Conservative figures within the Bahraini royal family are redoubling their efforts to subdue the opposition. This is plainly visible in new arrests, media censorship, warnings to Shia clerics, and more aggressive counter-demonstration tactics. As a result, the institutionalized non-violent opposition represented by the Shia political society al-Wifaq is losing ground to the more radical February 14 Youth Movement.

Regime conservatives have been further emboldened by the Saudi proposal for the transformation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a so-called Gulf Union that would entail closer economic, political, and military ties. While the idea has been greeted with skepticism by most GCC governments and prompted Shia protests in Bahrain and across the Gulf, conservatives in the Bahraini ruling family have responded eagerly.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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In this climate, the recent decision by the United States to resume weapons sales to Bahrain, intended to shore up the pro-reform Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has had the opposite effect, encouraging royal hardliners, who see a new normalcy in U.S.-Bahraini relations. The arms transfers have placed al-Wifaq further on the defensive and provoked a new turn toward anti-Americanism from the February 14 Youth Movement.

The net effect of these developments has been the further deterioration of centrist politics in the kingdom and diminished prospects for peaceable dialogue, although the government has made some moves to appease the United Nations Human Rights Council. Both sides are now engaged in an intense round of mutual de-legitimization.

New Crackdown with Token Concessions

Buoyed by the successful convening of the Formula One Grand Prix in April, hardliners have taken a number of steps to further consolidate control. Much of the kingdom’s political power resides in a conservative triumvirate comprised of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad bin Salman al-Khalifa, and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa—with the latter two being brothers, part of the al-Khawalid branch of the al-Khalifa family.

The crown prince, considered to be the member of the royal family most open to the idea of responding to the unrest with reforms and dialogue, has seen his influence steadily decline since mid-2011, epitomized by the dismantling of many of his economic projects aimed at liberalizing the Bahraini market. The king, also somewhat more open minded than the true hardliners, has been similarly overshadowed without gaining any support from the opposition. He recently ratified a constitutional amendment that required him to consult with the heads of the elected parliament and the Shura Council before dissolving the legislature, but the measure was quickly dismissed by the opposition as falling far short of their demands.

The hardline faction, which controls the security forces as well as the instruments of censorship, is now very open about its intention to silence the opposition. In late April, it appointed Samira Rajab, a polarizing figure who has praised Saddam Hussein and whose anti-Shia statements have aroused the ire of the opposition, as information minister. Concurrently, it arrested human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja for staging a protest to demand the release from prison of her father, the prominent activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja; she has since been sentenced to a month in prison. On May 5, it detained another popular dissident, Nabeel Rajab, for his tweets. Most recently, on May 27, it sentenced six Bahraini nationals to fifteen-year sentences for plotting attacks in Bahrain on behalf of Iran.

To make matters worse, the Bahraini parliament passed legislation on May 9 that increased the punishment for assaults on security forces and issued a number of threats against the Shia cleric ‘Isa al-Qasim. Most recently, state television renewed attacks on Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, al-Wasat. On the streets, meanwhile, opposition sources cite increasingly aggressive tactics by security forces, such as shooting bird pellets and tear gas rounds at close range and forcibly breaking into homes.

In tandem with this crackdown, however, the regime has taken some steps to convince the international community, particularly the UN Human Rights Council, that it is taking positive steps to curb human rights violations. In anticipation of the publication of a critical report by the Human Rights Council, Bahrain’s lower court acquitted 14 defendants on May 15 accused of illegal assembly and rioting, including a member of al-Wifaq’s consultative council. And a week later on May 22, the government began (but then delayed) the retrial of ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja and 20 other activists. This was a key recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an autonomous fact-finding body that issued a highly critical report of the regime’s response to the 2011 uprising. On May 28, it released the activist Nabeel Rajab, and Zainab al-Khawaja was released on bail the next day.

The Bahraini Shura Council also approved an amendment to a law against spreading false information, rewording it to specify the crime as “deliberately” spreading false information with “intention of causing harm.” Most recently, Bahrain agreed to “consider” UN recommendations to release political prisoners, ban torture, and join the International Criminal Court.

But given the current balance of power within the royal family, it is doubtful that these gestures presage deeper structural reforms. Most likely, as the opposition charges, they are tactical stop-gap measures to remove the regime from the spotlight of international scrutiny.  

Gulf Unity and Its Discontents

At the same time it has been trying to convince the United Nations of its intention to improve the country’s human rights record, the regime has been asking for a “fast-tracking” of the union with Saudi Arabia. Union has long been the rallying cry of many of Bahrain’s Sunni figures. Since early 2012 there have been routine demonstrations at Manama’s al-Fatah mosque in support of unity.

Merger between the two kingdoms received a surprisingly formal endorsement when Saudi and Bahraini officials referenced it on the sidelines of a May 14 meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh. Mutual defense, presumably against Iran, was cited as a major impetus for the unity scheme. But given the prominence of U.S. training and arms transfers to both states’ militaries, political motives are more likely at work—unity is a means for the al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, to shore up their conservative allies in the al-Khalifa family. 

Regardless of the motives, the announcement of a possible union at such a sensitive time has had a polarizing effect domestically and regionally. Predictably, the scheme garnered backing from outspoken Sunni supporters of the Bahraini regime. The Sahwat al-Fatah Youth Group, the Salafist member of parliament Jassim al-Saidi, and the leader of the National Unity Gathering ‘Abd al-Latif Mahmud all expressed support via Twitter or Facebook.

From the Shia side, the February 14 Youth Movement denounced the move as the “GCC falsity union.” Al-Wifaq and ‘Isa al-Qasim argued that any decision on union should be made through a popular referendum, citing the precedent of the country’s vote for independence in 1971. There were widespread Shia protests against the union in Bahrain and across the Gulf, while in Tehran, Iranian officials resurrected their longstanding claim to ownership of Bahrain.

U.S. Arms Transfers Backfire

Since the beginning of the uprising in Bahrain in February 2011, the United States has been hard pressed to devise a policy that signaled its support for reforms without creating further friction with Saudi Arabia or jeopardizing its access to its military bases in Bahrain.

In recent weeks, the United States reportedly renewed its offer to the crown prince to help mediate the conflict between the monarchy and the opposition, but was rebuffed on the ground that it was a purely internal matter. Low-level Track II meetings are underway inside Bahrain and senior U.S. officials continue to exhort their Bahraini counterparts to press forward with reforms. In tandem with these approaches, the United States concluded that it could use the resumption of arms transfers as a form of leverage to convince the Bahraini authorities to pursue reforms.

The State Department announced on May 11 the resumption of U.S. arms sales to Bahrain, including turbo-fan upgrades for the F-16 fighter jet, advanced air-to-air missiles, harbor patrol boats, and a frigate. Not included in the release, the State Department emphasized, are Humvees and munitions used by ministry of interior forces for crowd control, such as tear gas canisters and stun grenades. These sales were halted in last fall by a Congressional resolution; on May 24, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed further restrictions on these items and made foreign aid contingent on improvements in freedom of expression.

Withholding crowd control items may be an attempt to limit the symbolic damage to U.S. legitimacy caused by the regime’s crackdown. But such restrictions have had a negligible effect on the street.

The Bahraini opposition points out that the regime has circumvented U.S. restrictions by purchasing small arms munitions from Brazil and China. Most significantly, the regime bought Turkish-made Cobra armored personnel carriers as a substitute for the Humvee and they were deployed on the streets of Manama in time for the one-year anniversary of the February 14 uprising. According to several activists, the Cobra is actually a more effective crowd control tool than the Humvee because its smaller chassis allows it to traverse the narrow backstreets of Bahrain’s Shia villages.

Ostensibly, the arms sales are also intended to shore up the more moderate, pro-reform crown prince against the hardliners—the State Department announced the approval during a visit by the crown prince to Washington. Yet the crown prince has been steadily stripped of significant authority since the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and diplomatic support from Washington is unlikely to restore this. Moreover, the conservative faction—which includes the commander of the Bahraini defense forces—has likely interpreted the transfer as a “win” and sign of normalcy in U.S.-Bahrain relations.

Al-Wifaq Faces the Street

For al-Wifaq, the release was a disheartening blow, confirming that Washington, in the words of one activist, “carries a large carrot and a small stick” in its dealings with the regime. Its activists argue that the United States should halt all training and assistance to the Bahraini military until steps have been taken to integrate Shia personnel into the security forces. It believes that private, backchannel exhortations by U.S. defense officials to their Bahraini counterparts are not enough, arguing that real shifts in policy have occurred only when the regime has been publicly called out in high-level speeches.

Importantly, however, many in the opposition recommend against the United States moving its bases, such as the Fifth Fleet headquarters, or its forces at Shaykh ‘Isa Air Base, arguing that this would only further empower hardliners in the regime who doubt the reliability of Washington as a security patron. Worse, it would strengthen the case for union with Saudi Arabia and further diminish the prospects for reform.

Most significantly, the recent arms transfer placed further pressure on al-Wifaq by enabling rejectionists in the opposition. The sale, followed by the push for union with Saudi Arabia, has animated al-Wifaq’s rival in the streets, the February 14 Youth Movement, toward a more aggressive anti-American stance.

The group declared a “Week of Resisting American Arms Sales,” on its Facebook page, emblazoned with blood-drenched shotgun shells stamped “U.S.A.” Its tactics on the streets have also shifted, moving away from Molotov cocktails and toward crude improvised explosive devices. If the current crackdown continues and if Washington is perceived to be supporting the regime’s security response, the ranks of the rejectionists will swell.

In the wake of these developments, al-Wifaq is appearing beleaguered and weaker. Its talks with the regime reportedly ended in late March, foundering on the issue of the appointed Shura Council, which al-Wifaq contends is the principal obstacle to democratic reform and which the regime believes is a necessary buffer against what one official called a “fractious and divided parliament.” Al-Wifaq is now seeking external mediation—despite objections from the royals, this may be the only route out of the current impasse.