Is Saudi Arabia undermining efforts to solve Bahrain's political crisis?

Published October 12th, 2013 - 04:00 GMT
Saudi Arabia has previously sent support to Bahrain's Sunni government to crackdown on Shia opposition movements beginning in 2011 (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia has previously sent support to Bahrain's Sunni government to crackdown on Shia opposition movements beginning in 2011 (Reuters)

The good news is that a political settlement of the Bahraini crisis – sponsored by the United States and acceptable to Iran – is beginning to take shape. The problem is that Saudi Arabia is not yet ready to play along.

Recent developments on the Bahraini crisis suggest that agreement on a political resolution, initiated by Washington and agreed to by Tehran, is gaining momentum. However, it appears that Saudi Arabia is not yet ready to sign on to the deal, encouraging elements in Manama over which it has sway to take a hard line against the nearly three-year uprising.

The details of the proposed six-point agreement were discussed in several meetings held in London in August attended by Crown Prince Salman bin Khalifa and the Secretary General of Wefaq Ali Salman, with American oversight. It would involve giving the Shia opposition a majority in parliament, which in turn would gradually be turned into a legislative, rather than simply an advisory, body.

The prime minister would still be appointed by the king, but must be approved by the legislature. And while the ruling family would retain sensitive ministerial posts such as finance, defense, interior, and foreign affairs in the government, the remaining portfolios would be given to the opposition. Finally, the regime would have to release all prisoners and facilitate the return of those employees laid off during the course of the uprising.

Today, there are three major currents in the Bahraini regime that are competing over what course to take in dealing the crisis: the Saudi-backed prime minister, Khalifa bin Khalifa, represents the hard-liners; the reform-minded crown prince favors a more conciliatory approach; King Hamad bin Khalifa plays the middle ground between the two.

The US plan was offered to the Iranians, who found it acceptable. It was not only that the Bahraini crisis was becoming a major burden on American interests in the region, but the Barack Obama administration was hoping to neutralize Iran’s involvement in Syria in return for resolving the interminable Bahraini conflict.

But when the strike against Syria did not materialize, the Americans were no longer as enthusiastic about pushing their proposal, because they would not receive anything in return from the Iranian side. This allowed those who have the most to lose from a political settlement, such as Saudi Arabia, to take an uncompromising stand and reinforce the hard-liners’ position in Manama, prompting them to unleash a major crackdown that has seen dozens of activists jailed under harsh sentences.

A meeting between the Bahraini and Iranian foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering in New York – in which Manama’s envoy asked the Iranians to return their ambassador to the kingdom – did not result in either side taking concrete steps. Today, progress in Bahrain remains hostage to developments in Syria and the power struggle underway in the region as a whole.


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