Middle East

Time running out as Bahrain tries to revive national dialogue

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa shows the UK's Prince Andrew round the Bahrain International Airshow (16 January 2014)
Image caption The meeting between Prince Salman (centre) and the opposition came a day before a visit by Prince Andrew

A recent meeting between Bahrain's crown prince and opposition representatives has raised hopes that the suspended national dialogue process could be revived. The BBC's Bill Law looks at the prospects for ending the deadlock in the Gulf island kingdom.

Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's decision to hold talks on 15 January with leaders of the five main opposition groupings for the first time since pro-democracy protests erupted three years ago surprised many observers.

Afterwards, the main Shia opposition bloc, al-Wefaq, said the meeting had been "especially frank and very transparent" and studied ways to have a "serious dialogue that would result in a new political framework that shapes a comprehensive solution".

The government meanwhile said the parties had committed to "accelerate dialogue and elevate discussion by including more senior representatives from all parties".

The meeting was notable for at least two reasons.

The first was the prominent role of the crown prince.

Seen as a moderate in the Sunni ruling family, the Al Khalifa, he has effectively been sidelined since 2011 by hardliners who want few if any concessions to be made to the Shia majority demanding greater rights and an end to discrimination.

The second reason was the presence at Prince Salman's side of one of those hardliners - the Minister for the Royal Court, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed bin Salman Al Khalifa.

The hardliners have been accused of trying to undermine the national dialogue, so it was surprising to see Sheikh Khaled at a meeting to revive the process only days after the government had suspended it, blaming the opposition for the breakdown.

'Deep-rooted issues'

A source told the BBC that after halting the dialogue, the Khalifas had come under "intense" pressure from Western allies to get it back on track.

"The royal family needed to show the UK and US that it was doing something."

However, the source said the opposition's meeting with the crown prince had been merely a "branding exercise", adding: "The hardliners are simply playing for time."

Not long after the talks, the UK government published its response to a critical report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

MPs had criticised what they described as the failure of Bahrain to "quickly implement the important and practical recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry", a review commissioned by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 2011 that delivered a searing indictment of his government and its handling of the protest movement.

Image caption The national dialogue has so far made little progress, with both sides blaming the other for the stalemate

King Hamad accepted the BICI's recommendations and promised swift action. However, more than two years after they were issued, critics argue that little has been achieved.

The Foreign Affairs Committee said this had "created further difficulties in [Bahrain's] relationship with the UK", and had "squandered the good faith and goodwill that the BICI could have helped restore".

The UK government argued that "progress had been made in a number of areas, in particular relating to judicial and security sector reform."

But it conceded that the BICI "revealed a number of deep-rooted issues that pose significant challenges for the Bahraini government, some of which involve fundamental institutional, behavioural and cultural change which we acknowledge will take time to address fully".

'Another game'

Unfortunately, time may be running out.

Bahrain's economy has been severely damaged by the failure to resolve what has become a dangerous sectarian dispute.

And the kingdom's international image has been tarnished, not least among its neighbours.

Image caption The national dialogue was intended to resolve tensions over the repression of mass protests since 2011

The ineffectual efforts of the ruling family to end the crisis are said to have annoyed the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other members of the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Senior Wefaq spokesman Jalil al-Khalil told the BBC that the opposition, though welcoming of Crown Prince Salman's initiative, needed to be convinced that this time the government was serious about dialogue, after a year of talks that failed to produce even an agenda.

Mr Khalil said he feared it "might be another game that will be spoilt by the hardliners".

He called for the release of political prisoners, which Wefaq estimates now number more than 3,000.

And he threatened that unless there was significant progress, Wefaq would boycott national elections scheduled later this year.

That would be a big blow to the ruling family, which continues to insist that it is serious about reform.

Without the largest opposition bloc in parliament, such a claim will only ring hollow to the Bahraini opposition's supporters and increasingly to the country's allies like the US and the UK, who are pushing quietly but firmly for a meaningful dialogue process.

The government of Bahrain did not respond to requests to comment.