Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:27 | SYDNEY

Rehabilitating Bahrain


Rodger Shanahan


27 May 2011 09:19

Let's face it, you can keep a good autocracy down forever. 

Concerted support for Arab democratisation really only has a realistic hope if the West at least remains 'on message' about the need for substantive democratic reform. But British PM David Cameron sent a mixed message about tolerance for autocratic rule with his very public welcome of the Crown Prince of Bahrain last week, a day after President Obama named Bahrain as one of those countries unwilling to embrace political reform. 

There are those who portray the Crown Prince as the pro-reform member of the ruling family battling the arch-conservatives, led by his uncle Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the Prime Minister since independence in 1971. But is that not too subtle a distinction for the purposes of public messaging?

Another sign of 'business as usual' in Bahrain would be the restoration of the F1 Grand Prix; in early May, a decision regarding its hosting was postponed until 3 June due to political unrest at the time. In somewhat prescient timing, the martial law that was imposed due to the political unrest is due to be lifted on 1 June, ahead of the mandated period but just before F1 decision time. 

Still, it must have been a rush to get all the trials of the protesters done in that time, though without the need to worry about due process, natural justice or the like, you can get through the legal process surprisingly quickly.

All of this illustrates just how difficult things are for political reformers in the Gulf states. Bahrain is weak economically, but has rich friends in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And if the West tries to move Manama toward reform too publicly, through isolation or even criticism, then these same rich friends can find ways of letting their displeasure be known. 

The West has been much more willing to put principle ahead of pragmatism in north Africa and to a lesser extent in the Levant. But in the Gulf, given the potential price that may have to be paid, pragmatism remains an awfully attractive position to adopt regarding democratisation. 

Photo by Flickr user LGEPR.