While the world witnesses the results of the Syrian government crushing dissent within its borders, the international spotlight has faded almost entirely from the small island state of Bahrain. Although comparatively tiny to other states in the Middle East, both in terms of geography and population, inconsequential it is not. Indeed, major international players ignore the stratified political dynamic in Bahrain at their peril, as the possibility of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran could further destabilise the world’s most volatile region.
Since February 2011, Bahrain has experienced civil and political unrest characterised by mass demonstrations and protest. These events can be contextualised within the broader remit of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, which has seen a wave of socio-political unrest spread over the Middle East, triggering instability in states that were once considered stable by virtue of their authoritarian governments.
Situated in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain’s majority Shiite population has been ruled by a minority Sunni government under the Al-Khalifa royal family since the late 18th century. In the current spate of unrest, government protesters originally sought comparatively minor reforms to national policy, including (amongst others) further recognition of human rights and wider political freedoms for average citizens. However, due to the heavy-handed response to organised civil action on the part of the government – including mass detentions, claims of torture and harsh prison sentences for protest leaders – activists began calling for a broader set of reforms, including the disbanding the monarchy.
International media have generally portrayed the unrest in Bahrain as the false dichotomy of an alienated majority seeking to overthrow an entrenched minority government. While there seems to be a prima facie case for this, it is not the full story. Sectarian tensions have established roots in Bahrain; the government has historically stoked such tensions at appropriate junctures for political gain, and the current unrest is no different. This time around, however, sectarianism has only served to further entrench hardliners on either side of the political and ideological divide. This is making it increasingly impossible for a political solution to be found, as the government and opposition forces are not the only players necessary for an agreement. Indeed, the loyalist opposition will need to be included in any dialogue.
The Arab Spring has seen largely disenfranchised majorities pitted against elitist ruling minorities, demanding that they cede power and accept responsibility for decades of authoritarian rule. Whilst the cases of Tunisia and Egypt encapsulate this sentiment – which indeed triggered the Bahraini uprising – Bahrain serves as a case study of a more complicated political milieu. Indeed, the demonstrations – as well as the extreme response of the Bahraini state – reflect a much more entrenched regional power dynamic.
Intervention by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states has complicated the issue, with claims that Bahrain is now the centre of a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia (led by a Sunni monarchy) and Iran (largely considered as representative of the interests of Shia Muslims). The involvement of the United States has also complicated matters, as Bahrain represents a key cog in the US’s regional security architecture. In stark contrast to criticisms levelled against authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, US response to the Bahraini crackdown has been muted, with very little public condemnation of the regime or its alleged abuses.
At its core, the problem is a lack of political will. The US has refrained from any international posturing in order to maintain its established political alliance with Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration has been accused of seeking to balance its interest-values nexus in the Gulf instead of pursuing actual reform, or at the very least, a quelling of the violence. As a result, hopes for dialogue which might effect real change are dwindling by the day. Moreover, Bahrain’s hosting of a Formula One racing Grand Prix, despite the protestations from both local and international human rights activists, only served to further legitimise a government that is facing increasing opposition and fragmentation. This interference – both explicit and implicit – in national politics (and the lack thereof on the part of the US) will only serve to perpetuate the unrest in Bahrain, until a political solution involving all major players can be found.
For this to happen, the US and its allies need to pursue an agenda of inclusivity: all parties must be encouraged to come to the negotiating table, but moderates within government circles particularly must be supported more robustly. The US needs to recognise that the promotion of a democratic political process in Bahrain is not necessarily contrary to its long-term strategic interests, and indeed must complement its regional security policy. The Syrian crisis has justifiably distracted the world’s media, but Bahrain must not be forgotten. The tiny island nation may well serve as a microcosm for understanding the broader power dynamic in the region, and indeed even the way forward for peace in the Middle East.
Lyndsey Duff is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) www.igd.org.za