The Middle East Channel

What next for Bahrain?

The lifting of the emergency law in Bahrain on June 1 seemed to pay immediate dividends two days later when the FIA reinstated the Bahrain Grand Prix in October. This decision signified a degree of international approval for the government’s efforts to contain the instability that broke out in February. Yet "normality" rests on a ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The lifting of the emergency law in Bahrain on June 1 seemed to pay immediate dividends two days later when the FIA reinstated the Bahrain Grand Prix in October. This decision signified a degree of international approval for the government’s efforts to contain the instability that broke out in February. Yet "normality" rests on a repressive maintenance of public order and a sustained closure of political and oppositional space, and is underpinned by foreign security personnel and Peninsula Shield Forces. These insulate the ruling Al-Khalifa family from opposition pressures and reduce the likelihood of any significant reform process in the Kingdom. In light of recent developments, what does the future hold for Bahrain, and for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) involvement?

King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa declared a three-month state of emergency and imposed martial law on March 15, one day after the intervention of troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to crush the pro-democracy movement threatening their continuing rule. From its beginning on February 14, the protesters at the Pearl Roundabout brought together both Sunnis and Shiites demanding political reform and an end to social and economic inequalities. This burgeoning popular uprising panicked the Al-Khalifa, long dependent on sectarian divide-and-rule tactics for their grip on the island, and caused the Al-Saud to lead a GCC intervention to forestall the possible downfall of a fellow ruling family in the Gulf.

There followed a brutal crackdown as the Bahraini government mercilessly pursued all forms of dissent, detaining doctors and lawyers merely for treating or representing detainees, suspending opposition political societies and picking off their leaders, and arresting a founder of Bahrain’s major independent newspaper Al-Wasat, who subsequently died in custody. Hundreds of mostly Shiite workers were dismissed from public and private sector positions for "absenteeism" during the demonstrations. Widespread tactics of intimidation included the destruction of Shiite shrines and posters showing prominent Shiite leaders with nooses around their necks, while critics were subjected to a barrage of internet-based character assassinations and physical threats. 

Simultaneously, the Bahrain National Guard embarked on a hasty recruitment drive in Pakistan to augment its limited manpower with non-Bahraini personnel with fewer qualms about opening fire on civilian protesters. Meanwhile, the bulldozing of the Pearl Roundabout, with its iconic monument to Gulf unity, represented a crude attempt to destroy the symbolic heart of the protest movement. With this act, the authorities hoped to prevent it from becoming an anti-regime equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but it noticeably failed to quell the sense of defiance among marginalized communities.

Emergency rule may now be over in Bahrain, at least for the time being, but all is not well in the Kingdom. The regime’s brutality and reliance on external forces to crush the opposition won it at best a temporary breathing space, but at the cost of its political authority and local legitimacy among the 60 percent (or so) Shiite population. Anti-regime demonstrations restarted almost immediately, and the security services attacked protesters in more than 20 villages within hours of the lifting of martial law. Saudi forces remain in Bahrain, on an apparently open-ended basis, and will continue to underwrite the security of the ruling family as the King embarks on a process of "national dialogue" with an opposition increasingly radicalized and unlikely to hold him in good faith.  

The problem is that Bahrainis have seen this all before. In 2001, overwhelming popular support for a National Action Charter signalled a return to constitutional rule following the uprising that rocked the country from 1994 to 1999. Specific measures of reform included a new constitution and quadrennial elections to a National Assembly. The political process eventually included most opposition groups following their boycott of the first election in 2002. However, escalating tensions and a heavy-handed crackdown on opposition and human rights activists in the run-up to the October 2010 election hinted at the tensions to come. Meanwhile, the unrest since February signalled the definitive end of the post-2001 period of reform.

Facing the imminent and difficult shift to a post-oil economy, Bahrainis simply cannot afford another wasted ten-year cycle of partial reform and renewed repression. Over the past decade, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad projected himself as a liberalizing alternative to his conservative great-uncle, the Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman. With oil reserves rapidly dwindling, he spearheaded an ambitious "Business-Friendly Bahrain" strategy intended to form the cornerstone of the Kingdom’s economic diversification and reduce oil’s 80 percent share of government income. Attention focused on attracting inward investment, partially through a prestigious Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2004, and positioning Bahrain as a regional financial hub, against intense competition from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar. Yet Bahrain’s international and business credibility has taken a battering recently, with Standard and Poor’s slashing its credit rating to BBB, its lowest investment grade, and foreign companies now relocating elsewhere in the Gulf. 

This economic uncertainty will further increase Saudi Arabian leverage over its small eastern neighbor. Already, the majority of Bahrain’s (otherwise negligible) oil revenues come from its share in Saudi Arabia’s offshore Abu Saafah oilfield, and Saudi Arabia will contribute the bulk of a $10 billion "bailout" package for Bahrain announced in March. These contributions will effectively keep the Bahraini economy functioning and compensate for the hemorrhaging of foreign capital and jobs, but a deeper challenge lies ahead, and not just in Bahrain.  

Gulf ruling families’ legitimacy is rooted in their ability to redistribute oil revenues and co-opt opposition. Its breakdown in Bahrain hints at the difficulties to come when rulers no longer can simply spend their way out of trouble (as Saudi Arabia is presently doing), or rely on resource rents to put off the difficult political and economic reforms necessary to underpin economic transformation into productive post-oil economies. This inescapable reality drives economic diversification programs in all six GCC states as rulers attempt to cushion the looming challenges of transition. Officials elsewhere will be absorbing lessons from the Al-Khalifa’s crushing of opposition at the expense of its international credibility.

Cracking down so hard may have saved the Al-Khalifa, at least for now. But their survival has come at a very high price economically and politically, and shattered social cohesion in a country polarized as never before. Even the apparent vote of confidence from the FIA may rebound if the Bahrain Grand Prix provides a focal point for the resumption of protests in the glare of global media. With their ruling family determined to swim against the tide of the Arab Spring and uninterested in meaningful political compromise, and reliant on the Saudi Arabian National Guard as the guarantor of regime security, Bahrain’s future looks bleaker today than ever before.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

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