3/14/2012

Interview with Dr. Christian Koch - Director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation.

 Well, the protests in Bahrain have quite a long history and they go back even to the 1970es when there was a debate in the country about the setting up of the parliamentary functions and how to really divide governance and rule in the country. We’ve seen spiraling protests in the early 1990es when the Government was suspended and this continues to the modern days.
The issue of course in Bahrain is that you have a ruing family that is from the minority Sunni side and a majority Shia population. The exact figures are not available but the estimates are that 60% of the population of Bahrain is Shia and the two sides have simply not come to any kind of agreement of how to reform politics in the country and how to have greater access to decision making also by the Shia majority population.
And what is the balance between the Shias and the Sunnis in the region?
In the region of course you do have Shia minorities also located in Saudi Arabia which mostly are in the eastern province, so geographically located right across from Bahrain. And there have been protests also inside Saudi Arabia by the Shia there. And then you have also the minority Shia in Kuwait that has been quite politically active, although here in Kuwait they are represented more in the Parliament and use that avenue through the Parliament to voice their concerns in the opposition.
Do I get it right that last year when there were major protests in Bahrain Saudi Arabia had to intervene?
It’s a little bit more complicated, I would argue. I think that when the protests started in Bahrain, there was a common position even among the elements of the Sunni population inside Bahrain for a political reform. There has been a movement for that in Bahrain as a whole. And it was only at the later stage when there was no agreement on what kind of reform to propose that sort of extremist voices on both sides, both on the Sunni and the Shia, began to harden their positions and no agreement was eventually possible.
And there was a real concern even in the Saudi Arabia that the events in Bahrain would deteriorate further and we would have a very chaotic situation taking hold on the island and that this situation would then deteriorate to the point that a country like Iran, which has in the past even made territorial claims on Bahrain, that Iran would stand and try to interfere into the domestic politics. And the message from the Saudi Arabians at that time was to send some of their security forces to help guard vital installations and to simply signal a red line to the Iranians that any kind of domestic interference inside one of the Gulf countries would not be tolerated.
But as far as I remember last year the Government of Bahrain indicated that they were about to introduce some reforms?
The problem at the moment is that there is no consensus within the ruling family of Bahrain about which way to go forward. There are certainly the voices, even within the ruling family, they have been arguing for more political reforms and for more wide and open political dialog to be held with the Shia elements. But there are also elements within the ruling family that are very adamantly opposed to any types of concessions. So, they are very split within the Khalifa itself which has really prevented any form of dialog to take place with the Shia elements and the Shia opposition and to try to resolve the current situation in Bahrain.
It’s interesting that these developments which are illustrating the crisis of, shall we say, the monarchial model in the Middle East and the Gulf region coincides with the conference that was held in Tunisia this weekend which insisted on getting back to governmental type of a khalifate. Is the system in Bahrain, does it resemble the khalifate in any way?
No, I don’t think it resembles the khalifate in any way. Yes, you do have the monarchial system to prevail in the Persian Gulf but overall, I mean you shouldn’t argue that the system in place has done quite well. They have provided a tremendous economic development for the population over the past 40 years, they have survived multiple crises in regional relations including wars, for example the invasion of Iraq and the Iran – Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait back in 1990. And throughout the time the Gulf States do have prospered quite well and a lot of credit has to go to the ruling families for this.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the model in necessarily going to be hold up over a long period of time and I think even the monarchies in the region now are challenged to come up with more widespread reforms that will maintain the legitimacy in the future. If they don’t, then they will be surprised by increased domestic political opposition as you have quite a young generation coming up that is no longer just interested in being wealthy but would like to have demands in terms of freedom, of accountability, of transparency, of against corruption and other issues like that.
So, we are in for a period of continued and heightened actually political discussions in all the Gulf States and Bahrain is simply the most obvious example that we are facing at the moment, and it is more delicate because of the sectarian element involved.
But then what could the international community do, it is so often that the international community intervenes with the most inefficient consequences?
I think there needs to be more consolidated efforts of also working with the GCC states, with the other GCC countries as well as with some of the international community. Behind the scenes they tried to promote a dialog in Bahrain, at the moment you don’t have the dialog going on and so basically you do have these daily protests that are really having a negative impact on the social and the human rights situation in the country and in the long term this will benefit no one.
So, there needs to be some more quiet diplomacy behind the scenes to try to encourage more of the reform-minded elements within the Bahraini ruling family and some of the more open-minded people within the opposition to try to come up with some sort of initial solution that then can be carried forward. I think that if they are just left by themselves we will just continue to see this civil conflict protract and even get worse.