Bahrain political risk assessment

15 March 2011

Words of regret about casulties may do little to assuage popular anger in Bahrain

20 October 2011

The US has said it will wait for the findings of a human rights commission before going ahead with a $53m arms deal with Bahrain.

The US State Department said it shared doubts voiced by congressional representatives about the treatment of civil rights protesters. The commission is due to report by 30 October on the violent crackdown by Bahrain’s Sunni minority rulers on protests led by the country’s Shia majority.

26 May 2011

The Bahraini authorities say 515 detainees have now been released since martial law was declared in March as part of a crackdown on Shia pro-reform protests. The state of emergency is scheduled to end in June.

The Gulf state’s Information Affairs Authority said 46 medical staff remained in custody, of which 29 will stand trial on criminal charges. Four protesters have been sentenced to death for the killing of two policemen.

The unrest escalated as security forces used violence against peaceful protesters and resulted in the loss of at least 29 lives, including those of four policemen.

The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry suspended its joint business councils with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, citing the “blatant interference” of influential parties in these countries in Bahrain’s domestic affairs.

19 May 2011

The conflict between the Sunni government and Shia protesters has returned to the fore in Bahrain. Nine policemen were injured after the brother of a wounded protester drove a car into security forces, according to the state news agency. Two days earlier, police and youths clashed in a village near the capital Manama.

The incident threatens to undermine attempts by the regime to return to normality. On 9 May, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa decreed that the effective state of martial law would be lifted in June. Elections are due to be held following the end of emergency rule.

At least four demonstrators have died in custody taking the total death toll to about 30 since pro-democracy protests broke out on February 14. The victims are mainly Shias.

12 May 2011

On 9 May, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa issued a royal decree ordering that a three-month state of emergency be lifted on 1 June.

The State of National Safety was imposed on 15 March following uprisings against the government. The move to end the state of emergency earlier than the three-year period is a sign of the government’s confidence in quelling the domestic unrest. Elections are also due to be held following the end of the emergency rule. Opposition group Al-Wefaq is free to take part, having resigned from its 18 seats in parliament in protest at the violent response to demonstrations.

The government is also planning to try 21 people in a military court for trying to organise a terrorist group and trying to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy.

24 March 2011

On 20 March, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pledged Bahrain would continue with its political reforms. Meanwhile, security forces continued to arrest protesters and government forces demolished the Pearl roundabout, the symbolic centre of the protest movement. The US has made several calls for Bahrain to accept a negotiated settlement to the protests.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said on 19 March that “violence is not the answer, a political process is”.

On 20 March, the main opposition group Al-Wefaq appealed to the UN to protect them against violence and to the US to help pressure troops from other Gulf states to leave Bahrain. More than 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain on 14 March.

18 March 2011

After a month of protests, more than 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain on 14 March to help quell anti-government protests. Additional security personnel from the UAE also entered the kingdom.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared a three-month state of emergency from 15 March after anti-government protesters took over the central business district in the capital, Manama.

Violent confrontations followed leaving several dead and causing several judges and members of the appointed Shura council to resign.

10 March 2011

Manama’s initial no-tolerance attitude to the demonstrations resulted in a dramatic escalation in the scale of the protests. The violent response from authorities only stopped after Crown Prince Salman ordered security forces to withdraw so he could start national dialogue with all parties. Protests have continued since the beginning of the national dialogue on 19 February without state interference.

Government actions:

  • A one-off gift of BD1,000 ($2,650) to every household
  • A 7.7 per cent, or BD155.2m, increase in food subsidies
  • Plans to liberalise the country’s media law
  • A cabinet reshuffle in late February

Political risk assessment

There is likely to be a shift towards constitutional reform including more a representative and empowered parliament, constitutional monarchy and a reshuffle of government. There is the risk of sectarian violence destabilising the reform movement.

23 February 2011

Recent events in Bahrain have shocked foreign observers. Most saw the island state as a typically stable Gulf monarchy. Yet tension has been building for months: throughout 2010 there were regular clashes between Shia youths and government security forces. Since August, a major security crackdown has seen hundreds of opposition activists detained, with 23 put on trial.

Although he introduced limited democratic reform a decade ago, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has pursued sectarian social and security policies, apparently designed to prevent the 60-70 per cent majority Shia population from exercising influence in line with their numbers.

Through mass importation of foreign Sunni migrants, the government has tried to alter the population balance and provide a stream of loyal Sunni recruits for the security forces – from which Shias are largely excluded. Resentment has been compounded by the lack of transparency surrounding lucrative land reclamation and real-estate projects in which senior members of the ruling Al-Khalifa family are widely claimed to have major interests.

In 2006, King Hamad pressured Sheikh Ali Salman, the soft-spoken leader of the Shia Islamist Al-Wefaq party, into joining the parliamentary system. But government refusal to give ground on migration and other grievances has served only to undermine Sheikh Ali and bolster the popular standing of the rival movements that refuse to participate in the king’s political framework. Now, following the latest bloody crackdown, Al-Wefaq has quit parliament.

Words of regret about casualties may do little to assuage popular anger in a country that became the first Gulf state to see protesters openly calling for the overthrow of its ruler.

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