x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Saudi calls on Bahrain government and opposition to resolve political unrest

Saudi Arabia wants Bahrain's government and opposition to resolve a political crisis that it fears could worsen because of the sectarian fallout of fighting in Syria and destabilise its Eastern Province, a diplomat and opposition politician said.

MANAMA // Saudi Arabia wants Bahrain's government and opposition to resolve a political crisis that it fears could worsen because of the sectarian fallout of fighting in Syria and destabilise its Eastern Province, a diplomat and opposition politician said.

The leading Shiite opposition party Wefaq was involved in back room talks during Shiite protests last year on reforms offered by Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the crown prince, but they were cut short when Saudi troops rolled in and martial law was imposed.

"We heard that at end of January the Saudis were reaching out to Wefaq and wanted to hear how Wefaq - if Act 1 was last year - how they were going to play their role in Act 2," a senior western diplomat said.

The Shiite majority has called for sweeping democratic reforms that would allow the kingdom's parliament real powers to legislate and form governments.

One year on clashes between riot police and youths in Shiite districts have escalated, with heavy use of petrol bombs against police who in turn use large amounts of tear gas. Activists say at least 32 have died since martial law ended, though police question the causes of death.

In January Wefaq members met with Khaled bin Ahmed, the royal court minister, for preliminary discussions on a formal dialogue on democratic reforms.

The diplomat said Wefaq, which faces radicalisation among many Shiite youth who oppose the monarchy, had met for a second time with the minister in recent weeks.

"There is stuff going on but it's getting more difficult than they imagined it would be. They are finding it difficult to get common ground," he said, citing government fears that Wefaq would command a parliamentary majority. "You can foresee a political solution here that would keep the Saudis very happy, but I think the red lines would be slightly tighter than last year."

An opposition politician, who did not wish to be named, said Saudi Arabia now feared that the conflict in Syria, in which Iran and Hizbollah back Bashar Al Assad's rule, could sharpen Bahrain's sectarian divide - detracting attention from Syria and firing up Saudi Shiites.

"The Saudis are worried [the stalemate] could push the Shiites towards Iran ... and at what could emerge as a consequence of Syria," he said.

Loyalist Sunni groups in Bahrain, who look to the ruling Al Khalifa for protection, have held protests against Mr Al Assad and accuse Shiites of sympathy for his regime.