x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fractious politics distract Bahrain from solutions

One thing is clear when it comes to Bahrain: all parties must take a far more measured and responsible approach to politics and economic growth.

Through the fog of recriminations and rancour, one thing is clear when it comes to Bahrain: all parties must take a far more measured and responsible approach to politics and economic growth.

Tomorrow, the country goes to the polls. The Shiite opposition bloc Wefaq currently holds 17 of 40 seats in the lower house of parliament, but even if it wins more seats, it does not offer a solution either to Bahrain's political turmoil or economic malaise.

Wefaq has voiced legitimate grievances against the current system, in particular problems with land apportionment, but it has failed to offer a better alternative.

It is not political wrangling that is going to secure the future, despite the noise surrounding the elections. The powers of the lower house are limited in any case. The country needs a strong technocratic response to the challenges it faces.

Bahrain is the GCC's first post-oil nation, and its difficulties will affect its neighbours. The recent tensions have taken a sectarian slant, with majority Shiites forming the main opposition. But the sectarian lens obscures the old truism: it's all about the economy.

The facts stand for themselves. Bahrain's gas consumption is projected to increase to two billion cubic feet a day in about 10 years: that is a demand that it cannot currently meet. The indebted country has serious poverty to address, but it does not have the funds to dispense handouts. While some Bahrainis may feel entitled to state support, the reality is that the state is unable to provide for them on its own.

Bahrain's dwindling oil production has long been under scrutiny. Taxes need to be introduced and finances better spent. The overvaluation of its housing sector also adds to the strain. The 300,000 registered Shiite voters are quite rightly concerned with the distribution of land. But for all of the complaints voiced by the opposition, neither Wefaq nor the secular group Waad has proposed viable solutions to these underlying problems.

On the other hand, the government's heavy-handed crackdown ahead of elections threatens the polls' legitimacy. Free and fair trials of protesters have already been compromised as the government publicly condemns suspects before trying them in court.

The opposition vitriol has been equally unhelpful, with one leading figure accusing Manama of "genocide" at a meeting held at the House of Lords in the UK. That kind of hyperbole is not going to help anyone.

It may be too much to ask for the government and its opponents to step back from this confrontational approach before tomorrow's poll. But as the fog clears, they need to look to solutions to the country's systemic economic ills. Until then, they are both part of the problem.