from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What Comes Next in Bahrain?

March 16, 2011

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

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Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image from video on March 14, 2011.
Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image from video on March 14, 2011. (Bahrain State TV/Courtesy Reuters)

The current situation in Bahrain is disastrous. Efforts to find a compromise between the royal family and the leaders of the Shia community failed, and now foreign troops have come in to help the government suppress demonstrations and protests.

There is presumably some blame for both sides. It’s clear that some Shia protesters were demanding an end to the monarchy, something the king would obviously refuse, while at least some in the royal family (such as the prime minister, who is the king’s uncle) were apparently resisting all reforms and concessions. So instead of progress toward a constitutional monarchy, there is violence, economic disruption, and the presence of foreign soldiers. Both sides will lose from this face-off.

Both could have gained from a compromise deal. The Shia community should realize what the Sunni monarchy gives Bahrain: an invaluable link to the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, a far better ability to gather significant economic assistance from the Gulf oil-producing states, and a bulwark against Iran.

The latter point may seem strange to those--the Saudis, for example--who believe the Bahraini Shia want their country to become a virtual colony of Iran. I don’t see any evidence of that. I believe they look to Najaf and Karbala, and to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for religious leadership, not to Iran’s politicized clergy, and I see no evidence they want an Iranian style dictatorship, with stolen elections, secret police, and rule by ayatollahs.

What the royal family could have gained from a compromise is equally clear: peace and longevity. For it seems unlikely to me that they can hold power forever at the point of Saudi bayonets. Sooner or later there will be a compromise, or there will be a revolt that unseats them from power. As it ponders how much movement toward a constitutional monarchy is acceptable, the Bahraini royals should consider something Ronald Reagan said in 1979:  "every form of government has one characteristic peculiar to it and if that characteristic is lost the government will fall. In a monarchy it is affection and respect for the royal family. If that is lost the monarch is lost."

Pessimists would say it is too late for compromise, and they may be right. A more optimistic view would be that despite the current disaster there is hope. Once order is restored, I hope a negotiation can begin. Shia leaders should understand that they can’t overthrow the monarchy now, and the king will understand that he can’t rely on Saudi and other foreign troops forever, so compromise will be more likely. For that to happen, both sides must be pushed hard from outside. I hope the administration is in contact with Iraqi Shia political leaders, and with Sistani, urging them to advise the Bahraini Shia leaders to seek reform and constitutional monarchy, not revolution. Similarly the United States should be pushing the Saudis and Emiratis to advise the king to seek a compromise. It may be that the Saudis are hopeless here, but perhaps the Emiratis are more sensible; they usually are.

All that said, I can’t resist a historical note. Until 1971 the seven "Trucial States" plus Bahrain and Qatar were under British protection. When the British withdrew, the Trucial States, led by Abu Dhabi, formed the union we know as the United Arab Emirates.  Bahrain and Qatar refused to join and declared their independence in 1972.  Bahrain was ruled by an amir, and only became a "kingdom" in 2002. That brought the king a new title and the leeway to rule as he would, without the sort of federal complications that exist for the emirates in the UAE. Yet I wonder if he still thinks the decision by his father to stay out of the UAE was the right decision for Bahrain. Were Bahrain part of the UAE, its (Sunni) ruling family would be part of a majority-Sunni country, there would be closer relations with the very wealthy Abu Dhabi, and any assistance from Emirati troops would just be a local, internal police matter.

Too late for that--but not too late, I hope, for some compromise.

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