Bahrain’s lower house and municipal council elections on 24 November have been heralded a success by the ruling Al Khalifa family and the government, who had hoped to use a successful election outcome to erase the public and international memory of Bahraini instability after the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
This narrative, however, provides a one-sided account of the election that seeks to paper over a boycott from banned opposition parties Al Wefaq and Al Waad and a long-standing government-led crackdown on popular dissent.
The Arab Spring: a turning point
During the over 200-year rule of the Al Khalifa family, Bahrain has had a unique and vibrant scene of domestic politics and protest, at least as compared to the rest of the Arab Gulf states.
In 2001, in response to escalating political and sectarian tensions over political representation and economic marginalization, the government implemented a forward-looking National Charter. This converted the political system into a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature, as a means to rebalance the political system while also preserving the Al Khalifas’ power.
Since then, political societies (or political parties) such as the Shia-led Al Wefaq party or the secular Al Waad, among others, have intermittently participated in elections but have also boycotted to protest their limited influence in the political process.
The 2011 Arab Spring protests proved to be a turning point in Bahraini history when Bahrainis of all sects and political leanings came out en masse to call for further political reform. A crackdown supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait quickly ensued, resulting in the death of a number of citizens and the detention and imprisonment of thousands of Bahrainis.
Despite attempts at national reconciliation, the government has taken an uncompromising position and dissolved Al Wefaq and Al Waad, jailing their leadership and banning members for running in the election forcing many into exile. Al Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, was most recently sentenced to life in prison accused of spying for Qatar. In advance of the election, both parties called for a boycott so the government’s claim that the election featured the highest-ever voter turnout appears dubious.
A political challenge
Bahraini stability is important for its Gulf neighbours and for the US and UK government both of whom have strong political and security ties with the government. Since 2011, the Al Khalifa have increasingly allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE becoming further dependent on their economic largesse to maintain stability – in October it was announced that Bahrain would receive a second $10 billion aid package to help balance the budget.
Bahrain, as the junior partner of the alliance, has walked in lockstep with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, supporting the boycott of Qatar and joining in the wider regional strategy of containing Iran. Indeed, the Bahraini government has historically and repeatedly blamed Iran for stoking domestic sectarian tensions and, not surprisingly, accused Iran of electoral interference over the weekend.
The case of Bahrain, alongside the growing authoritarian trend clouding over political life in the Arab Gulf, poses a challenge for US and UK policymakers. Alongside the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the jailing of UK academic Mathew Hedges in the UAE comes a trend of widening political repression and blatant disregard for human rights seen throughout the wider region.
The Trump administration has all but endorsed this behavior by prioritizing its ‘America First’ transactional policies over those championing human rights. It remains to be seen if post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ will pursue a similar economic-oriented strategy that places commercial interests over political ones.
Whatever the outcome, the future does not bode well for the Bahraini people, who amidst repression will remain frustrated and marginalized. Now more than ever the international community should not endorse manufactured political outcomes. Without an effort to implement meaningful national reconciliation and to address widespread human rights abuses, Bahraini politics will remain fragile and exclusionary, portending a future of further unrest.
Dr Sanam Vakil, Senior Consulting Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.