Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi was released from jail this week in Thailand, after the authorities in Bahrain dropped an extradition request related to his participation in anti-government protests in 2011. He is now back in Australia, where he has refugee status. Dissidents and government critics inside Bahrain have not been as fortunate, as the country’s highest court recently upheld life sentences against three opposition leaders on charges of spying for Qatar. In an interview, Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, discusses Bahrain’s crackdown on dissent and authoritarian retrenchment since the Arab Spring.

he Bahraini government feels emboldened mainly because of three factors, each of equal importance. First, U.S. President Donald Trump has seemingly abandoned any pretense that democracy promotion and human rights are important to American foreign policy. His emphasis on securing strong trade relations with Gulf partners and shoring up jobs for American workers means that high-profile human rights cases are no longer in the spotlight. 

Second, Bahrain’s leadership has complete confidence in its key allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and their close relationship with the Trump administration. As long as they remain close to the White House and continue to sign lucrative deals, then the U.S. will continue to look the other way while Manama detains and imprisons high-profile opposition figures on wafer-thin charges. 

Third, Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has placed his faith in the vision for the region shared by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, which pits the Gulf states and their so-called “secular” leadership against the ostensibly Islamist grouping of Qatar, Iran and Turkey. Bahrain’s ruling family fully subscribes to this view, which is dogmatically opposed to Iran and to political Islam in general, partly out of fear that Tehran might encourage the country’s majority Shiite population to take part in wide-scale protests. Its alignment with other Gulf nations is also aimed at securing Saudi financial support in the face of Bahrain’s economic crisis. The Bahraini government believes it will prevail in this strategy, and thus feels free to fashion its own domestic political agenda at will.
The Bahraini government reported that the elections enjoyed the highest turnout since 2002, and six women were elected to the 40-member lower chamber—more than ever. However, a closer inspection of the prevailing conditions leading up to the vote reveals a grim picture. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2014, the government has instituted a number of measures that were clearly designed to frustrate the opposition and prevent them from mobilizing support through the ballot box. These measures have included a 2016 amendment to the political societies’ law banning clerics from membership in political societies and involvement in political activities, even on a voluntary basis. These political societies act as an informal replacement for political parties, which are officially banned in Bahrain. Furthermore, political societies are required by law to coordinate all contacts with diplomatic or consular missions, foreign governmental organizations, or representatives of foreign governments with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has the authority to send representatives to such meetings. 

A generous interpretation of these draconian rules is that they are intended to merely limit the appeal of political societies that might pose a challenge to the government. But subsequent legal actions have sought to ban political societies outright. In February 2017, the country’s highest court upheld an earlier appeals court verdict dissolving al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest political society, and confiscating its assets. The decision was based on charges of inciting terrorism, but many legal observers believe the government’s evidence was thin. Moreover, in March 2017, the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to dissolve a secular political society, the National Democratic Action Society, known as Waad. The ministry charged Waad with “supporting terrorism,” after its leadership criticized the government for the execution of three Shiite citizens whom the group publicly called martyrs. In May 2018, Bahrain’s parliament approved a bill barring members of dissolved opposition groups from running independently in elections.

These and other measures have essentially taken the main opposition political societies out of the equation, as they have either abstained or been banned from competing in elections. So last year’s polls were significant not because they represented a free and fair process, but because they signaled the end of a democratic experiment begun by Hamad in the early 2000s. Many Bahrainis had initially placed their faith in that democratic process, but its parameters are now so narrowly defined that the outcome is largely irrelevant. We now have what theorists call a classic “facade democracy,” and even the facade is in danger of being dropped. 
 The crackdown is in line with the Bahraini government’s response to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which included a harsh crackdown on opposition protests that were mainly Shiite-led. Those protests were quelled with the help of Saudi and Emirati forces, an indication that neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi would brook significant dissent. Of course, the subtext for the Saudis, rightly or wrongly, was concern that the protests would enable Iran to gain a foothold in Bahrain and threaten Hamad’s grip on power. In one sense, the move emboldened the Bahraini government and gave it the confidence to sidestep any meaningful political reforms, which has lasted until now. It also meant that Bahrain’s domestic and foreign policies would become even more closely aligned with its neighbors, arguably compromising its independence. 

As a result, Bahrain’s crackdown has become part of the counterrevolutionary movement across the region driven by the Saudis and the Emiratis and, in the case of Bahrain, it has led to a reversal of the trend toward political openness. Hamad’s government now views nearly all political societies, especially Shiite-dominated ones, as receiving direct support from Tehran and serving a foreign agenda. The diplomatic crisis between the so-called Arab Quartet—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain—and Qatar has further reinforced Manama’s authoritarian retrenchment, as the Quartet countries tend to portray citizens that challenge official policy toward Qatar as traitors. This has given the Bahraini government carte blanche to detain, arrest and severely sentence any dissenting voices on the pretext that they pose a threat to national security.