Bahrain: the crisis of monarchy

The ruling family’s brutal and misjudged response to Bahrain’s protest movement is undermining its own legitimacy, says Christopher M Davidson.

The turmoil in the tiny Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain continues, even if it has tended to be overshadowed by events elsewhere in the Arab world such as the war in Libya and the intensifying unrest in Syria. Yet if the current developments there are barely reported in international media, they are nonetheless vital: for they both represent a key milestone in the country's political history (even, it might be argued, its ongoing revolution), and have key ramifications for its closest neighbours and its most powerful international partners.

The Al-Khalifa ruling family is attempting to manage the crisis that erupted with the popular demonstrations for political reform in February 2011. The government convened a “national dialogue” about the unrest in early July. But it is fast running out of space for manoeuvre. Here the decision of Al-Wefaq, the largest Shi’a opposition party, to withdraw from the “dialogue” process is significant. Al-Wefaq was always a tolerated opposition movement and therefore very much part of the Al-Khalifa's establishment. So at a time when the king and prime minister are trying to persuade their various allies that they are willing to discuss political reform and that they also still enjoy some basic level of legitimacy, the party’s stance is a major blow for the regime.

In reality, the Al-Khalifa now have no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the Bahraini population. Most of Bahrain's people are still Shi’a, despite the government’s determined attempts over the past decade to manipulate the sectarian imbalance by trying to naturalise large numbers of invited Sunni immigrants. The understandable Shi’a resentment at such policies and the discrimination they represent have since February 2011 been expressed in protests, most of which have been put down with bloody force. 

Shi’a neighbourhoods and suburbs are patrolled daily by gunmen, a number of whom are hired mercenaries. More than thirty Shi’a mosques have been destroyed since the unrest began, on the spurious grounds that the buildings were unsafe. But there are now signs that even sections of the Sunni minority - most of which enjoy subsidies of some sort, or other socio-economic advantages over their Shi’a counterparts - are now beginning quietly to voice their disapproval of the ruling family.

The regime’s response

How was so much legitimacy lost in just a few months, especially given that the initial protests were aimed at reform rather the removal of the Al-Khalifa? I would argue that there has been spectacular mismanagement of the situation on three levels.

Firstly, and most symbolically, the ruling family chose to attack (and destroy) symbols of national unity and the country's precious heritage. Consider, for example, the monument at the centre of Lulu roundabout, which represented Bahrain's rich history as a pearl-diving nation. Despite this, once it began to served as a focal-point for the early demonstrations the authorities had no compunction in destroying it.

Secondly, the regime has played the sectarian card more strongly than ever before. Since British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971 there has always been tension between the island's ruling Sunni minority and its Shi’a majority. There have been flare-ups on many occasions, and often these have been violent. But never has it reached the stage where places of Shi’a worship have been destroyed and armed thugs have been unleashed on residential neighbourhoods. The Al-Khalifa's current Sunni-Shi’a impasse is one of the rulers’ own making. It is now unlikely that the nation of Bahrain can move forward with such distrusted decision-makers at the top.

Thirdly, the Al-Khalifa have made the terrible error of inviting in troops from neighbouring, Sunni-dominated Gulf states. The process began in March, when a few thousand Saudi and Emirati troops crossed the Saudi-built causeway. These troops helped to avert revolution, as the day they arrived the protesters were already beginning to occupy the island's strategic financial-harbour district. They have since been guarding key government installations in Bahrain; but there also have been reports of them manning roadblocks, monitoring access to hospitals, and taking part in the Bahraini security force's night-time arrests of dissidents. They show no signs of leaving, and recent reports claim their deployment is going to be more formally organised.

The long-term loss of credibility for the Al-Khalifa family from the presence of the troops will be enormous. The Bahraini Shi’a community (and sections of the Sunni community) have often expressed concern about Saudi interference in their country's affairs, and the ruling family's requests to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for assistance will not be forgotten. 

The international context

How has Bahrain's suppressed revolution been viewed by its neighbours, and why would both Saudi Arabia and the UAE take the risk of military intervention? The answer here is simple: as the “Arab spring” sweeps through the region's Arab republics, toppling and threatening one dictator after another, the Gulf monarchies need to feel they can differentiate their political systems from those of their hapless Arab neighbours.

The sense that gripped them was, in my view, that if one Gulf monarchy succumbs to the spring, then a dangerous domino effect could be set in motion - not least because the illusion of invincibility enjoyed by Gulf monarchies will have been broken. Without doubt, the effigies of the Bahraini king and prime minister that are being hung from washing-lines in poorer suburbs of Manama, and the “Down with Hamad” slogans that are being chanted by Bahraini protesters, will have sent a chill into the most powerful palaces in the Gulf.

What of the United States and the other western powers, the traditional security guarantors of Bahrain? The Al-Khalifa's government has enjoyed some success in persuading the west that the opposition they face is some kind of fifth column serving the interests of Shi’a Iran. 

There is a lack of evidence for this view, yet it is a convenient explanation for the west to accept; for it allows policy-makers to avoid the truth that Bahrain's unrest is also a part of the Arab spring and - as with Egypt and Syria - is primarily a contest between those who seek reform and democracy, and those who seek to maintain autocratic control over power and resources. 

The crisis for Bahrain’s rulers is entering a new stage. A government-appointed international panel on the crisis, which will investigate the protests and the government's crackdown, starts its work on 25 July 2011. Even amid limited media coverage, more western citizens are becoming aware of the various atrocities and injustices being perpetrated in Bahrain. There are also reports, albeit immediately denied by naval sources, that the United States navy is considering moving its key naval base from Bahrain. The pressures of democratic sentiment from outside the region, in combination with the momentum of change from inside, will make it ever harder for a democracy-suppressing regime to continue with business as usual.

About the author

Christopher Davidson is author of the shortly forthcoming After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.  He has taught at universities in Britain and the United Arab Emirates and has written several other books on the Gulf, including Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond

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Christopher M Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, and a former assistant professor of politics at Zayed University, Dubai. He is the author of The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival (Lynne Reiner, 2005), Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success (C Hurst, 2008) and The Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia: From Indifference to Independence (C Hurst, 2010)

Also by Christopher M Davidson in openDemocracy:

"Dubai: spots on the sun" (26 June 2008)

"Dubai's stifled voice: censorsip vs progress in the UAE" (20 October 2008)

"Dubai and Abu Dhabi: implosion and opportunity" (4 December 2009)

"Bahrain on the edge" (19 October 2010) - with Kristian Coates Ulrichsen