The Royal’s New Rules: Backsliding in Bahrain

The Al Khalifas of Bahrain, the Sunni family which has lorded over the Shia-majority population since 1783, has a long history of thwarting revolutionary uprisings. They’ve recently added five new tactics to their repertoire.

The Al Khalifas of Bahrain, the Sunni family which has lorded over the Shia-majority population since 1783, has a long history of thwarting revolutionary uprisings. They’ve recently added five new tactics to their repertoire. My own experience with their new strategy happened on January 29, when I landed at the airport in Manama. Although wary of the fact that a number of journalists, NGOs, European MPs, and activists had been denied entry into Bahrain, I thought I was low profile enough to get in. Other than speaking about Bahrain at a few small academic conferences, I didn’t think I had done anything to earn a spot on anyone’s blacklist. And thanks to the glacially slow nature of academic publishing, my research on Bahrain had not yet appeared in print. I found it therefore all the more disconcerting when I was denied entry and instead put on a flight to Qatar for “security reasons.” When I attempted to protest the decision, telling them that I was allowed in during my last visit, I was simply told: “Everyone knows about your last trip.” While nation-states have the right to decide who may or may not cross their borders, the government of Bahrain has been systematically denying access to virtually any outside observers.

This policy of shutting out even potential critics points to one of the contradictory features of Al-Khalifa rule: the paradoxical co-existence of power and weakness. On the one hand the royal family is threatened by the most popularly supported uprising in the Arab Spring. But so far, the Al Khalifas have succeeded in keeping down what may be the best-organized opposition movement in the region. And it has powerful external backers including the United States and Saudi Arabia – and yet it is hard to avoid the impression that it also suffers from a massive insecurity complex if it thinks someone like myself is troublesome enough to keep out. Are the Al Khalifas secure in their thrones? Or are they counting their days in power?

When the youth of Bahrain declared they would march on the royal palace, Riyadh and Washington seem to have agreed things had gotten out of hand. But when Gulf Cooperation Council troops intervened in mid-March 2011, the revolutionary uprising did not end. It changed tack. Hence the un-success of Bahrain’s Arab Spring cannot be fully explained by the Saudi intervention and American appeasement alone. External powers have certainly played their part, but the Al Khalifas played their part as well.

The royal family recently initiated a new “dialogue” to create the impression that they are engaging the opposition and responding to their demands.  This is in part in response to U.S. officials who insist that the main problem in Bahrain is precisely the lack of such dialogue—rather than larger structural problems or power relations.

But after 20 hours of talks spread out over 5 sessions, the participants in the tripartite dialogue (the regime, the loyalists, and the opposition) have yet to agree on an agenda. While these talks about talk may be important, it is necessary to step back and consider how the Al Khalifas have empowered themselves and weakened the opposition through structural changes in the configuration of power. This means that any opposition movement – regardless of its tactics, ideology, or willingness to talk to the regime – is less likely to achieve a true democratic breakthrough than the opposition forces in the 1970s.

Bahrain has backslided. And it is not because the opposition is small or divided. It is rather, I argue, because the regime has maneuvered to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the current dialogue, the ruling family will continue to rule.

1. Paralyzing the parliament: After 27 years without a parliament (1975-2002), Bahrain’s Amir, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, decided it was time to overhaul the country’s image.  This was a contradictory two-pronged strategy which included holding parliamentary elections in 2002, but also re-naming himself King and his country a Kingdom. However, the current bicameral parliament is less democratic now than its unicameral predecessor in the 1970s. The appointed upper house known as the Shura Council effectively acts as a ‘safety valve’ for the regime, in case the elected lower house should show its teeth. Secondly, the parliament is consultative—not legislative. It has not drafted a single law in the past 10 years, because it is not allowed to do so, but can only draft proposals. Drafting laws is now the purview of the government.

2. Empowering the King: Under the previous constitution, the King (then still called the Amir) exercised power through his ministers.  Under the new constitution, the King exercises power both directly and through his ministers. In the 1970s, the ruler had to get the approval of parliament in order to declare a state of emergency. The new constitution has relieved him of that obligation.

3. Monopolizing the ministries:  Previously, the Council of Ministers, or cabinet, had been more or less evenly divided, with one-third from the ruling family, one-third Sunnis, and one-third Shias. Now, approximately half of the cabinet ministers are chosen from amongst the Al Khalifas. The most important portfolios, including the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior, and the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, are now all domains of the ruling family.

4. Disenfranchising the people: In many ways the majority Shia population is more disenfranchised than before. Knowing that their powerbase was tiny, the Al Khalifas began a program of “importing Sunnis” from neighboring countries in the 1990s who were given citizenship and then hired to work in the military and security forces, from which the Shias are still excluded. In the last two years, the discrimination of the Shias has become much broader and extends to areas where they were previously able to find employment. It has become common to ask job candidates about their religious affiliation.

5. Shutting out the world: Since the beginning of the 2011 uprising, the government began a policy of shutting out not only high-profile journalists or critics of the regime, but anyone who is under suspicion of even potentially raising a critical voice. Bahrain Watch has documented over 200 cases of individuals who were denied entry. Their website features an interactive timeline of the past two years and various reports, including one that describes my experience as a “particularly serious case.”

Of course, the regime’s counter-revolutionary strategy is more complex than this. The royals employ a variety of other tactics to maintain their hold on power, including: imprisoning opposition leaders, the use of torture, dispersal of protests, systematic tear gassing of Shia villages even when protests are not taking place, and the gerrymandering of electoral districts. And then there is Khalifa bin Sulman Al-Khalifa, the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world. He has been in office since the country gained independence in 1971 and heads the camp of hardliners within the family. But these are challenges that the opposition has had to deal with for many years. By contrast, the five issues discussed above have been highlighted because they represent relatively new tactics on the part of the regime. And because they have redefined the structures of power. These are, in short, the new rules of the game: the parliament is weaker, the King is stronger, the Shias are disenfranchised, the ministries have been monopolized by the ruling family, and outside observers are systematically shut out.

But still, the game is not over. During the nine hours at the Manama airport, before I was ‘deported,’ I tried multiple times to demand some explanation from the uniformed officials as to why I was denied entry. Their repertoire of answers ranged from “no” to “I don’t know”.  Finally, I changed the topic and asked why they had a picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser as their screensaver on their office computer.  With a barely detectable half-smile he said, “Nasser was a good leader.”

Amy Austin Holmes is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. She is the director of the 2012 film Imperial Outposts: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Presence in Turkey. She has contributed to Mobilization, the Baltimore Sun, and Ahram Online.