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Jean-Francois on Bahrain

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A few small facts and rumors may be pointing to a faint ray of hope at the end of a long tunnel in Bahrain.

1 – One of the Royal family members broke the rule of silence within the Al Khalifas in Bahrain and spoke to the Wall Street Journal of the rift in the family between the liberals and the “khawalites”. Although, there have been calls in the family to investigate to find out who this Sheikh may be, nothing has happened to this person, at least not yet. Furthermore, the more liberal Crown Prince has been promoted to Deputy PM.

2 – Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, the Bahraini Minister of Justice was reported by the Kuwait News Agency to have announced a delay in the talks with the opposition on power sharing. The delay is certain, but the words “power sharing” are quite new and speak volumes…

3 – At the same time, major changes have taken place in Saudi Arabia with Prince Muqrin bin AbdelAziz getting a major leg up to be the next inline after the very ill Prince Salman. Prince Muqrin is thought to be very close to King Abdullah and often seen to be quite liberal on social and economic issues. He is well educated and traveled.

4 – One observer mentioned on G2K and elsewhere that Prince Mita’eb bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sent his chief of staff to push the Bahraini leadership into accommodating some of the opposition’s demand.

5 – For the past few months there has been a mounting campaign in Washington by various NGOs, think tanks and within the diplomacy and the defense establishment to close the Navy base in Bahrain. The topic is hotly debated and arguments go from “the closure is impossible” to “it would be quite feasible”. Rightly or wrongly, it seems that the pro-closure arguments seem to be winning the day.

6 – It appears that the relationship between the US and the Bahraini authorities are at an all time low. There are credible rumors that the US Ambassador’s and the Navy base Admiral’s calls to the higher levels in Bahrain are not returned.

Taking all these facts together leads me to believe that the US has finally found a handle to influence the Bahraini Royal Family extremists, mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. This group, which has ruthlessly played the sectarian card, did manage to split the country and in a sense has made the majority of the population become highly susceptible to Iranian mingling. This may have been acceptable to the more conservative Saudis, but undoubtedly has gone against the previous policies of King Abdullah to make Islam in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world inclusive of all sects and tendencies, where both Sunni’s and Shi’a can live in good intelligence.

The intervention in Bahrain by the Saudis and UAE took place at a time when King Abdullah was very ill. When he was not available to make policy in the early part of 2011, it seems that the Bahraini extremists made their case to the more conservative elements of the Saudi Royal family and won the day, getting the Saudis to make a strong gesture of support to the Al Khalifas in Bahrain and against any power sharing arrangement with the Shi’a opposition.

The facts/rumors mentioned above show that things might be changing. Most important, King Abdullah has been able to regain some strength.

Many of his clear-cut decisions of the past few months show that he wants to establish his legacy on a strong footing. His push for including women in the Majlis asShura, the nomination of younger princes in position of power, and the naming of Prince Muqrin as Second Deputy PM are important. It seems, now, that he has put one of his sons in charge of the Bahrain policy, which could lead to an accommodation between the more reasonable elements of the Shi’a opposition in Bahrain and the more reasonable elements within the Al Khalifas, thereby shunting the “khawalites”.

Also, the strong rumor of the US closing the large Navy base, which may be music to the ears of the Al Khalifa extremists, must be worrying the Saudis. It may be worth remembering that the base was not established in Bahrain to protect the Al Khalifas. It is there to defend Saudi Arabia. 

It was developed at the behest of the Saudis not the Bahrainis. Saudi Arabia cares greatly to have the base there as first line of defense against Iran. Should we close the base, transfer the command to the Qatar Air Base, the ships at sea and send a few thousand men/women back home, it will be perceived in the Gulf as weakening the Saudi defenses and the Saudi Royal Family.

Thus, it would appear that the Saudis must push the Al Khalifas to abandon their policy of squashing the Shi’a majority to protect their own parochial interest. The Saudis would be motivated by the desire to limit the appeal of Iran on the Arab Shi’a of Bahrain and by the need to ensure that the US base stays in Bahrain. One can surmise that Prince Muqrin, a popular prince in the Kingdom and a man highly respected for his intellect in the West, and Prince Mita’eb a younger but also respected royal may have decided to implement a policy of pushing their poor royal cousins in Manama to come up with solutions to the crisis that go beyond hiring expensive PR consultants in Washington.

Another way and more US centric view of the situation is that finally, the US may have found a handle on pushing for change in Bahrain. By truly and credibly looking into the base closing, Washington can influence the Saudis to impose a credible change in Bahrain without having to negotiate with the unreliable and ideological Bahraini royal extremists. Should this be the case and should it work, it would show that the US diplomacy is more sophisticated than often given credit for.

Dr. Jean-Francois Seznec is a Stimson Trustee. He is a founding member and Managing Partner of the Lafayette Group, LLC, a US based private investment company. Previously, Dr. Seznec served as a Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. His research centered on the influence of the Arab-Persian Gulf political and social variables on the financial and oil markets in the region. Dr. Seznec has 25 years experience in international banking and finance of which ten years were spent in the Middle East, including two years in Riyadh at SIDF and six years in Bahrain covering Saudi Arabia. He uses his knowledge of business in the Middle East and the United States to further his analysis of the Arab-Persian Gulf.

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