Journal Essay

Bahrain: A Very Complicated Little Island

Ronald E. Neumann

Winter 2013, Volume XX, Number 4

Ambassador Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, served as ambassador to Bahrain from 2001 to 2004. The following is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Foreign Policy on April 19, 2013.

Bahrain's troubles are getting worse. There is little visible sign on the ground of promised reforms. New and more violent opposition groups are appearing, one composed largely of Sunnis who oppose concessions to the Shia majority. Government repression is intensifying in reply to more lethal attacks. Bahrain seems stuck in a vicious circle. The government and royal family will not fall, but neither can they suppress the protests. Without reform, the economy stagnates. While Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) aid will keep it afloat, the violence prevents foreign investment, and the economy is unable to generate the jobs needed to offer young Bahrainis a better future. Massive mutual distrust between opposition and government, deepening communal divisions, and splits within both the royal family and the opposition that weaken leadership all combine to make compromise difficult. And, as has been true since protests first rocked Bahrain in 2011, the domestic opposition and international media will use the events to vilify the government and royal family. During my visit in March, I found a situation far more complex than the partisan portrayals.

Western media reporting on Bahrain has produced a one-dimensional version of a complex situation, with little attempt to probe the realistic policy choices that the United States faces in the region. It has characterized the situation as a Tunisia-like struggle of a people against a regime, a Shiite underclass versus a Sunni elite, with a focus on the abuse of civilians by government forces. To be clear, most of the opposition is Shiite, and there have been serious abuses. But the calls for reform that began in 2011 have a long history in Bahrain, and almost everything else over the past couple of years is as contested as it is complicated. Two disputes particularly undergird the current troubles because of the deep suspicions that they arouse: the Shia belief that King Hamid reneged on reforms promised in 2001, and the suspicion of Iran on the part of the royal family and the Sunnis, in general.

The Iranian problem is the older of the two. Iranian claims on Bahrain go back at least into the nineteenth century. During the rise and fall of various outside powers, rulers on each side of the Gulf were able at different times to collect religious taxes (zakat) from populations on the Arab side. With the entrance of the British East India Company into the Gulf in 1819-20 to suppress piracy, the British secured a dominant political role, and the territorial claims of Iran and the Gulf sheikdoms were essentially frozen.1

However, Iran maintained its claims to Bahrain and three Gulf islands into the twentieth century. When Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, the shah of Iran officially gave up his claim to Bahrain but took possession of two islands claimed by the newly formed United Arab Emirates. At the same time, Iran reached a territorial and resource-sharing agreement with the emirate of Sharjah over Abu Musa Island, but subsequently used its power to effectively dominate the island in a dispute that has continued to this day. 2 After the Iranian revolution, there were fears in Bahrain that Iran would again assert its claim. The discovery in 1981 of weapons smuggled into Bahrain, apparently by Iran to support a coup,3 reinforced the general Bahraini sense of a resurgent revolutionary Shia Iran bent on expansion.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were periodic eruptions of Shia protest, the setting off of small bombs (usually without loss of life) and demonstrations against the government of the emir, Sheikh Isa bin Salman. With considerable help from British advisers, the Bahraini government put down the demonstrations, and there were widespread allegations of torture.4 American diplomats of the period, including me,5 received repeated claims from Bahraini authorities of Iranian support for the various protest movements. These claims usually exceeded what we saw in American intelligence reporting; however, there were a number of factors that constantly underpinned Bahraini-government alarm.

One was Shia religious ties with Iran. Shia in Bahrain are divided in both origin and doctrinal practice. Some are Arabs long resident in Bahrain; some are of Iranian descent but resident for over 100 years; others arrived after the Iranian revolution. They follow different marja-e taqlids (religious guides).6 A significant percentage pay the Shia religious tax (khums) to the Iranian leaders, first Khomeini and later Khamenei. Bahraini Sunni authorities usually paid no attention to these distinctions.

Additionally, many Shia religious students traveled to Iran for religious instruction. A significant portion of Bahraini Shia followed Iraq-based marjas, so-called "quietists" who tended to stay out of politics, at least until the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, during the long and repressive Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, the Bahrainis found it unsafe to seek religious instruction in their traditional religious schools in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala. Hence Iran was the only destination available for students. This trend added to Bahraini-government suspicion.

Of course, the fact that until at least 2004 (during my period as U.S. ambassador) the Shia regularly carried pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei in their Ashura processions did nothing to persuade Bahraini authorities of their loyalty to Bahrain — and neither did their references to Khamenei during demonstrations in 2005.7 While most Western commentators focus on the fact that the current protesters carry Bahraini flags, others have not forgotten the long period of apparent symbolic allegiance to Iranian leaders. For Bahraini authorities, it has been and remains an absolute belief that "Iran pulls the strings." That this belief is self-serving does not render it less deeply believed, as conversations over many years have shown me.

When Emir Hamad bin Isa became ruler of Bahrain in 1999 upon the death of his father, he proclaimed many reforms. Prisoners were released. The 1974 decree of state security was abolished. Many exiled opposition politicians were allowed to return to Bahrain with full political rights.8 The emir proclaimed that a new constitution would be drafted, and a referendum to this end was passed overwhelmingly in 2001. In 2002, in keeping with the referendum, Emir Hamad became King Hamad, proclaiming that he was constructing a constitutional monarchy.9

The reforms eventually brought into place by the new constitution were real and extensive. Nevertheless, they fell short of Shia expectations, which included a unicameral parliament that they would dominate by their numbers. Instead they got a two-chamber parliament with an upper house appointed by the king and empowered to block legislation from the lower chamber. Serious gerrymandering of electoral districts with very uneven populations guaranteed that the Shia would not receive over 18 deputies in the 40-seat parliament. Shia disappointment led their new opposition party, al-Wefaq, to boycott the first parliamentary elections. However, independent Shia candidates not affiliated with al-Wefaq did run in 2002,10 sweeping the 18 Shia constituencies available to them in an election that appeared fair as far as the balloting was concerned.

Al-Wefaq entered the 200611 elections and rejected all the non-al-Wefaq deputies, replacing them with their own candidates. However, they were increasingly frustrated with their lack of power. This was seriously exacerbated by the elections of 2010, when there were widespread claims of ballot fraud.12 Thus, during the years from 2001 to 2011, the Shia opposition gradually lost hope for further reforms in the process that had begun with so much optimism in 2001.


Demonstrations began in Manama in February 2011. At first peaceful and cross-sectarian, the situation became progressively more violent and more complex. It has now resulted in a kind of stand-off, with violence slowly getting worse and the Shia-Sunni split deeper and more painful than ever before. Two simplified narratives have developed from these events. Neither is wholly true and, perhaps more important, neither holds a basis for solution.

The opposition narrative holds that the demonstrations were peaceful calls for reform; that the demonstrators are not representative of only one sect; that all they ask for is democracy; that they have been confronted with increasing violence, repression and human-rights abuses; that negotiations have been empty of content and that reforms promised by the king have not been delivered. According to this view, the issue is democracy and human rights; pressure needs to be put on the government to cease abuses and install democracy.

From the side of the government and royal family, the narrative is different. They emphasize that, after the initial confrontations, they released political prisoners, withdrew troops from the streets and offered far-reaching negotiations. In return, the opposition refused to negotiate without major concessions in advance — "surrender now and we'll negotiate the details" was the government's interpretation of the demand. Further, the demonstrators then proceeded to try to close down the financial district, Bahrain's economic hub, and moved toward Riffa, where much of the royal family resides. From this view, the opposition had thrown down the gauntlet and had to be met with force. Underlying all this is the alleged backing of Iran, which is seen as instigating a sectarian Shia opposition determined to overthrow the royal family and take power, to the detriment of the Sunni population.

Looking more closely at events reveals flaws in both narratives. The critical events of 2011 have been well covered elsewhere.13 My purpose here is only to note a few salient facts.

The early demonstrations at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama did include Sunnis and nonsectarian oppositionists and did call for reform.14 However, that is not the full story. Inspired by events in Tunisia, people of every type and sect took to the streets, well beyond the expectations of any of the organizing groups or parties.15 Even then, there were participants who called for the overthrow of the regime and the imposition of religious law, and invoked religious authorities.16 They were not by any account a majority of the early demonstrators, but they were present, certainly sending mixed messages to a fearful government.

As the demonstrations progressed, the Sunnis fell away and gradually gave rise to several Sunni opposition parties, both religious and relatively secular. These groups are difficult to characterize, partly because there has been little study of them. The government can be presumed to have played a role in turning out supporters. However, this is not the whole story. There has been a growing Salafi movement in Bahrain, only a tiny fraction of which is politically extremist. Nevertheless, in 2003 and 2004, the burgeoning Sunni extremism was an issue that I raised with senior royal and government officials. They tended to downplay it, as they were more worried about Shia issues.

By 2008, when I returned for a visit, I was surprised by the extent to which senior Bahraini intelligence officials were concerned about Sunni extremists and their links to terrorist movements. This, of course, was a period when the Shia were largely quiescent, and al-Wefaq was still in parliament. I note this bit of personal history simply to record that there has been for some time a growing Sunni opposition outside of Bahraini government control or auspices. This small tendency seems to have grown and allied itself with non-extremist Sunni oppositionists in reaction to the demonstrations. The new movement is reasonably large, but it is composed of a number of groups and is difficult to classify.17 One of its demonstrations involved between 120,000 and 400,000 supporters,18 a point largely unreported in the Western press. While this movement is on the government's side in refusing concessions, it may, as some have reported, be more hard-line than at least some within the government and royal family. Thus, while the government almost certainly had a hand in its development, in my judgment the Sunni opposition cannot be fully controlled by the government. The seeds of even greater sectarian strife are present, although they have not ripened into the violent confrontations of Iraq or Syria.


The call for democracy in the Bahraini context is anything but simple. Whether the Shia number 70 percent of the population, as they claim, or a smaller figure, as others assert, they are almost certainly a majority.19 This poses two complications regarding a simple call for "democracy." First, when people vote as a community, an elected majority becomes a function of community size. This is very different from a flexible system in which losers in one election believe they have a chance to become winners at another time. If the tyranny of a minority is (rightly) seen as wrong by the majority, absolute control by the majority is equally seen as wrong by the minority. That is the basis for many checks and balances in our own constitutional system and the reason protection of minority rights is such a strong feature of Western democracy. There is currently little appetite for or belief in the effectiveness of such a balancing mechanism in Bahraini politics. For Sunnis and the royal family, the call for democracy is viewed as a pretext for Shia domination.

The second problem is that the domination of the Shia community by religiously based parties leaves little apparent space for the representation of minority views, even within the Shia community. When al-Wefaq joined the second parliament, it refused to support any of the often more liberal or secular Shia deputies who had won seats in the first parliament, which al-Wefaq boycotted. The appointed upper house includes technocrats as well as women and Jews. It is difficult to believe that any of these groups would be represented in a parliament elected along strictly majoritarian lines. Obviously, there are numerous ways to build minority representation and protections into a future constitutional system. Unfortunately, none of them are being seriously discussed at the moment.

The different narratives of the recent past are particularly evident in the discussion of the brief period in which real negotiations were, or appeared to be, offered. On March 12, 2011, Crown Prince Salman called for negotiations that would include discussion based on seven principles:

• A parliament should be fully empowered.
• A government should represent the will of the people.
• Voting districts should be fair.
• Nationalization policies should be discussed (referring to nationalizing Sunnis).
• Government and financial corruption should be combated.
• National assets should be protected (referring to the taking of public land, particularly beaches, for private use).
• Sectarian tensions should be addressed.20

A memorandum given to the opposition that evening included an additional offer: an agreement on amending the constitution would be put to a referendum, as would ideas that did not secure consensus during negotiations.21 Throughout the following day, March 13, violence worsened throughout Bahrain. Individuals were attacked; people armed with swords and iron bars were reported in the streets; and a wide variety of clashes occurred in many parts of the island. That evening in separate meetings, both the religious leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, and the al-Wefaq leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, rejected the proposed dialogue and called for the election of a new constitutional assembly. Their decisions appear to have reflected both an exaggerated belief in the opposition's strength and fears that compromise would not be accepted by their own supporters — particularly the youth, who formed the backbone of the street protests and were enflamed by their losses.

Demonstrations continued on the following day, March 14, including armed attacks on unarmed police posts. For the government, the combination of increasingly violent demonstrations and the rejection of dialogue was tantamount to a demand for surrender first and negotiation of details later. That evening, Saudi National Guard forces crossed into Bahrain; on the morning of March 15, King Hamad decreed a state of emergency.22 The reimposition of forcible repression quickly followed and has continued. Many Shia politicians have concluded that the rejection of negotiations in those crucial March days was a mistake, a considerable overestimation of their power. Nevertheless, there is also a strong belief that the negotiation offers were never serious, but simply a continuation of the empty promises of the initial constitutional referendum. From the other side, there is a comparably strong view that the opposition was never serious about reform; that it was only a pretext for domination. The truth of either narrative is less important than the strength with which it is believed by its partisans.


As the crisis has gone on, both the government/royal family and the opposition have suffered from divisions in their ranks. The result has been an added measure of inflexibility in decision making and compromise.

Although the divisions within the royal family are analyzed and discussed by outsiders, it should be noted that, as the family has remained fairly close-mouthed, most analysis is indirect. The minister of defense, Field Marshal Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa; the minister of the royal court, his brother Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa;23 and the longtime prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, are generally regarded as the least inclined to compromise and the most certain of Shia perfidy. Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamid bin Isa Al Khalifa is pictured as the leader of the "reformer" wing in the family.

While there is probably a good deal of truth to the characterization of who is more likely to compromise, this depiction has over-simplified the picture. In fact, a power struggle between the crown prince and his uncle, the prime minister, preceded the demonstrations and has become intertwined with the debate over how to resolve them. In these earlier rounds of behind-the-scenes politics, the crown prince first lost a struggle for increased power in the cabinet reshuffle after the first parliamentary election. He then gained great power over economic decision making and now has lost much of that power back to his uncle. The crown prince's most recent appointment as first deputy prime minister may somewhat amend the balance, although this remains speculative and without support from any policy changes to date. Prince Salman's June 2013 visit to Washington seemed to repeat a pattern in which the family sends forth its reformers to tell Westerners what they want to hear, but then ignores whatever messages the reformers bring back. All that said, outsiders do not know how the internal power struggles affect the government's responses to the opposition; most analysis of it is extremely conjectural.

The divisions among the Shia are more numerous and somewhat clearer. The al-Wefaq party is the largest group and is often assumed to be speaking for the whole. This is convenient, as the party has an avowed bias toward democracy. However, al-Wefaq also tends to follow the fiery 75-year-old Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who has resisted many proposals to settle the crisis. His influence is almost certainly larger, especially with the youth aligned with al-Wefaq, than that of the party's own political leaders. Smaller parties — the National Democratic Action Society, the National Democratic Assembly, the Democratic Progressive Tribune and Al-Ekhaa — are all allied with al-Wefaq.

Other parties are more radical, and the splits may be deepening. Al-Haq (Movement of Freedom and Democracy) is outlawed because of its calls for outright regime change.24 However, its leaders, Abduljalil al-Singace and Hassan Mushaima, are strong figures with much apparent popular support. Both have been imprisoned since the February 2011 uprising.25 The Bahrain Islamic Action Society, a small Shiite faction, is also outlawed. It is a successor to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, widely held to be allied with Iran and involved with the earlier coup attempt.26

Another Shiite group, Amal, is known as the "Shirazi faction" for its ties to radical Shiite clerics in Iran who are linked to Ayatollah Shirazi. Amal's leader, Shaykh Muhammad Ali al-Mafoodh, has been in prison since 2011, and Amal was outlawed in 2012 in what the Bahrain Center for Human Rights called a "kangaroo court."27 Notwithstanding the imprisonment of these leaders and the suppression of their movements, the parties continue to draw support. Al-Wefaq cannot make deals without negotiations with its allied parties and consideration of the positions of these more disparate groups that compete with it for political influence in the Shia community.

As the protests continue, more violent groups are emerging. A group calling itself the al-Ashtar Brigades claimed responsibility for a bomb that destroyed a vehicle on July 17, 2013. Since the end of 2011, the February 14 group has used progressively more violent tactics although its lethality is still very limited and its explosives unsophisticated. Both al-Ashtar and the February 14 movement share the goal of ending the monarchy of King Hamad. Both groups look for inspiration to Sheikh Isa Qassim, but the February 14 movement does not claim to act in the name of religion, whereas the al-Ashtar Brigades invoke Quranic passages regularly.28 The mix of groups with different aims that venerate Sheikh Isa Qassim underscores both his influence and the questions raised by others as to where he stands on many issues and whether he would ultimately be a force for compromise.

There are disputes over whether the government was sincere in offering negotiations led by Crown Prince Salman. Did the opposition miss its best opportunity by rejecting talks and demanding that the government make extensive advance concessions? Or were the negotiations a government ploy to justify forcible suppression? The government's narrative notes that it released prisoners, allowed exiles to return, and withdrew its forces from the streets until the demonstrators increased the violence and tried to close down central areas of Manama. The opposition cites deaths of protesters, claims it wants only democratic reform, and says that human-rights violations continue in nightly raids on Shiite villages.


Bahrain differs markedly from other "Arab Spring" countries despite superficial similarities. First, the divide in Bahrain is between the Sunni and Shiite communities, not between the people and the government. There is now a large Sunni movement that styles itself as an opposition but is almost completely ignored in Western reporting. Some of its members want political reform; many are adamantly anti-Shiite and opposed to concessions. This movement's most distinguishing feature is that it exerts pressure on the king and government not to yield to Shiite dominance.

Bahrain's government also has advantages that the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya did not. The support of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, gives Bahrain's government the financial and military depth to resist pressure. Indeed, Bahrain's economic ratings have remained within investment grades; one economic rating service recently raised them.29 Many in the Bahraini Army are from Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen. They are not likely to develop sympathies with the protesters. And Bahrain is a small area (760 square kilometers, or about three-and-a-half times the size of the District of Columbia) where insurgency or lengthy protests are relatively easy for the government to control.

So revolution is not coming to Bahrain. Yet the government cannot regain calm or stability without reform. But what does reform mean, and how hard should the United States press the government to change?

In Manama, there is a mix of fear and anger on all sides. Bahrain stood with the United States in several difficult wars and was praised by Washington for years; it has been a loyal ally and the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Thus, it is not particularly surprising that the Al Khalifa regime cannot understand the criticism it now receives, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement that Bahrain is "on the wrong track." Indeed, the government's killing of protesters and the continued mistreatment of prisoners horrified U.S. officials. But Bahraini resentment may partially be due to the fact that they see old friends in Washington now turning on them — at a time when officials in Manama believe deeply that Iran is calling the shots for the opposition. Outsiders, however, do not see evidence of this. Iran might well meddle if it could, but the opposition appears homegrown.

Even more serious than the threat from Iran is the Bahraini government's fear that, though the Shiites are calling for democracy, they would really put in place a theocracy led by Sheikh Isa Qassim. The country's leading Shiite cleric clearly has great power and very strong influence with the opposition in the street. He is credited with calling for the March 9, 2012, demonstration, estimated at 100,000 protesters.30 Could Sheikh Isa Qassim really turn off the violence with a word, as the government and royal family believe? It is hard to know. Would democracy actually turn out to be a theocracy? Again, hard to know, but the ascendant Islamist movements throughout the Middle East reinforce the royal family's deep concerns.

Bahrain's rulers look also at Shiite predominance in Iraq and see Sunni parties forced aside while Iranian influence grows. They also see Hezbollah's and Iran's support for the Syrian regime as proof of religious domination by Shia oppositionists. Many Sunnis, not just the royal family, find nothing in the Iraqi or Syrian experience they would want replicated in Bahrain.

Good liberal Westerners are inclined to say, if radical parties come to power, that is the price of democracy. But as we look at the rise of Islamism throughout the Middle East, it is not yet clear that Islamist regimes will yield power democratically or allow the inclusion of non-Islamist parties once installed. This does not mean the United States should give up its long-term faith in democracy. It is, however, at least useful to recognize that some of our belief is built on a universal humanistic ideology that clearly remains unproven in the Middle East. This might make us more tolerant of the concerns of those who will have to live under the resulting experiment.

The fear of Shia extremism is very real. As one fairly moderate member of the Sunni opposition said to me in March, "I want reform [of the monarchy] and more democracy, but not at the price of having an Iranian-type government. I would rather have a dictatorship." Yet the royal family and the government have a major credibility problem. In a widely praised action, King Hamad called for an investigation of the demonstrations. This probe, led by the internationally respected Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, produced a lengthy and detailed report.31 It documented extensive violations of human rights by the security forces and a much lower but still significant number by the demonstrators. It found no explicit evidence of Iranian support or instigation.

King Hamad publicly accepted the report, put in place a commission to evaluate the recommendations and eventually announced a series of reforms. The problem is that outside observers and opposition figures simply do not see the reforms taking place.32 Reports of torture and beatings continue. Trial results appear to many to be based on highly questionable evidence, and allegations of pretrial torture continue. A code of police procedure and oversight measures introduced by foreign advisers are reportedly now being circumvented by beatings that take place at informal holding stations before prisoners are entered into the formal detention system.33

The Bahraini government continues to insist that reforms take time. Yet, while it is correct that some reforms — like training judges and reforming the judicial system — do not happen overnight, the government's pleas for more time cannot be taken at face value. The behavior of Bahrain's police, in particular, needs to change now. The result is to pose two questions: Are the reforms not implemented because the king does not want them implemented? Or does he lack the necessary control to enforce his orders? Neither answer enhances royal credibility. The result is to foment Shia anger and suspicion and subvert the minimal trust essential for a negotiated solution.

I was able to speak to a small number of figures in the Shiite opposition during my March 2013 visit to Bahrain. This is a limited sample, but it included a representative from al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party in the then ongoing (now suspended) national dialogue that was supposed to formulate consensus recommendations to the king, though none have yet been agreed upon. Al-Wefaq's suspicions of the royal family's intentions are as strong as its opponents' suspicions of the party. The al-Wefaq representative insisted his party is not seeking overthrow of the monarchy and laid out reasonable steps for reform of parliament and elections. However, the devil is in the details.

The predominantly Shiite opposition is concerned that recommendations from the dialogue will vanish into limbo after being sent to the king, or that, like the earlier referendum, they will be enacted in such truncated form as to be meaningless. The opposition insists on endless procedural guarantees, such as the promise of a referendum on whatever is agreed to and having a representative of the royal family present in the dialogue. The royals won't do this, saying that the king is "not a party to the negotiations" but stands above them. It is a delicate point. On the one hand, the opposition knows that the royal family is clearly a player and that no real reform will happen without the king's consent. On the other hand, publicly putting the royal family on a par with the opposition would be deeply insulting to the royals and might, in the zero-sum politics of Bahrain, look like political weakness and increase opposition strength. The demand that a high-ranking royal be present in the negotiations is not likely to be met. Increased arrests also inflamed the disagreements. After the government arrested al-Wefaq's deputy leader, Khalil al-Marzoon, on September 17, 2013, al-Wefaq suspended its participation in the dialogue. Bahraini officials in early October announced that dialogue would stop for the Hajj period and would recommence on October 30, but there is no sign as of this writing that al-Wefaq will rejoin. As time passes, the hope for compromise dims.34

It is a symptom of the opposition's distrust of the government that it demands more and more guarantees, but this is a dangerous tactic. The opposition already lost a significant opportunity for serious negotiations by demanding concessions before beginning negotiations in 2011. Its demands to be reassured before talking substance may backfire again.

The Saudi position has become increasingly important, as the House of Saud is a major financial supporter of the Bahraini government. Some knowledgeable observers with whom I spoke think the Saudis are not as hard-line in their support of the government as is often said. Some think the Saudis would even support concessions, so long as the royal family stayed solidly in power. While this has yet to be tested, I was told by credible observers that even al-Wefaq thinks there may be some benefit in directly involving the Saudis in a mediating role.

Though the ingredients for a grand compromise may be present, however, the parties simply cannot agree on a serious vision for moving forward. The bottom line is this: The government cannot make the Shiite opposition accept purely symbolic gestures of reform, but the opposition lacks the power to compel a one-person, one-vote democracy that could lead to the permanent subordination of the Sunni community — not to mention the royal family. The distrust is so high that each faction suspects the other of harboring maximalist goals.


Meanwhile, the violence and repression are getting worse and further enflaming each side. A July 17 vehicle bombing in the exclusive Sunni neighborhood of Riffa was blamed on the al-Ashtar radical opposition group,35 although oppositionists also claimed it was staged by the government.36 This followed attacks on the police in a Shia village that left one officer dead and three others injured,37 and another attack on the home of a member of parliament.38 The government is moving forward with new restrictions.39 Fifty Shiites have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years.40 Al-Wefaq's deputy leader was arrested under charges that many find questionable.41

On the other side, and in emulation of the so-called Tamarod (Rebellion) campaign that opposed the military in Egypt, Bahraini oppositionists launched their own Tamarod campaign calling for the overthrow of the al-Khalifa. Their August 14 demonstrations fizzled42 but probably intensified the government's determination to increase the repression. The result was new decrees in late July, issued with the strong support of the Parliament from which al Wefaq had withdrawn, imposing new penalties for "terror instigators," including the revocation of citizenship.43 Further, the Justice Ministry banned political societies from meeting foreign diplomats, government representatives or foreign organizations without permission. The cycle of opposition fragmentation, government repression, and opposition violence goes on. No one with the power to settle matters appears to have a vision of how to get out of the mess.


The United States, with its interests in both stability and democracy, should be positioned to help break this deadlock, but resentment toward Washington runs high on both sides of Bahrain's political divide. Opposition leaders fault America for not supporting democratic principles. They focus on the single dynamic of human-rights violations, insisting that America is a hypocrite if it does not stand for democracy above all else.

The government and royal family, meanwhile, say that U.S. pressure on them is influencing the opposition to inflate its demands. They look at U.S. calls for reform through the lens of Washington's abandonment of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and fear that reform will only whet the opposition's appetite for more change. This view of U.S. partiality is nurtured both by some U.S. actions, such as President Obama's mentioning al-Wefaq by name in one speech (thereby creating an impression of partisanship) and by a nearly complete lack of clarity about the preferred U.S. endgame in Bahrain. Things have reached such a pass that President Obama's rather mild criticism of Bahrain at the UN General Assembly as having "sectarian tensions" was met with furious Bahraini rebuttals.44

The truth is that the United States would have a difficult time using its leverage over the royal family under the best of circumstances. Some Americans see removing the naval base or threatening to do so as useful pressure, while others call for at least studying where it might go.45 Yet with the GCC states rallying strongly in support of the Al Khalifa, it seems probable that no Gulf state would help the United States pressure Bahrain by offering the U.S. Navy an alternative home in the Gulf. This would be true, even if the United States were able to afford to replicate the billions of dollars already invested in the base or do without such assets as minesweepers positioned inside the Gulf for future contingencies.46 Loss of the base would be serious, if not catastrophic, should there be a future confrontation with Iran. Yet even the removal of the U.S. naval base in Bahrain could not persuade the Bahraini government to take actions it deems suicidal. Further, there are major U.S. interests at stake in America's relationship with Bahrain, which has stood with the United States in three wars and plays a key role in U.S. military efforts to maintain the free flow of oil in the Persian Gulf. The oil flow is vital to America's economic health, a legitimate major U.S. national interest. In short, the relationship between the United States and Bahrain is one of mutual advantage that is difficult to turn into pressure. Yet stability is also a U.S. interest, and that calls out for our involvement.


A solution must be found in significant, but still partial, reforms. The Shiite majority must have more access to real power in political representation, in the drafting of laws and in economic opportunity. Yet, because the communal frictions are so sharp, power should not be allocated only on the basis of one person, one vote. A pragmatic approach of balancing interests with checks on them has proved essential in U.S. history. An absolute insistence on the purity of popular representation in drafting our constitution would have precluded the fundamental compromise that led to the creation of the U.S. Senate, where disproportionate weight is given to smaller states. In the Bahraini case, deriving a system of balances without perpetual deadlock will be difficult. The Al Khalifa family may not be neutral, but a strong royal role remains essential for balance, both to win Saudi support and to prevent extremists on both sides from plunging the country into far greater violence.

How hard should the United States push for a grand compromise in Bahrain? If Washington exerts no pressure, the hard-liners within the government and royal family will be able to block any real reform. But if Washington puts too much pressure on the royals, they will conclude that it seeks their overthrow, and America will get nothing. Above all, the United States needs clarity about how much reform it actually wants. Only then can Washington hope to give clear signals to the government in Manama and consult effectively about a compromise with important regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Whether there remains space for compromise of any sort in Bahrain is open to question. The political culture, as in many countries without a democratic tradition, is a zero-sum game; compromise is seen as weakness rather than a route to political solutions. It would be at least as difficult for Shia leaders to sell their constituents on accepting — and, more important, maintaining — a compromise solution as it would be for the royal family and government to overcome their internal suspicions and fears and cede some space to their opponents. Yet without a solution, there will be only losers. And the losers will include the United States, for real U.S. interests in Bahrain are harmed by the lack of stability. It is this fact — not who holds the high ground of moral authority — that requires America to press all sides for progress and reform and to include a parallel discussion with Saudi Arabia. But Washington must do so in such a way that all parties understand what it is asking for and how high the stakes are. Whether the United States can carry out such a policy — and whether it would work — are very open questions. Yet since our current policies and lack of attention (due to the many other crises in the region) are leading nowhere, it would be worth trying.


1 "Britain's Informal Empire in the Gulf, 1820–1971," Journal of Social Affairs (American University of Sharjah) 22, no. 87 (2005): 29-45; John Duke Anthony, Arab States of the Lower Gulf; People, Politics, Petroleum (Middle East Institute, 1975); and Rohollah K. Ramazani, The Persian Gulf: Iran's Role (University of Virginia Press, 1972).

2 Ibid.

3 Hasan Tariq Alhasan, "The Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981: The IFLB in Bahrain," Middle East Journal 64, no.4 (Autumn 2011): 603-17.

4 Ian Henderson, Daily Telegraph, August 4, 2013; Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shia; The Forgotten Muslims (St. Martin's Press, 1999), 143-144; and Robert Fisk, "Briton at the Heart of Bahrain's Brutality rule," Independent, February 18, 1996.

5 I was a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Peninsula (1997-2000) and ambassador to Bahrain (2001-04).

6 Fuller and Francke, Chapter 6; Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival; How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (Norton, 2007).

7 Nasr, Shia Revival, 235.

8 "Bahrain: Promising Human Rights Must Continue," Amnesty International, March 13, 2001, AI Index MDE 11/005/2001.

9 "Bahrain Profile," BBC News, April 20, 2013.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 "Shia Group Holds Strong Position in Bahrain Elections," BBC News, October 24, 2010. 

13 See particularly Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn't (Stanford University Press, 2013); Jane Kinninmont, "Bahrain Beyond the Impasse," Chatham House (June 2012); and Kristin Smith Diwan, "Bahrain Shia Question: What the United States Gets Wrong about Sectarianism," Foreign Policy, March 2, 2011. The most detailed account is in Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni et al., Report of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), November 23, 2011.

14 Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf, 13ff.

15 See Kinninmont, "Bahrain Beyond the Impasse," 3, and Bassiouni, BICI, 95, on the variety of views being expressed.

16 Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf, 48.

17 Kinninmont, "Bahrain beyond the Impasse," 17.

18 Bassiouni, BICI, 96.

19 There are no census figures that distinguish sectarian affiliation. All claims, no matter how frequently bandied about in the press, need to be seen as guesses at best and partisan at worst. My only firm conclusion from my own time in Bahrain was that if all the claims of both communities were correct, the island had to have at least twice as many people in the population as anyone knew about.

20 Kinninmont, "Bahrain Beyond the Impasse," 5; BICI, 134.

21 Bassiouni, BICI, 136.

22 Bassiouni, BICI, 123-149.

23 The two brothers are known as "khawalids" — they hail from a branch of the Al Khalifa family that is traced to an ancestor Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa (Khawalid is the Arabic plural of Khalid). See Charles Levinson, "A Palace Rift in Persian Gulf Bedevils Key U.S. Navy Base." Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2013, and Kenneth Katzman, "Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy" (Congressional Research Service, July 16, 2013).

24 On March 7, 2011, Haq, Wafa'a, and the Free Bahraini Movement called for toppling the monarchy and establishing a republic: Bassiouni, BICI, 115.

25 New School for Social Research, Center for Public Scholarship, "Dr. ‘Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace," last modified December 17, 2012,

26 "Bahrain Profile," BBC, April 20, 2013; and Hasan Tariq Alhasan, "Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981."

27 Bahrain Center for Human Rights, "Report: Amal, First Political Party in Bahrain and the Region under Kangaroo Military Trials," November 29, 2011; and Andrew Hammond, "Bahrain Closes Islamist Party, Cites ‘Violent' Cleric," Reuters, July 10, 2012.

28 "In Bahrain, Opposition Groups Become More Radical," Stratfor Global Intelligence, July 19, 2013.

29 Kristin Jones, "Fitch Ratings Affirmed Bahrain's Rating, Noting Growth and Political Efforts," Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2013.

30 "Bahrain's Shias Demand Reform at Mass Rally," al Jazeera, March 10, 2012.

31 Bassiouni, BICI.

32 International Crisis Group, "Conflict Risk Alert: Bahrain," April 16, 2012. See also Sarah Margon and Mary Laurie, "Ignoring Bahrain's Iron Fist," Foreign Policy, October 15, 2013.

33 There is a steady flow of reports on this point from Amnesty International and Freedom House. A few recent ones from Amnesty include "Bahrain: Appeal for Action Update: Prosecution of 20 Health Workers," July 29, 2013; "Bahrain: Further Information: Bahraini Prisoner Denied Medical Attention," July 29, 2013; "Bahrain, Still No Justice for Torture," July 25, 2013; as well as "Bahrain Government's Endorsement of Defamation Law Flouts Reform Claims," Freedom House, April 16, 2013. See also Brenda Bowser-Soder, "One Year after Bassiouni, U.S. Should Chart New Course in Bahrain," Human Rights First, November 21, 2012; and Rebecca Lowe, "Bahrain: A year after Bassiouni Report Protests Continue and West Stays Silent," International Bar Association, November 3, 2012.

34 Mansoor al-Jamri's Facebook page, "Bahrain: Political ‘Cul-de-sac' under the Mercy of Bigger Regional Events," of October 13, 2013.

35 "In Bahrain Opposition Groups Become More Radical," Stratfor Global Intelligence, July 19, 2013.

36 "Al Khalifa behind Bomb Attack in Riffa: Bahraini Activist," Press TV, July 20, 2013,

37 "Bahrain police attacked in Sitra and Janabiya," BBC World News, July 9, 2013.

38 "Bahraini MP's House Attacked with Petrol Bombs: State Agency," Reuters, July 15, 2013.

39 Human Rights Watch, "Bahrain: Parliament Moves to Curtail Basic Rights," August 1, 2013.

40 Margon and Laurie; also Amnesty International, Bahrain: 50 Shia Activists Sentenced amid Torture Allegations, September 30, 2013.

41 Margon and Lauri.

42 Kristin Diwan, Bahrain in Egypt's Shadow, MENA Source, The Atlantic Council, September 27, 2013.

43 Diwan, op cit.

44 Obama UN speech transcript, Politico,; and Yara Bayoumi, "Bahrain Stung by Obama Comment on Sectarian Tension," Reuters, Sept. 26, 2013.

45 Hendrick Simoes, "Senator Seeking Contingency Plan for Bahrain Base," Stars and Stripes, August 1, 2013.

46 Clearing Iranian mines was a major problem during the 1987 U.S. confrontation with Iran during the so-called "tanker war," when the U.S. Navy escorted Kuwaiti-owned oil tankers. Mine sweepers are shallow draft vessels that are not designed for open oceans. The fighting ended before the United States was even able to deploy minesweepers to the Gulf. Ever since, it has permanently based minesweepers in Bahrain. I watched these developments as deputy chief of mission in Abu Dhabi during the tanker war and in subsequent positions at the State Department and in Manama.