Bahrain’s al Khalifa Dilemma

Editor's Desk

Mitchell Belfer

Bahrain’s al Khalifa Dilemma


With the wider Middle East in a seemingly intractable crisis spiral, it is easy to lose track of specific national and historical contexts. Bahrain’s chapter in the now defunct Arab Spring has generally, but erroneously, been treated as a case of a pacifist opposition, composed of members of the Shia sect (majority) and a repressive Sunni government (minority). Not only does such loose demographic bookkeeping and simplistic categorisations intellectually detract from truly understanding the internal dynamics of the country, it also eclipses the manner in which Bahrain’s government and civil society have adjusted themselves to the unfolding crisis and blinds observers to the roles played by exogenous agitators, particularly post-revolutionary Iran.

The 1979 revolution in Iran continues to profoundly impact Bahrain. From the attempted coup d’état by the Iranian proxy, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) in 1981, to the more recent usage of Hezbollah and its local allies, the Youth of 14 February (re: the Youth) and Sacred Defence Bahrain (SDB), it is clear that Iranian interests in Bahrain are persistent. And the actions of such terrorist groups is telling; demonstrations-cum-riots, car bombings, lynching and arson occur with frightening frequency and results. Against this backdrop, a political opposition group – the al Wefaq bloc – emerged to ostensibly represent the interests of Bahrain’s Shia community. There is growing concern, and evidence, that links the al Wefaq bloc to Iran and Iran to the violent groups operating in Bahrain.

Al Wefaq’s spiritual leader, Issa Qassim, was a member of the inner circle of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Qom clique, and has retained his contacts throughout Khamenei’s reign. In fact, Iran’s Ayatollah has even bestowed the political-religious title ‘Ayatollah’ on Qassim since, according to Iran’s parliamentary declaration that Issa Qassim is to become the Ayatollah of Bahrain on the construction of an Islamic Republic there. And there is a symbiotic relationship between Iranian and Bahraini terrorist groups. The IFLB absorbed the al Haq movement, which was connected to al Sistani, who was instrumental in Hezbollah’s defeat of Amal in Lebanon, which deployed to Bahrain. After a decade – from 1999 until 2009 – of Hezbollah having its numbers diminished due to successful counterterrorism efforts and a general national consensus that rejected political violence, the Youth of 14 February bear responsibility for the 2011 demonstrations turning violent. Since then, Hezbollah has increased its presence in Bahrain, prompting the government – and later the GCC – to ban both the political and military wings of the organisation. The Youth are a key linkage between al Wefaq, Hezbollah and Iran. To compliment Issa Qassim’s relationship to the Ayatollah in Iran, al Wefaq chief, Ali Salman, is in frequent communication with Hezbollah’s commander Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah and are said to be directly coordinating their activities. It is important to note here that Hezbollah is not an autonomous organisation, its true leader is Ayatollah Khamenei. Finally, the goals of Iran’s and Bahrain’s radicalised groups are the same; forced regime change and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Bahrain under direction of Tehran and its two local agents, Ali Salman and Issa Qassim. It is no coincidence that powerful figures in Iran’s religious and political establishment have resurrected the claim that Bahrain is the 14th province of the former Persian Empire and should thus be returned to Iran.

The al Khalifa Dilemma

Such heightened pressures have resulted in the unfolding of an al Khalifa Dilemma where Bahrain’s political leadership attempts to counter the Iranian-al Wefaq nexus through reforms to the Kingdom. In their embryotic form, such reforms are meant to better reflect the legitimate demands of the Shia, Sunni, Christian, Jewish and expat communities but ends up focusing only on a singular energised, organised and vocal segment of society, fractions of fractions of the Shia community, since members of such fractions are comfortable deploying violence and Bahrain’s government is responsible for retaining order. In taking a wide reform programme and centring it on small fractions within one sect, Bahrain’s government may inadvertently be contributing to the further destabilising the country. Reform in this case may, in fact, be dangerous.

Consider the following logic. Firstly, internally – from within al Khalifas’ leadership circles – national identity (re: as Bahraini) is considerably more important than a sectarian identity (re: Sunni). As a result, the al Khalifas (rightly) view themselves as representative of the entire spectrum of Bahraini society. This view is shared among the majority of Bahrainis and sectarianism continues to be the hobby of a few, more fringe-located, groups and does not form majority opinion.

However (secondly) externally – those located outside of political structures – some groups identify the al Khalifas through sectarian lenses. This is not due to the actions (or inactions) of the al Khalifas, but rather because such external groups’ ideology forces them not to consider the al Khalifas as legitimate leaders of Bahrain and categorise al Khalifa leadership as Sunni rather than Bahraini. It should be remembered that this form of sectarianism is not only to be found among smaller, spoiler groups within Bahrain; it tends to – more frequently – be held by external actors, particularly Iran, which has its own agenda and deploys sectarianism for achieving its more ambitions objectives. This opinion is also, strangely, reiterated in most international media outlets and so assists in mobilising portions of the international community behind the (false) notion that the al Khalifas are Sunni first and Bahraini second. It is likely that the over-mediatisation of Bahraini sectarianism is not a deliberate ploy to undermine the legitimacy of al Khalifa leadership in the country – it is probably due to lethargy or austerity – however such media images do reinforce a sectarian interpretation of Bahrain for those very groups which already believe that Bahrain is a sectarian society. So, while the media does not produce sectarianism in Bahrain it does reinforce it and such reinforcement makes effective reform in the Kingdom more difficult.

Given that such information is widely known within Bahraini political structures, the al Khalifas have responded by expending tremendous energies on national projects ranging from the development of public works (re: parks, museums, archaeological sites), the proliferation of public activities and events (re: annual air-show, F1 race), economic projects (re: automobile parts factory), increasing housing and food subsidies to engaging in political reform in a bid to allay sectarianism among a small, but still important, faction of Bahraini society.

Yet, despite the national benefits derived from a wide assortment of socio-economic overtures, such engagements have not been adequate in ending the sectarianisation of Bahrain; a puzzling outcome of such an enormous political and economic investment in transforming the entire essence of the Kingdom. The reason why al Khalifa engagements have not worked in reducing sectarian identities among the aforementioned groups – and in some ways even encouraging greater membership in such groups, across Shia and Sunni communities – is the essence of the al Khalifa Dilemma.

Consider the following chain of events:

Firstly—on recognising certain legitimate demands for political and economic reforms the al Khalifa leadership – as Bahraini nationalists – must also recognise the people who make such demands since Bahrain’s leadership is based on providing avenues of national dialogue.

Secondly—on seeing the leaderships’ desire to respond to public demands, smaller splinter groups (re: with a sectarian agenda), adopt the language of reform (because they know it works) though seek to fundamentally change the nature of the Kingdom for ideological reasons connected to external (f)actors.

Thirdly—such groups enter the mainstream of political discourse though refuse to compromise on even basic issues. This is because such groups are not actually seeking the fulfilling of the demands they incorporate into their public debates.

However (fourthly)—Bahraini leaders (as nationalists) seek to assuage tensions by working to reform the Kingdom, despite the fact that the reforms will never be enough to satisfy the fringe-cum-mainstream groups which are disinterested in reform and prefer revolution.

Yet (fifthly)—the fruitless engagement of the al Khalifas with such fringe groups undermines the former’s relationship to other segments of Bahraini society which may not be as vocal as the aforementioned but do have legitimate grievances of their own. This problem is further exacerbated by the level of Sunni alienation to the al Khalifas likely to result from their perception of caving in to unreasonable demands on the national level and threats and intimidation on the international level.

Sixthly—two fronts of opposition will emerge against Bahrain’s al Khalifa leadership; one rooted on the original hijacking and manipulation of legitimate demands for reform and the second rooted on the manner in which Bahrain’s leaders sought to compromise with those that, themselves, will not compromise.

Seventh—the very sectarianism which the al Khalifas sought to diminish with their initial overtures will actually be more acute, wide-spread and difficult to resolve.

Finally—this will further encourage external involvement (re: from Iran) to fan the flames of sectarianism, allow violence and counter-violence to occur more frequently as a pretext for more direct intervention.


This is the dilemma – on the domestic-to-regional level – presently unfolding in Bahrain and although some of the tactics, counter-tactics and repercussions are similar as in other part of the Middle East they are felt much more acutely, and the consequences of them will be much greater because the size of the national territory and the political communities it houses. Every action, reaction, external threat and political statement reverberates throughout the Kingdom with greater speed and consequence than other, larger, national entities. Additionally, the relatively small size of Bahrain has meant that issues of nation, state and identity affect each citizen and resident directly. In Bahrain, as a small state, political life is not an abstraction, it is a reality. Local stability is equivalent to national stability and breaking out of the ascribed dilemma is of utmost importance for the al Khalifas and each member of Bahrain’s civil society. The strife that is being encouraged by a few, over-zealous groups for the benefit of those beyond Bahrain’s frontiers must be stemmed before real sectarianism rips the Kingdom to pieces, shatters more than two and a half centuries of nation and state building under the guidance of the al Khalifas and plunges the country into a form of chaos which will act as an invitation for the region’s (and world’s) more aspiring states to attempt to capture the geopolitical prize that is Bahrain. Reforming the Kingdom is certainly an appropriate way to encourage greater national cohesion and the development of a stake-holder’s society. However, the reforms capable of achieving such lofty goals must not be imposed externally or adopted under the threat of terrorism. The al Khalifa Dilemma is genuine; time is running out to solve it.  


Postscript: For the many people that have argued that Bahrain is closed to members of the press, I can happily confirm that this is not accurate! (Mitchell Belfer)

2021 - Volume 15 Issue 1