from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Missing in Bahrain: Leadership

May 11, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The situation in Bahrain continues to boil. Every week brings new reports of protests and police abuses, and the gap between the Sunni royal family and the mostly Shia population is by all accounts widening. There are also reports of growing radicalization within both the Sunni and Shia camps: more Shia demanding not reform and constitutional monarchy but an end to the rule of the al-Khalifa family, more Sunnis fearing that democracy will lead to Iranian influence and eventually domination. Every Bahraini with whom I have spoken this year acknowledges these growing divisions in their society. It is logical to fear that the center will not hold.

The November 2011 report of the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (or BICI) was seen, at the time, as a turning point. King Hamad accepted the report though BICI was quite critical of the government and found many human rights violations. This was the moment when moderates could take back leadership and end the period of drift, violence, and alienation. That did not happen. Beyond arguing over what portion of the BICI recommendations the government has actually implemented or will implement, there is a deeper problem. The BICI report was about human rights issues, not about the structural political questions that Bahraini society must address. Those issues were beyond the BICI’s jurisdiction, so it rightly did not reach them. Still, the day the BICI report was accepted personally by the king looked like an excellent chance to get the ball rolling on serious and moderate political reform that could bring stability back to the country.

But in recent months and indeed in the last few days things have gotten worse. Talks between the government and the opposition were ended and a crackdown of some sort seems imminent. The top spokesman for the government, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, said "Because of the escalation in violence, we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country. If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it.”

What went wrong? There is so much blame to go around that everyone gets apportioned some: police and soldiers, high-ranking security officials, the king, the royal family, Shia extremists, violent youth…the list is long. Bahraini officials bridle at Western accounts casting them as evil and all Shia activists as heroes, and this is no doubt understandable: there are extremists in the Shia community, people who say seditious things, seek to overthrow the government, and engage in violence as a means of creating additional tension. But if there are more of them today than there were on the day demonstrations began in February 2011, the explanation is largely to be found in the royal court—or courts, for the Saudis too played a role here in preventing reform. No one denies that they leaned on the Bahraini royal family to crack down, and of course they sent troops to Bahrain last year.

The underlying problem is simple to understand: the people ruling Bahrain in the al-Khalifa family do not wish to lose power and fear that moves toward democracy—a powerful elected parliament and a civilian rather than a royal prime minister, for example—will result in neutering the monarchy and giving the Shias and Iran too much power. The royal family has struggled over this, with the crown prince apparently favoring reform but more powerful figures—the prime minister, minister of the Royal Court, and the Commander in Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force (all of course al Khalifas)—deciding that repression is the better long term bet. The king, who could overrule them all, has either sided firmly with the hard-liners or has been ineffectual and inactive. Since the day last November when he accepted the BICI report he has provided no leadership.

What is to be done? Is it hopeless? Certainly one can come away from meetings with Bahrainis with that feeling, as month after month goes by and things get worse. Time is not on the side of moderates; as in Syria, time and violence are leading to deeper and deeper divisions within the population. And as in Syria, extremists of several varieties, some domestic and many foreign, will sooner or later make their presence known. Still, most Shia appear to favor a compromise solution that moves by stages toward a greater role for the populace in decisions making, and some in the government and royal family acknowledge that force cannot be the long-term solution. Indeed some well-informed people tell me that the Saudis and Emiratis realize this, want things in Bahrain to quiet down, and are now advising the al-Khalifa to find a solution. For the Saudis, the realization may have dawned that while democracy in Bahrain might give ideas to the many Shia in their own Eastern Province, Saudi collusion in endless violence and repression of the Shia in Bahrain might produce an even more unsettling result.

What is missing above all is leadership. Since his acceptance of the BICI report the king has provided almost none, but neither have we—the United States. We are an old friend and ally of Bahrain and seek calm there for many reasons, one of which is the presence there of the Fifth Fleet headquarters. A radicalized or violent Bahrain would be an impossible host for the Fifth Fleet, and would possibly come under greater and greater Iranian influence. Thus far Iran does not seem to be doing much meddling beyond inflammatory broadcasting, but that can always change; terrorism and subversion are among the Islamic Republic’s specialties.

So what have we done thus far? A fair assessment is, nothing. In his UN General Assembly speech last September President Obama said these nice words:

In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability. We’re pleased with that, but more is required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart. It will be hard, but it is possible.

This week, on May 9, Secretary Clinton met with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman and the State Department had similar nice words say:

Secretary Clinton affirmed the long-standing commitment of the United States to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain. They discussed the full range of regional and bilateral issues, including the Bahraini Government’s ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Secretary Clinton noted the steps already taken to implement the recommendations, but expressed that much work remains to fully address ongoing human rights issues, including individual cases. She encouraged the Bahraini Government to champion a clear process – in both word and action – that leads to meaningful institutional and political reforms that take into account the interests and aspirations of all Bahrainis.

So, we are for all good things: human rights, reform, accountability, friendship, dialogue, and a process leading to meaningful institutional and political reform. But we also know, fifteen months after the protests began and with the situation deteriorating, that such words are not helping much. They are a substitute for action. There is no American leadership. This will come as no surprise: we “led from behind” in Libya and in Syria our inaction, our determined refusal to lead, is becoming increasingly shocking as the death toll mounts literally each day. A Washington Post editorial rightly described Obama policy toward Syria as “militant passivity.” Considering that even the stakes in Syria have not moved the Obama administration to act, the failure to do more than issue the occasional statement on Bahrain is predictable.

It is also dangerous and foolish. What is needed is far more, and at high levels: a real effort to bring the sides together, of the sort we have repeatedly made in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or undertook in the Balkans. Bring key Bahraini leaders to Washington and have the president and secretary or a high-level designee work with them day after day until something is hammered out; send a top-level empowered emissary to Manama for the same purpose, and have him or her stay for weeks; organize a conference, with the Emiratis and Saudis and Brits (or some other useful combination), where real efforts could be made to hammer out a deal. Has the president discussed this seriously with key officials like the Saudi king or foreign minister, or the Emirati crown prince? Has he pushed them, pressured them, cajoled them? Has he leaned forcefully on the King of Bahrain, or is he too “cool” to engage in that way?

There are many ways to try in Bahrain, but we are not trying. We are wringing our hands from time to time. In Syria thousands have been killed so we wring them more often and more publicly, and at the highest levels. In Bahrain the level of violence is much lower, so the occasional statement is handed out.

If this goes on, in one year or two or five we will wonder why we were foolish enough to do nothing back in 2011 and 2012 when a solution might have been feasible to build. We’ll look at the level of violence, the growing support for radicalism and extremism, the Iranian interference, and the growing complaints about the presence of the Fifth Fleet, and ask why we did not try much harder to help back when it seemed possible. What’s missing in Bahrain is leadership, from the king to be sure, and from the United States as well. We’ll all come to regret it, just as we’ll regret the astonishing refusal to act in Syria as the situation there spiraled downward day after day. The Obama administration’s "militant passivity" is threatening important American interests in the Middle East.