On November 28, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) held a policy discussion assessing the political situation in Bahrain one year after the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. Speakers discussed the implementation of recommendations set out in the BICI report and addressed the challenges in overcoming the current political deadlock. The event also looked at prospects for genuine dialogue between the government and opposition, and explored consequences of a continued political stalemate. The panel featured Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), speaking from Washington D.C., Justin Gengler, Research Associate at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University, and Jamal Khashoggi, General Manager and Editor in Chief of Al-Arab News Channel. The discussion was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, business, and media communities.
Stephen McInerney opened the discussion by commending the government’s initial pledges to implementing the reform proposals outlined by the BICI report. He pointed out, however, that the overall political situation in Bahrain, one year later, is extremely discouraging and disappointing, arguing that the government’s reform efforts have been cosmetic and fail to comply with the spirit of the recommendations set forth by the commission.
McInerney summarized the findings of POMED’s recently released report, entitled “One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI Report.” According to the assessment, out of the 26 recommendations presented by the BICI, only three had been fully implemented, six had not been implemented in any significant way, two were impossible to evaluate due to lack of information, and the remaining 15 had been only partially implemented.
McInerney said that the Bahraini government had successfully implemented the following three recommendations: 1) revoking the National Security Agency’s law enforcement and arrest powers, after its crucial role in the 2011 crackdown; 2) ensuring public order training for public security forces, the National Security Agency and the Bahrain Defense Force, on a par with international standards; 3) training the judiciary and prosecutors on eradicating torture and ill-treatment. Despite these training programs, McInerney argued that there was no significant improvement in police conduct or decrease in allegations of torture and abuse.
McInerney proceeded to highlight the main areas of concern surrounding Bahrain’s reform program. According to the POMED report, the government had failed to hold accountable those responsible of acts of torture and abuse of detainees and protesters during the February 2011 uprising. He noted that no real effort had been made to integrate the Bahraini Shia in the Sunni-dominated police forces and that—due to their deliberate exclusion of opposition figures— newly established government bodies and mechanisms lacked impartiality and independence. Finally, McInerney pointed out that no real progress had been achieved in terms of freedom of expression and assembly, after the government banned protests and charged individuals for openly voicing their opinions online or in public.
McInerney concluded by criticizing the “lack of sincerity and self assessment” of the Bahraini government when claiming that 18 out of the 26 BICI recommendations had been fully implemented. McInerney also referred to the failure of the international community, and in particular the United States, to hold the Bahraini government to its reform commitments. He voiced his hopes that Washington would shift towards a policy of engagement and mediation in order to bring about tangible progress in Bahrain.
Justin Gengler turned the discussion toward the underlying social and political dynamics in Bahrain, as a way of understanding the present conflict and the government’s failure to undertake political reform. Instead of treating the government and the opposition as two homogenous groups fighting each other, Gengler outlined three “other” mutually reinforcing political conflicts in Bahrain, which, he argued, are blocking the resolution of Bahrain’s political crisis.
According to Gengler, the first and most important conflict lies between the reform-minded and the security-minded members of Bahrain’s ruling family. Gengler argued that the 2011 February uprising dealt a fundamental blow to the post-1999 reform agenda, set forth by King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman. This failure has not only vindicated those members of the royal family opposed to the reform program, such as the Prime Minister, the Royal Court Minister, and the Defense Minister, but has also reinforced their belief that a pro-active security solution, and the incitement of ordinary citizens against the Shia opposition, is the only path towards political and social stability. This, in turn, has put pressure on the King and the Crown Prince to abandon reform efforts. As a result, Gengler explained, Bahrain is now resolving its “Shia problem” through a security approach, rather than a political framework.
The second conflict lies within the fractured political opposition, between moderate opposition members—in favor of reaching a political settlement with the government—such as al-Wefaq party, and those that reject political compromise in favor of radical and violent means of protest. The rise in violence in Bahrain, Gengler explained, is symptomatic of a protest movement that is “out of the hands” of the moderate opposition, thus undermining its credibility as a reliable partner for political dialogue in the eyes of the government. This, he argued, is giving support to the security-minded royals and citizens who advocate harsher security measures to suppress the uprising.
The third conflict, analyzed by Gengler, lies within the Sunni “counter-opposition.” In the aftermath of the uprising, the government had to contend with two separate groups of discontented Sunnis: those who disagreed with what was seen as a lax security response to the uprising and those who harbored substantial political misgivings, in line with the rest of the opposition. While finding itself unable to placate both Sunni groups simultaneously, the government favored the security-minded faction at the expense of the other. This, he said, explains the recent high profile arrests and crackdown against al-Wefaq, which has led to further “radicalization, desperation, and violence on the part of an opposition which sees little hope for a promising future in Bahrain.” Gengler concluded by warning that Bahrain was heading towards further political and social polarization.
Jamal Khashoggi focused his discussion on the regional and geopolitical dynamics driving the political situation in Bahrain. He argued that the absence of outside intervention and mediation is one of the principal reasons why the Bahraini government is unable to reach an understanding with the opposition. He singled out the unique role of Saudi Arabia as a potential broker, due to its regional standing and historic ties with the Sunni and Shia communities of Bahrain.
Khashoggi invited the Bahraini opposition to lower its expectations and to understand that Bahrain “will never be a part of the Arab Spring,” drawing attention to the fundamental differences between Bahrain and other Arab countries undergoing democratic transitions. He explained how powerful neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates intend to preserve the status quo and prevent Bahrain from becoming a constitutional monarchy. He described the GCC countries as “one big family” supporting each other, arguing that the idea of Gulf unity— “al-Ittihad al-Khaliji”—is very much a real project.
Khashoggi predicted that 2013 would be a decisive year for Bahrain. Saudi Arabia will be in a better position to engage with the government of Bahrain, thanks to the potential defeat of Iran in Syria. If Iran loses its grip over Syria, the regional balance of power will change in favor of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and this, he claimed, will allow the Bahraini government more freedom to negotiate with the Shia opposition.
Khashoggi concluded his discussion by advising that the Bahraini crisis be resolved internally, ideally amongst the Bahraini people themselves or with the help of Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, citing the possibility of American intervention as possible but “not the preferred solution.”
Following presentations from each of the panelists the floor was opened for questions. When asked what a political solution in Bahrain would look like, Gengler denied the likelihood of outside mediation, especially from the United States. A solution, he said, will require enforcement of an agreement between the moderate opposition, al-Wefaq, and moderates within the government. He added that the emergence of a larger pattern of political discontent, for example in Kuwait, could alter the way the situation in Bahrain was framed at a regional level.
A member of the audience questioned Saudi Arabia’s suitability as a mediator, especially from the perspective of the Shia opposition in Bahrain, asking whether an Arab League commission would present a better alternative. While excluding the possibility of an Arab League role, Khashoggi insisted that Bahrain’s political crisis be resolved as a “GCC internal matter,” strictly “behind closed doors.”