The sentencing of Bahraini opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman to life in prison on charges of spying for Qatar is the latest sign of Bahrain’s continuing political crisis. Sheikh Ali Salman, who is secretary-general of the banned Al-Wefaq party, was sentenced alongside two leading members of the same group.
These tough sentences on dubious charges are nothing unusual when set against the backdrop of Bahrain’s relentless suppression of dissent in the past seven and a half years. Beginning in February 2011 with the so-called “Pearl uprising”, the Bahraini authorities have set about systematically dismantling opposition structures and taking down the leaders and activists behind them.
But with regional tensions on the rise, and with Saudi Arabia increasingly isolated as a result of the ill-thought-out policies of its ruling clique, the Bahraini authorities may be forced to rethink their strategy of perpetual domestic repression.
Any major regional, political or strategic shift – for instance a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia – would render Manama deeply vulnerable to an internal convulsion, or worse still a foreign invasion.
The political crisis in Bahrain is often reduced to its core sectarian dimension, which tends to characterise politics in perpetually adversarial terms, in the form of a Shia majority agitating to overthrow a Sunni ruling elite.
The ruling Al Khalifa family presides over a small country that is predominantly Shia Muslim, thereby inevitably giving rise to sectarian tensions. But despite this political and demographic reality, it is important to note that Bahrain’s democratic deficit runs deeper in so far as the Al Khalifa’s leadership model is entirely consistent with the autocratic models prevailing in the Persian Gulf region.
In other words, if Bahrain was majority Sunni, the nature of the ruling system would not change, inasmuch as the ruling elites’ inherent tendency is to monopolise all political and economic resources.
Not long ago the Western media was showcasing Bahrain’s “big” experiment with “democracy”, an illusion that came crashing down with the Pearl uprising of early 2011, the tiny Kingdom’s version of the Arab spring.
Indeed, Bahrain’s experiment with “democracy” was in hindsight little more than a power consolidation exercise by the new leadership led by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who came to power in early 1999.
Hamad, who proclaimed himself king a year later (effectively becoming the first King of Bahrain), introduced limited reforms, notably in the form of a new constitution introduced in 2002 and parliamentary elections later in the same year.
The failure of Bahrain’s limited democratic reforms is often attributed by Western analysts and the media to the empowerment of so-called “Islamists”. This is a flawed analysis which does not honestly appraise the Bahraini ruling family’s motivation for initiating reforms in the first place, nor does it take sufficient stock of the failure by the Western powers to push the Bahraini king to undertake deeper reforms.
Loss of sovereignty
An egregious aspect of the post-2011 political repression in Bahrain – which has seen not only hundreds of leaders and activists jailed but also robbed of their citizenship – is the active support of key Western powers for this repressive machine.
For example, Britain provides a wide range of policing services to Bahrain (including training), in the form of multiple contracts between various British police forces and Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior. There have been growing concerns that at the very least the UK is turning a blind eye to the widespread use of torture by the same interior ministry.
The acquiescence of the UK and US to Bahraini abuses is especially worrying in the light of reports that, in keeping with the behaviour of its ally Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is seeking to extend repression beyond its borders.
Of course, the main reason the Western powers support Bahrain’s brutal crackdown is the oft-stated policy of keeping Iranian influence at bay. The United States, in particular, detects an Iranian hand in Bahrain’s “low-level” insurgency.
But little attention is paid by the US and UK to the unintended consequences of augmenting Bahrain’s repressive machine. For instance, the Bahraini authorities’ sectarian rhetoric – and associated sectarian mobilisation – not only fosters deeper domestic fragmentation but also runs the risk of fomenting chaos and terror abroad.
Amidst reports that the Bahraini authorities are soft on radicalisation and the supporters of Daesh – reportedly to the extent of “outsourcing” extremism – there is a real potential of blowback and a dramatic scaling up of the terror threat inside Bahrain.
The impact of this deepening domestic fragmentation – characterised by sectarian radicalisation and mobilisation on both sides – inevitably skews Bahrain’s engagement with regional powers. One notable effect is Bahrain’s conflicted attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood.
As an ally of Saudi Arabia – which intervened militarily at the height of the Pearl uprising thus saving the Al Khalifas from almost certain collapse – the Bahraini Kingdom has dutifully branded the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist” organisation.
But domestically, the Bahraini chapter of the Brotherhood, known as Jamʿiyyat Al-Minbar Al-Watani Al-Islami (National Islamic Platform Society), is not only tolerated but in fact is allowed to play a major role in the security, judicial and educational sectors.
This profound contradiction in foreign policy rhetoric and domestic reality has been used to highlight Bahrain’s duplicitous and insincere attitude to the blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led coalition. Whilst rhetorically committed to Qatar’s isolation, in reality (given its deep internal divisions) it is in Bahrain’s interest to achieve accommodation with Qatar.
The blockade of Qatar demonstrates the extent to which Bahrain has relinquished its foreign policy to Saudi Arabia. The risk is that on account of Bahrain’s profound vulnerability to developments in its immediate external environment, the scaling up of regional tensions will produce a corresponding loss of sovereignty.
On the current trajectory, Bahrain is set to become a mere extension of Saudi Arabia in the not too distant future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.