Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bahrain Monarchy's Moment Of Truth

Joseph A. Kechichian writes: King Hamad needs to empower the Crown Prince to form a government that encourages participation
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 24/02/2011

While few would deny that Iran harbours hegemonic aspirations in the Gulf region, the latest uprising in Bahrain is neither organised by Tehran, nor are the kingdom's Shiite Iranian fifth columnists. Moreover, although some Bahrainis (of all religious persuasions) may hold anti-western political views, a vast majority perceives an intrinsic value to the American military presence on the island.

With these two critical caveats enunciated upfront, what can King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa do to preserve the monarchy in Bahrain and, equally important, how can he guarantee Al Khalifa rule?

Unlike Libya and Yemen, where serious confrontations will probably continue for a while, regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt ushered in military governments that will now be sorely tested. Time will tell whether officers in Tunis and Cairo will respect their citizens' peaceful aspirations for democratisation and freedom. In Bahrain, the Al Khalifa ruling family faces a different conundrum, with competing branches engaged in a classic power struggle.

To be sure, Jeffersonian democracy would spell the end of the monarchy in Manama, although few anticipate a military takeover either. Simply stated, the Al Khalifa family enjoys the support of its officers who, not surprisingly, believe that their survival hangs in the balance. 

Therefore, to save his throne and preserve the monarchy, King Hamad will probably shed his cautionary cloak and act far more decisively than in the past. The only question that confronts the ruler is whether his actions will be bold enough.

Bahrainis were disappointed when their leader failed to follow up on his 1999 promises after he succeeded his father on the throne. Many more wished he would implement the reforms foreseen in the 2001 National Charter that anticipated a return to constitutional rule.

Instead, family disputes postponed the concrete measures that were voted upon in a popular referendum, something that can no longer be tolerated.

Indeed, recent events essentially mean that decisions must now carry teeth and, at a minimum, require a replacement of Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa as prime minister. Further, his successor may well have to be elected, perhaps even share the burden of responsibility with a new parliament. Such changes may well appease demonstrators but this might not be enough.

A wiser and more courageous step might see the monarch side with his heir apparent, Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who would very much like to resurrect the 1973 Constitution. That statute allowed free parliamentary elections, but was suspended because the ruling family perceived it as pledging too many rights.

It behooves Shaikh Salman to declare that henceforth Bahrain would live under the 1973 Constitution and promise to never suspend it again. Only such an assurance might persuade the vast majority of Bahrainis to believe in the monarchy again.

Presumably, while the crisis in Bahrain remains dominated by internal concerns, few can ignore the Iranian factor that looms large over the horizon. To be sure, the Iranian desire to influence socio-political developments on the Arabian Peninsula never waned, with some clerics hoping to export the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the Lower Gulf.

In fact, although the long-standing Iranian claims on Bahrain were settled after the 1970 UN-sponsored referendum, obtuse clerics in Tehran seldom failed to rekindle what they interpreted as "historical rights" over the island-state.

Equally important, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders were repeatedly told by Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, as well as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to relinquish their security agreements with the US, Britain and France.

Just a few weeks ago, Ahmadinejad harangued Iranians gathered at Freedom Square to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 Revolution with these epochal words: "We will soon see a new Middle East materialising without America and the Zionist regime and there will be no room for world arrogance in it."

Against this tide, GCC states will have little choice but to strengthen their regional security ties, as a brand new strategic equation emerges in the Gulf region.

Wisely, King Hamad pulled his troops from Manama's streets, and allowed Bahrainis to return to Pearl Roundabout to stage peaceful demonstrations. He now needs to empower his heir to form a government that encourages participation to avoid sectarian strife.

Likewise, opposition forces need to also accept the heir's calls for dialogue if for no other reason than to demonstrate their bona fide interests in the country's welfare. For although a regime change may satisfy extremists, what Bahrainis crave for most are social justice, equality, and political rights long denied by conservative family members.

In his 12th century magnum opus, the Sulwan Al Mutafi Udwan Al Atba (Consolation for the Ruler During the Hostility of Subjects), the Arab philosopher Mohammad Ibn Zafar Al Siqilli opined: "The king, who believes that the minds of princes are superior to those of counsellors, has fallen into a great error. If he gets into the bad habit of contradicting a wise and faithful counsellor — without manifest reason — it is certain that he will never prosper."

King Hamad may wish to listen to his heir, ‘a wise and faithful counsellor', to avoid an apocalyptic outcome for his kingdom and his family.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.

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