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Bahrain Feature: Pushing A Deal with the Crown Prince (Delmar Morgan)

Crown Prince Salman with Al Wefaq's Sheikh Ali Salman (Mazen Mahdi/The National)Ever since the start of the mass protests in February 2011, the US Government's hope has been that the opposition could reach a deal with the regime, notably through the "moderate" Crown Prince Salman, over "reform".

That hope was dashed in March 2011 with the regime crackdown, backed by a Saudi-led military force, on the demonstrations and the subsequent polarisation of support and opposition to the monarchy and the Government. However, after the publication of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry's report in November, with its call for significant change, Washington returned to the strategy

There have some discussions between the regime "moderates" and representatives of the largest opposition society Al Wefaq this year. These have been halting in any progress, but Alex Delmar Morgan, US officials, and an Al Wefaq member try to give the initiative a boost in The Wall Street Journal:

Bahrain's leading opposition party is looking to revive stalled democracy talks, with the hope that U.S. backing will give the country's crown prince more clout as the Sunni ruling family's representative in negotiations.

The party, Al Wefaq, views Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa as the government leader most able to reach out to the mainly Shiite opposition, which shook the island with mass protests last year.

A security crackdown stifled those demonstrations and strengthened the country's hard-liners—testing ties with the U.S., a longtime ally of Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based.

Western-educated, 42-year-old Prince Salman, the king's son and heir to the throne, led talks with the opposition during last year's protests, in which protesters called for political change, improved rights and, in some cases, the downfall of the monarchy.

The talks collapsed when the monarchy invited Saudi troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to help silence the rebellion, sidelining the crown prince. Hard-liners in the regime, aligned with the king's uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, gained ascendancy, analysts say.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is believed to hold a middle ground, but he also has been marginalized by conservative factions, analysts say,

A further round of talks in February ended without progress. Clashes still take place regularly between police and demonstrators in Shiite villages around the capital.

"The crown prince is viewed as savior, someone who can bring about a solution, but there is no alternative to him," said Wefaq member Jasim Husain. "The alternative are the hard-liners." The crown prince's office couldn't be reached for comment for this article.

Wefaq is demanding a fully elected Parliament and independence in the judiciary, which is appointed by the king. The government says talks must include Sunni and Shiite opposition groups, while Wefaq rejects the inclusion of Sunni groups, saying they represent the views of the regime.

Wefaq, meanwhile, says it is willing to discuss only the timing of reforms, not the substance. "We are ready to negotiate on how to reach democracy, but we will not negotiate democracy," said Wefaq member Khalil Almarzooq.

Wefaq sees the crown prince as its best possible partner in the royal family. The crown prince offered concessions early last year in a bid to end the Shiite rebellion, and his appeal among the opposition was bolstered recently when he attended a village Shiite funeral in April.

In early May, in a sign of support, the U.S. announced it would resume limited weapons sales to Bahrain during a visit to Washington by the crown prince, who held discussions with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials.

"We wanted to show that he could deliver," said a senior U.S. official briefed on the Bahrain policy.

"The crown prince is one of the remaining, one of the only leaders and members of the royal family, who can reach across sectarian lines," said a person familiar with U.S. policy. "Clearly he is an incredibly important figure and he continues to have tremendous appeal."

Yet the crown prince's brainchild, the Bahrain Economic Development Board, which acted as rival power center to the prime minister's cabinet, has slowly been dismantled over the past few months, with labor and economic overhauls rolled back. Some allies of the crown prince in the government have resigned, including Talal al-Zain, the chief executive of Bahrain's sovereign-wealth fund.

A Bahrain government spokesman denied that the crown prince had been sidelined in the royal family and said he would have a "major say" in any dialogue between the opposition and the government.

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