“The possibility to enact peaceful societal change seems remote in Bahrain, given the political and religious structures in place,” he said.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
BP: According to reports, the health condition of Bahraini Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim has been deteriorating in recent weeks. What could be the consequences of this for Bahraini regime?
A: It is always difficult to predict how a tension-ridden civil society will react in the case of a major leader’s possible demise. On the one hand, it is clear the Bahraini regime has long sought the removal of the Sheikh from a position of influence over the Shia majority in Bahrain. On the other hand, its prejudicial mistreatment of the Sheikh over the past few years has set the stage for his followers to consider armed resistance in his honor, regardless of his formally professed views of peaceful civil change. If Qassim’s health continues to deteriorate, then I do not see how the Bahraini regime can succeed in not being seen as an accessory to his health problems if not the direct cause of them, especially from a stress level.
BP: Bahraini right groups have denounced the regime for its crackdown on dissent and for the deteriorating health condition of Sheikh Qassim, calling on the Bahraini regime to lift the siege on the cleric's home village of Diraz. Would this affect the regime's behavior?
A: Since the goal of the Bahraini regime has always been focused on limiting the political power and access of the Shia majority, it seems highly doubtful that grassroots organizations voicing their opinions will make much of an impact. The difficulty lies within the slippery slope of imperfect laws. For example, when Bahrain revoked Sheikh Qassim’s citizenship in 2016, it based this move on the fact that Bahraini law does not allow a citizen to ‘cause harm to the interests of the kingdom or behave in a way inimical with the duty of loyalty to it.’ In essence, loyalty is the law in Bahrain. Obviously, such a law makes civil protest and grassroots criticism of regime policies and positions almost impossible. This has always been one of the fundamental problems of the Shia/Sunni divide in Bahrain, where the Sheikh has been the spiritual leader of a societal majority, living under a minority regime that has legally demanded allegiance.
BP: Mass anti-government protests are still ongoing in Bahrain to denounce the oppressive regime. What's your take on the prospects of these protests?
A: Keeping in mind my answer above, one must consider the prospects for these protests being quite minimal. At least, the possibility to enact peaceful societal change seems remote in Bahrain, given the political and religious structures in place. My preceding answer covers the former, but the latter aspect alludes to the ever-present accusation leveled against Shia communities across the Middle East that do not reside in Iran: most governments do not allow the possibility that a Shia community outside of Iran can develop any independent political identities aside from complete dependence on Iranian policy and positions. In some cases (think Hezbollah) this can be a legitimate concern. But in many other cases it seems at least plausible that concerned Sunni governments all over the Middle East region have used this as a strategy to suppress and prevent Shia communities from any real political or governmental role in said societies. This has happened numerous times with the followers of Sheikh Qassim, where the Bahraini regime declares their positions as akin to ‘representing the interests of a foreign government.’ The key importance of this is that it allows the governing regime to ignore domestic criticism and wrap its own flaws and mistakes in a flag of so-called justified nationalism.
BP: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the Bahraini regime since the conflict broke out in Bahrain. What goals do these countries pursue through supporting the Bahraini regime in its cruel crackdown against its citizens?
A: The UAE tends to loosely align with Saudi Arabia on many issues, so it is not so surprising to see this allegiance once more. But perhaps more importantly in this particular case, the UAE may be legitimately concerned about regime change or massive civil unrest in a kingdom so close to its own geographical doorstep. And while Saudi Arabia may make the same claim, there are at least two other more important reasons that explain its position: first, it most certainly sees the shadow of Iran hovering over these Shia protests, especially with the followers of Sheikh Qassim. Second, given Saudi Arabia is somewhat obsessed with checking and blocking how Iran projects power across the greater Middle East region, it is almost maniacally focused on rooting out ANY expression or presence of Iranian influence in the [Persian] Gulf, an area which it has long considered its exclusive domain of mini-regional hegemony.
This is often rejected by those who either support the civil protests in Bahrain or simply do not like to see repressive regime measures being supported by other countries. It often leaves peace-loving people perplexed or frustrated by the apparent cruelty of such foreign policies. Unfortunately, this ignores what we have been discussing: when countries like the UAE or Saudi Arabia can make somewhat loose arguments that hint at ‘foreign interference’ and ‘religious extremism,’ they are purposely using the buzz words that gain traction with countries like the United States and the European Union and help earn flexibility for Saudi Arabia or the UAE to do some interfering of their own. As cruel as it may appear, Saudi or Emirati national security interests will always trump the concerns of Bahraini Shia citizens, not just to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but perhaps to most countries in the West as well.
BP: How has the support of the United States and Britain affected the Bahraini conflict?
A: Not to be too cynical, but leaning on the reality mentioned in the preceding answer, the special relationship between the United States and Britain will almost undoubtedly result in relative indifference to the Bahraini conflict. This does not mean either country wants to see Bahraini citizens suffer or that they would not love to see true democracy flourish and deepen in Bahrain. The problem is that the continued tortured history of mistrust and animosity between the US and Iran makes the Shia element problematic for Americans. Saudi Arabia and America share the same diplomatic presumption that any Shia community in the Middle East is or will be a de facto mouthpiece for Iranian diplomacy and power. This perception instantly reduces the possibility that the United States will move more forcefully to end the Bahraini conflict or give greater attention to the concerns of the Shia majority there. It will voice concern at any obvious repression, of course. It may even formally declare the need for all parties to diplomatically resolve their problems. But the “Iran problem” means America is a long way away from overcoming its self-imposed Shia-phobia. When we then add on the continued strong military alliance between the Bahrain regime and the US military (they signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement back in 1991, Bahrain remains the regional headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and America designated the Bahraini regime a ‘major non-NATO ally’ back in 2001), then it becomes almost ludicrous to consider either the United States or Great Britain maneuvering or speaking in any way that would upset the power balance inside of Bahrain.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Faculty for the Doctoral Programs in Global Security and Strategic Intelligence at the American Military University. He has published top-tier research that has impacted real world decision-making in the US and beyond, with over 100 analytical editorials and commissioned opinion pieces representing the full spectrum of global security translated into Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish, Farsi, Greek, and Uzbek. He also serves as Vice Chairman at ModernDiplomacy.eu, a virtual conflict resolution think tank based in Athens, Greece. He has a BA from Colgate University, MA from the University of London, and PhD from Brown University.