Possible Futures: Bahrain

In this series, Joe Waters will be looking into the political climates of Middle Eastern countries that are not generally explored in depth in mainstream news, with aim of providing a sense of the current political situation in these states, as well as potential forces for change (and whether or not they are likely to prevail). Today’s subject is the frequently overlooked nation of Bahrain. Often lumped in with other Gulf States, it in fact has a very specific political climate of its own – one that combines a generally authoritarian and conservative government with unexpected instances of liberalism. It is hard to work out which of these contrasting approaches is prevailing.

Much like its better-known neighbour Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has a powerful Sunni monarchy (however, unlike Saudi, the majority – arguably about 60% – of its population are Shiites). Its current head of state is King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Perhaps surprisingly though, the prime minister of the nation, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been around longer than its king. Having been in post for 60 years, he is actually the longest serving prime minister in the whole world today. Some argue that these two entrenched, senior figures are the roadblock to major change in the country and prevent many conservative policies from being overturned. Indeed, after the failed 2011 uprising, their grip tightened significantly. Sadly, even the country’s single opposition newspaper (quite a unique phenomenon in a fundamentalist state such as this), Al-Wasat, was shut down a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly, however, the winds of change have been blowing in the royal family. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (not to be confused with his Saudi-Arabian namesake) has spoken positively, with some considerable justification, about the country’s incredibly progressive “Alternative Sentencing” offenders policy, second only to the Netherlands, and claims on his website that he “is committed to providing quality healthcare services to all Bahraini citizens.” He has also supported the International Labour Organisation and attempted to start nationwide conversations on workers’ issues. He would go further if he could. Unfortunately, many of his more visionary efforts are discouraged by the more conservative elements in the Government. Nevertheless, in the persona of the Crown Prince, the country’s oldest and most antiquated institution has already become a force for change. 

It is perhaps ironic that the monarchy of Bahrain is more likely to see a change of personnel than its democratic counterpart. Unfortunately, Bahrain arguably has the most entrenched and ossified opposition movement in the world headed by Ali Salman, the world’s longest serving opposition leader.

That said the problems faced by the opposition are legion. There has been pervasive gerrymandering in all recent elections. This might have changed but the principal opposition party, Al-Wefaq, boycotted a generous power sharing deal in the 2014 elections (offered at the behest of the Crown Prince) and have been on the back foot ever since. In the 2018 elections there was no repeat of the offer, and to add insult to injury, they were barred from standing. This has rendered the party somewhat powerless in recent years, a situation unlikely to change unless there is a new approach before the next election in November 2022. Entering government seems unlikely for the party but, by my reckoning, their boycott achieved little and they should attempt to stand at the next opportunity they get. Even given the electoral crookedness, and in the absence of a repeat of the power sharing deal they were offered before, a show of official opposition would be powerful and they might even gain back some of the eighteen seats they previously held in the Council of Representatives. 

Refusal to engage with the system is understandable given the number of political prisoners in the country, notably Al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman. Even the respected Shia religious leader Sheikh Issa Qassim has had his citizenship removed after settling in Iran having left Bahrain (where he had been under house arrest) apparently to visit the UK for medical treatment. Yet, given the political deadlock of most of the last decade, and the recent release of the tub thumping and staggeringly outspoken government critic and opposition populist, Nabeel Rajab, a man who is constantly outspoken about the Bahrain government’s use of torture (a practice that has become far less common in recent years) and critical of the actions of the Saudis in Yemen (Bahrain’s allies and paymasters), a clear gesture of goodwill by the government, the time seems ripe for at least an attempt to parlay with the government, even if only incremental reforms are achieved.

To go about making change, it is necessary to understand the motives (other than habit) behind the rulers of Bahrain. Are they driven simply by religious fundamentalism? No – as always in these situations, the answer is both more complex and rather more predictable. The majority of Bahrain’s GDP is debt; much of their infrastructure relies on huge loans from Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Saudis put pressure on their smaller neighbour not to be too hasty in their steps toward democracy and a Western idea of human rights. The larger country fears that, if its citizens see concrete reforms in a state so close to their own, they will demand greater freedoms themselves.  

If Bahrain did have the gumption to liberalise, perhaps it might just trigger a broader shift in neighbouring states. This small, politically stagnant country might just become a progenitor for a major transformation in the Gulf. Maybe this is blue sky thinking but it feels like, given the depressing uniformity of the debate in Bahrain in recent years, a little imagination is necessary to instigate change of any kind. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to expect Bahrain to move away from its unhealthy dependence on Saudi Arabia. But to push the boundaries a little could help give the nation a new lease of life – an opportunity to move toward freedom of expression and real, democratic accountability.  

Currently, these ideas seem remote. However, there are concrete steps that can be taken in the here and now. Al-Wefaq can push to be able to stand in the next election and attempt to start a dialogue with the Government. And the government could encourage Al-Wasat newspaper to relaunch, providing some financial support for it to do so. Acting out democracy is not sufficient but maybe, over time, pretence can evolve into reality. It is possible that, with a more empowered Crown Prince and a more active opposition, Bahrain may finally find its way to a brighter future. 

Image: The Saudi Bahrain Bridge taken by Mohamed Ghuloom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

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