Ruling Bahrain (part I): The emir declares himself king

Ruling Bahrain (part I): The emir declares himself king
Interview: Retired US senior intelligence service officer Emile Nakhleh reminisces on the turning points in King Hamad's reign.
8 min read
14 Mar, 2019
In 2002, then-Emir of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, declared Bahrain a kingdom [Getty]
Bahrain looks like a wounded corpse waiting for a saviour.

During the year 1999, when King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa assumed power, the country's public debt stood at $370 million. Today, however, it is closer to $30 billion, according to the latest Central Bank of Bahrain data.

A large chunk of the country's budget now goes to armaments. According to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February 2019, Bahrain's military purchases from the United States alone exceeded $6 billion over the past two years.

King Hamad has crowned his 20 years of rule with deep strife with the Shia community and its leaders. He put political activists back in prisons or sent them back into exile in numbers far more than those released or reinstated in his early years.

Both Islamic and leftist opposition groups have been shut down, and the only independent newspaper that has struggled to survive seemed a threat to his project. He then deployed security forces everywhere, tightening their grip as if counting people's breaths, in such a way that would make the previous years of state security look like a breeze.

He also added new authoritarian methods that were not previously recognised or adopted by putting the country's decision-making in the hands of Saudi Arabia, stripping hundreds of citizens of citizenship while granting it to thousands of foreigners as part of a systematic policy aimed at changing the country's demographic makeup.

Nothing can describe all of this better than the saying the king himself borrowed from Nazem Hikmat in his first years of rule: "The most beautiful days are those we have not yet lived" - that is to say, they have just become repeated days open to an unknown future, with no hope.

"I don't believe the king was ever a committed reformer or an enlightened leader. The only tangible result from his 'reform' programme, following the adoption of the National Charter in 2001-2002 was to change his title from Emir to King."
Two decades after sitting on the throne, Bahrain looks like a wounded corpse waiting for a saviour

These are the words of Dr Emile Nakhleh - a professor at the University of New Mexico and a retired senior intelligence service officer who has written a book on political developments in Bahrain.

"Whereas under the late Emir [Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa], Bahrain promised to be a 'shining city on the hill', under Hamad, Bahrain has been reduced to a dark place torn by violence, intolerance, tyranny, and repression.

Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa (1933-1999), the first emir of Bahrain, visits his son
and heir to the throne Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) at the Mons Officer Cadet
School at Aldershot, UK, 16th February 1968 [Getty]

The Bahrain Mirror examined the principal turning points in the reign of King Hamad, marking two decades of his assumption of power on March 6 1999, with Professor Emile Nakhleh:

Bahrain Mirror:
You had a rich experience in Bahrain during the reign of late Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, father of the current Bahraini king, which led to you publish a book on the political development of Bahrain.

What, in your opinion, could King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa have learned from his father's experience in governance and what could he have avoided?

Emile Nakhleh
: During my stay in Bahrain as the first American Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Bahrain (1972-73), I had the pleasure of meeting the late ruler Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa - the first person to rule the country after it became independent in 1971.  

I also met several other senior members of the ruling family. Sheikh Isa established al-Majlis al-Ta'sisi to produce a constitution for the new state, which the emir promulgated in December 1973.

Despite the "Sheikhly" nature of the minority Sunni regime, the new constitution embodied principles of equal opportunity under the law, moderation, compromise, human rights, and respect for the Shia majority. Significant members of the Shia majority served on al-Majlis al-Ta'sisi (elected and appointed) and participated in the drafting of the constitution.

Since independence 48 years ago, the 1972-1974 period stands out as the "golden age" of modern Bahrain, thanks to the wise leadership of the late emir. Isa's son, King Hamad, unfortunately for Bahrain and its people, failed to learn any lessons in governance from his father.

Isa's son, King Hamad, unfortunately for Bahrain and its people, failed to learn any lessons in governance from his father

Isa abhorred sectarianism and believed that such divisions within society would undermine the safety and security of Bahrain.

He truly believed, based on several conversations I had with him, that domestic social harmony through constant dialogue between Sunnis and Shia would help make Bahrain the "Pearl of the Gulf" and the "Shining City on the Hill".

Through education, talent, commerce, business acumen, and friendly relations with its neighbours, Bahrain could become the centre of modernisation in the Gulf and an example to be emulated.

Since ascending to the throne, Hamad, by contrast, promoted sectarianism and used schisms within his country to cement his hold on power. He empowered his uncle Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman - the longest serving, unelected prime minister in the world - to rule through animus to the Shia majority and to follow the Saudi attitude toward the Shia majority.

Under Khalifa and other anti-Shia members of the ruling family, Bahraini society has broken up. Human rights are violated on a whim, and thousands of peaceful protesters have been jailed, tortured and sentenced to death or life imprisonment through illegal arrests and sham trials.

Whereas under Isa, Bahrain was relatively free of Saudi domination, at least during the 1970s, under Hamad and Khalifa, Bahrain has become a vassal Saudi state - politically and economically. Isa made Bahrain a proud, attractive Emirate. Hamad is ruling over a marginalised banana monarchy that operates completely in the Saudi orbit.

BM: Did you meet the current king (the then-crown prince) during your study period when you were residing in Bahrain? What were your impressions of him at the time? What did you conclude from what was said or whispered about him during your visits to the councils or meetings?

Nakhleh: Almost half way through my stay in Bahrain, Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa returned from a year-long military course at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

I met him shortly after he returned, introduced myself, and briefed him on the Fulbright Programme. I explained that I was writing a book about the making of modern Bahrain and its future in the region.

As a relatively young man, Hamad lacked deep knowledge of governing and national politics. He yielded to his father and uncle. I recall he was enamoured by King Hussein of Jordan and wanted to emulate him in driving fast cars and flying military aircraft.

When he once mentioned that he wanted to build a Bahraini air force, I said, "Sheikh Hamad, why do you need an air force? Everytime your jets take off, they would need the permission of neighbouring countries to fly in their airspace?"

He was smitten by the trappings of power but avoided getting involved in the political process. His father and uncle for the most part ran the show. Perhaps, this is why his first major "reform" decision right after he became Emir of Bahrain, following his father's death, was to change the Emirate into a monarchy and his title from Emir to King.

In his mind, monarchy is more prestigious than an "Emirate". He naively thought that he would become a "Constitutional King" like, for example, Britain's Queen Elizabeth. But far from being such a king, he promulgated several new "terrorism" laws designed to undermine most of the human rights principles in his father's constitution.

Hamad by contrast promoted sectarianism and used schisms within his country to cement his hold on power

Initially, King Hamad involved his son Crown Prince Salman in the affairs of state, but as domestic conflicts increased because of expanding regime repression against dissidents and protesters, Salman became marginalised and his efforts at reconciliation with the Shia majority stalled.

BM: It seems that King Hamad's interests in that period were similar to those of his son, the current crown prince, ie: jets and cars. Despite the latter's depiction by the West as a moderate person, the truth is that he was the member of the ruling family most eager to remove Sheikh Ali Salman from the political scene and imprison him, as many close to him have reported.

What should the crown prince learn from his father, which the king didn't learn from his, so that history won't repeat itself?

Nakhleh: As long as the al-Khalifa ruling family is determined to rule with force, repression, and co-optation without consulting the majority of the population - Shia and Sunni - or allowing the majority a voice in the decision-making process, the current Crown Prince is not destined to learn from his father any lessons that will be different from the practices of King Hamad.

The late Emir Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa meets with then-US president Bill Clinton in the Oval Office in 1998 [Getty] 

It is possible Crown Prince Salman would take a different and more conciliatory approach toward the Bahraini people - [but] only if Prime Minister Khalifa and his supporters in the anti-Shia gang leave the centre of power. Also, Salman must have the courage to stand up to the Saudi masters and convince Saudi Arabia to pull its troops out of Bahrain. That also could happen only after a new administration, other than Trump's, takes power in Washington, DC.

Hamad and his uncle the prime minister have been persuaded, and most likely are convinced, that removing Sheikh Ali Salman from the political scene would dishearten his supporters and in the end silence them.

Hamad and Khalifa are too ignorant to realise that killing the messenger does not kill the message. In this case, the reformist message is simple: Stop torture, illegal arrests, sham trials and convictions, and repression of the Bahraini people. Once the American people elect a new administration, al-Khalifa will no longer feel empowered to persecute their people as they wish without accountability.

This interview was republished with permission from the Bahrain Mirror and Lobelog

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.