This week’s move by the authorities in Bahrain to strip the country’s most prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, of his citizenship on the grounds that he was serving foreign interests is a dangerous provocation. It is certain to inflame sectarian tension in the region and spur a backlash of protest at home. It also appears to signal an end to years of half-baked gestures by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty towards building a freer society in which the majority Shia population would be more fairly represented and enjoy greater economic opportunity.
Bahrain, which hosts the US fifth fleet, is a decadent autocracy that Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, this year said was “travelling in the right direction” on human rights and political reforms. That was not true then. It looks even less so now.
As part of a clampdown on political adversaries launched last month, the authorities have suspended the main Shia opposition party, Al Wefaq, extended a prison term for its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, prevented activists from attending a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and forced prominent dissident, Zainab al Khawaja, into exile. Human rights champion Nabeel Rajab has also been taken back into custody, where he joins a long list of prisoners of conscience who have been silenced by arrest. Sheikh Isa Qassim is one of 250 Bahrainis to have been stripped recently of their right to citizenship.
After years of brutal suppression, opposition demands for change were actually flagging and there has been no elevated threat to the regime. So it is unclear what has prompted these latest actions, which together constitute the most significant assault on civil society and the moderate opposition since Saudi troops crossed into Bahrain in 2011 to help crush protests inspired by the Arab spring. Since then, the regime has at times launched attempts at a peaceful solution and made promises of political reform. But Bahrain’s allies in London and Washington cannot with honesty speak now of progress. To do so smacks of appeasement.
It would also suggest a wider return to the status quo ante, when the west supported dictatorships in the region, wrongly assuming that they would guarantee stability. Given how readily frustration boils over into violence, this is a short-sighted approach to the Middle East today. It is also precarious, given the risk of a wider conflagration as sectarian divisions deepen and rivalry between Shia Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main supporter of the Bahrain monarchy, intensifies.
The risk of radicalising Bahrain’s Shia population is evident. As the window of expression closes and opposition figures are locked up, the scope for moderation narrows.
Predictably, Iran, which Bahrain has long accused of meddling in its internal affairs, has waded in. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard has warned the royal family in Manama that they risk provoking armed resistance.
The disturbing turn of events threaten Bahrain’s long-term stability. That should worry Washington and London. The UK wants to avoid jeopardising a recent deal for the expansion of an existing naval base that is being financed by the Bahraini government. American officials have also long argued that a policy of engagement tempers hardliners within the regime and encourages reform. Clearly this is not the case.
Washington should reimpose the ban on arms sales to Bahrain lifted last year. The UK should follow suit. Mere statements of concern are deeply unconvincing. The time has come for tougher measures.
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