It will come as no news to those who follow events in Bahrain when I say that little has changed since I last wrote here. Some sense of this may be gleaned by the fact that I was yesterday contacted by a journalist seeking permission to use a quotation proffered over a month ago(!), since nothing had changed essentially on the political front such as to make it outdated.
The remarkable thing, then, may be exactly this, the extent to which things have remained depressingly static particularly since the launch of the Neverending Dialogue, Part II. On the other hand, this is of course the entire point of the exercise from the standpoint of the government: to buy time indefinitely, picking off in the meantime all those whose frustration with the lack of progress causes them to transgress the line of what is tolerated. (Witness, e.g., Khalil al-Marzuq.) In a recent writing that takes a long view of events since the uprising, Mansoor al-Jamri has termed this Bahrain's political "cul-de-sac," an image that seems to fit the case nicely.
Beyond the intractable nature of Bahrain's underlying political conflict per se, this stagnation reminds one also of the central role of outside forces. Consider, for instance, the case of Britain, which continues to play an important (and critics would say unhelpful) part not only in backing and facilitating the national dialogue, but also in other post-BICI "reform" efforts such as those in the Interior Ministry. I am told that the British, whose praise for the capable and well-intentioned Justice Minister Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali I once heard first hand, have now come to recognize the purposeful futility of the dialogue process, but have little choice but to continue with it. (If this discouraging BCHR report about the new Ministry of Interior Ombudsman position is any indication, British efforts with that ministry also have seen uneven progress.)
More generally, both the British and United States appear to lack the leverage required to force the hand of the Bahraini government, which is to say the hand of Saudi Arabia. British interests in Bahrain are rooted in the economic, and the former colonial master seems content to take a cautious and non-confrontational tack on the political front. With regard to the U.S., despite sustained calls by academics and policymakers to play the ultimate diplomatic card -- the matter of the Fifth Fleet in Juffair -- the Defense Department has admitted to not having even a contingency plan in place in the event basing at Bahrain becomes untenable. So the Bahrainis and Saudis need not even call the U.S. bluff, as there is none to be made.
Yet American leverage in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia may be waning even more than we know. A very interesting Wall Street Journal report today offers new insight into the much-analyzed Saudi decision to reject a seat at the UN Security Council that it had worked for some two years to secure. The article claims that the Saudi decision aimed to send a message not to the UN but the U.S., and cites two previously-unreported events that occurred at the height of Western preparations to take military action against Syria in August. It tells,
Diplomats and officials familiar with events recounted two previously undisclosed episodes during the buildup to the aborted Western strike on Syria that allegedly further unsettled the Saudi-U.S. relationship.
In the run-up to the expected U.S. strikes, Saudi leaders asked for detailed U.S. plans for posting Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil center, the Eastern Province, during any strike on Syria, an official familiar with that discussion said. The Saudis were surprised when the Americans told them U.S. ships wouldn't be able to fully protect the oil region, the official said.
Disappointed, the Saudis told the U.S. that they were open to alternatives to their long-standing defense partnership, emphasizing that they would look for good weapons at good prices, whatever the source, the official said.
In the second episode, one Western diplomat described Saudi Arabia as eager to be a military partner in what was to have been the U.S.-led military strikes on Syria. As part of that, the Saudis asked to be given the list of military targets for the proposed strikes. The Saudis indicated they never got the information, the diplomat said.
There would seem, then, to be little hope of any effective outside pressure interested in or capable of moving along the political situation in Bahrain. Speculation earlier this year that new Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayf might be more amenable to political compromise with the Shi'a opposition has so far received no tangible evidence, and in the current regional climate one imagines that whatever political window existed then has now passed. To be sure, one would rather suspect that Saudi Arabia views strong "security" measures in Bahrain (to say nothing of a new GCC security architecture generally) as more necessary than ever, particularly if the WSJ is correct in reporting that the U.S. was unwilling or unable to protect the Eastern Province from feared Syrian aggression in August.
Bahrain's double-life will continue, then -- new shipments of tear-gas and stun grenades to go along with a National Dialogue successful precisely in its failure. In December "national security leaders" will once again arrive for the annual IISS-hosted Manama Dialogue; April 2014 will see the annual Formula 1 circus; and, if Bahrainis are lucky, by 2016 the island will have its very own $51M indoor ski slope. What more could citizens ask for?