December 12, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Bahrain Struggles for Normalcy

• Bahrain’s Sunni minority government is undertaking new foreign policy initiatives even though the Shi’a majority-led uprising in its current form that began in 2011, continues to simmer

• The government is trying to signal to its restive Shi’a majority its even-handedness by participating in U.S.-led air strikes in Syria against the so-called Islamic State, a Sunni Islamic extremist group

• After completing parliamentary elections on November 29, the government demonstrated its confidence by announcing a new Gulf military command structure and a deal to expand Britain’s maritime presence in Bahrain

• The reappointment of Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa as prime minister, a position the 79-year old hardliner has held since 1970, might worsen tensions with Washington over how to end Shi’a unrest.


February will mark the fourth anniversary of the Shi’a majority uprising against the Sunni minority government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the Khalifa family. The current and on-going tensions are a continuation of persistent periods of sectarian violence in Bahrain since the mid-1990s.

The uprising at times consisted of large demonstrations that shut down the capital, Manama, and caused direct military intervention on behalf of the Khalifa government by a Saudi Arabia-led force of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The intervention implemented a Saudi “red line” insisting that the GCC remain completely in Sunni hands and in which pro-Iranian Shi’a movements not be permitted to take power in any GCC country. As such, Bahrain became a focus of the regional sectarian struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Since 2011, the government has largely gained the upper hand on the unrest by suppressing demonstrations and arresting dissidents, while also admitting to mistakes by its security forces and engaging in dialogue with leaders of Shi’a political societies. Since 2013, Shi’a-led demonstrations have declined in frequency and intensity, but Shi’a political societies have also held to their demands for an all-elected parliament that chooses the prime minister and the cabinet. Currently, the elected lower-house is counter-balanced by a king-appointed upper house of the same size (40 seats), and the king appoints a prime minister who in turn selects members of his cabinet.

The latest lower house elections were held on November 22, with a runoff on November 29. With their demands unmet, most major Shi’a political societies, particularly Wifaq (National Accord) boycotted the election—ensuring that Sunnis won virtually all 40 seats. Wifaq and other Shi’a groups have not been in parliament since their members resigned their 18 seats at the start of the 2011 uprising. The 2014 election winners were mostly independents who focused on education and health care issues—candidates from ideological Sunni organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist trend were defeated. Still, the government’s efforts to portray the elections as further evidence of normalization faltered when the opposition strongly disputed the government’s announcement of a 50% turnout. The opposition asserted that turnout was closer to 30% because of a Shi’a voter boycott.

With the election completed without major unrest, the Khalifa regime demonstrated a new confidence, attempting to demonstrate that it had “defeated” the uprising and that Bahrain could now resume its place in regional affairs. During the height of the unrest in 2011-2013, Bahrain refrained from joining GCC military intervention in Libya and it largely stayed out of efforts to support Sunni opposition groups against the Assad regime in Syria. Since September 2014, Bahrain has participated in U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State organization in Syria, demonstrating its commitment to the U.S. alliance as well as signaling that the government would act against Islamist extremist organizations even if they were composed of Sunnis. A few days after the Bahraini election, the government announced the formation of a new joint GCC military command aimed at countering Iranian power and working with the United States against the Islamic State organization. The joint military command concept was formally endorsed by the GCC at the group’s annual summit in Doha, Qatar in early December.

And, during the December 7 annual “Manama Dialogue” security strategy conference always attended by high-level world defense officials, Britain announced it was developing a permanent naval base in Bahrain. That base, which will be co-located at the Naval Support Activity headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and NAVCENT (Navy Central Command component), will enable Britain to significantly expand its naval presence in the Gulf—a clear signal of U.S. and British commitment to contain Iran. The announcement represented additional U.S. and British pressure on Iran to make the political decisions needed to close a comprehensive nuclear deal with the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany). The naval headquarters has also been crucial to the U.S.-led effort to secure Iraqi oil export facilities and to interdict the movement of terrorists, narcotics, pirates, and weapons-related technology across the Arabian Sea.

Bahrain also used the post-election period to portray a “normalized” agenda on the diplomatic front. It sought to remove an irritant with Washington by allowing Assistant Secretary of State for democracy and human rights issues Tom Malinowski to visit Bahrain from December 2-4. The government had expelled Malinowski during a visit in July for his meeting with leaders of Shi’a political societies. The expulsion caused the United States to refuse to move forward with any arms deliveries to Bahrain until a Malinowski visit took place. However, the King’s reappointment of his uncle, the hardline Prime Minister Khalifa bin Isa al-Khalifa, despite his long tenure, advanced age, and the focus of Shi’a resentment indicated that the Khalifa regime is still not ready to adopt all of Washington’s recommendations for resolving the simmering Shi’a unrest.


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