Our Friends in Manama

Why the United States should walk carefully and move slowly when it comes to reform in Bahrain.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, the world’s best drivers will rev their engines on April 21 at Bahrain’s Grand Prix — the island kingdom’s premier sporting event and one that signals its good standing within the international community. But just like every year since protests rocked Bahrain in 2011, the domestic opposition and international media will use the event to vilify the government and royal family. During my visit in March, I found a situation far more complex than the partisan portrayals.

Western media reporting on Bahrain has resulted in a one-dimensional understanding of a complex situation, with little comprehension of realistic policy choices that the United States faces in the region. It has characterized the situation as a Tunisia-like struggle of people vs. regime, a Shiite underclass vs. a Sunni elite, with a focus on abuses by government forces against civilians. Let’s be clear: Most of the opposition is Shiite, and yes, there have been abuses.

But the calls for reform that began in 2011 have a long history in Bahrain, and almost everything else over the past couple of years is as disputed as it is complicated. There are disputes over whether the government was sincere in offering negotiations led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Did the opposition miss its best opportunity by rejecting talks and demanding that the government make extensive advance concessions? Or were the negotiations a government ploy to justify forceful suppression? The government’s narrative notes that it released prisoners, allowed exiles to return, and withdrew its forces from the streets until the demonstrators tried to close down central areas of the capital, Manama. The opposition notes deaths of protesters, claims it wants only democratic reform, and says that human rights violations continue in nightly raids on Shiite villages. But one thing is for sure: Bahrain differs markedly from other "Arab Spring" countries with which it is frequently lumped.

First and foremost, the divide in Bahrain is between the Sunni and Shiite communities — not between the people and the government. There is now a large Sunni movement that styles itself as an opposition and is almost completely ignored in Western reporting. Some of its members want political reform; many are adamantly anti-Shiite and opposed to concessions. This movement’s most distinguishing feature is that it exerts pressure on the king and government to not yield to Shiite dominance.

Bahrain’s government also can call on advantages that the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya could not. The support of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, gives Bahrain’s government financial and military depth to resist pressure. Many in the Bahraini Army are non-Bahrainis from Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen — they are not likely to develop sympathies with the protesters. And Bahrain is a small place that makes insurgency or lengthy protests relatively easy for the government to control.

Revolution is not coming to Bahrain. Yet though the government can maintain itself in power, it cannot regain calm or stability without reform. But what does reform mean — and how hard should the United States press the government to change?

In Manama, there is a mix of fear and anger. Bahrain stood with the United States in several difficult wars and was praised by Washington for years; it has been a loyal ally of the United States and the base of the U.S. 5th Fleet. Thus, it’s not particularly surprising that the ruling Khalifa regime cannot understand the criticism that it now receives, such as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that Bahrain is "on the wrong track." Indeed, the government’s killing of protesters and the continued mistreatment of prisoners horrified U.S. officials. But Bahraini resentment may partially be due to the fact that they see old friends in Washington now turning on them — this while officials in Manama believe deeply that Iran is calling the shots for the opposition. Outsiders, however, do not see evidence of this: Iran might well meddle if it could, but the opposition appears homegrown.

Even more serious than the threat of Iran is the Bahraini government’s fear that though the Shiites call for democracy, they would really put in place a theocracy led by Sheikh Isa Qassim. The country’s leading Shiite cleric clearly has great power and very strong influence with the opposition in the street. Could Qassim really turn off the violence with a word, as the government and royal family believe? It’s hard to know. Would democracy actually turn out to be a theocracy? Again, it’s hard to know, but the ascendant Islamist movements throughout the Middle East reinforce the royal family’s deep concerns.

Bahrain’s rulers look also at Shiite predominance in Iraq — they see Sunni parties forced aside while Iranian influence grows. Many Sunnis, not just the royal family, find nothing in that experience that they want replicated in Bahrain.

Good liberal Westerners are inclined to say that if radical parties come to power, that is the price of democracy. But as we look at the rise of Islamism throughout the Middle East, it is not yet clear that Islamist regimes will yield power or seek secular balances once installed. That does not mean that the United States should give up its long-term faith in democracy. It is, however, at least useful to recognize that some of this belief has built up a universal, humanistic ideology — not practice, which clearly remains unproven in the Middle East. That does not make U.S. liberals wrong, but it might make them more tolerant of the concerns of friends and allies, who will have to live under the resulting experiment.

In any event, the fear is very real. As one fairly moderate member of the Sunni opposition said to me, "I want reform [of the monarchy] and more democracy, but not at the price of having an Iranian-type government. I would rather have a dictatorship."

Yet the royal family and the government have a credibility problem. They have announced reforms, but outside observers and opposition figures simply don’t see them taking place. Reports of torture and beatings continue. And though it’s true that some reforms — like training judges and reforming the judicial system — don’t happen overnight, the government’s pleas for more time cannot be taken at face value. The behavior of Bahrain’s police, in particular, needs to change now.

I was able to speak to a small number of figures in the Shiite opposition during my March visit to Bahrain — a limited sample, but one that included a representative from Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party, in the ongoing national dialogue. The dialogue is supposed to formulate consensus recommendations to the king, but has not yet reached any agreed recommendations. Al-Wefaq’s suspicions of the royal family’s intentions are as strong as its opponents’ suspicions of the party. The Al-Wefaq representative insisted his party is not seeking overthrow of the monarchy and laid out reasonable steps for reform of parliament and elections. However, the devil is in the details.

The predominantly Shiite opposition is concerned that recommendations of the dialogue will vanish into limbo after being sent to the king, or that they will be enacted in such truncated form as to be meaningless. The opposition insists on endless procedural guarantees, such as a promise of a referendum on whatever is agreed and having a representative of the royal family present in the dialogue. The royals won’t do this, saying that the king is "not a party to the neg
otiations" but stands above them. It’s a delicate point. On the one hand, the opposition knows that the royal family is clearly a "player" and that no real reform will happen without the king’s consent. On the other hand, publicly putting the royal family on par with the opposition would be deeply insulting to the royals and might look like political weakness. The demand that a high-ranking royal be present in the negotiations is not likely to be met, though some compromise may be worked out.

It is a symptom of the opposition’s distrust of the government that it demands more and more guarantees — but it is a dangerous tactic. The opposition already lost a significant opportunity for serious negotiations by demanding concessions before beginning negotiations last year. Its demands to be reassured before talking substance may backfire again.

Meanwhile, the Saudi position may become increasingly important, as the House of Saud is a major financial supporter of the Bahraini government. Some knowledgeable observers with whom I spoke think the Saudis are not as hard-line in their support of the government as is often said. Some think the Saudis would even support concessions, so long as the royal family stayed solidly in power. While this has yet to be tested, I was told by credible observers that even Al-Wefaq thinks there may be benefit in talking to the Saudis.

But though the ingredients for a grand compromise may be present, the parties simply cannot agree on a serious vision for how to move forward. The bottom line is this: The government cannot make the Shiite opposition accept purely symbolic gestures of reform, but the opposition lacks the power to compel a one-person, one-vote democracy that could lead to the permanent subordination of the Sunni community, not to mention the royal family. And the distrust is so high that each faction suspects the other of holding maximalist goals.

The United States should be able to help break this deadlock, but resentment toward Washington is high on both sides of Bahrain’s political divide. Opposition leaders fault America for not supporting democratic principles: They focus on the single dynamic of human rights violations and insist that America is a hypocrite if it does not stand for democracy above all else.

The government and royal family, meanwhile, say that the U.S. pressure on them is influencing the opposition to inflate its demands. They look at U.S. calls for reform through the lens of Washington’s abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: They fear that reform will only whet the opposition’s appetite for more change. This view is nurtured both by some U.S. actions and by a nearly complete lack of clarity about the United States’ preferred endgame in Bahrain. The fact that President Barack Obama mentioned Al-Wefaq by name in one speech also created an impression of partisanship.

But the truth is that the United States would have a difficult time using its leverage over the royal family under the best of circumstances. Even removing the U.S. naval base in Bahrain could not persuade the government to take actions it deems suicidal — and let’s not forget that removing the 5th Fleet base would significantly damage U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf. There are major U.S. interests at stake in America’s relationship with Bahrain, which has stood with the United States in three wars and plays a key role in U.S. military efforts to maintain the free flow of oil in the Persian Gulf. The oil flow is vital to America’s economic health — it is a legitimate major U.S. national interest. Should war break out with Iran, the U.S. naval presence in Bahrain would be even more critical.

A solution must be found in significant, but still partial, reforms. The Shiite majority must have more access to real power in political representation, in the drafting of laws, and in economic opportunity. Yet because the communal frictions are so large, power should not be allocated only on the basis of one-person, one-vote. This pragmatic principle has proved essential to the United States’ own history: Had there been absolute insistence on the purity of popular representation, the country would not have crafted the Senate, which gives disproportionate weight to smaller states. In the Bahraini case, a strong royal role remains essential for balance, lest extremists on both sides plunge the country into far greater violence.

How hard should the United States push for a grand compromise in Bahrain? If Washington exerts no pressure, the hard-liners within the Bahraini government and royal family will be able to block any real reform. But if Washington puts too much pressure on the royals, they will conclude that it seeks their overthrow — and then America gets nothing. Above all, the United States needs clarity about how much reform it actually wants. Only then can Washington hope to give clear signals to the government in Manama.

This weekend’s Formula One race will bring the world’s attention back to the streets of Bahrain. And it’s quite likely that wide-scale protests will ensue, resulting in images that may prove powerful and compelling to viewers around the world. Let’s be thankful then that Americans don’t really care for this kind of motor sport. For the reality is that real U.S. interests in Bahrain are harmed by the lack of stability. It is this fact — not who holds the high ground of moral authority — that requires America to press all sides for progress and reform. But Washington must do so in a way in which all parties in Bahrain understand what it is asking for and how high the stakes are. Whether the United States can carry out such a policy — and whether it would work — are both very open questions.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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