Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bahrain's Latest Call to Dialogue: Détente or Diversion?

"Ok, guys, we've got two hours to agree on everything."

Yesterday's news that Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali has been tasked by King Hamad to restart political "discussions" has been greeted with some cautious optimism. This latest step toward renewed talks comes some six weeks after Crown Prince's surprise call for such an initiative at the Manama Dialogue, a proposal that seemed encouraging on several levels.  Naturally, the (foreign) media have connected yesterday's announcement with Sh. Salman's earlier call, in which case one is perhaps justified in remaining optimistic.  Yet looking at the design and official description of these new "discussions," it is not at all clear that they are one and the same with the Crown Prince's plan.  In which case there is must less reason for hope, and Khalil al-Marzuq's stated worry that the latest announcement may be no more than a "seasonal call for dialogue" is likely right on target.

Looking at the official BNA press release, there are several worrying elements.  It reads:
Based on the royal guidance of His Majesty the King, the Minister of Justice will invite representatives from the political societies and independent members of the political community in Bahrain to resume discussions of the political dimension which was initiated during the National Dialogue. The topics on the dialogue agenda will be those pending issues which have consensus to be listed. This process is aimed to develop further consensus around the political agenda.

This is comes in conformity with His Majesty’s speeches emphasizing on his continued support for a purposeful and serious dialogue as long as it serves the Kingdom and its people.
The first notable fact is the conspicuous omission of any reference to the crown prince's statement at the Manama Dialogue.  In fact, the announcement appears to go out of its way to disassociate itself with the latter, stating explicitly that the initiative is "[b]ased on the royal guidance" of King Hamad and "comes in conformity with His Majesty's speeches."  So, again, nothing about Sh. Salman, an omission that suggests perhaps that his more moderate faction is not the force behind the initiative.

The second worrying element is the mere mention of the National Dialogue of summer 2011, which represents without question the single most farcical and disingenuous initiative of all the farcical and disingenuous initiatives witnessed since February 2011.  Couple this with a statement of support for the new "discussions" by Khalifa al-Dhaharani, the distinguished troupe leader of the National Dialogue (who just happened to have a meeting with the king yesterday), as well as the reference to "independent members of the political community," and one's imagination runs wild.

Moreover, the statement seems to skirt around the question of who precisely was "invited" to the "discussions."  Al-Wifaq we know is included, but has the offer been extended only to the opposition?--or only to the formal opposition (i.e., not to the Feb. 14 coalition)?  The open reference to "political societies" and "independent members of the political community" would seem to suggest that the discussions would not be limited to the opposition.  Yet some reports, including one by the usually-reliable Habib Toumi at Gulf News, are running with the headline, "Bahrain king extends talks invite to opposition."  Whatever the case, the vague language stands in stark contrast to that of Crown Prince Salman, who made explicit mention of the inclusion of Sunni and Shi'i groups, a condition that will surely make or break the entire enterprise.

Finally, apart from the actual text of the initiative, one can note two additional observations. The first is the patron of this new initiative, Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali, who over the previous two years has overseen the dissolution of two opposition societies--Wa'ad (temporarily), and 'Amal--and, on repeated occasions, the attempted dissolution of al-Wifaq itself.  The most recent of these efforts/threats to ban al-Wifaq took place only in September, when the group and Sh. 'Isa Qasim came under pressure by the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, which Sh. Khalid heads and which has legal jurisdiction over Bahrain's political societies.  More generally, Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali bin 'Abdallah bin Khalid is a distinguished member of the Khawalid (a subject that has been occupying much of my time lately), which is to say a member of the ruling family not predisposed to offering substantive political concessions.

Last is the larger regional and perhaps international political context of the announcement.  On the one hand, with the anniversary of the uprising is less than a month away, it is perhaps expected that the state would revert to its old trick of what al-Marzuq calls "seasonal call[s] for dialogue" aimed at diffusing pressure at opportune times.  In line with this interpretation, one Bahraini contact estimates that the effort "seems to be part of a broader plan by the authorities ahead of the crucial second anniversary of 14 Feb." 

On the other hand, one can also identify several external factors that could be conspiring to give King Hamad a kick in the pants on the issue of dialogue.  Second-term "I do what I want!" President Obama has nominated as secretaries of state and defense two individuals who likely represent a different take on the United States' proper role in the Middle East, its stance on Iran, and indeed its strategic goals throughout the rest of the world.  At the same time, Bahrain's oldest great-power patron Britain is in the middle of its own formal parliamentary review of relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. See, for example, Jane Kinninmont's testimony to the committee yesterday:

These hints at changes in philosophy may not translate into substantive changes in the U.S. or British relationship with Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, but the mere suggestion may be enough to prompt Gulf leaders to take more deliberate steps to ensure their own long-term security and stability, including by making headway on addressing longstanding political grievances.  (Say, in Saudi Arabia's case, by appointing women to the Shura Council.) That Bahrain's announcement came just a day after the end of the GCC summit in Riyadh, where the focus reportedly was on the Arab Spring and meeting "people's aspirations," is interesting in this regard.  As always, however, only time will tell.

Update: Well, it seems that Sunni groups certainly are under the impression that they've been invited. (Although this impression has proved erroneous in the past.) The National Unity Gathering has welcomed the dialogue and in fact held public meetings with constituents last night.
Update 2: Not everyone is such a fan, however. The Bahrain Mirror reports that official army spokesman and Internet funnyman Khalid Al Bu'Ainain referred to the dialogue ("al-hiwar") yesterday as "al-himar"--that is, "the jack-asses"--in a Tweet. Hilarious.

Update 3: Blast, another setback!  Al-Wifaq, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate its control of the Shi'a street and/or ability to mobilize popular support for the dialogue, calls for a rally in Manama.  The Interior Ministry denies permission for the rally.  Members of the youth movement instead take to the streets to denounce the talks, shouting "no dialogue with killers."  Interior Ministry responds with tear gas and stun grenades.  Al-Wifaq looks out of touch and lacking in influence where it matters.  Government likely wonders what good will be a dialogue (and the possibility of a political deal) if the opposition cannot put an end to protest activities even if it wanted.

Coming soon: dialogue falls apart.

Update 4: Here we go.  'Ali Salman tells the BBC that al-Wifaq wants "someone who can speak for the ruling family" at the proposed talks, namely Crown Prince Salman.

Update 5: For those in Washington on Feb. 13, Carnegie is hosting an event titled "The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy in the Gulf" featuring, inter alia, Toby Jones, Frederic Wehrey, and Matar Matar.  

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