Political Forces In Bahrain


Unrest on the island has often been presented as a sectarian conflict between the majority Shia population and the ruling Sunni minority. For much of the past 20 years, though, the opposition has included a mix of both communities, united by their demands for political reform. The Shia majority has been more active in its opposition in recent years, but in large part this reflects the poor economic opportunities that the Sunni-dominated government affords the Shia. During the 1990s, the London-based BFM spearheaded the campaign for political and economic reform. In February 2001 the emir pardoned a number of exiled Bahrainis, including prominent BFM activists, some of whom returned to Bahrain.

The main opposition group in Bahrain is al-Wefaq, which mainly comprises Shia activists, and is headed by Sheikh Ali, the cleric whose arrest in 1994 sparked off unrest. Al-Wefaq, which has links with the BFM, has emerged as the main opposition group and the largest elected bloc in parliament. Other opposition groups include the NDAS (also known as Waad), a secular leftist group; the Islamic Action Society, a minor Shia Islamist group; and the Nationalist Democratic Rally Society, another secular group with links to the now-exiled Iraqi Baath party.

Although the government will remain shielded to an extent by the Consultative Council following the 2006 election, it will be subjected to much greater scrutiny than before and is likely to witness a much greater degree of dissent within parliament. Although the royal family may not be entirely comfortable with such an eventuality, their primary motivation at present appears to be to keep dissent and criticism contained within parliament rather than on the streets, where it is potentially more disruptive to business and social life.

The accession of Sheikh Hamad sparked fears of a power struggle between the new ruler and his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa, who has been prime minister and arguably the most powerful political figure in Bahrain since independence in 1971. (Sheikh Isa acted largely as a statesman, exerting little influence over day-to-day political matters.) Personal relations between Sheikh Hamad and SheikhKhalifa have long been poor, reflecting their rivalry and Sheikh Hamad’s long wait before attaining formal office (he was named crown prince in 1964). The two men have very different backgrounds: the prime minister is closely linked to the business and merchant community, whereas the king is regarded as a strong military figure.

Soon after his accession, Sheikh Hamad signalled his intention to become more actively involved in government decision-making, threatening to bring him into direct conflict with the prime minister. Initially, this rivalry manifested itself through lavish spending programmes, as each tried to outbid the other to win popular support. More recently, however, the king has extended his authority by appointing family supporters to key positions. Most notably, in January 2005 the king hived off the national economy portfolio from the former Ministry of Finance and National Economy, creating the EDB, to which he appointed his son, the crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, as chairman. The finance and national economy ministry traditionally fell within Sheikh Khalifa’s orbit of influence, giving him control not only of the government budget, but also of economic policy. The EDB has now taken over the direction of the latter, however, thereby giving the king greater control over policy formulation at the expense of his uncle.

This manoeuvre was repeated in September 2005, when the king dismissed Sheikh Isa bin Ali al-Khalifa from his position as oil minister as part of a broader move that saw the dissolution of the entire Ministry of Oil, to be replaced by the National Oil and Gas Authority. The chairman of the new authority, who now also holds the rank of minister, Abdel-Hussain bin Ali Mirza, is a backer of the king, whereas Sheikh Isa bin Ali is a close ally of the prime minister. However, there is no doubt that the prime minister and his conservative supporters will still be able to act as a strong check on the king’s authority, slowing the pace of reform. Most notably, the EDB has had to postpone controversial labour-market reform plans in the face of opposition from some members of the business community.

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