It has been a while since I wrote about Bahrain, because I’ve always been hopeful that this or that piece of bad news was transitory and that reason would prevail. I’m losing hope.
The basic situation has been clear for several years: the majority of the population, which is Shia, feels deprived of political rights by the royal family, which is Sunni. There have been several efforts to come up with a compromise, especially after the "Arab Spring" began in 2o11. But as The Economist wrote last December, "Human-rights organisations warn that the situation is deteriorating. Two years after an even-handed report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—a laudable effort by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa—few of its recommendations have been implemented." That article was entitled "Trouble Ahead: the government is poisoning the well." Sure enough, the so-called "national dialogue" launched in February 2013 got nowhere and was suspended in January 2014.
Then in July of this year, the new Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, Tom Malinowski, was actually declared persona non grata by the government of Bahrain during a visit there. This was an almost unheard-of step by a friendly government toward a senior U.S. official. The State Department protested, but not very vociferously; at the time I was told that a return visit by Malinowski was being negotiated so there was no point in shouting. But there has been no return visit.
Today, talks have continued between the royal family and Shia opposition groups--if that is the right term. Mostly they seek a more democratic Bahrain, with more of a role for parliament in governing the country. One model is Kuwait, where there is a real parliament that is able to interpellate ministers and has on occasion caused them to resign or be forced from office. It isn’t exactly Westminster, but it is meaningful and that’s what Bahrainis want: some limits on royal power, some serious role for the elected parliament, some moves toward a constitutional monarchy. Instead they are being offered unserious compromises that appear motivated by the desire to appear flexible rather than any desire actually to be flexible. Soon, perhaps even within days, the King will announces new elections to be held in November. He will probably find the major Shia groups refusing to participate, so the elections will achieve nothing in binding up Bahrain’s political divisions.
Meanwhile the economy suffers from the political tension and the occasional violence. Here is what Gulf News wrote recently:
Bahrain must face an increasingly serious debt overhang. Outstanding debt stood at $11.2 billion at the end of 2012, or 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The figure grew to $13.2 billion in 2013, compromising 44 per cent of GDP. Still, debt levels are projected to reach $15.7 billion by end-2014 representing just under half of the GDP....Looking back, public debt comprised a mere 10 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2008. Clearly, the pace of the rising public debt is an alarming one and with no end in sight of this burden....Moody’s maintains a negative outlook for Bahrain’s economy, the only case among the GCC member states.
Extraordinary: debt levels going from 10% of GDP in 2008 to 50% by the end of this year. This reflects the impact of the political turmoil on investment decisions, travel, and business activity more generally. To turn this around, the King will need to do far more than he has to address the majority of his people.
What might be done? For one thing, the United States and the United Kingdom are the Western countries with the greatest influence in Bahrain. Our governments should coordinate Bahrain policy better, to avoid the occasional gaps between us that have allowed the Bahraini government to wriggle around pressure for more democracy. For another, the King needs to hear from the very top of the U.S. government, the President and Vice President, that this period before the elections offers a valuable chance to reach a compromise-- and he should take it. If he goes ahead without an agreement, and many Shia stay away from the polls, he will have achieved nothing except to deepen his country’s divisions. If there is a boycott, it will likely be followed by government attacks on the Shia community for staying away, being unpatriotic, and being radicalized--when in fact they will be protesting several years of meaningless "dialogue." This outcome can be avoided if the King will assert himself as the leader of all Bahrainis and stop the most recalcitrant members of his family from preventing change and blocking real compromise.
Down that path lies disgruntlement, disaffection, and in the end violence. Today, the Shia political opposition looks to London and Washington for help. If there is no effective help, and if they remain effectively disenfranchised, the day will come when some among them begin to look instead to Tehran. That will be a disaster for Bahrain and for the United States-- a kind of "reverse Iraq," for in Iraq it was the Shia-led government of prime minister Maliki that refused compromise and alienated the Sunni population.
The United States should not today be pressuring the Shia community, led by the al-Wefaq organizaton, to participate in the elections come what may. The ground rules and the terms of compromise count. Al-Wefaq participated in parliament from 2006 to 2010 under pressure to play the political game, produce change, and reap the benefits. But there were no benefits; the experiment failed. Bahrain is today less free than it was a decade ago. Instead, the United States should be pressing both sides for a genuine and meaningful compromise, and should be urging the King to act now to save his country from strife that surely lies ahead unless he uses his influence and his power to guide change. Many problems on the world scene appear intractable or unsolvable, almost hopeless. Bahrain is not in that situation, not yet anyway. Wise leadership from the King, and wise and forceful American diplomacy, can help Bahrain avoid the dangers that otherwise lie ahead.