violence on the part of the youthful opposition, whose members see little hope for a promising future in Bahrain in terms of employment, education, and so on, much less an agreeable political settlement.

In conclusion, then, yes, Bahrain has successfully fended off substantive political change, and the incentives are in place for it to continue to do so. (And I’ve not even had time to mention the role of the United States or Saudi Arabia.) But at what cost?


  1. Actually, the last time Shia and Sunna leaders met the government was in 1992:

    "n November 15, 1992, a six-member delegation comprising three Sunni and three Shi'a leaders – conservative Shi'a jurist and community leader Shaikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri; Abd al-Wahab Hussain Ali, a teacher and leading Shi'a activist; Shaikh Abd al-Latif al-Mahmud, a leading Sunni reformist theologian; Muhammad Jabr al-Sabah, a former member of parliament; Shaikh Isa al-Jawdar, a prominent conservative Sunni personality; and Hamid Sanghur, a prominent Shi'a lawyer – met with Amir Isa. Of these, only Sanghur, a former head of the Bahrain Bar Association and since deceased, was not associated with dissenting political forces. Their reception, it seems, was frosty, and the meeting was brief. "The amir told us he was about to initiate the Shura Council and that was all we could expect,"

    "This was one of the only times that the ruler met with a delegation that included both Shi'a and Sunni figures. In subsequent requests by citizens for meetings, the amir has reportedly insisted on meeting separately with Sunni and Shi'a delegations. Critics say that this is one way in which the government exacerbates communal divisions."


    I'm disappointed at your view that the uprising has ended. The unrest that started in 14 Feb is still ongoing, even of the government response has changed. The situation we are in now is much more deeper and complicated than in Feb-March 2011.

    1. The 1992 "meeting" you mention doesn't sound like much of a meeting at all. What I had in mind was something closer to actual "negotiations," especially in the context of an attempt to defuse/solve a crisis (such as the labor movement actions of the 1960s).

      As for my view that "the uprising has ended," perhaps the issue here is semantics. As I described in the recent lengthy post on this subject, my point is that the sort of mass and widespread protests that brought the country to a standstill and the state to the bargaining table is now logistically and militarily impossible. Sure, many Bahrainis are still unhappy, and no progress has been made in solving the underlying political problems at the root of the opposition movement; but unless there is a real change in policing tactics or political/military resolve this frustration and grievance simply is not going to translate into the sort of result witnessed in early 2011.


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