from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Continuing Crackdown in Bahrain

Though Bahrain’s crown prince is in the United States to restore frayed relations, the government is pressing its campaign against the protest movement, despite its ending of martial law and a call for national dialogue, says Middle East correspondent Roy Gutman.

June 8, 2011

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

President Barack Obama met briefly June 7 with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa and supported the Sunni royal family’s ending of martial law, calling for a national dialogue to begin in July. However, the crackdown on Bahrain’s majority Shiite population continues. Dozens of doctors and nurses went on trial June 6 on charges of participating in efforts to overthrow the monarchy, and leading Shiite political figures are in prison. It seems that little has changed, says Roy Gutman, Middle East correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, who believes the ending of martial law was largely staged to encourage the staging of the Formula One in Bahrain this fall. While the visit of the crown prince, a reform proponent, was an effort to ease tensions, Gutman says the government seems to be pressing its offensive against protesters.

The United States government has been critical of the arrests of Shiite protesters in Bahrain, and President Obama, in fact, called for Bahrain to release prisoners and facilitate a dialogue. How do you see the situation in Bahrain?

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I’m not there, to be honest. The Bahraini authorities wouldn’t let me in. They don’t let reporters in except perhaps one a week from the international media. Everything I say is with the caveat that I’m speaking to you from Baghdad.

From what I hear, Bahrain is a very tense place. The state of emergency was formally lifted on June 1, but so many elements of the state of emergency prior to June 1 are still there. In some ways, things are not getting any better. They might in fact be getting worse. In the last twenty-four hours, Bahraini authorities put forty-eight doctors and nurses on trial on charges that were possibly invented. The lawyers and defendants did not see the charges until yesterday. This has been a military tribunal where the international media was completely excluded. It’s shocking that they’ve done this on the eve of the crown prince’s visit to the United States (CSMonitor).

What is the crown prince hoping to do here? He was recently in England, where he met (AFP) with Prime Minister David Cameron.

There’s an effort to restore some good will between Bahrain and its major international partners in the West, as opposed to the Middle East, because these relations have been very strained by this brutal crackdown. The crown prince is the face of reform in Bahrain; he’s the man who really called for it, supported it, urged it, put his neck on the line to achieve it. He’s about the best person they could possibly send, in terms of a person who has respect. The problem is, he has not been in charge. In fact, one has the feeling that most everything he stands for is being stripped away and undermined by hardliners in the same regime.

The crown prince is the son of the king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. But many experts say that the real power belongs to the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa. Is that true?

There’s a lot of evidence that he is getting his way, and certainly over issues of great importance. This is all a guessing game. Nobody except for the royal court knows what’s going on inside the palace. I will say that two days after Obama delivered the speech that was quite critical of Bahrain--the first time that the Obama administration had used strong words and called for changes of policy publicly--the prime minister gave an interview and used very harsh language regarding the people who were being detained and the respected, moderate Shiite political opposition. Perhaps it was not an intentional rebuff to Obama’s speech, [but] he was saying, we’re going to continue with the crackdown. He’s the strongman, and the king is probably the person in the middle between the crown prince and the prime minister. The chief of the armed forces is also a hardliner.

People in the region must be stunned at this whole series of events. Bahrain has been considered a kind of liberal, Western outpost in the Persian Gulf.

Most of us in the media have not followed Bahrain closely over the years. There have been significant upheavals over the last two decades that got minimal coverage. The vast majority of the population is Shiite, and the vast majority of the government is Sunni. The king, when he took office in 1999, actually offered a series of major reforms, promising equal political opportunities to Shiites and Sunnis, with the encouragement of the United States. But what emerged from that was something truly one-sided: The majority of the parliament was going to be in Sunni hands, no matter what. The security services are all Sunnis. They brought people from other countries--mostly Pakistan, even Iraq, Yemen, Syria--to serve as security officers. The motto is, "No Shiite should have a gun."

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It’s not a full-scale war, as in Libya--and it’s not been as brutal a crackdown as in Syria. But in its own light, it’s a very good test case for the future of the Gulf and where the southern part of the Middle East is going.

There were upheavals in the nineties. There were disturbances as recently as last year, and I could find almost no coverage. Right now, there’s an awful lot going on there. It’s not a full-scale war, as in Libya, and it’s not been as brutal a crackdown as in Syria. But in its own light, it’s a very good test case for the future of the Gulf and where the southern part of the Middle East is going. Bahrain is a very advanced country in many ways, economically. It doesn’t have the wealth of Saudi Arabia, but it has considerable wealth. But people who are not in the ruling regime and religious sect are not happy. There’s been a simmering discontent for decades. So I would be reluctant to call it a liberal outpost.

But Bahrain is a more open place--you can get a drink at some bars in some locations, there’s entertainment and other Western amusements. That said, you have to look at Bahrain as the slightly more open face of Saudi Arabia; it is not connected only by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. There’s a great deal that the Khalifas do in concert with the Saudis. It’s not a coincidence that the entire crackdown began only after Saudi troops came in the middle of March.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet is a major presence in Bahrain and clearly is one reason why the United States is not making a big deal about the political arrests.

I don’t know that that’s the motive. It’s certainly an assumption that people make pretty readily. The relationship between the United States and Bahrain has many dimensions of real depth, strength, and age. It’s a two-way street there, with the Fifth Fleet being there. Because at least a portion of Bahrain’s population has Iranian roots and Iran did once claim it as a province, Bahrain does have fear of Iranian designs. Were there a vacuum in the Gulf, who knows what would happen. The United States by its presence fills the vacuum. And while the United States is happy to maintain its presence there, Bahrainis also need the security guarantee the United States provides. So it’s a two-way street. There are other places in the Middle East where the United States can put its ships--for example, in Qatar, which is much more liberal, and takes certainly a more advanced and progressive approach to many world issues. I wouldn’t say that people in the U.S. military are happy with what’s going on, because a lot of their officers live on [there], and the tensions affect relations with locals. The local media is attacking the United States with ferocity, and locals are looking at the U.S. embassy highly critically. The television has nonstop assaults on the personnel and the practices of the U.S. embassy. This spills over to the U.S. military.

Did the king say there could be a dialogue in July?

Dialogue is sort of the euphemism for negotiations about a new constitution. They were going on during the first month of the protests, with the crown prince [as] the principal actor, and members of Wefaq, the major Shiite opposition group, [as] the principal players--but not the only ones--on the other side. They nearly reached an agreement, from what I’ve heard, that would have brought some very significant reforms. But the intervention of the Saudis and the introduction of martial law basically ended the dialogue at that time.

The king has offered a dialogue without preconditions to the opposition, but what’s happening parallel to that is an attempt to discredit the Wefaq Shiite group. Two of their most prominent Shiites, the former members of parliament Jalal Fairooz and Mattar Mattar, are both still in jail. Their families have never seen them, and there is no sign of them getting out. In fact, the signs are that they’re going to be charged. So when the king offers a dialogue without preconditions, we have to ask: with whom? With regard to that offer of dialogue and lifting martial law, is there really a lifting of martial law? I think there’s a lifting in name only. I should mention, by the way, that there’s more than a few people in Bahrain who think that the lifting of martial law on June 1 had a great deal to do with the fact that the international Formula One conference was deciding whether to stage the Formula One in Bahrain in the fall [Bahrain succeeded in getting the nod]. That decision was made on June 3; the lifting of the state of emergency may conceivably have helped in that decision. But I will say, not that much changed.

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