Crown Prince's Meeting with Sheikh Isa Qassim: The Project that Failed to Win over Shia Citizens by Rentier State Theory
2017-05-12 - 8:30 p
Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): With great anticipation and large welcoming posters plastered across the Budai street, the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa arrived to Diraz, visiting Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, as part of his ceremony for laying the foundation stone of the Northern City.
The visit at the time overshadowed the Northern City project and created a buzz in the public opinion. It was the first visit paid by a high government official to Sheikh Qassim, who was taking the reins of the spiritual leadership of the Shia sect in the country, after Sheikh Abdulamir Al-Jamri, the leader of the 1990s uprising, fell ill.
The deteriorating political situation in the kingdom and the frustrated political mood among the people at the time did not prevent this meeting between the two sides on October 3, 2002, the same year the new constitution was issued.
Pictures were taken of the young prince as he entered the prominent Sheikh's home, faking humility and sitting next to the Sheikh on the ground. The option for breaking the ice was still standing. Despite the disappointment of the king's political project (2000/2001) after the opposition's decision to boycott the elections, the authorities continued their strategy of containing the adherents of the Shia sect in rentier state accords, in an attempt to draw them closer to the state and gain their appeasement, on both the social and economic levels, in return for their "political" silence or at least their "semi-silence".
In Honor of Sheikh Isa Qassim
The Crown Prince said that this visit was made "in honor of Sheikh Isa Qassim," and then talked eagerly about his economic projects the news of which he came bearing: A large housing city for the residents of the northern city and the reconstruction of Al-Maqsha' village.
The Crown Prince denied that he discussed the elections with Sheikh Qassim. Their meeting lasted for an hour. The Sheikh later stated that he did not speak about the elections, he stressed that the CP discussed the constitution, justice and equity.
"The conversation was far from pleasantries, and characterized by frankness and sincerity." He said that the impression he got from the visit was that it reflected the sense of necessity for the meeting of opinions between the government and the people that would preserve the security and progress of the country, which according to him, requires courageous steps to be taken by the authorities.
Despite everything revealed about the political National Action Charter ploy that destroyed any hopes of participation, Sheikh Isa Qassim's optimism was evident.
The Sheikh noted that the Crown Prince "shows an intention and devotion to work on reform from a practical aspect, portraying emotions of pain after what he witnessed in Al-Maqsha'," adding that the CP expressed his wish to have further meetings.
Economic Appeasement in Exchange for Political Silence
In addition to the Northern City project, a number of economic initiatives that were considered huge and exceptional emerged since the year 2000: Pay raises for government and semi-governmental company employees, announcing big housing projects, employing technocrats including Shiites who are considered to be part of the opposition, opening the door for more employment of Shi citizens in government sectors, attempting to employ released prisoners, exempting citizens from a large number of housing loan payments, exempting citizens from accumulated electricity bills, reconstructing the market, creating more job opportunities, and supporting the employment of Bahrainis
As for the social religious level, the Shia citizens were given more space to practice their religious rituals and organize their religious classes and celebrations. The King began to offer annual financial support for the commemoration of Ashura, also allowing the re-licensing of the Islamic Al-Taw'iya Society, the largest cultural religious Shiite institution in the country which was closed down in 1984, as well as other groups.
Despite that, it seemed that the King's project was not going to succeed in achieving political stability that was necessary after decades of clashes and crises. The meeting between the Crown Prince and Sheikh Qassim in October 2002 also seemed that it did not succeed in containing the Shiite sect by rentier state accords, convincing them that those offered economic opportunities are serious, promising and sustainable and that they will lay the foundation for a just system that would reverse decades of marginalization, discrimination and exclusion.
That is what took place at the time, according to the government's understanding at least.
The Shia citizens and their representatives had not made any stance, since their statement (a while before the Crown Prince's visit) declaring that the 2002 constitution is unlawful and issued unilaterally, followed by their boycott of the parliamentary elections only, (as the opposition participated in all municipal elections except the 2014 round).
However, just months after the CP and Sheikh Qassim's meeting, the option of adhering to the accords was wiped off the table, and it was not long before the government resorted to political confrontation, even before the trial of the first option was completed.
Perhaps the regime saw that the political containment strategy is very costly and needs a lot of time (for instance the Northern City project remained suspended for 14 years and did not see the light of day until recently in 2016). Moreover, the government may have saw that this policy may eventually fail to gain the Shia citizens' political silence, especially amid the opposition's participation in political institutions acknowledged by the state, the increased freedom of expression and establishment of independent newspapers.
The King's project was failing, and all the promises of a "better livelihood" were fading away. He did give the accords enough time to succeed. For instance, some saw that the meeting between the Crown Prince and Sheikh Isa Qassim could have formed a relationship between the Shia citizens and the ruling family outside the parliament that failed to create a communication channel. This relationship could have continued or at least could have been tested in the short run, yet that did not take place.
Hope for the integration of political Shiite groups in the new project had not been lost completely, despite how nominal its institutions were, which also lacked any jurisdiction. There was still hope that the Shia will accept the status quo and the policy of "gradual internal change. That's what happened indeed, as the opposition decided to take part in the 2006 elections, despite all the obstacles, mainly the tampering in the distribution of constituents.
Nonetheless, the government had other political options for dealing with the Shia citizens, outside the framework of dialogue and economic and institutional containment. It was not long before these options were taking form. The prospects of an economic calm faded and the authorities began to occupy the followers of the Shia sect with issues that were not expected. The aim was to make the Shiite religious leadership feel the need to normalize and reinforce its relationship with the ruling family, reverse its decision to boycott the elections, show "political appeasement" and became part of the "reform project" once again.
Was the Government Right?
Did the Crown Prince understand from his meeting with Sheikh Isa Qassim that his and the King's project would not work? Or was the government's plan all along to mix up the cards and use contradicting means in managing the political scene which dictates its relationship with the Shiite opposition, despite the consequences?
"Shi‘a citizens, by contrast, are not truly party to the tacit benefits- for- allegiance agreement in the first place, so their expectations of material reward are dampened," stated the political expert in Bahraini affairs Justin Gengler in his book entitled, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf.
Why didn't anyone believe that the Shia in Bahrain cannot be contained and won by rentier state agreements? Why does Gengler use the Shia in Bahrain as a main example of the failure of the rentier state theory and stress on the necessity to reconsider the assumption that this will guarantee the continuity of the ruling regimes in the Gulf?
Based on a thorough research in which he used the first-ever mass political survey in Bahrain, Gengler reached to the following conclusion: "For Shi‘is, the question of the government's economic performance inescapably taps into larger perceptions regarding equality, fairness, and legitimacy-not simply in relation to the economy but to the state itself."
Thus, economic welfare means there will be wealthy but unhappy Shiites.
The Crown Prince did not propose a new theory. He only reiterated what his ancestors in power had proposed before. He perhaps studied the theories political experts have written about the rentier states in the Gulf: Distribution of oil resources in exchange for political silence. A just distribution was not possible nor was the political silence of the Shia.
Apart from financial appeasement, the Shia citizens' political involvement and activism was triggered by their dissatisfaction with the regime as a whole. They find themselves part of a group whose political and social situation is determined by a hereditary fact, i.e they were born Shia.
"In that case, an economically well- off Shi‘i is not a more politically quiescent Shi‘i but simply a rich unhappy Shi‘i," Gengler noted.
The marginal benefits, expected from a more moderate political route taken by the Shia, are far less tempting. The Shia citizens do not see that their benefits would increase if they remained "silent". They do not see that the rentier state could rectify the historical injustice from which they suffered, and it seems that the government sees that too.
"Bahrain's Shi‘a out-group is oppositional on principle, owing to its structural exclusion from the instruments of power, not from dissatisfaction with its collective share of the nation's oil revenues," Gengler further explains.
Treatment Worse than Disease
According to the regime, a daring Shia sect is no longer a political issue that could be dealt with using available incentives and instruments, as it constitutes a real threat to national security.
The government is unable to make actual use of even these political instruments as pressure. Even if these efforts are used by the government as an attempt to pacify the Shia citizens, they would be ineffective.
The supposed capacity for economic appeasement is hampered not only on the demand side by the Shia citizens unwilling to take the bargain, "but also on the supply side by a state reluctant to enrich or empower members of a community it views as an open or latent political opposition with ties to hostile regional challengers."
What is the use of using the country's resources to win over known or potential enemies? Gengler says that the state has come to understand that it is useless to "waste resources trying to bribe a community intrinsically opposed to it."
"Paradoxically, then, though with only economic patronage at its political disposal, still Bahrain- this failed rentier state- opts to forgo or curtail what is assumed its most powerful weapon, for fear that the cure should be worse than the disease," the Bahrain expert adds.
Hence, now after Bahrain has lost almost all features of a rentier state, after lifting government subsidies on a number of basic commodities and services, aside from Gulf funds, what else other than repression is left for the regime.
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