What’s Going on in Bahrain?

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Cipher Brief Expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Emile Nakhleh  was recently interviewed by the Bahrain Mirror.  The Cipher Brief is reprinting that conversation with permission.

(Ed note:  Nahkleh will be speaking at The Cipher Brief’s 2019 Threat Conference March 24-26)

By Bahrain Mirror — Two decades after sitting on the throne, Bahrain looks like a wounded corpse waiting for a savior. During the year when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa assumed power in 1999, the country’s public debt stood at $370 million. Today, however, it is closer to $30 billion, according to the latest Central Bank of Bahrain data.

A large chunk of the country’s budget now goes to armament. According to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February 2019, Bahrain’s military purchases from the United States alone exceeded $6 billion over the past two years.

King Hamad crowned his 20 years of rule with a deep strife with the Shiite community and its leaders. He put political activists back in prisons or sent them back into exile, in numbers far more than those released or reinstated in his early years. Both Islamic and leftist opposition groups have been shut down, and the only independent newspaper that has struggled to survive seemed as a threat to his project. He then deployed security forces everywhere, tightening their grip as if counting people’s breaths, in such a way that would make the years of state security look like a nice breeze.

He also added new authoritarian methods that were not previously recognized or adopted by putting the country’s decision-making in the hands of Saudi Arabia, stripping hundreds of citizens of citizenship while granting it to thousands of foreigners as part of a systematic policy aimed at changing the country’s demographic makeup. Nothing can describe all of this but the saying that the king himself borrowed from Nazem Hikmat in his first years of rule, “the most beautiful days are those we have not yet lived,” i.e. they have just become repeated days open to an unknown future, with no hope.

“I don’t believe the King was ever a committed reformer or an enlightened leader. The only tangible result from his “reform” program, following the adoption of the National Charter in 2001-2002 was to change his title from Emir to King.” This is what Dr. Emile Nakhleh sees- a professor at University of New Mexico and retired senior intelligence service officer who has written a book on political development in Bahrain. He goes on to say that “Whereas under the late Emir [Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa], Bahrain promised to be a ‘shining city on the hill,’ under Hamd, Bahrain has been reduced to a dark place torn by violence, intolerance, tyranny, and repression.

Bahrain Mirror attempted to look over the top turning points in the reign of King Hamad, marking two decades following his assumption of power, on March 6, with Professor Emile Nakhleh, and the interview is as follows:

Bahrain Mirror: You had a rich experience in Bahrain during the reign of late Emir Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, father of the current Bahraini king, which led to you publishing a book on the political development in Bahrain. What, in your opinion, could King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa have learnt from his father’s experience in governance and what could he have avoided?

Emile Nakhleh: During my stay in Bahrain as the first American Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Bahrain (1972-73), I had the pleasure of meeting the late ruler Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa and the first person to rule the country after it became independent in 1971.  I also met several other senior members of the ruling family. Shaykh Isa established al-Majlis al-Ta’sisi to produce a constitution for the new state, which the Emir promulgated in December 1973. Despite the “Shaykhly” nature of the minority Sunni regime, the new constitution embodied principles of equal opportunity under the law, moderation, compromise, human rights, and respect for the Shia majority. Significant members of the Shia majority served on al-Majlis al-Ta’sisi (elected and appointed) and participated in the drafting of the constitution. Since independence 48 years ago, the 1972-1974 period stands out as the “golden age” of modern Bahrain, thanks to the wise leadership of the late Emir. Isa’s son, King Hamad, unfortunately for Bahrain and its people, failed to learn any lessons in governance from his father. Isa abhorred sectarianism and believed that such divisions within society will undermine the safety and security of Bahrain. He truly believed, based on several conversations I had with him, that domestic social harmony through constant dialogue between Sunnis and Shia will help make Bahrain the “Pearl of the Gulf” and the “Shining City on the Hill.” Through education, talent, commerce, business acumen, and friendly relations with its neighbors, Bahrain could become the center of modernization in the Gulf and an example to be emulated. Since ascending to the throne, Hamad by contrast promoted sectarianism and used schisms within his country to cement his hold on power. He empowered his uncle Shaykh Khalifa bin Salman- the longest serving, unelected prime minister in the world- to rule through animus to the Shia majority and to follow the Saudi attitude toward the Shia majority. Under Khalifa and other anti-Shia members of the ruling family, the Bahraini society has broken up. Human rights are violated at whim, and thousands of peaceful protesters have been jailed, tortured, and sentenced to death or life imprisonment through illegal arrests and sham trials. Whereas under Isa, Bahrain was relatively free of Saudi domination, at least during the 1970s, under Hamad and Khalifa, Bahrain has become a vassal Saudi state- politically and economically. Isa made Bahrain a proud, attractive Emirate. Hamad is ruling over a marginalized Banana monarchy that operates completely in the Saudi orbit.

Bahrain Mirror: Did you meet the current king (the then crown prince) during your study period when you were residing in Bahrain? What were your impressions of him at the time? What did you conclude from what was said or whispered about him during your visits to the councils or meetings?

Nakhleh: Almost half way during my stay in Bahrain, Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa returned from a year-long military course at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I met him shortly after he returned, introduced myself, and briefed him on the Fulbright Program. I explained that I was writing a book about the making of modern Bahrain and its future in the region. As a relatively youngman, Hamad lacked deep knowledge of governing and national politics. He yielded to his father and uncle. I recall he was enamored by King Hussein of Jordan and wanted to emulate him in driving fast cars and flying military aircraft. When he once mentioned that he wanted to build a Bahraini air force, I said, “Shaykh Hamad, why do you need an air force? Everytime your jets take off, they would need the permission of neighboring countries to fly in their airspace?” He was smitten by the trappings of power but avoided getting involved in the political process. His father and uncle for the most part ran the show. Perhaps, this is why his first major “reform” decision right after he became Emir of Bahrain, following his father’s death was to change the Emirate into a monarchy and his title from Emir to King. In his mind, monarchy is more prestigious than an “Emirate.” He naively thought that he would become a “Constitutional King” like, for example, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. Far from being such a king, he promulgated several new “terrorism” laws designed to undermine most of the human rights principles in his father’s constitution. Initially, King Hamad involved his son Crown Prince Salman in the affairs of state, but as domestic conflicts increased because of expanding regime repression against dissidents and protesters, Salman became marginalized and his efforts at reconciliation with the Shia majority stalled.

Bahrain Mirror: It seems that King Hamad’s interests at that period are similar to that of his son, the current crown prince, i.e. jets and cars. Despite the latter’s depiction by the West as a moderate person, the truth is that he was the most member in the ruling family eager to remove Sheikh Ali Salman from the political scene and imprison him, as many close to him have reported. What should the crown prince learn from his father, which the king didn’t learn from his, so that history won’t repeat itself?

Nakhleh: As long as the Al Khalifa ruling family is determined to rule with force, repression, and co-optation without consulting the majority of the population- Shia and Sunni- or allowing the majority a voice in the decision-making process, the current Crown Prince is not destined to learn from his father any lessons that will be different from the practices of King Hamad. It is possible Crown Prince Salman would take a different and more conciliatory approach toward the Bahraini people only if the Prime Minister Khalifa and his supporters of the anti-Shia gang leave the center of power. Also, Salman must have the courage to stand up to the Saudi masters and convince Saudi Arabia to pull its troops out of Bahrain. That also could happen only after a new administration, other than Trump, takes power in Washington, DC. Hamad and his uncle the prime minister have been persuaded, and most likely are convinced, that removing Sheikh Ali Salman from the political scene would dishearten his supporters and in the end silence them. Hamad and Khalifa are too ignorant to realize that killing the messenger does not kill the message. In this case, the reformist message is simple:  stop torture, illegal arrests, sham trials and convictions, and repression of the Bahraini people. Once the American people elect a new administration, Al Khalifa will no longer feel empowered to persecute their people as they wish without accountability.

Bahrain Mirror: The King took up the reins in 1999 while the country was witnessing an intractable crisis. And here he is 20 years later driving the country into another intractable crisis since 2011. He came out from what seemed a smaller crisis to a tougher, more lasting one. Did the King really have a reform vision that he might have abandoned later on after facing several obstacles?

Nakhleh: I don’t believe the King was ever a committed reformer or an enlightened leader. The only tangible result from his “reform” program, following the adoption of the National Charter in 2001-2002 was to change his title from Emir to King. As Bassiouni’s BICI concluded after 2011, most of Hamad’s policies toward the protest movement- Sunni and Shia- were based on illegal practices, serial violations of human rights, and unconstitutional. Although Hamad accepted Bassiouni’s recommendations, there is no evidence that he has implemented any one of the central recommendations. In effect, he ignored BICI’s recommendations and opted to follow the path of his uncle and the Saudis. From the very beginning, the goal of the Saudi troops in Bahrain was not to promote stability in the country or to help foster domestic harmony. Their aim was and still is to subjugate the Shia, eviscerate al-Wefaq, and eliminate their leaders.

Bahrain Mirror: Some of King Hamad’s advisors, during the first years of his rule, used to whisper in their meetings with opposition members that the presence of his uncle Shaykh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who’s part of his father’s legacy, is the obstacle standing in the face of more reforms. He represents a cornerstone in the balances of the family, let alone that his continued presence is a Gulf, Saudi desire? Amid these circumstances, did the King actually have the ability to take a larger step against his uncle, like removing him?

Nakhleh: After Hamad took over and started his “reform” project, I wrote at the time that no real reform could be accomplished while his uncle remains in power. I called at the time for Khalifa’s removal, to no avail. Khalifa’s opposition to real reform goes back to the period when the former Emir, Shaykh Isa, talked about bringing the Egyptian legal scholar from Kuwait to advise Bahrain on writing a constitution for the newly independent state of Bahrain. I wrote about the process in my Bahrain book and mentioned that Prime Minister Khalifa, the Emir’s brother, objected strenuously to the constitutional process. He was supported by a few elders within the ruling family, including the then minister of Waqf Shaykh Abdallah. I was fortunate to have individual conversations at the time with the Emir, the legal scholar, and Shaykh Abdallah- as well as with Shaykh Khalifa. When I asked Khalifa and Abdallah separately why they objected to the constitution, they opined that establishing a constitution with guaranteed human rights and freedoms would encourage average citizens to question the Al Khalifa rule, especially when it came to the budget, which they considered sancro sanct  and should not be open to public debate or approval. What Khalifa was worried about was not the Emir’s personal budget but his own corrupt financial practices. These practices were known among Bahraini businessmen. Bahraini businessmen accepted the fact that in order to do business in Bahrain, such as a large development project or a dealership, Khalifa must have a cut. What these businessmen disagreed about was whether to call him, “Mr. 10%, 25%, or 50%.” Khalifa’s objection to the constitution also extended to the US Naval presence at Mina Salman in Juffair and the agreement of understanding between the two countries about such a presence. Once the sessions of al-Majlis al-Ta’sisi started and the constitutional debates became more animated, Khalifa became more agitated. I attended all of the sessions in my capacity as a Fulbright Scholar. As my focus was the making of the new Bahraini state, attending the Majlis’ sessions was fundamental to my research. I established close friendships with several members of the Majlis, especially the late Jassim Murad and a few of his colleagues- both Sunni and Shia- and we frequently met at the al-Arabi Club in Muharraq. Khalifa detested my association with Jasim and his colleagues and accused me, falsely, of giving them ideas. He called the American ambassador in Kuwait and threatened to declare me persona non-grata and threatened to deport me from the country. I confronted Khalifa and told him that was a bogus charge based on hear-say and told him that he should be lucky that the Majlis includes such smart, thoughtful group of Bahrainis! They didn’t need me or anyone else to give them ideas! I told him that in fact I was learning from them and that my forthcoming book on Bahrain would be informed by their ideas and future vision for Bahrain. I did not yield to Khalifa’s threats and stayed in the country until the end of my allotted time, which was a full academic year. The bottom line judgment: if Khalifa remains in power, one should not expect any real reform regardless of who is the king or the crown prince.

Bahrain Mirror: The King sought to withdraw several powers from his uncle, like the economic file and hand it instead to his son, Crown Prince Shaykh Salman as part of a series of steps before the 2011 crisis. He then allowed the latter to enter the cabinet as deputy prime minister. However, it seems that the country’s problem is much deeper, which some attribute to the King himself. Have we failed in envisioning his responsibility early on?

Nakhleh: By giving new authorities and positions to his son the Crown Prince, Hamad was focused on creating a countervailing balance to his uncle’s power and influence. This approach, as Hamad discovered later, didn’t work because the opposition to real reform and to any engagement with the Shia community extended beyond Khalifa to the rising group of “Khawalids” – within the Ministry of Justice, the military, and the Diwan Amiri- who were viscerally and rabidly anti-Shia. The Al Khalifa regime has lost a golden opportunity to work closely with the Shia majority and engage the people and their representatives in the governing process. If Hamad and Salman are interested in re-establishing Bahrain as an enlightened  family-ruled state in the Gulf, they should clean house within the family. It is time for Khalifa to leave the scene and for his corruption and repression to end. Unfortunately for the people of Bahrain, such a step will face major, and perhaps insurmountable, obstacles because of the entrenched power position of Khalifa and his supporters, the anti-Shia policies of Saudi Arabia, and the lack of genuine commitment on the part of Hamad.

Bahrain Mirror: The sectarian policies reached their peak in the era of King Hamad and the hostility against the Bahraini Shiites reached an unprecedented level during his father’s reign, which represented the golden period of his uncle Shaykh Khalifa’s dominance. However, this hostility wasn’t so clear during the first years of the national action charter. Its marks started to appear in 2006 with the scandal of Sudanese Advisor Dr. Salah Al-Bandar. Things began to gradually get worse until the situation erupted in 2011. What changed the King in your opinion or what is the source of this hostility?

Nakhleh: It is correct to argue that religious sectarianism has reached a level under King Hamad unknown and unprecedented under the former Emir and the King’s father Shaykh Isa. The new level of vicious sectarianism was promoted to a large extent by the King’s uncle, Prime Minister shaykh Khalifa bin Salman and his supporters, the so-called Khawalids, within the ruling family. On the one hand, Hamad felt powerless in the face of the powerful anti-Shia bloc within the ruling family. On the other hand, he tolerated the growing repressive sectarianism as the price for enjoying the trappings of power as King. The huge popular support he received in favor of the National Charter was driven by the sense of hope that people, including Sunni and Shia activists, had pinned on Hamad’s so-called reform project. Hamad erroneously viewed the positive vote as an endorsement of the policies of the ruling family. Such a misinterpretation led him to believe- a belief promoted by Khalifa and the Khawalids- that the average Bahraini citizen was more interested in Al Khalifa driven domestic stability than genuine reform. Of course, the energized protest movement from 2002 onward and the confrontations with the regime during the Arab Spring in 2011 and beyond clearly showed Hamad’s poor judgment. By the time violence has been pushed forward by the regime and its mercenaries from Sudan and elsewhere, by the massive use of force by the Saudis invading army, and by the repression and torture inflicted on the citizens by the regime’s security forces, neither Hamad nor his son Crown Prince Salman could do anything about it. There is no evidence to indicate that Hamad was ever truly interested in reform.

Bahrain Mirror: The King gained huge popularity according to the high percentage, 98.4%, which the national action charter garnered in the referendum held in 2001, so he could have invested in this symbolic capital alone. Why did he need to bring another wing to the scene as the Khalawids and allow them to participate in governance? How was he convinced by their view?

Nakhleh: There are two views on this point: first, Hamad was not really committed to genuine reform because whatever came out of the National Charter, other than changing the country’s name from an Emirate to a Monarchy and Hamad’s title from Emir to King, was essentially superficialities rather than specific reform policies that advocated legal protections and freedoms. The other view is that Hamad was powerless in the face of the concerted effort by Khalifa and the Khawalids to thwart any and all policies that advocated reform. Based on my experience and having followed Hamad’s leadership as a King of Bahrain, I tend to support the first view. Hamad’s attitude toward reform and the majority’s rights is primarily opportunistic and devoid of a real commitment to power sharing with his people. When at one time, he argued that his monarchy was as constitutional as that of the British monarch, he should have realized that genuine democracy DOES exist in Britain outside the influence and control of the monarchy. Whereas under the late Emir, Bahrain promised to be a “shining city on the hill,” under Hamad, Bahrain has been reduced to a dark place torn by violence, intolerance, tyranny, and repression.

Reprinted, with permission, from Bahrain Mirror.

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