Ruling Bahrain (part II): A dynasty in decline

Ruling Bahrain (part II): A dynasty in decline
9 min read
14 Mar, 2019
Interview: Retired US senior intelligence service officer Emile Nakhleh talks about the turning points in King Hamad's reign.
The king of Bahrain meets with the French president at the Elysee palace [Getty]
This is the second part in a two-part interview with Emile Nakhleh covering the political developments of Bahrain since King Hamad came to power twenty years ago.

Catch up with part one here.

Bahrain Mirror: The king took up the reins of power 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" programme, 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 were unconstitutional.

Although Hamad accepted Bassiouni's recommendations, there is no evidence that he had implemented any 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.

BM: Some of King Hamad's advisers, 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 remained 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 an Egyptian legal scholar from Kuwait to advise Bahrain on writing a constitution for the newly independent state of Bahrain.

If Khalifa remains in power, one should not expect any real reform, regardless of who is the king or the crown prince

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-Khalifas' rule, especially when it came to the budget, which they considered sancrosanct and which 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 a 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.

BM: 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.

It is time for Khalifa to leave the scene and for his corruption and repression to end

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.

BM: The sectarian policies have 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 previously unknown and unprecedented under the former emir, 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 favour 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.

Religious sectarianism has reached a level under King Hamad previously unknown and unprecedented under the former emir

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 an al-Khalifa-driven domestic stability than genuine reform. Of course, the energised 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 had 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.

BM: The king gained huge popularity according to the high percentage - 98.4 percent - 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, he should have realised that genuine democracy does exist in Britain, outside of 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.

This interview was republished with permission from the Bahrain Mirror and Lobelog

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.