Saudi Arabia is encouraging the government of its neighbour and ally Bahrain to forge a settlement with its opposition after two years of unrest, in an apparent change of approach by the oil-rich kingdom.
In an escalation of Riyadh’s behind-the-scenes role, a Saudi politician has for the first time established direct, informal contact with al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s main opposition group which represents the majority Shia.
Saudi Arabia, together with the US and UK, is pushing for a political settlement in Bahrain to stem further radicalisation that could foment more protests among the Shia of its oil-rich Eastern Province.
The conservative kingdom and its western allies are also concerned that an end-game in Syria leading to a victory for the country’s Sunni rebels, and defeat for Iran’s allies in Damascus, could prompt Tehran to exploit unrest and interfere more directly in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia led Gulf troops into Bahrain in March 2011 to back the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations that rocked the ruling Al Khalifa family in the wake of the Arab spring.
However, since the death last year of Saudi Crown Prince Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – regarded as a hardliner on Shia issues – his son Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister, has taken over responsibility for the kingdom’s Bahrain policy.
Western officials describe the new interior minister as more pragmatic, leading Riyadh to shift away from Bahrain government hardliners who have sought to limit compromises with the Shia.
One opposition official says the Saudis are indicating that they are prepared to back a deal that boosts “rights for all,” as long as Bahrain’s monarchy remains in place.
Bahrain’s second round of national dialogue, launched in February, is still in its preliminary stages, with its 27 participants this week appointing a core group of eight members to hammer out a detailed agenda.
Isa Abdulrahman, spokesman for the dialogue, said: “Good progress has been made and all participants are actively engaged in the dialogue”.
The opposition coalition, which wants a more democratic parliament with legislative powers, is calling for a popular referendum on any agreement.
It also wants the ruling family at the negotiating table, rather than overseeing the talks between the opposition and pro-government loyalists.
The monarchy has so far insisted that any agreement be implemented by existing constitutional bodies, such as the appointed upper council and elected lower chamber.
While the sides remain some distance apart, western officials are “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for resolution.
The talks come amid a surge of violence as the radical February 14th youth movement escalates protests and civil disobedience, pressuring the more moderate al-Wefaq.
The increasingly organised youth movement has staged strikes by blocking off villages to stop people going to work and school.
On Friday afternoon, armed police stormed youths mourning a young political organiser, Mahmoud al-Jaziri, who was killed by a teargas canister fired by security forces.
Witnesses said the police used tear gas and shotguns as they arrested protesters in the narrow alleyways of Al-Daih, a Shia village on the edge the business district in Bahrain’s capital, Manama.
The opposition says police are escalating their heavy-handed response to protests, which have been banned for months. The government says the police are maintaining order and protecting citizens weary of the disruption to daily life.
Shia youths say they will continue their struggle and ignore the dialogue.
“The biggest problem now is the political parties who are willing to sit at the same table as those who kill children,” said a masked youth leader, pledging no end to the struggle until the regime fell.
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