On December 28, 2013, Bahraini authorities crossed a political line observed even in the darkest days of martial law imposed in the months after the February 2011 uprising, arresting the head of the country's largest political society and face of the opposition movement, Sheikh Ali Salman, on charges of "incitement to religious hatred and spreading false news likely to harm national security." Long a target of critics inside and outside the government who claim his fiery sermons and speeches encourage the type of violent resistance tactics increasingly on display in Bahrain, nevertheless the Al-Wefaq secretary general had kept the dubious distinction of being the only major opposition leader not in prison.
His unexpected detention, then, and subsequent travel ban pending trial, seemed to announce a new stage in Bahrain's now three-year effort at snuffing out political activism, from which even mainstream figures -- those whom more radical elements would accuse of precisely the opposite crime of state co-optation -- would not be spared. Indeed, the regime appeared poised to make good on longstanding threats to extend to Al-Wefaq the fate of several other opposition societies: wholesale dissolution.
Thus, it was no small change in scenery when only three weeks later this alleged instigator of sectarian hatred and national security threat found himself not in an interrogation room, but in a palace diwan seated alongside Bahrain's next-in-line to the throne. The ruling family's main voice of moderation, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa had gathered senior leaders from across the political spectrum to discuss ways to salvage a stillborn "national dialogue" mercifully suspended a week earlier. After almost a year of biweekly meetings, participants in the farcical proceedings chaired by the justice minister had yet to agree even on the modalities of the process.
Far from distancing himself from the newly-indicted Shiite cleric, the crown prince instead made a show of his dramatic reach across the political aisle. In announcing the renewed effort at negotiation, his official Twitter account posted a photo from the session centered squarely on the two sheikhs. The message, to hardliners within the regime as much as to those in society, was a clear repudiation of, and even perhaps act of defiance against the state's current security-based strategy for dealing with ongoing protest. In a report released only a day before the meeting with the crown prince, Al-Wefaq documented 745 opposition arrests in December 2013 alone, including 31 cases involving children.
A joint statement by Al-Wefaq and four other opposition societies described the talks as "especially frank and very transparent." What is more, the very participation of the crown prince represented a major concession to the bloc, whose primary complaint with previous negotiations was the lack of high-level representation from the ruling family.
Beyond the encouraging words of participants, finally, the framework of the reinvigorated talks itself -- bilateral meetings rather than a cacophonous free-for-all -- should be more conducive to progress from the standpoint of both political societies and the government. The former can present coherent platforms rather than struggle to get in a word edgewise, while the state avoids the disconcerting scenario of holding serious three-way political negotiations with its Sunni and Shiite constituencies, which may find themselves in surprising agreement.
Yet, Sheikh Salman's initiative represents something more significant than a return to meaningful dialogue; with it, he has announced his long-awaited return to national relevance. It was, ironically, his last meeting with Ali Salman -- in March 2011 -- that proved the scene of his political undoing, as talks to reach a negotiated settlement to mass demonstrations collapsed in less than 24 hours, precipitating a frightening breakdown in law and order. By the next morning, several thousand ground troops had already crossed into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Salman was left to watch in embarrassment -- ridiculed now as the naïve prince ready to bargain away the country -- as security-minded royals orchestrated the sweeping crackdown and punitive campaign that followed.
Since that day, the crown prince has been relegated more or less to the political sidelines, forced to watch as his uncle and primary competitor Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa undertook a deliberate rollback of a decade worth of trademark economic reforms and institutions. Meanwhile, a new hardline faction based in the royal court and security-related ministries gained unprecedented influence. A gradual effort to re-empower Sheikh Salman, culminating in his appointment as first deputy prime minister in March 2013, has succeeded in re-institutionalizing his role in government; but no royal decree can win back the confidence of his fellow royals and, no less important, Bahraini citizens.
That Crown Prince Salman has chosen the present moment to restake his political claim owes less, perhaps, to his own rising stock than to a decided drop in that of his challengers. The prime minister, whose power derives from extensive clientelist networks established over his 44-year tenure, has been implicated most recently in a long-running bribery scandal at Aluminum Bahrain (Alba). The British Serious Fraud Office case ultimately collapsed when witnesses refused to give evidence, but not before the Bahraini government admitted in a letter by one of Sheikh Khalifa's deputies that payments made to Alba executives were done with the knowledge and approval of the prime minister. A separate suit involving U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa settled earlier in January similarly revealed "tens of millions in corrupt kickbacks to Bahraini government officials, including senior members of Bahrain's royal family."
At the same time, progress in addressing Western and Gulf Arab concerns over Iran's nuclear program has taken some wind out of the sails of al-Khalifa conservatives who have spent the past three years exploiting and even cultivating popular fears over Iranian influence in order to forestall real engagement with the Shiite-led opposition. Absent this sectarian veil, the longstanding demands of Al-Wefaq and its allies -- an empowered parliament, a more representative government, an end to unchecked naturalization of foreigners for service in the police and military, and serious anti-corruption efforts --appear not only reasonable, but indeed largely in line with the stated aims of nominally "pro-government" Sunni groups.
It is thus no coincidence that in his political comeback the crown prince has highlighted his professed distinction from this business-as-usual. A week after the collapse of Britain's Alba inquiry made headlines in Bahrain, Sheikh Salman referred to the public prosecutor numerous suspected cases of graft outlined in an annual -- though rarely acted-upon -- report by the National Audit Office. The suspects were even suspended from work pending trial. As coyly noted by one of the crown prince's advisors, "The unprecedented announcement could almost not have been better timed."
His action also comes amid growing public grumbling over an impending reduction in fuel and other subsidies as Bahrain struggles to balance its corruption-depleted budget. Having made his name in the 2000s as an economic modernizer, the re-emergence of more material concerns -- rather than a nebulous anxiety over "foreign interference" in the country's affairs -- bodes well for Sheikh Salman's chances to regain the support of ordinary citizens, if not that of business owners and their royal patrons.
The latter, of course, are likely to join their Iranophobic allies (and conceivably spoilers within the opposition) in attempting to derail the crown prince's effort, whether through appeals to public opinion or direct acts of sabotage. But, unusually for this part of the Arab world, economic conditions may for once work here in the favor of political reform. Asked to accept a painful cut in state benefits, Bahrainis of all political leanings might agree that it's about time for the ruling family to make concessions of its own.
Justin Gengler is a senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) of Qatar University.
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