Several people have written to ask what one should make of Sh. Salman's recent visit to Washington, where he met with the Secretary of Defense and, we are told by the Washington Post, President Obama, who "dropped in" on another high-level meeting, seemingly to scold him on the issue of human rights. To be honest, as an ordinary citizen lacking the expansive surveillance and wiretapping abilities apparently deployed with impunity by the U.S. government, I'm not sure that I know enough about the trip to offer any personal insight.
Yet I can relay what seem to be the real worries of some or even many in Bahrain, namely that the Crown Prince's U.S. visit was more than just a final leg of some generic diplomatic mission. (He had been to London in the days prior.) Rather, some Bahrainis suspect that Sh. Salman traveled above all in a personal capacity, to solicit some sort of grand bargain with the United States that would help address their mutual concerns.
For the latter, this would mean progress on substantive reform and political deescalation at a time when the U.S. finds itself under attack by both sides of the conflict in Bahrain: the American ambassador is under fire from Sunnis, including in the Royal Court, for alleged "collaboration" with al-Wifaq (and "the Shi'a" generally); while the U.S. Embassy is distributing unprecedented warnings of "surveillance" of American citizens by individuals associated with the radical opposition.
For Sh. Salman, such a deal might involved redoubled U.S. support for his domestic political agenda, including the short- to near-term retirement of Khalifa bin Salman. Relatedly, and even more importantly, this might entail redoubled U.S. pressure on the Saudis--whoever it is that is currently running that country--to permit such a transition to take place. With the ailing King 'Abdallah on "personal holiday" in Morocco, and the Saudis now reportedly taking full control over the arming of the Syrian opposition, the time may be ripe for the U.S. to suggest that the Saudis remove at least one political crisis from their plate.
That some Bahrainis should worry over such a seemingly positive step forward--meaningful political change and diffusion of tension spearheaded by a new generation of leadership--speaks to the extent of sectarian-cum-political distrust prevalent today in Bahrain and indeed throughout the region. As Nasrallah rallies supporters to the side of the Syrian government, Qaradawi and others raise the banner of jihad against the heretical and politically-subservient Shi'a. A few more statements like these, and the sourness of sectarian relations in the Levant will have perhaps caught up to those in Bahrain since 2011.
Yet, as I have noted for some time, this distrust between Sunnis and Shi'is is but the groundwork for an even more volatile source of political instability in Bahrain and potentially elsewhere, particularly in Saudi Arabia: the mounting frustration felt by ordinary Sunnis caught between fear and/or hatred of the Shi'a-led opposition, and deep displeasure with the performance of the government over a long period during which it has enjoyed Sunni mass support. As one Bahraini recently noted, "The position of [the Al Khalifa] is shaky, and Sunnis are not happy with the lavish life of [the] family when living standards and services are deteriorating. Historically Sunnis were [the] number one enemies of the family, only [now] they went [to] their support fearing a pro-Iran Shi'i regime [in Bahrain] similar to Iraq."
In effect, Sunnis have been forced by local and regional contingencies to play what is ultimately an ill-fitting--and, even worse from their perspective, ill-repaid--political role: that of reflexive government supporter. The question, then, in Bahrain and elsewhere, is how long Sunnis' essentially negative relationship to the state--their mobilization against the opposition--can stave off the emergence of a positive political agenda: that is, positive mobilization in pursuit of specific, probably economic, policy objectives.
In October 2012, following the recent re-opening of parliament, I asked whether Bahrain's legislature would finally to go the way of Kuwait. With al-Wifaq now out of the picture, it seemed reasonable to think that the nominally "pro-government" parliament might finally have better things to do than dutifully obstruct the opposition's legislative agenda. Something close to this seems to have happened, with members of parliament currently locked in an eleventh-hour battle with the government over the 2013-2014 budget.
MPs have been demanding a 15% public sector pay increase for some 45,000 civil servants, something the state continues to refuse. Instead, the government proposed yesterday an increase in monthly "inflation allowances" for needy families. The threshold for support would be increased to make eligible any family earning less than 1,000BD (around $2,700) per month, which according to the Gulf Daily News would extend the program to a staggering 100,000 families! (So much for the poor Shi'i-rich Sunni explanation of Bahrain's political conflict.) Moreover, the state has agreed to increase public and private sector retirement benefits by between 3-10%, benefiting some 44,000 pensioners.
It may be of course that such concessions will ultimately satisfy Bahrain's temporarily-riled parliamentarians, bringing the system back to equilibrium and avoiding the emergence of a Sunni movement more willing to forward an independent political agenda than groups such as the National Unity Gathering, Sahwat al-Fatih, and so on. As I've reportedly previously, I'm told that June will see the announcement of a Sunni youth movement that may come closer to fitting this bill, but one will have to wait and see.
But what, one asks, of the Crown Prince's visit to Washington? How is this related to Bahrain's newly-inspired parliament? Well, the fundamental problem is born of the same political dynamics. In short, it's not clear that either Sh. Salman or the U.S. enjoys the leverage to see through the former's domestic agenda, in particular the thorny issue of Khalifa bin Salman.
While many in the nominally pro-government Sunni community could likely agree that his four decades in politics has brought prosperity mainly to him and his family, still they wonder what will be the political cascade resulting from the removal of this lynchpin. This is all the more so if the step would occur, as one popular rumor relates, in conjunction with al-Wifaq's return to parliament in time for the 2014 regular elections, a quid pro quo that would only reinforce Sunni fears that whatever political change emerges from a new "reform" process in Bahrain, they are--as always--unlikely to be the primary beneficiaries.
Thus one is beginning to encounter an increasing number of pleas such as this recent one in the Gulf Daily News, which decries the U.S.-Iranian conspiracy
aimed at the removal of the Prince Khalifa bin Salman government. In other words, the removal of the Prime Minister of Bahrain from his strategic post and governance system, not only in Bahrain but also in other sisterly GCC nations. ...The article concludes with "one little advice": "Whether you agree with HRH the Prime Minister or not, you need to back him strongly in his quest for establishing the Gulf Union," and presumably in his quest to remain Bahrain's prime minister.
It was the first step meant to drag Bahrain into a conflicting partisan state, where it would be much easier for Iran to swallow Bahrain and Western powers to impose their preset agenda for system change.
But the example of "sisterly GCC nations" may not be such a generous one for Prince Khalifa. By all accounts, in the coming weeks Qatar's emir will cede power to his son, marking (by my account) the first voluntary abdication by a Gulf monarch. The influential prime minister will also apparently step down. The succession of the young crown prince, seen next to Sh. Salman in the photo at the top of this post, is likely only the first step in a generational change in leadership soon to catch up with other Gulf states--not least Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also Bahrain.
Update: Someone's finally figured out who are the apparent leaders of the February 14 movement, namely the Interior Ministry.
Also, I thought this was odd but thought I might have just misinterpreted; but now Simon Henderson notes the same thing in a recent article, so I suppose there is something to it: the U.S. Embassy in its intermittent security briefings has very recently changed its description of opposition protests organized by al-Wifaq. Previously, it would say simply, "An opposition group [i.e., al-Wifaq] has called for a protest in [wherever]." Now, it reads, "A violent opposition group has ... called for a protest." Not sure how to understand the change in semantics beyond an attempt at seeming "more balanced" with regard to al-Wifaq.