A few small facts and rumors may be pointing to a faint ray of hope at the end of a long tunnel in Bahrain.And my response:
Taking all these facts together leads me to believe that the US has finally found a handle to influence the Bahraini Royal Family extremists, mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. This group, which has ruthlessly played the sectarian card, did manage to split the country and in a sense has made the majority of the population become highly susceptible to Iranian mingling. This may have been acceptable to the more conservative Saudis, but undoubtedly has gone against the previous policies of King Abdullah to make Islam in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world inclusive of all sects and tendencies, where both Sunni’s and Shi’a can live in good intelligence.
- One of the Royal family members broke the rule of silence within the Al Khalifas in Bahrain and spoke to the Wall Street Journal of the rift in the family between the liberals and the “khawalites”. Although, there have been calls in the family to investigate to find out who this Sheikh may be, nothing has happened to this person, at least not yet. Furthermore, the more liberal Crown Prince has been promoted to Deputy PM.
- Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, the Bahraini Minister of Justice was reported by the Kuwait News Agency to have announced a delay in the talks with the opposition on power sharing. The delay is certain, but the words “power sharing” are quite new and speak volumes ...
- At the same time, major changes have taken place in Saudi Arabia with Prince Muqrin bin AbdelAziz getting a major leg up to be the next in line after the very ill Prince Salman. Prince Muqrin is thought to be very close to King Abdullah and often seen to be quite liberal on social and economic issues. He is well educated and traveled.
- One observer mentioned on G2K and elsewhere that Prince Mita’eb bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sent his chief of staff to push the Bahraini leadership into accommodating some of the opposition’s demand.
- For the past few months there has been a mounting campaign in Washington by various NGOs, think tanks and within the diplomacy and the defense establishment to close the Navy base in Bahrain. The topic is hotly debated and arguments go from “the closure is impossible” to “it would be quite feasible”. Rightly or wrongly, it seems that the pro-closure arguments seem to be winning the day.
- It appears that the relationship between the US and the Bahraini authorities are at an all time low. There are credible rumors that the US Ambassador’s and the Navy base Admiral’s calls to the higher levels in Bahrain are not returned.
The intervention in Bahrain by the Saudis and UAE took place at a time when King Abdullah was very ill. When he was not available to make policy in the early part of 2011, it seems that the Bahraini extremists made their case to the more conservative elements of the Saudi Royal family and won the day, getting the Saudis to make a strong gesture of support to the Al Khalifas in Bahrain and against any power sharing arrangement with the Shi’a opposition.
The facts/rumors mentioned above show that things might be changing. Most important, King Abdullah has been able to regain some strength. Many of his clear-cut decisions of the past few months show that he wants to establish his legacy on a strong footing. His push for including women in the Majlis asShura, the nomination of younger princes in position of power, and the naming of Prince Muqrin as Second Deputy PM are important. It seems, now, that he has put one of his sons in charge of the Bahrain policy, which could lead to an accommodation between the more reasonable elements of the Shi’a opposition in Bahrain and the more reasonable elements within the Al Khalifas, thereby shunting the "khawalites".
Also, the strong rumor of the US closing the large Navy base, which may be music to the ears of the Al Khalifa extremists, must be worrying the Saudis. It may be worth remembering that the base was not established in Bahrain to protect the Al Khalifas. It is there to defend Saudi Arabia. It was developed at the behest of the Saudis not the Bahrainis. Saudi Arabia cares greatly to have the base there as first line of defense against Iran. Should we close the base, transfer the command to the Qatar Air Base, the ships at sea and send a few thousand men/women back home, it will be perceived in the Gulf as weakening the Saudi defenses and the Saudi Royal Family.
Thus, it would appear that the Saudis must push the Al Khalifas to abandon their policy of squashing the Shi’a majority to protect their own parochial interest. The Saudis would be motivated by the desire to limit the appeal of Iran on the Arab Shi’a of Bahrain and by the need to ensure that the US base stays in Bahrain. One can surmise that Prince Muqrin, a popular prince in the Kingdom and a man highly respected for his intellect in the West, and Prince Mita’eb a younger but also respected royal may have decided to implement a policy of pushing their poor royal cousins in Manama to come up with solutions to the crisis that go beyond hiring expensive PR consultants in Washington.
Another way and more US centric view of the situation is that finally, the US may have found a handle on pushing for change in Bahrain. By truly and credibly looking into the base closing, Washington can influence the Saudis to impose a credible change in Bahrain without having to negotiate with the unreliable and ideological Bahraini royal extremists. Should this be the case and should it work, it would show that the US diplomacy is more sophisticated than often given credit for.
A few notes on what is a very perceptive analysis by Jean-Francois Seznec.Update: Perhaps in view of a percieved change in the U.S. stance on Bahrain, earlier this week Sawsan al-Sha'ir threatened in Al-Watan the emergence of an "al-Qa'ida" in Bahrain if the U.S. were to "attempt to enable radical Shi'a groups" such as the dastardly al-Wifaq. See point 3 of my response above.
In the end, of course, the pressure point must be Saudi Arabia rather than Bahrain, where Seznec rightly points out inward-looking Al Khalifa will be happy to do away not only with the Fifth Fleet but the Formula 1 race and every other institution that invites foreign scrutiny and "interference." So, as I am no expert on royal politics there, I will simply hope that the positive indications mentioned do indeed suggest a shift in Saudi policy born of self-interest.
- It is widely assumed (and, having spoken at length to the author of the WSJ piece, I think the assumption is warranted) that the "leak" behind the story on Al Khalifa factionalism came from the crown prince's court, perhaps even Sh. Salman himself. That nothing has happened to the offending party may thus owe to his (official, at least) seniority vis-a-vis those behind the rumored "internal investigations," presumably the royal court minister and others among the Khawalid. Some even see the crown prince's surprise appointment to the position of "first deputy" PM in this light, i.e. as a reaffirmation of his authority against potential challengers. Of course, this interpretation raises questions of its own.
- The oft-cited distinction between well-intended "liberals" such as King Hamad and his son and obstructionist "conservatives," especially as it relates to the Khawalid, is not so clear as it might seem. As I describe in a forthcoming (June) article in the Journal of Arabian Studies, not only has the rise to power of the Khawalid branch of the Al Khalifa occurred exclusively under the reign of King Hamad, probably as a maneuver against his more powerful uncle the prime minister, but the Khawalid--among whom are the royal court minister, the defense minister, and the justice minister charged now with overseeing the ongoing national dialogue--continue to represent the king's closest advisers and in the former two cases personal friends of many decades. Thus, notwithstanding the clear anti-Shi'a orientations of the Khawalid and their role in creating and prolonging the post-uprising crisis, the notion that Bahrain's otherwise moderate rulers are being held hostage by this conservative faction is more than a bit problematic and, as critics often point out, smells of "good cop, bad cop."
- Unless one has considerable faith in the coercive ability both of al-Wifaq and the Bahraini government, the question still remains how any potential deal will be sold to the large proportion of Shi'is and, importantly, Sunnis who would reject any political compromise, whether because it disgraces the memory of the martyrs or, alternatively, constitutes an appeasement of terrorists. One must recall here that, independent of possible support from conservatives in Saudi Arabia, much of the power of the Khawalid, and the main reason they have achieved a level of influence disproportionate to their seniority in the ruling family, lies in their ability to mobilize Sunni public opinion--via inflammatory media such as the hard-line daily Al-Watan and direct sponsorship of Sunni groups--against the Shi'a-dominated opposition qua ostensive Iranian-backed fifth column. These networks, and the extreme political views they continue to sow, will not be undone easily. [On this see Update below.]
- Even as U.S.-Bahraini relations appear strained as a result perhaps of American pressure for substantive political progress, the British continue to move in the opposite direction. What will be the net effect?
Update 2: Speaking of U.S. policy on Bahrain, a friend notes this "international symposium" opening today in Bahrain featuring U.S. congressmen, British parliamentarians, John Bolton, John Bolton's mustache, and others. According to its website, the event "intends to examine institutional developments and political reforms in Bahrain. It will further examine the challenges of empowering diverse coalitions for democratic transition and stability in light of the geopolitics of the region." Translation: the symposium will explain why, due to the threat from Iran, Bahrain must balance reform with the need to avoid "empowering" non-"diverse coalitions" (sectarian groups) like the present Bahraini opposition.
Ostensibly sponsored by the University of Bahrain and the Bahrain-American Council, I am told the symposium is in fact but another project of the "think-tank" Derasat and its chairman Muhammad 'Abd al-Ghaffar. Evidently my invitation was misplaced.
Update 3: This "article" in the Arab News should give you some flavor of the Bahrain International Symposium.