Even if the timing was a surprise, a move of this sort was not entirely unforeseen in that it helps solve a number of short- and long-term problems both for Bahrain and for the crown prince specifically, most of them to do with inter-Al Khalifa politics. In the first place, his elevation above the three current deputy prime ministers, none of which are particularly viable candidates to fill the eventual political void left by Khalifa bin Salman, suggests an answer to the thorny issue of succession surrounding the prime ministership. Here I openly note the foresight of Emile Nakhleh, who anticipated precisely such an outcome some nine months ago in a lengthy e-mail conversation posted to this very blog. He wrote,
I don’t think [current Deputy PM and long-time Foreign Minister Muhammad bin Mubarak] will be seriously considered for the PM position. I think the tension will be between Khalifa and his nephew Hamad. If Khalifa loses, which is a distinct possibility, I won't be surprised to see Hamad appoint his son the CP as the PM. Precedents of such an appointment are all around them in the neighboring emirates, including in Saudi Arabia. If such an appointment occurs, the Royal Court and the Military would be held in check. The King could also appoint Muhammad (presumably as an interim) to provide continuity and even gravitas. I imagine this path would ultimately lead to Salman taking over the PM slot, while of course remaining the CP. The familial old-age respect, which Hamad has accorded his uncle, would not necessarily extend to the Khawalids or other Khalifas, especially if they don't support the King.Certainly, one can argue that the reports of the political death of Khalifa bin Salman, whose 43 years in the power have taught him a thing or two about inter-familial politics and coalition-building, are greatly exaggerated. Yet there is no denying that, at the very least, the crown prince has regained a decisive tool in his arsenal: a formal institutional role in politics with which to influence policy-making.
Since the post-uprising dismantling of the Economic Development Board, which once operated as a virtual shadow cabinet, Sh. Salman has been an executive without an institution. Indeed, only recently I asked--not sarcastically--of one of his associates, "So, on a normal day, what does he actually DO? Does he even have an office to GO to?" Now, as first deputy primary minister, not only does he have a formal position in decision-making, but that position is overtly political rather than economic. (Of course, his entire economic agenda was in a basic sense political, but we'll leave that for now.) Leaving apart the question of Khalifa bin Salman's possible exit from politics, then, the CP's promotion solves the more short-term problem of how to transform the role of Al Khalifa moderates from outside observers/critics to political players in their own rite. Having failed to erect a parallel cabinet, now the crown prince apparently will look to shape the work of the present one from within.
The appointment also has possible implications in the context of the ongoing dialogue process. Namely, it may help clear up the hitherto vaguely-articulated issue of executive follow-up. As illustrated by the BICI report, the practical utility of such potentially transformative political initiatives is only as great as the government's will and/or ability to act upon their outcomes. So, if or when Bahrain's political factions agree to substantive concessions, there must be some effective (and cooperative) institutional mechanisms through which to carry them out.
Finally, it must be noted the possible connection of yesterday's announcement to another very interesting story from the past week, namely this piece in the Financial Times claiming that Saudi Arabia, in particular new Minister of Interior Muhammad bin Nayf, is now backing political compromise in Bahrain. A rash observer might conclude that the Saudis have perhaps weakened in their support for the prime minister--even offered him up to the dialogue gods in (much belated) recognition that continued instability in Bahrain and further hardening of sectarian identity throughout the region is perhaps not in the country's long-term interests. (In this regard see the following results of a recent Zogby poll. Notice anything odd?)
Here we must pause to give credit once again to Emile Nakhleh, who duly predicted such a possibility in the same conversation quoted above, saying,
Now that Nayef is gone, Khalifa has lost a major supporter within the Saudi powerful hierarchy. I don't think Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz (new CP) or Ali ibn Abd al-Aziz (new MoI [since replaced by Muhammad bin Nayf]) have the same ideological affinity toward Khalifa or are as invested in having Bahrain become another "province" of Saudi Arabia. Since they are not as viscerally opposed to reform domestically, and hence tend to be closer to King Abdallah's position, they might not be as opposed to some sort of reform in Bahrain. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.Bravo, Emile, on your wishful thinking.
Although the FT story is rather weak on details, the notion of an increased Saudi role in pushing a political settlement in Bahrain would seem to find some evidence also in public opinion. Part of this, of course, is the upcoming two-year anniversary of the invasion/brotherly aid by the GCC Peninsula Shield force, for which the February 14th people are planning a mass burning of King 'Abdallah photos (and throwback 'Abdallah/Bush photos for good measure).
Opposition boards are full of new and old stories regarding the role of Saudi, including an extended October 2012 interview with Matar Matar published in the online magazine Elaph, in which he is quoted as saying among other things, "Our problem isn't with Saudi Arabia"; "the Peninsula Shield never used force"; and "we support union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain." A tweet by another prominent activist that "Saudi Arabia isn't our enemy and never will be" also has received a lot of attention.
More revealing, however, are comments by political society leaders to the effect that it is "unacceptable" for any Bahraini political party to meet with or "visit the Saudi regime in Riyadh," which implies of course that it is believed that some are planning to do so or already have done. Reports of flirtations between Saudi Arabia and al-Wifaq date to early last year, and I have heard from more than one person that the Saudis even envisioned a trip to Riyadh for 'Ali Salman in which the latter would publicly kiss the hand of the king. One can imagine the outcome of those negotiations.
But let us return again to the crown prince's promotion, for the best part--reactions--we have yet to see. All perhaps are predictable, but some are less boring than others. Al-Wifaq, for example, quickly issued a statement "welcom[ing]" the step "as a interim measure for a specified period" while "stress[ing] that the political reform it [al-Wifaq] demands is to make the post of prime minister subject to direct or indirect election, rather than appointed." Hardline opposition movements such as Al-Wafa', on the other hand, condemned both the appointment as well as al-Wifaq's welcoming of the "criminal" Sh. Salman.
Judging by the reaction on forums, most ordinary Shi'a greeted the news with a sort of comic disbelief born of conflict-weariness best revealed in the following thread subject: "The crown prince is the Dinosaur's deputy!!!" Sunni forum-goers, if equally shocked, generally were far less cavalier, with many reiterating that the crown prince is still the deputy of--and ultimately subordinate to--his great uncle rather than the reverse. (See, e.g., one, two, three, four.)
More interesting yet were the reactions of Bahrain's newspapers. The royal court-backed Al-Watan went the (unusual for it) moderate route of stressing consensus and unity, featuring on its cover two pictures of the ruling troika, including a huge congratulatory ad to the prime minister and crown prince sponsored by the Foreign Minister. (Less congratulatory and more apologia and nostalgia is the editorial by Hisham al-Zayani.) The message: the prime minister welcomes the crown prince in his new position, and supports the king in his wise and forward-looking initiative. Its message is so positive, in fact, that the Bahrain News Agency has since issued a poorly-written statement singling out the newspaper's laudatory coverage of the decree:
Al-Watan daily newspaper has hailed [King Hamad decree] ... and described the resolution as epoch-making and by all measures welcomed by the Kingdom of Bahrain ... as a major step which comes at a precise time and [represents] a progressive vision towards a different future for Bahrain.
Although even here we notice that Khalifa bin Salman's name appears first and in larger font, still Al-Watan's message clearly is more conciliatory than that of the two papers closely affiliated with the prime minister--Akhbar al-Khaleej and its English sister paper Gulf Daily News, whose covers we see below:
Conspicuous below the GDN's main headline is an ominous quotation from the prime minister, who "warned against attempts to make Bahrain 'a platform for political adventure' by dragging it into sedition and conflicts and undermining its security and stability." While this "political adventure" could also possibly refer to rumors that dialogue participants are discussing the issue of a popular referendum to approve political reforms (Al-Watan has a lengthier discussion of the PM's remarks here), it is difficult not to connect the two stories given the context.
Finally, then, we come to the front page of Akhbar al-Khaleej, which just so happens to be running a half-page advertisement featuring an imposing image of the prime minister. Imagine that.
Update: In an article whose conclusions I don't necessarily agree with, Simon Henderson offers some additional details regarding the rumored Saudi "involvement" in brokering Bahrain's fragile political truce, though he stops short of connecting this explicitly to the crown prince's appointment to first deputy PM. He writes,
Currently, Riyadh is pressuring both sides, urging the Bahraini royals to make concessions and the main Shiite opposition coalition ... to be reasonable in its demands. On March 8, the Financial Times reported that an unidentified "Saudi politician" ... had been in direct, informal contact with al-Wefaq. The official in question is believed to be an advisor to Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, one of the king's sons and commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), whose paramilitary forces formed the bulk of the Saudi contingent that intervened in Bahrain in 2011.He also links to this neat interactive Google map maintained by the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain that I had not seen before. It shows the areas "off-limits" to staff, with details on protests, planned protests, police activity, and so on.
Update 2: Seeing my mention of our earlier conversation, Emile Nakhleh has written to pass along this (Arabic-language) interview with the Bahrain Mirror on the subject of the crown prince's appointment. The A partial English transcript is:
I was mildly encouraged by two recent developments ...: the appointment of Crown Prince Salman as Principal Deputy Prime Minister; and the potential change in the Saudi position toward Bahrain. ...Update 3: Another "the U.S. should threaten to remove the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain" story. And the quote of the day from a Human Rights Watch article describing a recent meeting with officials in Bahrain:
I see Salman's appointment as a potential first step toward relieving Khalifa of his position as Prime Minister. If this is the case, King Hamad seems to have re-asserted his power position within the ruling family, especially toward the power grab by the Khawalids. Their recent anger at the Wall Street Journal article on rifts within the ruling family and demands that the King investigate where the leaks came from--presumably from the Crown Prince's office--seem to have been overtaken by Salman's appointment as Principal Deputy Prime Minister. For the sake of Bahrain, I hope this is a correct judgment.
On the second point, Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN), Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister, is more pragmatic than his father and values the Kingdom's relations with the West. Unlike his late father, MBN is less overtly ideological and, in the Saudi context, more liberal than his father. My meeting with him several years back before he became Interior Minister confirmed those qualities. I think he and some Western policymakers in London and Washington seem to believe that if Al-Khalifa rulers are to stay in power, they must begin to implement the five suggestions I made in my recent op-ed ("Obama and Bahrain: How to Save Al-Khalifa Rule").
In late February, my colleagues and I visited Bahrain. At an Interior Ministry meeting attended by – among others – the former Miami police chief John Timoney, who is advising the government, the new police commander, Brig. Tariq Hassan, gave a power point presentation. He highlighted the establishment of an ombudsman office, and enhanced police training (while also touting Bahrain’s support for women’s right to vote and women in Parliament).