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OP-ED: Why Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa Family Is Losing the Right to Rule

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, Jun 26 2013 (IPS) - By continuing its repressive policies and refusing to engage civil society and moderate political groups in meaningful dialogue for genuine reform, the Khalifa family has squandered its legitimate right to rule Bahrain. King Hamad could still salvage his rule, but he would need to act boldly by taking the following steps.

First, remove the prime minister from his position and appoint the crown prince as the country’s first interim prime minister. This step is critical if the king hopes to convince the United States and the European Union of the sincerity of his reform agenda and to heal the rift with his people.

Second, empower the new prime minister to meet with civil society organisations and moderate political groups and societies for the purpose of initiating a process of genuine comprehensive political and social reform that is not driven by sectarianism.

Third, rescind all recent legislation or draft legislation that restricts the lawful activities of non-governmental organisations, and work with international human rights organisations to design legislation that guarantees and protects associational life in the country.

Fourth, set a date certain for parliamentary elections, to which international observers are invited and in which political groups and non-governmental organisations can participate freely and openly. Furthermore, he should empower the newly elected parliament to begin drafting a constitution in which the principles of inclusion and tolerance are enshrined as a matter of law, not a benevolent gift of the king.

Fifth, give a televised speech to the country explaining the steps he intends to take. He should tell his people that respect for human rights applies to all Bahrainis, regardless of religious or sectarian affiliation. The speech should be the first step toward national reconciliation and sectarian peace.

Had Prince Salman carried with him a specific plan for genuine reform on his recent visit to Washington, American policymakers would have been more forthcoming in their support of Al-Khalifa. Washington and European capitals would more enthusiastically support a power shift from Khalifa to Salman if it were accompanied by a larger and more comprehensive reform agenda.

Saudi and other Gulf Arab leaders also would welcome a power transfer in Bahrain. Though unprecedented, the power transfer from father to son that is currently underway in Qatar could be a blueprint for Bahrain. Power shift in that country would of course involve shifting power from the great uncle perennial Prime Minister Khalifa to the reform-minded crown prince.

Saudi and Omani leaders are becoming uneasy about continued instability in Bahrain. As they search for a way out of the Syrian bloody civil war, they would not want to be sidetracked by the precarious situation in Bahrain.

The June 2013 Human Rights Watch report on the Bahraini government’s policy to “interfere, restrict, and control” associational life in the country and the recent cancellation of the visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to Bahrain belie the government’s defence of its so-called reform agenda and its commitment to inclusion and equality.

King Hamad has pursued two flawed policy approaches, which he had hoped would buy him time. Like other Sunni leaders in the region, he has used the violence in Syria and Hizballah’s military support for Assad as proof of the rise of the so-called Shia Crescent over the region. Hamad has frequently pointed to Iran’s central role in directing the perceived Shia resurgence on the Arab side of the Gulf.

Al-Khalifa’s drumbeat has been that Iran and Arab Shia groups are working to undermine Sunni rule. By extension, Shia demands for political reforms, justice and equality in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are part and parcel of Iran’s grand regional design

Hizballah’s military support of Syria has nothing to do with the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide. It has everything to do with Hizballah’s belief that a breakup of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis through the fall of the Assad regime would weaken Hizballah’s standing and power position considerably.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s strategic gamble of publicly supporting Assad could still prove disastrous for Hizballah because sooner or later Assad will fall. When this happens, Hizballah’s so-called resistance brand would be discredited.

The other, and albeit more silly, political game that King Hamad has been playing is to create a wedge between the Americans and the British in their dealings with Bahrain.

According to Justin Gengler, a Bahraini watcher and blogger, King Hamad is fostering a deeply personal relationship with the British ambassador in Bahrain and is actively promoting British involvement in Bahrain and the Gulf.

At the same time, the king has tolerated Sunni rabid attacks on the U.S. ambassador in the country. Some Sunni clerics have even demanded that Washington remove him from his post for allegedly cavorting with al-Wifaq party and other Bahraini Shia opposition groups.

On a recent visit to London, King Hamad went so far as to invite Britain to return to “East of Suez” and re-establish its hegemony and, presumably, friendly relations with Gulf tribal rulers. In addition, he granted Bahraini citizenship to over 200 UK citizens for their service to Al-Khalifa rule, according to press reports.

As a small country autocrat playing with major powers, King Hamad has displayed a shallow understanding of the dynamics of regional power configurations that the two traditional partners on both sides of the Atlantic have pursued in the Gulf region for decades.

America’s long-term strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and beyond and Bahrain’s security dependency on the United States are too significant to be affected by the king’s power play.

When last year I argued in a column in the Financial Times in favour of removing the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, the Bahraini prime minister was very disturbed and demanded that the Times publish a counter column, which his spokesman drafted. The Times published the piece the following day.

If and when Washington decides to move the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain, such a decision would be driven by strategic and economic considerations that go beyond King Hamad’s personal relationship with the U.S. and UK ambassadors there.

If King Hamad is seriously interested in preserving his rule in a politically reformed Bahrain in which all citizens can enjoy equal opportunity, access to employment, and respect under the law, he should work jointly with the British and the Americans to save Bahrain. Otherwise, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic will become more and more convinced that Al-Khalifa have lost their legitimacy to rule.

Emile Nakhleh is a former senior intelligence officer and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World” and “Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society”.

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