Mitchell Belfer says Bahrain’s recent political reforms reinforce the island’s standing as a liberal oasis committed to religious and political freedom in a region otherwise marked by intolerance and persecution.
For 202 years, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Bahrain have been allies. Although the UK dwarfs Bahrain in demographic and geographic terms, London has come to rely on the Island nation in pursuit of its Arab Gulf interests. What Bahrain lacks in size, it makes up for in local knowledge, networks and the sense of loyalty demanded by the harsh desert environs of the wider Middle East. Bahrainis regard the British as part of their own tribal switchboard adding to the country’s socio-political tapestry. In security affairs, Bahrain is home to a UK naval facility that enhances its projection capabilities, while the UK helps train and maintain Bahraini security forces. They share vital intelligence on terrorist threats from Hezbollah to Daesh. By all accounts, the official UK-Bahrain relationship is ironclad.
And yet public misperceptions about Bahrain persist. Google ‘Bahrain Elections 2018,’ and the results are telling: most of the Arab press applauds Bahrain for heading to the polls — and not the streets — for its political expressionism, while in the British media, the elections are being sold, succinctly, as a ‘sham.’ This double-discrepancy is confusing. In a region riddled with conflict, where sectarianism is rife, civil wars raging, and geopolitical competitions approaching the boiling point, parliamentary elections in Bahrain should be celebrated. So why, in the UK, aren’t they?
Many British opinions of Bahrain stem from the country’s 2011 crisis. While this was a uniquely Bahrain event — a slow-motion rerun of the attempted coups, acts of terrorism, subversion and incitement that followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim’s of Iranian sovereignty over the country — it has been packaged into a wider Arab Spring narrative that, essentially, constructs a binary Middle East: where government is “bad” and demonstrators — no matter how violent — are “good.” Such simplicity is dangerous.
In Bahrain, it was the Al Wefaq bloc that emerged to generate and govern the international public debate about the country. Since 2011, it succeeded in being branded as Bahrain’s only opposition group in the British media. But caution is enjoined. The bloc is in but is not the opposition. Instead, it is a sectarian bloc with a sectarian agenda. It is financed by Iran. Its spiritual leader, Isa Qassim, is an Ayatollah from the Qom school and its political affairs are run by Ali Salman, a Shia religious cleric. And, it does not make its own decisions but defers to the innocuously named Islamic Scholars Council which refers to Al Wefaq as the ‘bloc of Believers.’ Most importantly, it shunned national elections in 2002 and 2014 and used intimidation to dissuade its former deputies from running as independents. Although dissolved, Al Wefaq members continue to agitate against their former parliamentary partners (Sunni and Shia) and peddle disinformation to the international press.
The asymmetric focus on Al Wefaq eclipses Bahrain’s political plurality. It is simply not the opposition. There are many other blocs and societies and people that fulfil that role. From socialists and trade unionists to other Shia blocs (re: Ajam) and Sunni traditionalists, secularists and, of course, women — who won some 15 per cent of the available seats, marking a milestone in women’s political participation — the country can boast a vibrant and mature political culture. And, with nearly 70 per cent casting their ballots, it is clear that this new parliament represents the will of the Bahraini people be they Shia, Sunni, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or secular.
The predominant media narrative that Bahrain is governed by sectarianism is factually and ethically wrong. The country is far more diverse than that. Bahrain is facing the equivalent of the international press ignoring all other aspects of British socio-economic and political life during the decades of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is good thing that the UK remembers sectarianism and how it can erode the national morale and lead to terrorism and other forms of political violence. It spent a generation trying to break out of that cycle and learned important lessons on how to reduce sectarian identities through national discourses of inclusion. In Bahrain, the government has teamed up with civil society groups to do just that—focus on reform and national identity and reduce sectarianism. Its dissolution of the Al Wefaq bloc was a matter for the national courts and processes and not of international public opinion. The November elections, the turnout, the public debate, the campaigns, the winners all point to the fact that Bahrain made the right decision. Al Wefaq was an agent of disruption and the country’s politics are more stable as a result of its exclusion. After all, it would be counterintuitive to encourage and empower a sectarian bloc, led by an Ayatollah, in a multi-faith, multi-denominational and multi-religious society.