Two and a half weeks after government representatives announced the failure of the third attempt at a National Dialogue in Bahrain, Fadhil Abbas Muslim’s parents received word that their son was dead. He was shot with live ammunition by security forces while being arrested on January 8, 2014.
Bahrain’s iteration of the Arab Spring came to life in February 2011 when more than 200,000 protesters particpated in mass demonstrations against corruption, oppression, and the lack of government representation. In response, the Bahrain government dispatched security forces to quell protests, leading to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and dozens of deaths. As the situation escalated, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces entered the country at the request of the Bahraini government to assist in the crackdown. Laborers, athletes, and educators were fired from their jobs for peacefully expressing the most basic of human rights, while for discussing the horrific injuries sustained by the wounded protesters they had treated.
In the three years since the uprising began, the world has watched as the Bahraini government, led by members of the ruling al-Khalifa family, promised reform, compromise, and dialogue to heal the wounded nation. The regime created an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of abuse, embarked upon three unsuccessful National Dialogues with opposition groups, and vowed to implement the 158 recommendations for reform Bahrain accepted from the review of its human rights record through the United Nations Universal Periodic Review process.
Yet the situation on the ground has deteriorated considerably since 2011 and the concerns initially raised by protesters have yet to be addressed. The ruling family continues to enjoy impunity while human rights activists face ongoing harassment. An increase in convictions based on politically motivated charges has led to the imprisonment of more than 3,000 political activists. Members of the security forces found guilty of crimes, such as torturing prisoners to death, receive sentences that are either reduced or overturned, while protestors continue to endure harsh crackdowns that often result in significant injuries or even death.
Last month, in an unexpected move, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa sat down with leaders from five main opposition organizations to discuss necessary steps toward engaging in a “serious dialogue.” The January 15 meeting marked the first time high-level representatives of either side had met since the uprising began. It was hailed as a positive first step toward creating a new political framework for conducting meaningful dialogue to bring an end to unrest in Bahrain.
The meeting’s significance rests not only in the fact that high-level officials from both sides met, but also in the participation of the Crown Prince and Foreign Minister.
The Crown Prince, long considered a moderate and reformer by the West, was the first within the Bahrain government to publicly call for dialogue when the 2011 uprising began. Prior to the meeting on January 15, the Crown Prince’s efforts to begin a dialogue were disregarded by hardliners in the ruling family who favored continuing the violent crackdown.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled is a staunch supporter of the hardliner Khawalids, a faction of the ruling family fervently opposed to negotiations that could end the political gridlock. Hardliners have been accused of conducting targeted defamation campaigns aimed at delegitimizing the opposition and protest movement, in an effort to detract from international criticism of government policies. Within Bahrain’s ruling family, the domination of hardliners is one of the biggest threats to the success of the national dialogue. Divisions within the ruling family are complicated by the relationship between these hardliners and their benefactors in the Saudi government, hindering any attempts for reform.
As the Bahraini government continues to restrict basic human rights and illegally detain U.N.-recognized prisoners of conscience, it is not only the government’s reputation and credibility that is damaged, but also that of the international community that remains silent about such egregious abuses. This includes the United States, which has a vested interest in seeing a solution to the deteriorating social and political situation in Bahrain materialize.
In the absence of serious reforms, Bahrain faces increased polarization between the opposition and the government. This will further empower hardliners in the regime to increase their already existing public accusations against the United States of conspiring against the Bahraini regime. An increase in the hardliners’ power will severely threaten the Crown Prince’s political clout, as it did in 2011, and prolong systematic rights abuses currently occurring in the country. As the political space for the United States to support meaningful reforms and basic human rights grows narrower, so too does the U.S. government’s diplomatic influence in the region. Nothing exemplifies this more than the open attacks by members of parliament against the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski and the failure of the Bahraini government to condemn such attacks.
A long-time strategic ally, the United States maintains a heavy presence in Bahrain, which is home to both the U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet and Central Command. Although it may be tempting to focus on more pressing national security concerns in the region, such as Egypt or Syria, lack of reform in Bahrain poses serious challenges to the United States. The continuing low public opinion about the United States in the region threatens U.S. national security, foreign policy interests, and the economic investment it has made in Bahrain and in the region.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet has long maintained its headquarters in Bahrain despite the instability plaguing the country. The United States has invested more than $240 million over the past ten years to maintain a significant presence in the Gulf, a sum that will greatly increase in the near future with the announcement that the Fifth Fleet will be expanded. To make good on those investments, the United States should send a clear and consistent message to the government of Bahrain that continued unrest is not in either nation’s best interest.
Though the United States has many blights on its human rights record, there is a reason why it is looked to as a leader and force in the region. The United States can play a positive role in Bahrain by encouraging the government to address the underlying structural issues that exacerbate sectarian tensions, such as employment discrimination. It can also prioritize human rights and democracy promotion funding for the country, and at the same time, place holds on security assistance to ensure that the U.S. government is not enabling further human rights abuses. The U.S. must call on the Government of Bahrain to unconditionally release all political prisoners, with the understanding that such a step is critical to ensuring the success of any national dialogue.
There is no denying that an effective and transparent national dialogue is critical to healing the mistrust that has perpetuated the political deadlock in Bahrain three years after protests began. The United States has a role to play in the success of this dialogue. The of death of activists and protestors, like Fadhil Abbas Muslim, must stop; injustices toward courageous human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab must end; and the sectarian smokescreen created by the regime must be challenged. Through its policy toward Bahrain, the United States has a unique opportunity to change its role in the region and ensure its own interests and investments are not damaged. If the status quo is left unchanged, it will be difficult for the parties involved to avoid the perilous situation that will result from the failure of dialogue.