Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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A Glint of Hope in Bahrain

by Elliott Abrams
March 12, 2013


Two recent developments suggest that the long stand-off in Bahrain between the royal family and Shia political groups may be  moving toward resolution–or at least a chance of progress.

First, the Saudis appear to have changed their own position. Instead of urging confrontation (and indeed, sending troops to Bahrain), the Saudi royals are said now to favor conciliation. The Financial Times reported this week that

Saudi Arabia is encouraging the government of its neighbour and ally Bahrain to forge a settlement with its opposition after two years of unrest, in an apparent change of approach by the oil-rich kingdom. In an escalation of Riyadh’s behind-the-scenes role, a Saudi politician has for the first time established direct, informal contact with al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s main opposition group which represents the majority Shia. Saudi Arabia, together with the US and UK, is pushing for a political settlement in Bahrain to stem further radicalisation that could foment more protests among the Shia of its oil-rich Eastern Province.

Then a few days later, Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain was appointed deputy Prime Minister. As the BBC noted

The Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, widely viewed as a moderate, had been effectively shunted aside by hardliners in the ruling family since protest and unrest began in Bahrain more than two years ago. However his appointment by his father King Hamad is seen as a clear signal that the Crown Prince is back at the heart of efforts to resolve a political dispute between majority Shia Muslims and the Sunni royal family.

Why did the Saudi position change? The speculation is that, as the FT put it, “since the death last year of Saudi Crown Prince Prince Nayef bin  Abdulaziz Al Saud – regarded as a hardliner on Shia issues – his son Mohammed  bin Nayef, the interior minister, has taken over responsibility for the  kingdom’s Bahrain policy. Western officials describe the new interior minister as more pragmatic,  leading Riyadh to shift away from Bahrain government hardliners who have sought  to limit compromises with the Shia. One opposition official says the Saudis are indicating that they are prepared  to back a deal that boosts ‘rights for all,’ as long as Bahrain’s monarchy  remains in place.”

For the moment violence continues in Bahrain–if not in downtown Manama then in Shia villages, almost nightly.  Last Friday, there were additional confrontations at the funeral of a protester who had died a week before after being hit by a teargas canister fired by police. And whether Crown Prince Salman’s selection as deputy PM is meaningful or just symbolic remains to be seen, for in the past year he has been sidelined.

But this is the first good news from Bahrain in quite a while, and at least offers hope that the Saudi and Bahraini royal families have finally decided to seek a compromise solution. A deal will require not only genuine flexibility on their part but of course on that of the opposition–where months of police attacks have hardened opinions and created a strong group opposed to the monarchy entirely. As I read of Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for that old holy grail, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” I wonder if his attentions and some of his energy might be better directed to Bahrain. Perhaps here American activism could do more good, and certainly our interests in the Gulf and in Bahrain, headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, give us reason for concern and for involvement. If we can help Bahrainis take advantage of this moment of opportunity, we should try.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Pilly

    If the Deputy PM was not the PM’s nephew, this might be a glint of hope. It would be real reform if someone who isn’t in the Al Khalifa family was appointed to a senior position.

  • Posted by Agy

    I thank God for this developement i have been praying for peace in Bahrain.

  • Posted by AAziz

    Type your comment in here…absolutely this is hope for the future of Bahrain that has been welcomed even by the Shia Opposition Party. Now it’s up to the CP to make a real difference and that means stepping up to the challenges ahead of him and making sure even a few months from now people’s lives would have changed for the better.

  • Posted by Tracker

    Agree with Pilly; it’s still the Alkhalifa family that’s the core of the problem in Bahrain. This is an empty gesture unless it’s followed by real reform including releasing all political prisoners who were arrested & tortured solely for their political opinions. Killing & torturing innocent people with impunity can never lead to a peaceful solution.

  • Posted by Jonh

    How about we support rebels, give them weapons, training and send then to Bahrain??
    Oops I forgot, we only do that in countries we dont like ,i.e Libya,Syria,etc…

  • Posted by Hassan

    I dont see this as “hope” seriously, its more like a start for a betrayal plan just like at the end of every uprising that happened in the country, to expect something good coming from AlKhalifa despots is pure fantasy.

    Btw when did Waad & the rest of democrats became “Shiite political Groups”?!?

  • Posted by Arm Chair

    I see the situation differently than you. The Saudi’s are merely collecting intelligence. The Saudi’s would not participate in a blatant show of weakness.

  • Posted by Lily

    To all the naysayers who commented above, be careful what you wish for. The choice is this:

    A state ruled by King Hamad, in which all religious groups are allowed to build houses of worship, and indeed worship freely without any restrictions; women can work and drive and wear what they please; gays are not persecuted or harassed; private enterprise is encouraged; alcohol is available in the shops. In short, people are free to live as they wish — with the red line being anti-government agitation. This is not the ideal, but it is as good as it gets for an arab country.

    Arabs don’t do democracy. Until they do, Bahrainis are fortunate to be ruled by a Khalifa rather than a Saud or Maliki or Sabah or Khamenei or any of the splendid specimens thrown up by the arab upheavals.

    Should the Bahraini government be replaced, you can bet your bottom dollar that life will be immeasurably worse — for the sunnis as well as the shi’ites. Bahrain will become a smaller version of iran. Why wish such a future on the islanders?

    To sum up, Bahrain is far from perfect; while the inevitable alternative is too awful to contemplate.

  • Posted by stanley

    The problem in Bahrain is not new. We see a major She’aa
    protest every decade or so, But this was different. In the past,
    the ruling family made a deal with the She’aa and things returned to normal pretty quickly.

    This time it has gone on for two years. Why? Because Iran has
    intervened. It has been agitating and training young impresionable
    She’aa in its camps in Lebanon and Iraq. It encouraged them NOT
    to make a deal and to keep the pot bioling.

    If indeed these ‘Young Turks’ can be sidelined. It can only be
    to the advantage of all Bahrainis.

  • Posted by Lucifer

    I see the problem in Bahrain more in geopolitical terms.
    The Saudis beleive that the uprising will lead to an Iran takeover of Bahrain.
    It does not matter wether you or I beleive it. The Saudis beleive it.
    Their nightmare is that Iran will form a Hizbollah style terrorist organisation, bristling with rockets. all aimed at Arabia, Kuwait et al. They will not allow this to happen under any circumstance.
    Even if it means killing tens of thousands of Shiite protesters.
    The best thing that can happen for the Shiite’s is if they lose the battle for ‘freedom’ and make a political settlement.

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