The fasting month of Ramadan, which will start around July 20th, provides an ideal opportunity for representatives from the government and opposition groups to engage in prolonged discussions over outstanding challenges and opportunities. There is much at stake; therefore, this new chance should not be missed.
Happily, prospects for a negotiated settlement of the political crisis in Bahrain have continued to steadily improve over the last few months, however slowly. The newfound push is a result of a combination of internal and external factors. Positive internal elements, which are the most significant, have been positions undertaken by the authorities, advising willingness to engage with their adversaries.
To review, the crisis in Bahrain dates back to February 2011 when tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets demanding for socio-political reforms. A dialogue involving Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and opposition groups was short lived when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia entered the country, favoring a security solution with all its consequences.
Nevertheless, abundant evidence points to restructuring of the environment for possible face to face talks between officials and opposition leaders. For instance, the authorities now openly embrace the notion of dialogue. Conversely, only a few months ago, officials and state-influenced media sources, were noted for questioning the logic of engaging with opposition political groups. Clearly, the fresh approach serves as testimony to a change in policy.
For their part, the main political groups led by Al-Wefaq now openly talk about the need for dialogue, something they could not do last year. While the very notion of engagement with the official side was once taboo, opposition leaders now press for a purposeful dialogue.
Still, external factors cannot be overlooked. It is fair to say that the U.S. is now pushing for a political resolution more so than ever before in the year and a half long crisis. Amongst other moves, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough paid a rare visit to Bahrain in late May, pressing for dialogue.
Another American drive relates to a move by the Senate Appropriations Committee designed to obtain Congressional support for a specially-designated fund to engage in activities for the promotion of reconciliation efforts in Bahrain. If approved, U.S. $5 million shall be part of the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund.
In addition, the British--with their long history in Bahrain--and the European Union must be credited for exerting their own pressures on all sides for a political settlement. Recently, both London and Brussels have increased the number of emissaries sent to Bahrain to engage with main political players.
Concurrently, other factors have offered a helping hand, notably the positions of numerous countries regarding Bahrain’s human rights records. At the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on May 21st, reference was made to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). A number of countries, including the U.S., members of the EU, and Japan, censured Bahrain’s human rights records, pointing to attacks on Shia places of worship, and instead called for a negotiated settlement.
Another notable development relates to strengthening the position of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, the undisputed leader of the reformist camp within the royal family. He has succeeded in consolidating his status ever since Bahrain hosted the Formula One Grand Prix, a project that the crown prince has supported since its inception in the country in April 2004.
In a span of several weeks following the Formula One race, the crown prince paid high-profile visits to South Korea, the U.S., and India. In South Korea and India, the visits focused on economic cooperation, notably the development of infrastructure with South Korea and cooperation regarding information and communication technologies with India. In clear support for the crown prince, the U.S. used his visit to moderately increase sales of military equipment to Bahrain.
Recently, authorities offered opposition groups an olive branch by selecting Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa as head of a governmental committee charged with implementing UPR recommendations. Sheikh Mohammed has a track record of adopting liberal views and not criticizing the February 2011 uprising.
All in all, these developments make prospects for serious dialogue between officials and the opposition brighter than ever before as the stakes have become increasingly high for the future of Bahrain.
Dr. Jasim Husain is former Al-Wefaq Member of Parliament who resigned in February 2011.