from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Bahrain Heads for Disaster

April 22, 2011

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Defenders of the crack-down in Bahrain have a story line. The government had to act to stop a down-hill slide into chaos and extremism fostered by Iran. The king’s goal was simply to freeze matters, and once that is done the time for compromise and concessions will have arrived.

It is not a bad story, but every action the Government of Bahrain has taken in the last month contradicts it. Instead of reaching out to the responsible Shia political leadership and middle class, the king and his government are jailing and harassing them. The Washington Post summed it up in a troubling story today: “The targeting of more educated and prosperous members of the Shiite community is particularly worrisome, say local analysts, who fear it could remove a moderating element in political life….Like their Sunni neighbors, many wealthier Shiites have enjoyed lives of relative ease in this land of high-end shopping malls, restaurants and luxury homes. But after joining in the February protests with poorer Shiites, who have generally borne the brunt of discrimination and government disfavor, even middle-class Shiites are now subject to the full force of the government’s ire, according to opposition leaders.”

This is the opposite of seeking compromise. As the Post reports, the crack-down “is reaching deep into Bahrain’s middle-class professions…potentially threatening the country’s long-term stability.” The government is now “targeting Shiites indiscriminately.”

It is difficult to understand why the king believes this path leads anywhere but exile in London for him and his family. Bahrain has a Shia majority (once estimated at 70 percent, but probably lower than that now due to a campaign of naturalization of foreign-born Sunnis, especially those who serve in the army and police). The current actions against the Shia community will embitter all its members and decapitate its moderate political, economic, religious, and moral leadership. Future compromises will be far more difficult, and are perhaps already impossible.

Why has the king taken this disastrous path? Clearly he has been urged and pressured to do so by his Sunni neighbors in the UAE and especially Saudi Arabia. The contempt for Shia and Shiism in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a key factor here, and the Saudis were concerned that an uprising by Bahraini Shia could spread across to the Shia in their own oil-rich Eastern Province. But the actions being taken in Bahrain now make it far more likely that this will be the outcome: Saudi Shia who see the Saudi government repressing Shia in Bahrain will become more, not less, embittered toward their own government. The Saudis also worried about opportunities for Iran to meddle in Bahrain and ultimately in Saudi Arabia itself.  But here again, the policy being followed will only create new chances for Iran by assuring enmity and political volatility in Bahrain.

So the path being followed is disastrous. Perhaps it is not too late for outside figures to try to open a dialogue between the Government of Bahrain and the Shia community, but for that to work the king and the royal family must stop the persecution of the Shia leadership. As of now, they seem intent on crushing the Shia and eliminating all hope of a constitutional monarchy where the majority of Bahrain’s people share with the king a role in building the country’s future. If the king does not change course, he is guaranteeing a future of instability for Bahrain and may be dooming any chance that his son the crown prince will ever sit on the throne.

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