Bahrain faces sectarian crisis

15 March 2011

Manama must stop killing its own people and embrace reform

Even before the arrival of troops from Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, the youth protest movement threatened to expose the sectarian rift that has long existed beneath the surface of the island’s business friendly image.

“Calling in Saudi troops has completely undermined the reform efforts … and restarted the crackdown”

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the reform minded son of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has done a good job of painting Bahrain as one of the Gulf’s most progressive countries. Unfortunately, not all the ruling family agree on the need for reform.The crown prince has put considerable effort into resolving issues behind the Bahrain protest movement. He even went so far as to discuss some of the most sensitive issues.

Sheikh Salman is understood to have been close to agreeing with opposition parties a framework of talks that could have paved the way for greater representation for the Shia majority in the government. It would even include discussing the naturalisation of foreigners and accusations of discrimination by the Sunni authorities.

That was until the Saudi troops arrived.

Their presence is understood to be at the behest of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. He is already hated by protesters and more than ever represents the anti-reform side of Bahrain. Calling in Saudi troops has undermined the reform efforts. It has also restarted the bloody crackdown on dissent that the crown prince had brought to an end in late February. Even Sunni government figures have resigned at the harsh treatment of Bahraini citizens by a foreign force.

Bahrain must stop the assaults on its own people. Unlike Saudi Arabia, it cannot afford to sweeten repression with handouts.

Even now withdrawing the security forces and trying to restart negotiations with Shia opposition parties will be tough. But the alternative is a long bloody repression that threatens to split the island apart.

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