Behind the Failure of Bahrain’s Uprising

Bahrain, a tiny archipelago in the Persian Gulf and a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has a vivid civil society, particularly by GCC standards. There are numerous political parties, trade unions and associations of various callings that are at the heart of a long and deeply rooted tradition of street politics. Sectarian demography adds to the peculiarity of Bahrain: Shias constitute around 70 percent of the population, while the ruling dynasty, the Al Khalifas, belong to the Sunni minority (30 percent).

Dealing with their restive civil society has always been a difficult challenge for the Al Khalifas. Upon independence from British protectorate in 1971, the monarchy agreed to organize the election of a Constituent Assembly (1972), which voted in a constitution in 1973 that established a male elected parliament of 40 members. Because of repeated conflicts with the emir however, the assembly was disbanded two years later in 1975 and only reinstated in 2002 after the current monarch, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, came to power. On Feb. 14, 2001, the king submitted to the universal suffrage a National Charter proposing the transformation of Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. The text was approved by a little more than 98 percent of voters, with a participation rate nearing 95 percent. A year later, however, the king unilaterally promulgated a new constitution contradicting the hopes of the opposition by greatly curtailing parliament’s powers.

A new cycle of crisis then opened, of which the uprising of February and March 2011 is the most violent episode. In 2002, the main opposition forces refused the new constitution and decided to boycott that year’s elections to obtain the reinstatement of the 1973 constitution. This was a core demand of the 2011 demonstrators who, hoping to benefit from the wave of uprisings shaking the Arab world after the Tunisian revolution, gathered on the Pearl Roundabout on Feb. 14. This first demonstration was organized exactly 10 years after the voting of the National Charter, a way to remind the king that he was first and foremost asked to abide by the popular vote.

In this general context, the advent of the uprising did not come as a surprise. The 2002 boycott had indeed led the regime to go back on the liberalization process and to pressure the activists. In 2006, al-Wifaq (the Concord) – the biggest opposition party staffed by religious-minded Shias but which often acts in coalition with secular parties – decided to change strategy. It participated in the elections and transformed into an institutionalized opposition. While continuing to oppose the regime, it also collaborated with the government in some aspects of economic reform, most notably the “reform of the labor market” aimed at solving the endemic unemployment problem. Al-Wifaq’s change of position however contributed to increased tension. It indeed entailed the toughening of some major opposition figures, who split from al-Wifaq to create al-Haqq (the Right), which continued to advocate the elections boycott. Its rank and file engaged in regular street riots with security forces. With others, they were at the heart of the 2011 uprising.

The failure of the Bahraini uprising was as predictable as its outbreak for three main reasons. The first is the lack of a common agenda among the demonstrators. Al-Wifaq only joined the demonstrations reluctantly because they contradicted its accommodation strategy. In line with its status as an institutionalized opposition, it had limited demands: that Bahrain be a real constitutional monarchy with, among other things, a prime minister chosen among the parliamentary majority. As for al-Haqq and other groups, they hoped for a regime change toward a full-fl edged democracy. In this context, al-Wifaq’s various attempts to establish a dialogue with the regime were sabotaged by hardliners.

A second reason for the failure was the internal factionalism of the ruling dynasty. It has always been divided about political and economic reforms. Upon his enthronement in 1999, King Hamad set in motion an overall reform process aimed at stabilizing Bahrain’s political and economic situation, shaken by a four-year uprising (1994-98) and the degradation of economic conditions. The relative political liberalization goes against the pessimist position of the dynasty’s old guard, which favored suppression over cooptation as a means to deal with the opposition. The economic reforms, which aim at attracting foreign investment, boosting the private sector and reducing unemployment, hurt the interests of some leading members of the dynasty, not least Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who engages in predatory economic activities and has strong supporters among the merchant oligarchy who control the private sector. For him, the uprising was a golden opportunity to regain lost ground by presenting the king’s policy as a total failure.

A third reason was Bahrain’s dependence on Saudi Arabia. The neighboring kingdom, which was linked to Bahrain by a causeway in 1986, is the last resort guarantor of the Al Khalifas’ survival since the withdrawal of British troops from the Gulf in 1971. Moreover, since the near depletion of Bahrain proper’s oil resources, a major part of the country’s state budget has come from the Abu Safa oil well, of which Bahrain and Saudi Arabia share sovereignty but which is operated and controlled by the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), the Saudi oil company. This dependence explains why the Saudis felt free to send in their tanks to quell the uprising March 14, with the benediction of the Al Khalifas’ falcons.

The Saudis’ strong leeway in Bahrain, a country they consider a protectorate, is one explanation of the inability of the American administration to avoid Saudi tanks crossing the bridge. Another reason was, of course, the U.S. evaluation of its own interests. While officially opposed to the use of violence against the demonstrators and favoring dialogue between protesters and the rulers, nothing indicates that the U.S. is willing to support systematic regime change in the Arab world. This is even more evident in the Gulf, where the aim is to maintain stability to safeguard American military bases – of which the 5th Fleet in Bahrain is the jewel – as well as avoid antagonizing a swing oil producer such as Saudi Arabia. Moreover, after the Iraqi experience, where the rising power of Shia Islamic movements was correlated with the extension of Iranian networks of influence, many American diplomats and experts think it would be dangerous to see the Bahraini opposition taking over there. Hence there should be no misunderstanding about the American attitude toward the Bahraini crisis: the strong condemnation of the crackdown does not mean a support for regime change. At this point, the American strategy is to favor the return to the days when the liberal wing of the Al Khalifa dynasty – most notably Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa – was in charge of subtly managing the traditionally restive Bahraini population by a mix of measured repression and cooptation of mainstream opposition forces.

For all these reasons, the Bahraini uprising has most probably put an end to the political liberalization process that King Hamad launched in 2001. It lasted only 10 years, almost to the day. In the context of the all-out repression that followed the evacuation of the Pearl Roundabout and the destruction of the monument standing on it on March 18, it is the very future of the parliament that is uncertain. This is without mentioning the economic health of this country, which has always been tied to its capacity to present an image of liberalism and stability to international investors.

Laurence Louër holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (IEP, 2001). She serves as a permanent consultant for the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is also the coeditor- in-chief of Critique Internationale. Her research focuses on the politics of identity and ethnicity in the Middle East.


2/14/11 Violent clashes at demonstrations in Bahrain lead to deaths.

2/15/11 Bahrain’s main opposition party withdraws from parliament, and Bahraini security forces shoot at funeral mourners.

2/17/11 Bahraini security forces kill at least two people at Pearl Square, the main rallying point for demonstrators.

3/14/11 Saudi Arabia sends military forces to Bahrain to help put down the growing protests.

3/15/11 Amidst growing violence the Bahraini monarch declares Martial Law and orders his army to do what it takes to stop the rebellion.

3/18/11 Bahrain forces destroy the Pearl Roundabout, the main hub for pro-democracy forces.

4/16/11 Evidence reveals that plain clothed Saudi forces are linked to perpetrating violence against the Shia community in Bahrain.

4/28/11 Four men are sentenced to death for the killing of two police officers.

5/11/11 Bahrain’s oil company fires 300 people, who have taken part in protests, setting an example for others.

6/06/11 Doctors and nurses who treated anti-government protestors go on secret trial for charges of trying to overthrow the monarchy.

6/07/11 After some relative calm, Bahrain is given the go ahead to host the Grand Prix Formula One race.

6/29/11 Bahrain’s king orders an independent fact-finding mission to assess whether protesters’ human rights were abused during protests.

7/02/11 Bahrain’s main Shia opposition party agrees to join ‘National Dialogue’ talks with the government that included 300 delegates from different parties. Delegates are to meet three times a week until the end of July.

7/25/11 Independent commission begins inquiry into Bahraini crackdown of protests.

7/29/11 Tens of thousands of Bahrainis protest the results of the ‘National Dialogue’, which was aimed at initiating reforms in the country. Protestors say the reforms did not go far enough.

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