As Bahrain’s government launches its much-touted “national dialogue” with members of civil society, experts are expressing skepticism that it will defuse growing tensions in the strategically located Gulf kingdom, let alone promote genuine reform.
Strongly supported by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the dialogue, which formally got under way Saturday, is supposed to involve some 300 civil society representatives, all chosen, however, by the government itself.
Hundreds of people detained by the authorities over the last five months of unrest remain in prison, including prominent leaders of the majority Shi’ite Muslim community, which has been the main target of the government’s crackdown that began in late February.
“How can there be real dialogue when most [of the opposition] is in jail?” asked Kristin Diwan, a Gulf specialist at American University.
“To have a real dialogue, people need to be free to express their opinions. Over the past four months, those in power in Bahrain have created an environment where this is impossible,” she wrote in an analysis on CNN.com Friday.
One key opposition group decided to take part at the last minute.
Al-Wefaq, whose 18 elected members of parliament resigned in February to protest the repression, said it would attend after King Hamad Issa al-Khalifa agreed to appoint an independent commission to investigate human rights violations during previous months of protests, in which some 36 people were killed and hundreds of others wounded.
The government also announced the release of 100 detainees, while Saudi Arabia, which, along with the United Arab Emirates, had sent some 1,500 troops to support the crackdown, said it will begin gradually withdrawing its forces from the kingdom, although it did not set a precise timetable.
The Obama administration warmly welcomed the dialogue’s launch. “The United States commends King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa for his leadership in initiating the dialogue,” the White House said Saturday.
“We also commend the decision by Al Wifaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition group, to join the dialogue. … We urge all Bahrainis to seize this opportunity to forge a more just future together,” it added, while the State Department issued a similar statement.
Washington has been increasingly concerned that the government’s repression will lead the Shi’ite population, which is estimated at 60 to 70 percent of the citizenry, to look to Iran for support. The al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni and has ruled Bahrain for some 250 years, has claimed throughout the repression that Iran is actively supporting the largely Shi’ite opposition, an allegation with which U.S. officials have disagreed.
Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a 25-km causeway, has echoed the government’s charges against Iran and is believed to have encouraged Hamad and his long-serving prime minister, Khalifa ibn Sulman al-Khalifa, to crack down hard on the Shi’ite community and their Sunni allies.
Bahraini Shi’ites are closely related to the Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia concentrated in Eastern Province, which produces most of the country’s oil. Saudi rulers, who are also Sunni Muslims, have long worried that unrest among the Shi’ites in Bahrain would spread to the Eastern Province.
Washington and Riyadh have clashed — sometimes publicly — over the situation in Bahrain. While Washington has urged restraint and reform on the part of King Hamad’s government, senior Saudi officials, who were infuriated by Obama’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, have warned that empowering the Shi’ite community in Bahrain would be analogous to having a Soviet-backed Cuba just off Florida during the Cold War.
The administration has placed its hopes for influencing the course of events on Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, who is regarded as the most promising prominent reformer within the ruling family.
Last month, he met personally with Obama in the White House, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what was seen as a deliberate effort to bolster his stature and influence back in Manama.
Washington also hoped that Prince Salman would chair the “national dialogue,” which had originally been proposed by the government during the early days of the protests before the crackdown. But, as constituted to date, no member of the royal family is taking part.
The dialogue suffers from other flaws as well, according to independent experts.
“It’s not a dialogue; it’s a convention,” Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS.
He noted that Al-Wefaq and another official opposition party, Waad, were granted only five seats each out of the 300 participants. “The deck is stacked against them,” he added. “The U.S. should be careful not to endorse the dialogue.”
“The problem is that the dialogue involves a huge number of organizations,” Diwan told IPS, adding that many of the groups, such as the Bahrain Astronomical Society, had little or nothing to do with the causes of the unrest or the opposition’s demands for democratic reform.
“The national dialogue transforms citizens insisting on their political rights into subjects petitioning the king,” she wrote last week. “It is a parody of the opposition’s key demand: a constitutive assembly to realize a genuine constitutional monarchy.”
“The government is trying to respond and present a view of the country as moving toward normalcy,” she said, adding that the government hoped the dialogue will divide and weaken the opposition.
“The youth feel they aren’t represented,” said Tad Stahnke, director of policy and programs at Human Rights First (HRF), whose organization, like HRW, has issued several reports on the unrest over the last few months.
Speaking at a panel on U.S. policy toward Bahrain sponsored by the Institute for Gulf Affairs Wednesday, Stahnke also stressed protesters’ concerns about the degree of the royal family’s commitment to following through on any suggested reforms even if a consensus is reached.
“Western countries are desperate to believe that things will work out
in Bahrain,” said Stork. “They’re investing way too much in [the
(Inter Press Service)