The Wall Street Journal reports that there is now a power struggle within the Bahraini royal family, with pro-U.S. King Hamad al-Khalifah losing power to the Islamist Khawalid faction. The Khawalids control the royal court, judiciary, security services and military.
Their influence threatens to bring Bahrain into the Muslim Brotherhood camp. On the other hand, about 60-70% of the population is Shiite, raising fears that a democratic process could move Bahrain towards Iran.
The answer may lie in a political alliance between the moderate elements of the Bahraini royal family and the moderate Shiite opposition. The Al-Wefaq Party, the largest opposition party, condemned Iranian interference, as did the Democratic Alliance, a bloc of three parties. A spokesman for the leader of the Al-Wefaq Party even said, “Let the Palestinians solve their own problems” when asked about the conflict.
Jordanian King Abdullah II has had some success in outmaneuvering the Islamists by reaching out to the more liberal and secular opposition elements. This will be more difficult for King al-Khalifah to accomplish because of the sectarian divide, the power of the Khawalids within his own family and bad blood from his government’s violent suppression.
If the Khawalids’ control continues to grow, they may actually be able to enact policy unilaterally through the institutions they dominate. The king could be forced to do their bidding, relegated to a mere figurehead. The only way al-Khalifah can counter this is by shifting his power base. If he can embrace the moderate Shiite opposition, he may able to stand up to the Sunni Islamists and isolate the Shiite Islamists.
It is a strategic imperative that the alignment of Bahrain with the West be preserved. If the Khawalids bring the country into the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, the rest of the Sunni Gulf may follow suit. If a sectarian conflict ensues, a civil war could ignite that expands Iran’s influence.
The answer isn’t based in playing one sect off another. The answer lies in uniting the non-Islamists by convincing them that the ideological struggle is more important than the sectarian one.