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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bahrain: failed political experiment

The following is the edited transcript of my presentation at the seminar on

Bahrain; failed political experiment, serious Human rights violations

chaired by Lord Avebury, the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, 21st August 2008.

Political reforms in Bahrain approaching a dead-end

Upon assuming power in March 1999, Sheikh Hamad declared his intention to push for political reforms in Bahrain. That declaration was based on a realistic appraisal of the limited options available to him to sustain the al-Khalifa dynastic rule.

Let me recall that opposition groups were initially very sceptical to Sheikh Hamad’s claims to be the modernizing prince. Indeed, rather few of the regime’s opponents have seriously believed Sheikh Hamad’s democratic credentials or his intentions to become a paragon of good governance. Yet, they and other Bahrainis gave him the benefit of the doubt. The question that every one waited to have answered was : how far needs a non-democratic ruler move on the path of political reforms before realising that the reform process is counterproductive? In other words, can a non-democratic ruler build a democratic regime?

Some forty years ago, Samuel P. Huntington tackled these questions. In his Political Order in Changing Societies he describes a fundamental dilemma with which traditional monarchs are confronted as they grapple with perils and promises of modernisation. The King's dilemma is generated by the unresolved conflict between modern and traditional sources of authority. The basic component of this dilemma is determining the role and extent of centralisation of power in a modernising monarchy.

To solve this dilemma a modern monarch must find golden formula that simultaneously a) preserves most of his traditional authority, while accepting imperatives of modernisation, and b) reduces the disrupting challenges from his traditional as well as emerging modern constituencies.

Huntington suggests three possible strategies to a reforming monarch grappling with the pros and cons of reforms.
  • First, a strategy that leads to establishing a fully-fledged constitutional monarchy where the role and authority of the monarch are reduced to the minimum possible. This course entails several constitutional changes and a series of institutional reconstructions in order to make all authority ‘vested in the people, parties and parliament’.

  • The second strategy entails maintaining the monarchy as the principal source of authority while introducing some political measures to contain and minimise the disruptive ramifications of modernisation including political contention by emerging elites aspiring to political roles.

  • The third strategic course is simply a middle way between the previous two strategies- combining monarchical power and limited popular authority.
Sheikh Hamad strategic course is evidently the second one, i.e. a strategy that requires introducing the absolute minimum ornamental reforms while seeking to maintain the status quo, preserve the dynastic rule and maintain the monarch as the principal source of authority.

Sheikh Hamad would soon realize that he has ventured into untested waters without first securing, among other things, a popular base of support for his moves. Mistakenly, too, he has raised the expectations of his opponents and supporter alike to levels that he could not possibly carry out.

Winning the support of the ruling family has been the king’s first and foremost priority. The ruling family is his core constituency and his most secure pool of trusted recruits to administer the state and staff its security forces.

Sheikh Hamad has correctly realized the Achilles heel of his opponents lies in the divergent ideologies and inherent mutual mistrust. He has proven himself to be skilful manipulator of his regime's despotic and infrastructural powers. In his dual role as the head of a tribal hierarchy and as the head of a regime, Sheikh Hamad controls public resources and state revenues.

Together with his ruling core, Sheikh Hamad has an unrestricted discretion that can enhance or weaken the influence enjoyed by the non-alKhalifa notables. From these resources, he disburses gratuities, makramas, and favours in the form of employment, cash, and plots of land. Many of these makramas require an intermediary intervention by a notable. His endeavours contributed to the fragmentation of the opposition and splits within the ranks of each of its factions.

In spite of its initial successes, the process of political reform in Bahrain is approaching a dead-end.

Developments of the past seven years show that reforming a tribal patrimonial regime as the al-Khalifa's in Bahrain is more intricate than most of us have initially imagined. It is evident now that more drastic measures are needed to overcome the combined legacy of a long history of misrule and mismanagement of resources, competing tribal, communal and religious cleavages, as well as lack of mutual trust among political actors seeking reform.

Students of processes of political reforms in third world context point to several common obstacles. Among the frequently noted ones I will draw your attention to those relevant to our discussion on Bahrain:
1. Constriction of the political field and weakness of political organisations;
2. Weak civil society, clientalism; and omnipresence of sectarian and tribal orporatives;
3. Institutionalised corruption;
4. state-controlled media;
5. Reliance on external support.

My final note is actually a paraphrase of an incisive commentary made some years ago by a Moroccan scholar, Abdeslam Maghraoui on similar developments in his country. Three important signs confirm the king's inability to reform the authoritarian system he has inherited. First, his initiatives seem impulsive and ad hoc rather than guided by a clear reformist strategy. SEcond, he bypasses due process and formal decision-making institutions, diluting his professed aim to establish the rule of law. Third, the king personal initiatives reproduce, in a different form, the old image of the benevolent despot. The medieval mechanisms of exercising political authority are still in place.

1 comment:

heraish said...

King Hamad is one of the most progressive reformers in the GCC. His reforms are more then cosmetic as can be seen through free elections. That have resulted in a parliament that is truly inexperienced proving that they were freely elected by a population not used to parliamentary democracy. Also the second major change is to naturalization of the many foreign residents. These two things alone will have a long term impact on the future of politics in the country. He is moving towards strategy three of Huntington.