When I was invited to visit Bahrain by members of the royal family, I hesitated. They had crushed peaceful protesters last year, and their police had used tear gas against human rights activists. Like everybody else, including some of the Bahraini policemen I later spoke with, I was appalled at the violence and thought the monarchy had blood on its hands. But I felt that declining the offer was irresponsible. I wanted to know the monarchy’s side of the story. So I accepted the invitation — on the condition that I was free to meet Bahrain’s opposition.
Bahrain is a tiny island nation of 600,000 citizens, with a Parliament of only 40 members, and it cannot be understood if looked at in isolation. For one thing, it stands at the forefront of a regional cold war. Saudi Arabia lies to the west, connected by a 25-kilometer causeway built jointly by the Saudis and Bahrainis. To the east, across the waters of the Gulf, lies Iran. Both Tehran and Riyadh have major stakes in Bahrain.
En route to Bahrain, I stopped by in Riyadh and had many conversations with top government officials, journalists and academics. Their views were clear: Saudi Arabia would not stand by and see Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family fall from power. The Saudis sent in soldiers to help the al-Khalifas regain control of Bahrain in March 2011 and are prepared to do so again.
If King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa abdicates, they asked, then who would be next among Arab kings? What consequences would the ensuing chaos have on global energy supplies? If power falls into the hands of the main Shiite opposition group, Bahrain could join Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon under the Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East.
In Bahrain, I was a guest of the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who, in the context of the country’s current political climate, is a liberal’s liberal. Educated in Washington and Cambridge, England, the 42-year-old prince spoke about Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the dire need for political reform in his country, and his yearning for a political settlement with the opposition.
He appeared genuinely contrite about the excesses of the government in Bahrain, but also convinced that the opposition has no vision of how to improve matters. “The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” he said. Constantly, he referred to the need for “evolution” rather than “revolution.”
Within the ruling family, he led the charge for reform last year, but was abandoned by Al Wefaq, the main opposition party, midway through discussions. The party kept changing its demands and the leaders were divided over what they wanted. This strengthened the hand of the more conservative wing of the royal family, led by the conservative, long-serving prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, 74.
The opposition wants the prime minister to resign, but neither the king nor the crown prince can dare ask a family elder to depart in ignominy.
Just as there are divisions within the royal family, there are serious splits in Bahrain’s Shiite political scene. Not all the Shiites in Bahrain want to topple the monarchy. Nor is the opposition composed only of democrats who simply want to oust a monarchy.
Again and again, in villages and in meetings with Shiite opposition figures, one name kept coming up: Ayatollah Issa Qassim, spiritual leader of Al Wefaq, whose writ runs large across the Shiite opposition movement. Educated in Iran, his sermons are generally anti-American, anti-democracy and vehemently pro-Iran. When Iran’s green movement challenged the mullahs in Tehran, Ayatollah Qassim accused the West of “trying to divide an otherwise peaceful country” and of “hatred toward Islam.”
He is also intolerant of Shiites with divergent views back home. Three Shiite members of Bahrain’s Parliament explained to me the consequences of daring to challenge Ayatollah Qassim. When they decided not to honor Al Wefaq’s call to boycott elections last October, Al Wefaq-controlled mosques called on people to attack them; firebombs were thrown at their homes and their children were harassed on the streets. They live in fear for their lives, and they are not alone.