Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Omar Sirri

As Bahrain’s political crisis continues, following the failure of formal dialogue efforts, the role of civil society and informal discussions is now all the more important. Bahrain’s traditionally active civil society could make valuable contribution to efforts to reach a political resolution – if given the political space to do so.

A Bahraini protester holds a national flag during an anti-government protest on September 5, 2014 in the village of Jannusan, west of Manama. Photo by MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty ImagesA Bahraini protester holds a national flag during an anti-government protest on September 5, 2014 in the village of Jannusan. Photo by Getty Images.
  • Bahrain’s political crisis continues, following the failure of dialogue efforts since 2011. That crisis is not only damaging the country’s economy and social fabric; it is also contributing to a deepening of sectarian tensions and an increased risk of violence.
  • The failure of the dialogue efforts to date is radicalizing the opposition and weakening the reformist elements within the government. At the same time, tight restrictions on freedom of association, speech and political activity are not silencing the most vocal and radical of the political opposition; rather, they are squeezing out the very moderates with whom the authorities will eventually need to work if they are to reach a sustainable political resolution to the crisis.
  • Because of the stalemate, many Bahrainis expect the future of their country to be determined by the government’s interactions with larger powers – especially the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia – adding to the sense of disempowerment among the population. But those countries have many other priorities; and it is unclear whether they have a clear vision for the future of Bahrain.
  • Despite the stalling of the formal dialogue, Bahrain’s traditionally active civil society could make a valuable contribution to sincere efforts to reach a political resolution – if, that is, it were given the political space to do so. Much work needs to be done on imagining the real possibilities for Bahrain’s future – not only the structure of the parliament but also how the country could develop its economy and handle its various economic and security dependencies, as well as determining the nature of its national identity.
  • Informal discussions with diverse Bahraini young people suggest there are many options for a political settlement that could provide not only a degree of stability but also at least some measure of meaningful change. A more sustainable approach would be to address the political and socio-economic root causes of community divisions rather than seeking a sectarian power-sharing bargain.
  • Regardless of whether they identified themselves as opposition activists, government supporters or neither, these young people expressed the conviction that politics would change and that there would be a greater degree of popular empowerment during their lifetimes.
  • By continuing to promote trade, expand their naval bases and lavish praise on minor reforms amid repeated major setbacks, the UK and the US are offering few significant incentives for major reform (or disincentives for continuing with the status quo). In the long term uprisings may well become more violent, vengeful and anti-Western than the peaceful protests of 2011.