Bahrain faces a long-running local dispute about the sharing of power and wealth. While there has never been a simple division between Sunni and Shia, politics have become increasingly polarized along sectarian lines, a trend exacerbated by outside actors.
Since the report of the royally established Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (the ‘Bassiouni report’) in November 2011, the government has taken some steps to address human rights abuses and to create new mechanisms for the oversight of the security services. However, the effect of these potentially important mechanisms will depend on the political will invested in them. So far the indications are negative.
There is still scope to find common ground between the different elements of Bahraini society in support of a constitutional monarchy, based on a revitalized social contract, not on sect-based power-sharing.
There may now be an opportunity to develop a fresh GCC mediation effort in the context of discussions on greater GCC unity. Conversely, the failure to reach a political solution to the problems in Bahrain may undermine the drive towards GCC unity by contributing to both political and sectarian tensions within the GCC.
The repression in Bahrain, a Western ally, complicates and hinders the efforts of the US and UK to sketch out a new policy towards a Middle East where demands for democracy have become increasingly vocal.