Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (on leave until June 2017)
The jailing of Sheikh Ali Salman, a well-known peaceful reformist, is an indicator of the shifting red lines in Gulf politics.
A Bahraini protester holds a poster of Sheikh Ali Salman during a demonstration against his arrest on 12 June 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A Bahraini protester holds a poster of Sheikh Ali Salman during a demonstration against his arrest on 12 June 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

US President Barack Obama recently suggested in an interview that the Gulf countries have more to fear from internal political dynamics than from Iran. Yet the response of the US and UK to the four-year sentence handed down this week to Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s main legally recognized political movement, has been muted. This is largely because Bahrain’s Western allies are focusing on reassuring the Gulf countries that they are committed to their security, in the run-up to a possible agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme, which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries are worried about. However, rising internal repression is only likely to make Bahrain’s large opposition movement more radical and more anti-Western, which is ultimately problematic for the security of the Gulf area and its people.

From parliament to prison

The political career of Ali Salman charts the cycle of reform and repression in Bahrain. A key leader of the country's 1990s opposition uprising, he was arrested and went into exile in London. He returned under a general amnesty in 2001. In the ‘reform era’ that followed, Sheikh Ali became an MP for four years, leading Al Wefaq. But the partial, uncertain reforms of the 2000s left both the opposition and the government dissatisfied, and the political scene unstable. Since the uprising and crackdown of 2011, his group have boycotted parliament, and several former MPs have been imprisoned, exiled or stripped of their nationality, but until recently Sheikh Ali's popularity and history of dialogue with the government had offered him a measure of protection.

Bahrain has the largest and best organised grassroots political movements in the Gulf states, reflecting a widespread desire for political change, especially but not exclusively among the Shia Muslim population (perhaps 60 per cent of the citizenry). Al Wefaq is the main Shia movement, which focuses more on political than religious demands and calls for a civil state, though it is influenced by the country’s most senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassim. When it last stood for election, in 2010, it won 45 per cent of the vote. Within the opposition, Ali Salman has been seen as one of the key moderates. He has told crowds of young demonstrators that they should not say ‘down with the king’ (a favourite protest slogan). He follows the approach of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in Iraq, a key counterbalance to the Iranian interpretation of Shia Islam. He calls for a fully elected parliament and government, but says such a major constitutional change would need to be ratified by a referendum with a supermajority, the implication being that it could not pass with Shia support alone.

For their part, the Sunni Muslim Islamist movements have been fragmented, and suspicious of their Shia counterparts, fearing their pro-democracy rhetoric is code for a tyranny of the majority or of the clerics, with Iraq seen as an alarming example. The state found it useful to exploit those fears in 2011, to undermine the opposition.

Now Ali Salman has been charged with inciting violence in a speech he gave saying that Al Wefaq had been offered arms by foreign sympathizers, but had rejected this route. Even alluding to such a possibility was illegal, the authorities said. The comment hit a nerve in an establishment fearful of Iraqi militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The chief of police said this week they have discovered a cache of imported explosives intended for terrorist purposes.

Political positioning

But Sheikh Ali’s sentencing reflects other, more political, dynamics. The authorities have suggested they might ban Al Wefaq on several occasions since 2011, but each time stepped back from this. The US and UK quietly advised them that banning the country’s main political movement would backfire. This advice chimed with the view of some in the ruling establishment, associated with the crown prince, that they would eventually need Al Wefaq if they are to reach a political settlement with the opposition.

Instead, the failure of talks between the government and the opposition last year has paved the way for Sheikh Ali’s arrest. The Crown Prince and his allies wanted to end Al Wefaq’s boycott of the half-elected parliament, but the group did not want to participate in elections they see as weak and rigged. However, if they were in parliament, Sheikh Ali would presumably not be in prison now.

The second political dynamic is regional. For the US, the Iran deal is the key priority for Middle East policy. To this end, it is seeking to reassure its Gulf allies about its commitment to their security. For the same reason, the US is publicly uncritical of the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, despite internal misgivings within the administration. Some in the Bahraini opposition hold out hope that international pressure will eventually bring their ruling family to a political compromise. But these expectations seem increasingly unrealistic.  Instead, Sheikh Ali’s sentence will probably weaken those factions, and encourage others who argue that confrontation is the only way forward.

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