Given my extended absence during July and August, not to mention the fact that we're only days or hours removed from a new U.S.-led war in the Middle East, it seems appropriate to step back to reflect on the larger picture shaping -- one sometimes wants to say even predetermining -- developments in Bahrain. As illustrated in the now-updated map above, these regional and international pressures are quite straightforward and their implications manifest.
Nevertheless, this infusion of geopolitics -- and, increasingly with regard to Syria it seems, great power politics, giving fresh meaning to the label "new Middle East Cold War" -- for me has recalled some festering questions and observations about the long-term strategic thinking of the government in Bahrain (granting for now that such thinking exists). This is particularly relevant today as participants in The NeverEnding Story Part IV: Bahraini Dialogue are set to head back to the discussion (don't say negotiation!) table, no doubt to hash out quickly a solution to the ongoing stalemate.
The crux of the matter is this, what I call the state's "Shi'a problem," namely the existence in Bahrain of a non-trivial proportion of the citizenry that is systematically non-responsive to the state's appeals to economic benefaction and/or co-sectarian/co-tribal identity in securing the political loyalty (or at least apathy) of ordinary citizens. That this is particularly a "Shi'a problem" rather than a more general "reformist" or "liberal" problem owes to the fact that most members of the Sunni community in Bahrain, even if they perceive that they are on average no better off materially than their Shi'a counterparts, and even if they would prefer in principle to see greater political liberalization in Bahrain, are sufficiently afraid of opening the Pandora's box of an empowered, Iranian-sponsored opposition that an undesirable status quo remains preferable to potentially disastrous change.
The state, then, as clearly evidenced by the past decade, faces a dilemma: what to do with this activist population that persists in its claims to a share in rule, whether on the basis of democracy, majoritarianism, nativism, or something else. Among the enlisted strategies so far have been the following:
- To attempt to win over the disaffected population with economic patronage (including royal makramat), economic reform, promises of economic revitalization;
- To deploy the institutions of democracy -- parliament, elections, etc. -- with safeguards ensuring that no actual power is devolved; and
- To deploy a robust security apparatus to repress those unconvinced by items 1 and 2.
What, then, are some of the state's options?
First, Bahrain can attempt to ensure that its opponents, even if they might rally hundreds of thousands to the streets, still lack the hardware required for a physical takeover of the state. The problem here, though, is that authoritarian states lack an easy way to distinguish supporters from potential or actual opponents, and so tend to restrict the duty (or privilege) of military service to limited populations of known co-ethnic/co-tribal supporters and, in the Arab Gulf context, imported expatriates. The problem, of course, is that such exclusion feeds exactly into the feelings of ostracism and discrimination that form much of the basis of political opposition in the first place. So this is not a solution as such.
Another possibility, or rather a well-documented strategy in place in Bahrain for at least a decade, is deliberate demographic re-balancing through selective naturalization, in order to demote the Shi'a population to a demographic minority. This strategy is doubly attractive in that it kills two birds with one stone, since the state already requires foreign nationals for martial service in any case. The aim here is not simply to be able to say that "Sunnis are a majority in Bahrain," but to enable the state to go further with actual political reforms -- say, more equal electoral districts, fair elections, and a more empowered parliament -- in order to undercut fundamentally the argument of the opposition.
That is to say, if al-Wifaq's constituency is numerically marginalized such that it is impossible even in free and fair elections for the group to capture the votes to establish a legislative majority, to elect its choice of ministers, and so on, then the state can steal away the most powerful argument of the opposition, namely that the majority viewpoint is not represented in government. In that case, continued opposition activities are more likely to be viewed by once-critical observers not as legitimate demands for reform but as unjustified and undemocratic protest from parties unwilling to accept losing a fair electoral fight. I can say from personal conversation that this scenario is not a mere hypothetical concern of al-Wifaq.
A third strategy recalls Hirschman's observation that dissatisfied members of a community have three options: voice their criticism, remain despite their dissatisfaction out of a sense of communal (or here national) loyalty, or pick up and leave. Now, I don't claim to have some knowledge of a Bahraini plan to induce the systematic exit of political opponents, or of the Shi'a community at large, but it is certainly conceivable given Bahrain's small population that a lack of economic opportunity and political efficacy could lead to a disproportionate emigration of those associated with (or branded members of) the opposition. Certainly, the argument that "If the Shi'a are so unhappy here they should move back to Iran" was not uncommon to hear even prior to the uprising. And then afterward:
On the other hand, the notorious anti-Shi'a poem penned by Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad in 1995, which seemed to lay out a blueprint for dealing with the reform demands of Bahrain's opposition, did offer as its very first prescription:
I possess the remedy to the sons of Shobber and Marhoon [the Shi'a] …One will also recall the recent royal decree, coming ostensibly at the urging of Bahraini parliamentarians, expanding the grounds for the revocation of citizenship to those who "help or serve a foreign country" or "endanger state interests."
We shall deport them to Howar, Jenan and Noon islands
This final scenario is useful also in raising a larger issue, with which I will conclude here: To what extent does it even make sense to speak of the long-term political strategy of the Al Khalifa, rather than that of the Al Sa'ud? Certainly, Bahrain's ruling family retains nominal control over the affairs of the island, but is that exercise closer to sovereignty or to mere governorship?
I think of these questions now owing largely to what the Christian Science Monitor rightly characterizes as "[a]n odd and difficult-to-confirm story that keeps popping back onto news cycles": that Saudi Arabia is attempting to coax Russia away from its Syrian ally by offering (1) to collude on oil prices, (2) a lucrative arms deal, and, particularly interesting, (3) to "ensur[e] that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia's position as a main gas supplier to Europe," perhaps by applying pressure on Qatar.
Such an offer is said by multiple sources to have been made at a July 31 meeting at Putin's dacha outside Moscow between the Russian president and head of Saudi intelligence Bandar bin Sultan, a meeting the Russians acknowledge but insist was limited to "philosophical" discussions -- probably about Putin's recent reading of Ibn Tufayl's Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. As one G2K list-member asked wryly, "Could it be that the Saudis think that the new Emir ... of Qatar is more amenable to working with Saudi diplomacy than his father?" (Incidentally, the WSJ reports that Prince Bandar was also recently overheard yelling into a phone, "[Qatar is] nothing but 300 people ... and a TV channel. That doesn't make a country." Booya!)
The point is: if Saudi Arabia is prepared for the sake of ending Iranian influence in Syria to exert pressure on Qatar on a matter of extreme, even existential, importance for the latter, despite having relatively few levers of direct influence, then what should we assume of its say over domestic policy in Bahrain, a country that in Saudi eyes represents an even more dangerous entree for Iranian influence and is almost entirely bankrolled by the Saudi treasury?