Toby Jones writes:
After months of popular protests against the regime, Bahraini officials are desperate to convince anyone who will listen, and most importantly to their long time allies in Washington, that the Persian Gulf island nation is returning to normal. On Tuesday Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa visited the White House, where he offered assurances that the regime is serious about political reform and engaging in a “national dialogue” with the country’s beleaguered opposition. Although it has directed muted criticism toward the Bahraini government, the Obama administration has offered repeated reassurances that it intends to stand by the ruling family. The White House appears to believe, or is banking on hope, that the Crown Prince is both willing and able to shepherd the country through the current crisis. But it may be time for the U.S. to reconsider its largest commitment to the Bahraini monarchy — the massive U.S. Fifth Fleet docked on the island — and the complicated relationship of mutual dependency that got us here in the first place.
Whatever opening there was for real dialogue in Bahrain, it appears to have closed. While the Crown Prince is busy touring Europe and the U.S. promoting himself as a force for moderation, it’s the hardliners in the royal family who currently hold power. Rather than reconciliation, their priority continues to be to oppressing — and often punishing – the protesters calling for a more representative government. The regime has taken extreme, frequently violent measures to destroy the country’s political opposition and defeat the forces of democracy.
Over the last few months, as the regime’s security forces have cracked down ever more brutally, the prospects for meaningful reform may well have passed. Since mid-March, when Saudi Arabia sent a contingent of its National Guard into Bahrain to help violently clear the streets of protesters, Bahrain has been the scene of terrible suffering. Hundreds languish in the country’s dungeons, where they are subject to horrifying torture and the humiliation of being paraded in front of military tribunals. Thousands of others have been sacked from their jobs.
The island’s Shiite majority, long politically marginalized and discriminated against, is paying the heaviest price. They have been stunned into silence by the vicious behavior of the Sunni regime. Bahraini politics have been polarized by sectarianism and the country’s rulers are systematically creating an apartheid state. Reconciliation, let alone accountability for those responsible for the violence, is a remote possibility. So deeply ingrained are mutual antagonisms that, if this conflict continues, the most likely outcome may be an enduring hostility and the potential for perennial violence.