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A court in Bahrain dissolved the main Shia opposition party al-Wefaq in July 2016, accusing it of fostering violence and terrorism in the island kingdom. This was not an isolated event, but the latest in a series of crackdowns on the opposition in the Sunni-led, Shia-majority Gulf monarchy.
The problem is a straightforward one: the opposition wants more democracy and all that comes with it, such as a constitutional monarchy, transparency, inclusiveness, equality and justice. The government, which is essentially an extension of the royal family, does not. Hamed Khalaf, al-Wefaq Shura Council member, explained it thus: “The family has reached a dead end with the opposition, because it [the opposition] insists on real democratic reforms.”
Since crushing a pro-democracy protest movement in 2011, the government has tried to appease the opposition with reconciliation talks, hoping they would do the trick. They didn’t, because, as US President Barack Obama remarked during a press conference in May that year: “The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
Indeed, the imprisonment of al-Wefaq leaders, human rights activists and journalists has only intensified, as has the denaturalization of dozens of people, the most prominent being Isa Qassim, al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader. The dissolution of al-Wefaq marks one of the sharpest blows yet against peaceful dissent.
But why now, why not earlier, or later, or not at all? The demands of the opposition have been clear since at least 2002, and it is hard to believe that the government misinterpreted these demands, or really thought that cosmetic changes would be enough to appease the well-educated and well-informed group. The royal families in the Gulf usually know their subjects well. Something else must be playing a role.
The short answer is money. Bahrain’s financial situation is bleak. The oil reserves have virtually run dry and the country is kept afloat by financial support from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, other long-time regional Sunni friends such as Kuwait. In order to keep that money flowing, the financers must be kept happy. And happy they are when Iran is being chased off the scene.
This – and a broader tribal and ideological connection with the Bahraini royal family –has always been an issue for Bahrain’s Sunni neighbours but is now more pressing than ever. Regional developments in Lebanon (the role of Iran-supported Hezbollah), Syria (Iran propping up President Assad) and Yemen (the take-over by Shiite Houthi rebels) have triggered anxiety (to put it mildly) in the capitals of the Sunni kingdoms. Others may not always see this so clearly, but the Sunni leaders do: Iran is trying to get a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula – their worst nightmare.
Regional power sharing with Iran is out of the question. That would require a minimum of trust and there is zero. Rapprochement between the two powers on both sides of the Gulf – Arabian or Persian, depending from which side you look – would pose a domestic risk as well. It could be considered a sign of weakness by the mostly Sunni population, something which the royal families, already weakened by low oil prices and the fear of consequential social unrest, want to avoid at all cost.
It is better to show Tehran some force, is the thinking. In the case of Yemen, this meant going to war in March 2015 and continuing to fight until eventual victory.For Lebanon (which is considered to be largely controlled by Hezbollah), this means withdrawing people and investments from the Gulf. And for Bahrain, it means fewer talks and more repression, including against those who object to the country’s involvement in the Yemeni war.
Meanwhile, the Bahraini opposition fights a lonely fight. International outcries are rare, except from Tehran. In May 2015, Washington put Bahrain on notice, saying it needed to get serious about implementing political reforms if it did not want the US Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Bahrain, not to relocate. To date, however, the threat has gone little further than words. London, meanwhile, does not seem to be concerned at all, judging by its recent decision to fund a new naval base in Bahrain.
All in all, it is not a good summer for Bahrain. Not for the opposition and – ultimately – not for the government in Manama, because it is hard to see what good can come of the current crackdowns.