from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

A Glint of Hope in Bahrain

March 12, 2013

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Middle East and North Africa

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Bahrain

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.

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