As street demonstrations in Bahrain continue, and with protesters peacefully camping out inManama’s Pearl Square, a deeper political struggle is taking place within Bahrain’s leadership. The long-running rivalry between Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Prime Minister ?Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa is likely to intensify as the Bahraini regime attempts to start a dialogue with the opposition in hopes of quelling the unrest and avoiding foreign intervention. How that dialogue plays out — Salman may use the prime minister’s willingness to crack down on protesters as leverage to oust him — will almost certainly have implications for the future composition of the regime.
An intra-elite struggle within the Bahraini regime has intensified since the beginning of theShiite unrest in the country late Feb. 13. The rivalry between Crown Prince Salman binHamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa intensified in the wake of the crackdown on protesters Feb. 17. Since then, Crown Prince Salman has been assigned by Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to start a dialogue with the opposition. To that end, Salman made a televised speech Feb. 18, calling for restraint. Even though there is no clear indication of direct talks yet, the opposition movements have implied a willingness to enter discussions with the regime, but first need to unify their positions and compile a list of demands. In a conciliatory move, trade unions called off a nationwide strike Feb. 21, saying they appreciate the regime’s allowing peaceful demonstrations to continue.
Salman’s recent moves — backed by his father King Hamad — aim both to calm the situation in the country and leverage himself over his main opponent, Prime Minister Khalifa.
Salman, 42, is the eldest son of King Hamad and is his heir apparent. He was educated in the United States and the United Kingdom and was appointed undersecretary of defense in 1995. He became crown prince in 1999 and chaired a committee to implement the National Action Charter (NAC) in 2001, which changed the Bahraini government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and instituted other political reforms. Salman is currently the deputy supreme commander of Bahrain’s military and chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB). His political rival, Khalifa, is King Hamad’s uncle and has been Bahrain’s prime minister since 1971. Khalifa is a conservative politician who was skeptical of King Hamad’s NAC reform plans in 2001. He is well-connected, familiar with tribal methodologies of maintaining stability and holds a privileged position within the dynasty.
The two leaders have been engaged in a fierce struggle since Salman became crown prince, but the first major clash between the two occurred in 2008. As head of the EDB,Salman complained in an open letter to the king that there are some factions in the government that resist institutional decisions. The king responded publicly saying that the EDB is the final authority in economic matters and that ministers who do not follow its rules risk losing their jobs. This incident gave Salman the upper hand against Khalifa, whose allies have since remained silent. (Following this public exchange, ministers began to report directly to Salman and his close adviser, Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa al-Khalifa, which gave them the ability to directly manage the country’s economic affairs.) Salman’s economic plans aim to make Bahrain a stronger player in the financial and service sectors in thePersian Gulf by diversifying its revenues away from oil. He also initiated some labor reforms in 2008 to make Bahraini citizens more skilled workers.
It was Salman’s move amid the unrest that made him the logical interlocutor for those who would like to negotiate with the regime. On Feb. 17, the king gave Khalifa permission to order the crackdown on protesters in Pearl Square. This decision was likely made withSalman’s consent and approval, as the heavy-handed measures used to suppress the protesters caused them to focus their anger on Khalifa, who is increasingly seen as the embodiment of the regime’s hard-liners.
The military took to the streets Feb. 18 to calm the situation; Salman ordered it to withdraw Feb. 19. Salman said in an interview that protesters “absolutely” have the right to remain inPearl Square, distancing himself further from the old guard. This is indeed how the situation is seen from the perspective of the opposition. Mohammed al-Mizal, a senior member of the Al Wefaq Shiite opposition bloc, was among the first to condemn the prime minister’s crackdown — he also praised Salman’s efforts in 2008 on economic reforms.
The security situation on the streets now seems to be continuing at a low level, though there are disagreements among protesters as to what extent the opposition’s demands should be pushed. Some protesters say the ultimate goal should be the overthrow of the al-Khalifa family; other political blocs are preparing for talks with Salman. The regime will likely try to fracture the opposition to reduce their ability to press for demands, even asIranian elements within the Shiite opposition may try to push the opponents to ask for more. Where the regime will draw the line remains to be seen, but it seems as though Khalifa and his allies could be on the wrong side of that line, while Salman is likely to consolidate his power with the blessing of his father.