The Outcome of a Ten-Year Process of Political Reform in Bahrain

It was ten years ago that Sheikh Hamad assumed the reigns of power in Bahrain, and announced his intention to usher in a new era of political reform to establish “a modern constitutional monarchy”. However, an examination of the reform process in Bahrain reveals that there is little cause for celebration. The political regime’s discourse and promises on reform have failed to translate into a clearly defined and effective strategy for reform, or substantial policies and improvements on the ground.

Considerable structural, social, historic and political obstacles stand in the way: a long history of authoritarian rule and power wielded by the royal family; a weak political organizational structure, and a restricted space for action by civil society and its various components, and the limited impact of measures designed to open up of the political system. The division of the population along factional and tribal lines compounds the fragility of society, and restricts the ability of its forces to confront the existing political regime which - empowered by the dividends from a rentier economy- is at a clear advantage in managing social and political tensions and disputes.

Some of these obstacles are closely related to the King’s own personality: viewing the reform process as a personal project, and his inability to curb the powers of the ruling family and the Defence Forces, two of the most powerful institutions that have held back political reform and the establishment of a modern state in Bahrain for decades. In a country where social and political dynamics are based on traditional alliances and its resulting corruption and cronyism are widespread, The King’s reliance on (makramas) as an “instrument of reform” has only helped to thwart efforts at reform in the country.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.