weekend, the world's best drivers will rev their engines on April 21 at
Bahrain's Grand Prix -- the island kingdom's premier sporting event and one
that signals its good standing within the international community. But just
like every year since protests rocked Bahrain in 2011, the domestic opposition
and international media will use the event to vilify the government and royal
my visit in March, I found a situation far more complex than the partisan
media reporting on Bahrain has resulted in a one-dimensional understanding of a
complex situation, with little comprehension of realistic policy choices that
the United States faces in the region. It has characterized the situation as a Tunisia-like
struggle of people vs. regime, a Shiite underclass vs. a Sunni elite, with a
focus on abuses by government forces against civilians. Let's be clear: Most of
the opposition is Shiite, and yes, there have been abuses.
the calls for reform that began in 2011 have a long history in Bahrain, and
almost everything else over the past couple of years is as disputed as it is
complicated. There are disputes over whether the government was sincere in
offering negotiations led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Did the
opposition miss its best opportunity by rejecting talks and demanding that the
government make extensive advance concessions? Or were the negotiations a
government ploy to justify forceful suppression? The government's narrative
notes that it released prisoners, allowed exiles to return, and withdrew its
forces from the streets until the demonstrators tried to close down central
areas of the capital, Manama. The opposition notes deaths of protesters, claims
it wants only democratic reform, and says that human rights violations continue in
nightly raids on Shiite villages. But one thing is for sure: Bahrain differs
markedly from other "Arab Spring" countries with which it is frequently lumped.
and foremost, the divide in Bahrain is between the Sunni and Shiite communities
-- not between the people and the government. There is now a large Sunni movement
that styles itself as an opposition and
is almost completely ignored in Western reporting. Some of its members want political reform; many are adamantly
anti-Shiite and opposed to concessions. This
movement's most distinguishing feature is that it exerts pressure on the king and government to not yield to
government also can call on advantages that the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, and
Libya could not. The support of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially the
Saudis, gives Bahrain's government financial and military depth to resist pressure.
Many in the Bahraini Army are non-Bahrainis from Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen -- they are
not likely to develop sympathies with the protesters. And Bahrain is a small
place that makes insurgency or lengthy protests relatively easy for the
government to control.
is not coming to Bahrain. Yet though the government can maintain itself in
power, it cannot regain calm or stability without reform. But what does
reform mean -- and how hard should the United States press the government to
Manama, there is a mix of fear and anger. Bahrain stood with the United States
in several difficult wars and was praised by Washington for years; it has been a
loyal ally of the United States and the base of the U.S. 5th Fleet. Thus,
it's not particularly surprising that the ruling Khalifa regime cannot
understand the criticism that it now receives, such as then Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton's statement that Bahrain is "on the wrong track."
Indeed, the government's killing of protesters and the continued mistreatment
of prisoners horrified U.S. officials. But Bahraini resentment may partially be
due to the fact that they see old friends in Washington now turning on them -- this
while officials in Manama believe deeply that Iran is calling the shots for the
opposition. Outsiders, however, do not see evidence of this: Iran might well
meddle if it could, but the opposition appears homegrown.
more serious than the threat of Iran is the Bahraini government's fear that though the Shiites call for democracy, they would really put in place a
theocracy led by Sheikh
Isa Qassim. The country's
leading Shiite cleric clearly has great power and very strong influence with
the opposition in the street. Could Qassim really turn off the violence with a
word, as the government and royal family believe? It's hard to know. Would
democracy actually turn out to be a theocracy? Again, it's hard to know, but
the ascendant Islamist movements throughout the Middle East reinforce the royal
family's deep concerns.
rulers look also at Shiite predominance in Iraq -- they see Sunni parties
forced aside while Iranian influence grows. Many Sunnis, not just the royal
family, find nothing in that experience that they want replicated in Bahrain.
liberal Westerners are inclined to say that if radical parties come to power,
that is the price of democracy. But as we look at the rise of Islamism
throughout the Middle East, it is not yet clear that Islamist regimes will yield
power or seek secular balances once installed. That does
not mean that the United States should give up its long-term faith in
democracy. It is, however, at least useful to recognize that some of this belief has built up a universal, humanistic ideology -- not practice, which clearly
remains unproven in the Middle East. That does not make U.S. liberals wrong, but it might make them more tolerant of the concerns of friends and allies, who
will have to live under the resulting experiment.
any event, the fear is very real. As one fairly moderate member of the Sunni
opposition said to me, "I want reform [of the monarchy] and more democracy, but
not at the price of having an Iranian-type government. I would rather have a
Yet the royal family and the government have a credibility problem. They have
announced reforms, but outside observers and opposition figures simply don't
see them taking place. Reports of torture
and beatings continue. And though it's true that some reforms -- like training
judges and reforming the judicial system -- don't happen overnight, the
government's pleas for more time cannot be taken at face value. The behavior of
Bahrain's police, in particular, needs to change now.
was able to speak to a small number of figures in the Shiite opposition during
my March visit to Bahrain -- a limited sample, but one that included a
representative from Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party, in the ongoing national dialogue. The dialogue is supposed to
formulate consensus recommendations to the king, but has not yet reached any
agreed recommendations. Al-Wefaq's suspicions of the royal family's intentions
are as strong as its opponents' suspicions of the party. The Al-Wefaq
representative insisted his party is not seeking overthrow of the monarchy and
laid out reasonable steps for reform of parliament and elections. However, the
devil is in the details.
predominantly Shiite opposition is concerned that recommendations of the
dialogue will vanish into limbo after being sent to the king, or that they will be
enacted in such truncated form as to be meaningless. The opposition insists on endless
procedural guarantees, such as a promise of a referendum on whatever is agreed
and having a representative of the royal family present in the dialogue. The
royals won't do this, saying that the king is "not a party to the negotiations"
but stands above them. It's a delicate point. On the one hand, the opposition
knows that the royal family is clearly a "player" and that no real reform will
happen without the king's consent. On the other hand, publicly putting the
royal family on par with the opposition would be deeply insulting to the
royals and might look like political weakness. The demand that a high-ranking
royal be present in the negotiations is not likely to be met, though some
compromise may be worked out.
is a symptom of the opposition's distrust of the government that it demands
more and more guarantees -- but it is a dangerous tactic. The opposition
already lost a significant opportunity for serious negotiations by demanding
concessions before beginning negotiations last year. Its demands to be
reassured before talking substance may backfire again.
the Saudi position may become increasingly important, as the House of Saud is a
major financial supporter of the Bahraini government. Some knowledgeable
observers with whom I spoke think the Saudis are not as hard-line in their
support of the government as is often said. Some think the Saudis would even
support concessions, so long as the royal family stayed solidly in power. While this has yet to be tested, I was told
by credible observers that even Al-Wefaq thinks there
may be benefit in talking to the Saudis.
though the ingredients for a grand compromise may be present, the parties simply
cannot agree on a serious vision for
how to move forward. The bottom line is this: The government cannot make the Shiite
opposition accept purely symbolic gestures of reform, but the opposition lacks
the power to compel a one-person, one-vote democracy that could lead to the
permanent subordination of the Sunni community, not to mention the royal
family. And the distrust is so high that each faction suspects the other of
holding maximalist goals.
United States should be able to help break this deadlock, but resentment
toward Washington is high on both sides of Bahrain's political divide.
Opposition leaders fault America for not supporting democratic principles: They
focus on the single dynamic of human rights violations and insist that America
is a hypocrite if it does not stand for democracy above all else.
government and royal family, meanwhile, say that the U.S. pressure on them is
influencing the opposition to inflate its demands. They look at U.S. calls for
reform through the lens of Washington's abandonment of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak:
They fear that reform will only whet the opposition's appetite for more change.
This view is nurtured both by some U.S. actions and by a nearly complete lack
of clarity about the United States' preferred endgame in Bahrain. The fact that
President Barack Obama mentioned Al-Wefaq by name in one
speech also created an impression of partisanship.
the truth is that the United States would have a difficult time using its
leverage over the royal family under the best of circumstances. Even removing the U.S. naval base in
Bahrain could not persuade the government to take actions it deems suicidal --
and let's not forget that removing the 5th Fleet base would significantly
damage U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf. There are major U.S. interests at
stake in America's relationship with Bahrain, which has stood with the United States in three wars
and plays a key role in U.S. military efforts to maintain the free flow of oil
in the Persian Gulf. The oil flow is vital to America's economic health -- it is a
legitimate major U.S. national interest. Should war break out with Iran, the U.S. naval
presence in Bahrain would be even more critical.
solution must be found in significant, but still partial, reforms. The Shiite
majority must have more access to real power in political representation, in
the drafting of laws, and in economic opportunity. Yet because the communal
frictions are so large, power should not be allocated only on the basis of one-person, one-vote. This pragmatic principle has proved essential to the United States' own
history: Had there been absolute insistence on the purity of popular representation, the country would not have crafted the Senate, which gives disproportionate weight to
smaller states. In the Bahraini case, a strong royal role remains essential for
balance, lest extremists on both sides plunge the country into far greater
hard should the United States push for a grand compromise in Bahrain? If
Washington exerts no pressure, the hard-liners within the Bahraini government
and royal family will be able to block any real reform. But if Washington puts
too much pressure on the royals, they will conclude that it seeks their
overthrow -- and then America gets nothing. Above all, the United States needs
clarity about how much reform it actually wants. Only then can Washington hope
to give clear signals to the government in Manama.
weekend's Formula One race will bring the world's attention back to the streets
of Bahrain. And it's quite likely that wide-scale protests will ensue,
resulting in images that may prove powerful and compelling to viewers around
the world. Let's be thankful then that Americans don't really care for this
kind of motor sport. For the reality is that real U.S. interests in Bahrain are
harmed by the lack of stability. It is this fact -- not who holds the high
ground of moral authority -- that requires America to press all sides for
progress and reform. But Washington must do so in a way in which all parties in
Bahrain understand what it is asking for and how high the stakes are. Whether
the United States can carry out such a policy -- and whether it would work --
are both very open questions.