‘Khawalids’ engineer their own demise as they inch Bahrain into the abyss
21 April, 2012 – By Andrew Hammond – Reuters
DUBAI (Reuters) – Hardliners in Bahrain’s Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ruling family may dig in their heels after a Formula One Grand Prix debacle that spotlighted a frustrated pro-democracy uprising instead of projecting an image of stability.
Western leaders joined rights groups and media watchdogs in criticizing Bahrain before Sunday’s race, which was cancelled last year due to the unrest. Officials hailed its reinstatement as proof of a return to calm, but billowing smoke from tires set alight by protesters on race day told a different story.
“I suspect now that those in the ruling family who argued that this is more trouble than it’s worth will be saying ‘I told you so’,” said Justin Gengler, a Qatar-based researcher on Bahrain, singling out the royal court and defense ministers.
Those ministers, full brothers from a family branch often known as the Khawalids, are widely viewed as masterminds of last year’s crackdown, which cut short a dialogue Crown Prince Salman had begun with the opposition on democratic reforms.
Bahrainis took to the streets in February 2011, inspired by successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, but won no concessions. The government broke up the Pearl Roundabout protest camp a month later, imposed martial law and brought in Saudi troops.
The Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy branded the protesters as Shi’ite subversives with Iranian backing and Bahrain slipped off the Saudi- and Qatari-dominated pan-Arab news agenda.
Western allies such as Britain and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is moored in Manama, muted criticism of Bahrain for fear of alienating a trusted friend – or its Saudi big brother.
Yet turmoil still convulses the tiny Gulf island, where riot police clash daily with demonstrators, mostly from the Shi’ite majority, and opposition parties stage mass marches.
Police deploy armored vehicles, teargas, sound bombs and birdshot to lock protesters down and prevent a critical mass from re-forming and winning world attention. As a result, activists say the death toll has risen to 80 from 35, including five security personnel, when martial law was lifted in June.
Bahrain’s government says it remains open to limited reform, but unease at the prospect of any power shift from the Sunni royal family to the Shi’ite majority has stifled progress.
The hardline royal court minister, Khaled bin Ahmed, initiated contacts with the leading Shi’ite party Wefaq in January, but pro-government Sunni radicals objected strongly and the chance of renewed dialogue appears to have evaporated.
Nevertheless, King Hamad responded to the Grand Prix furore on Sunday by stating his “personal commitment to reform and reconciliation”.
Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, adviser to the Information Affairs Authority, said many Bahrainis wanted reforms but did not want them dictated by one party or sect.
“All the political societies want to fight corruption, efficient government, an empowered parliament,” he said. “As long as there are no preconditions, mutual respect and no raising the bar too high, then there is hope.”
Sheikh Abdulaziz declined to comment on any potential rifts within the government over the question of reform. Crown Prince Salman has long been seen as its keenest royal advocate.
He brought Formula One to Manama in 2004 as part of what analysts say was a vision for political and economic change that would reduce reliance on receipts from an oilfield shared with Saudi Arabia – and the influence that the arrangement gives a powerful neighbor with no interest in a democratic Bahrain. …more