Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:44 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:44 | SYDNEY

Bahrain: Attending the wrong dialogue?



4 December 2013 10:30

I am returning from Lebanon and Bahrain, where I've been speaking to various elements of the Shi'a community in each country.

Lebanon's sectarian problems have always been multi-faceted and are complicated by centuries of foreign interference, making their resolution virtually impossible. In Bahrain they are straightforward, which makes the lack of resolution all the more frustrating. 

A roadblock in a Shi'a area of Bahrain, set up following the demolition of a number of Shi'a mosques which the Government claimed were built without permission (Saturday 30 November; photo by the author)

In a few days, the IISS-run, Bahraini Government-funded, Manama Dialogue will take place in the Bahraini capital. As well as the semi-public conference proceedings, the three-day event offers an opportunity for senior regional and international figures to meet privately and talk about the enormous changes taking place in the region.

But while the world's leaders enjoy the hospitality of the Bahraini royal family, the local political dialogue remains on life support. While this may appear a minor issue given the scale of the region's problems, the inability of the Bahraini Government to reform does not bode well for more complex societies.

Bahrain's divide is a simple sectarian one, and the solution relatively straightforward. But it requires a commitment to reform that hardliners in the ruling Khalifa family seem to lack.

Bahrain's Shi'a opposition parties are in an invidious position and have developed a stoic approach to reform, largely because they have has no other choice. While the Bahraini Government receives financial support from its Sunni Gulf allies, the Shi'a opposition is nervous about receiving even moral support from Iran or Iraq lest it stand accused of being a stooge for foreign interests. The modest nature of Shi'a religious buildings and institutions I saw is evidence of this.

The other challenge for the Bahraini Shi'a is from within.

In an interconnected world, the media-savvy Bahraini Shi'a youth are not willing to be as stoic as the opposition parties.

While the opposition parties see the ability to maintain public order among the community as a key element of their political strategy, the youth are decentralised but connected. This allows them to coalesce to demonstrate, but not to organise themselves politically. It is a challenge for the Shi'a political opposition to keep them within the fold.

The risk is that the longer national dialogue fails to produce any meaningful reform, the more radicalised the youth are likely to become.There are already Bahraini Sunni youths fighting in Syria in small numbers, and whispers that some Shi'a youth may also be there.

It would be nice to think that as well as attending the Sunday session at the Ritz Carlton on 'Sectarianism in Politics', whatever Australian delegation attends the Manama Dialogue might also take the opportunity to make the short drive to some of the Shi'a suburbs and speak to the opposition, or engage government officials on the lack of reform. Otherwise senior regional and international figures will continue to see sectarianism as an esoteric concept, rather than a lived experience.

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