Can Bahrain’s New Prime Minister Chart a New Path to Reform?

Cipher Brief Expert View

The Cipher Brief is an apolitical national security publisher. We are committed to presenting multiple opinions to help produce a more informed understanding of the issues.

Emile Nakhleh is a retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and founding director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Office. Nakhleh is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico.

OPINION — The appointment of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as Bahrain’s new prime minister following the death of his great uncle Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa could chart a new path for reform and communal harmony in Bahrain. Bahrain’s shaky economy and its economic and security dependence on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, however, could hinder his efforts. The good news is that Khalifa’s death has removed the largest stumbling block to reform and dialogue with the Shia and Sunni opposition.

Salman’s future agenda will have serious implications for the country’s long-term stability, economic viability, regional relations, and the American naval presence in Bahrain. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which has been homeported in Bahrain for decades, has always been affected by popular unrest and the potential for terrorism against American sailors. Opposition activists often charged that the United States was complicit in the regime’s brutality against the Bahraini people. Salman’s potential outreach to the Shia majority could eliminate potential violence against the American presence in the country.

Khalifa’s legacy

Until his death at age 84 on Wednesday, November 11, Khalifa bin Salman was the longest-serving prime minister in the world, having assumed the post right after the country’s independence in 1971. He was Bahrain’s most visible symbol of enormous wealth, corruption, divisiveness, anti-Shia sectarianism, and political control. Since the 1970s, he was often referred to as “Mr. 30, 40, or 50 percent” depending on the percentage he expected to receive from major businesses and investors as the price of doing business in the country. No major national or international corporation could secure a contract without paying a percentage to the prime minister or his representative.

He was one of the largest real estate owners in the country. His high-end apartment buildings, “towers,” and hotels earned him millions of dollars in rent. Many of these buildings, lands, and even islands were built on state or “reclaimed” land, which he acquired for free. He and his children had controlling financial interests in most major industrial, commercial, banking, transportation, and oil enterprises in the country.

As prime minister, Khalifa also controlled the levers of power and ran the day-to-day operations of the government under the direction of his brother the former emir of the country, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, from 1971-2000. He continued to run the government under his nephew, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He had authority over all facets of governing, from finance to intelligence and national security.

Khalifa was the country’s most powerful hardliner. He opposed the constitution, which his brother the emir promulgated in 1973 and was instrumental in having it suspended two years later. He also helped dissolve the country’s first and only National Assembly or parliament, in 1974, a year or so after it was established by the country’s ruler. Khalifa’s opposition to the constitution and the National Assembly were driven by his visceral opposition to representative government. In conversations I had with him in 1972-73, during my year-long stay in Bahrain as a senior Fulbright Scholar, he made it very clear that democratic ideas were alien to the country and a threat to his family’s Sunni minority rule.

In fact, in late 1972, Khalifa called the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait and threatened to declare me persona non grata, claiming that I was advocating democratic ideas in my conversations with reform-oriented members of the Bahraini Constituent Assembly, which was charged with drafting a constitution for the country. His claims were spurious. I stayed in the country through the rest of the Fulbright academic year. When I met him a few days later to rebut his claims, he told me that democracy and representative government will “undermine the country’s stability,” by which he meant Al Khalifa rule.

In the 1970s, Khalifa led a group of traditional Al Khalifa elders in opposing all demands for reform. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, he also nurtured a relatively younger group of rabidly anti-Shia royals known in Bahrain as the Khawalids (whose first name was a “Khalid” or were sons of a “Khalid”). As the old family scions faded from the scene, the Khawalids carried their anti-Shia campaign forward under Khalifa’s watchful eye.

Khalifa equated demands for reform with instability and terrorism. He put Ian Henderson, a British officer who terrorized the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya during that country’s war of independence, in charge with silencing the opposition by whatever means possible, including harassment, unlawful arrests, sham trials, exile, and torture, resulting in one of the worst human rights records in the region. Thanks to Khalifa’s policies, thousands of pro-democracy activists still languish in Bahraini jails on trumped-up charges.

During Khalifa’s rule, Bahrain devolved from being an open, tolerant, economically vibrant, and inclusive island country, known as the “Pearl of the Gulf,” into a sad tale of human rights abuses and subservience to Saudi Arabia. He banned freedoms of press and speech under draconian anti-terrorism laws. His brother, Emir Isa, was loved and respected by his people as a reform-minded, tolerant, and pragmatic leader. By contrast, Khalifa’s tarnished legacy of sectarianism, repression, and corruption has left Bahrain a poor, divided country lacking all the ingredients of a vibrant and forward-looking society.

Salman’s promise

The 51-year-old crown prince, Salman bin Hamad, who was educated in the United States and England, has been at the center of power in Bahrain for nearly 30 years. During conversations I had with him several years back, I was struck by the sincerity of his commitment to reform and inclusion. He believed that including the Shia majority in the governing process under the umbrella of Al Khalifa rule would be good for the country — economically, politically, and socially. It would also bolster domestic stability, Shia-Sunni and communal peace, and family rule.

After his father became ruler and changed his title from Emir to King in 2002, Salman was actively involved in his father’s “National Charter” reform initiative. He argued in favor of allowing independent newspapers to reopen. As part of the reform movement, Mansoor al-Jamri, the chief editor al-Wasat newspaper, returned to Bahrain and restarted the newspaper. Unfortunately, the crown prince’s reform activities were brought to a halt very quickly by the prime minister and his anti-Shia and anti-democratic supporters within the Diwan Amiri, or the royal palace. Not long after, Al-Wasat was shuttered.

Salman succumbed to pressure and even implicit threats to cease his dialogue with the pro-democracy groups. Insidious rumors started circulating hinting that King Hamad might replace him with his younger brother. Salman relented and began to advocate for his father’s and great uncle’s moves to cement autocratic family rule in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia responded to Khalifa’s pleas by sending troops to Bahrain and providing an economic bailout during the “Arab Awakening” in 2011. The Saudi actions accelerated Bahrain’s drift toward autocracy with Khalifa’s blessings.

The Biden administration could work with Salman to achieve important goals, including halting the practice of depriving dissident Bahrainis of their citizenship, starting a dialogue with the opposition, and allowing al-Wefaq and al-Waad groups and mainstream newspapers, such as al-Wasat, to operate legally. Washington could help Salman improve Bahrain’s dismal human rights record.

Strong headwinds could derail Salman’s pro-reform and pro-democracy initiatives, but, with his new power and Washington’s support, the likelihood of success would increase immensely. Creating a more hopeful future for the Bahraini people and promoting social harmony could eliminate the threat of violence and terrorism. Such policies would serve the interests of Bahrain and the U.S. Navy in that country.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh was first published by our friends at Responsible Statecraft.

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