US Foreign Policy

Center or Bust?

in Program

Will the various forces in Bahrain finally
compromise on a centrist approach to power?

By Jean Francois Seznec – The events in Bahrain are most tantalizing.  Should the opposition gain some ground and
succeed in breaking the 240-year old stranglehold of the al-Khalifa family on
the island, it would make Bahrain
a beacon of social and political progress in the Gulf.  Should they fail and see their movements
repressed harshly, presumably with Saudi help, it would nominally keep the al-Khalifas
in power but throw the opposition in the arms of a waiting Iran and the rest of
the island under Saudi domination.

The Bahraini events are happening at a time when four sets
of variables are converging at the same time.


There seems to be a major split within the royal family.  This split has been in existence for a number
of years but is showcased today because of the crisis.

On the one hand, the island has been under the political and
economical control of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa for
the past thirty years.  The PM controls
the police forces and the Mukhabarat.

Until two years ago, he controlled the energy sector, which
is still the main cash cow of the Kingdom. 
Through his various holding companies, he also has substantial interests
in numerous industries, such as ownership of luxury hotels, a large travel
agency, etc.  In the process the PM has
become a very wealthy man.  He has been
able to use his wealth to obtain allegiance from many members of his own family
and the more conservative Sunni elements in society.  He has also been very successful at helping
some poorer members of society and in the process, presenting himself as the
father of the people. He has indirectly arranged for a large number of Sunni
police persons (Syrians, Yemenis, Baluchis) to get Bahraini citizenship, thereby
increasing the ratio of Sunnis to Shi’a. 
The government denies having provided national status to a substantial
number of people, a claim that is widely rejected by both Sunnis and Shi’a.  The government refuses to release numbers and
already some Sunnis allege that they are a majority in Bahrain.

On the other hand, the US educated, young Crown Prince
Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has been trying to streamline the
economy of Bahrain and remove it from the clutches of his great uncle.  He has had some major successes, but also
some major failures.  He created the
Economic Development Board, which has managed to bring in substantial
investments to Bahrain.  He has been able to reduce the PM’s influence
over the energy sector.  He has worked
closely with the Shia’a and is well respected in that community.  However, he has not been able to improve the
lot of the poorer Bahrainis and 85% of all jobs created go to foreigners, while
Bahraini youth unemployment runs very high.

The king appears to stay away from the fray of the battles
between the CP and the PM, but appears to have been mainly a weak figure unable
to counter the influence of his uncle the PM.


The opposition is also divided.  On the one hand the Shi’a groups are split
between the more moderate al-Wefaq and the more extreme al-Haq.

Al-Wefaq had 18 seats in the powerless parliament [out of 40],
until they resigned two weeks ago to protest the violence against the

However, prior to this, they had lost a great deal of
support, especially among the youth, for not obtaining any changes from the
government for more political and economic progress. Al-Wefaq had also failed
to secure change in the systematic discrimination against the Shi’a in the
island [again this discrimination is denied by the government, but basically
acknowledged by everyone].  Their
resignation from parliament and their handling of the demonstration in a
peaceful a-la-Egyptian fashion has regained them much support.

The more extreme group amongst the Shi’a is al-Haq, which
has systematically refused to co-operate with the government.  They have confronted the police forces, almost
every night for the past few years by low-level skirmishes in the villages.  They have refused any effort to negotiate.  In the process they have become popular among
the young unemployed Shi’a.  Their
leaders gained semi sainthood by being arrested prior to the elections of last
December and apparently tortured.

However, they seem to have lost the mantle of leadership
back to alWefaq who has mobilized people on the basis of its peacefulness.

Furthermore, a large segment of the Shi’a population is well
off, educated, employed and benefitting from the economic progress of the Island.  This
segment would very much want to avoid a major upheaval.

They would prefer to see a non-sectarian political life with
their views and interests properly represented, but without having to kow-tow
to the al-Khalifas.

This last group is very close to a large segment of the
Sunni society, which is equally educated, well off, employed and annoyed at
having to be subjected to the al-Khalifas, especially the PM’s economic and
political control of the island.

This political center of Sunni and Shi’a work well together
and could establish a powerful party if they were allowed to do so.  Further, they are very close to the CP and
could well have a dialogue with him on moving the island towards a relatively
less autocratic political system that would guarantee the royal family a
position of leadership, but not one of absolute control.


Like almost everywhere in the modern world, society is
divided between the young and the old.  The
young Bahrainis are technologically very savvy and through their ability to
communicate with each other have developed values that are very far removed
from their parents.  Their views of
respect for authority are different, especially the respect for the royal

They also appear to not be influenced as much as their
elders by a vision of an Islam divided between Sunni and Shi’a.  They seem to view themselves as Bahraini
first, not Sunni or Shi’a.


is a small island caught between two political giants, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It is very hard for the population to
disengage themselves from the influence of their two neighbors, each of which
attempts to minimize the influence of the other on the island. However, both
have been trying to influence one Bahraini group over the other to promote
their own interests.  Hence, the Saudis
fear that any Shi’a leadership will be infeodated to Iran,
which would cause problems for them in Bahrain and among their own Shi’a
population across the water.  Iran, for its part, is upset at the presence of
the American 5th fleet, and at the great support that Saudi Arabia gives to Bahrain’s royal family and other
Sunni tribal groups.

Where is the Compromise?

The four variables are interlaced and interact in making the
situation today very difficult to predict. 
Further, all the actors in the drama seek to influence the others and
use each other for their own benefit.

There is a strong possibility that the conflict between the
PM and the CP is being played out on the street.  The PM and his cohorts within the family, the
tribal groups and the Salafis are whipping up Sunni crowds.

Ironically, the more extreme Sunnis end up being on the same
side as the Shi’a extreme groups in that they are not keen on seeing any

Each side wants complete domination over the other.

On the other side of the conflict is the CP and the centrist
movements made up of educated Sunnis and Shi’a and now of the more centrist

They seem to hope to work together to obtain the removal of
the PM and the sidelining of the Sunni extremists. This alliance existed de
facto before the events of February, but now can be developed into a full
fledge attack upon the old order.

A centrist take over, which would lead to a real
constitutional monarchy, could possibly come to pass.  After all, the PM has lost a great deal of
credibility after his security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters, men, women
and children, and the continued mass protests have shown that he is no longer
feared.  Hence, there could be an opening
for compromise and progress, by having the CP become the de facto head of state.

However, Saudi
Arabia could easily interfere and try to
stop such an arrangement for fear that it could spread to the rest of the Gulf
and endanger the al-Sauds’ hold on power. 
The Saudis could easily finance the more extreme Sunni groups in Bahrain to
promote inter communal strife, which would polarize the communities and in
essence kill the center.

Until now a powerful incentive for all the al-Khalifas to
compromise is that they, and especially the PM, are extremely dependent on the
economy of Bahrain
continuing to strive.  Without income
from trade and tourism, the al-Khalifas will hurt in their wallet.  A compromise would most likely trigger
massive investments and would raise all boats, including the al-Khalifas’.  However, if the Saudis decide to give
extensive financial support to the family to help them keep their stranglehold
on the island, it would cut one of the major incentives for the al-Khalifas to
come to the table and compromise with the Center.  On the other hand, the al-Khalifas would
become totally dependent on Saudi support, which ultimately would result in
their losing real power over the island.

Perhaps, the only sure thing likely to happen because of the
upheavals in Bahrain
is that the al-Khalifas will lose a lot of their power.  Either they lose a lot of political power to
an empowered parliament and real political parties, or they lose ultimate
control to the Saudis.  Some members of
the family have already chosen and have already made substantial concessions by
opening up the Ministry of Interior to Shi’a hirees, promising new housing and
firing the more extreme al-Khalifa minister. 
The moderate al-Khalifas allied with the centrist groups may be using
the demonstrations to force the change towards a more democratic system, but
the larger neighboring powers could be working against this rosy scenario.  Only time will tell, but one can be hopeful
that the cooler and in this case the younger heads will prevail.

Jean-Francois Seznec is a Stimson Trustee

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