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Bahrain Analysis: 5-Point Guide to Crown Prince's "Return to Dialogue" (Gengler)

Crown Prince Salman's speech at the Manama Dialogue last Friday

Justin Gengler, on his blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain, assesses Crown Prince Salman's recent, public initiative: "With New Plans for Dialogue, February 14 Uprising May Come Full Circle":

How fitting it would be if Bahrain's uprising were finally resolved in the same manner in which it originally was not resolved --- with a political deal brokered by the Crown Prince --- an appropriately absurd result to highlight even more starkly how far the turmoil, bloodshed, and political posturing of the previous two years accomplished *literally* nothing.

The most decisive moment of the uprising was of course the two days March 12 and March 13, in which time Sh. Salman failed to coax opposition leaders to the bargaining table despite offering a generous seven-course menu of thorny political issues that he, and by implication King Hamad, was ostensibly prepared to discuss. [The opposition political society] Al-Wefaq demanded the government first agree to an elected constitutional assembly empowered to revise the 2002 charter, and got nothing.  The ill-fated Coalition for a Republic demanded --- well --- a republic, and got thrown in jail.  And, finally, senior Al Khalifa conservatives demanded that the king's son...stop horse-assin' around, and got in touch with their friends from Saudi Arabia to help put an end to all that crazy dialogue talk.   

Now, nearly two years later, history may be on the brink of (hopefully not) repeating itself, with Crown Prince Salman issuing a surprise call for renewed political talks at last week's appropriately-named Manama Dialogue conference.  While some criticised the event both for its perceived legitimation of the government's position as well as for the seeming lack of attention on Bahrain at a forum on regional security (I will acknowledge that I underestimated its usefulness and, later, the seriousness of Sh. Salman's announcement), it seems ---and I've heard from some who would know --- that Bahrain was indeed on the agenda.

Of course, the sudden transmutation of the crown prince into a relevant political figure in Bahrain does not guarantee that this latest attempt at dialogue will fair any better than the last.  There are, however, some reasons to be encouraged.  In semi-particular order:

1.  A senior and (more or less) neutral royal is finally taking the lead.

Following Sh. Salman's very public March 2011 failure, the government set out to ensure that it would not be embarrassed again.  To this end, its choices of sponsor for subsequent dialogues -- or what it called dialogues -- were either powerless to broker any actual agreement (Speaker of the Council of Representatives Khalifa Al Dhaharani, during the National Dialogue); or so uncompromising that it could be sure not to lose face (Foreign Minister Sh. Khalid bin Ahmad, earlier this spring).  The problem with Al Dhaharani, and with the entire National Dialogue, should be clear enough.  The main problem with Sh. Khalid was that he was hopelessly partisan: not only does he despise the opposition (and Shi'a generally), but he is an active supporter of one segment of the Sunni counter-opposition.  This leads directly to encouraging sign number two.

2. Bahrain's Sunnis will not be excluded.

The most recent attempt to restart dialogue sponsored by Sh. Khalid ultimately was scuttled because it was stuck in the old paradigm of backdoor talks between the government and opposition.  Entirely excluded from the negotiating table, that is, were representatives from Sunni society, and this despite Sunnis' decisive role in checking the momentum of the uprising in February and March 2011.  Upset that the state would seek to negotiate without their input, the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih both rallied against the still-theoretical dialogue, and it was never to be heard from again.

By contrast, the crown prince's new initiative will reportedly take the form of "a conference on human rights that would bring together Shia and Sunni parties and pave the way for a political dialogue". [Al Wefaq leader] Ali Salman also is said (in the same Financial Times article) to have agreed to three-way talks.  Certainly, many Sunnis will continue to oppose on principle any government talks with the opposition.  They will (and, as will be discussed shortly, already are) decrying the weakness and stupidity of a government that negotiates with "terrorists". Yet, as demonstrated already in the case of Sh. Khalid's failed initiative this spring, a sizable proportion of Bahraini Sunnis will welcome the opportunity to articulate their own political grievances and vision, something they have not often had the occasion or liberty to do.

3. The United States is not involved.

Somehow, the crown prince was able to achieve a two-for-one coup at the Manama Dialogue.  If his plan to resume talks remains the top headline, not far behind is his alleged "diplomatic flap" and "public slap against Washington"....

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