Middle East

Bahrain talks off to shaky start

Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman leads protest march Jan 2013
The national dialogue aims at ending two years of protest and unrest in Bahrain

Talks aimed at resolving political unrest in the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain look set to get off to an uncertain start.

The six opposition societies have agreed to meet with other groups on Sunday in a bid to end nearly two years of unrest.

The country's justice minister has said he will serve as a moderator and government representative.

But the main opposition party al-Wefaq has already voiced grave doubts about a positive outcome.

Khalil al-Marzook, a senior member of the party told the BBC the ruling family was risking "dragging the country into an ambush of more sectarianism".

Bahrain has a Shia Muslim majority population ruled by a Sunni royal family. Shia have long complained of marginalization and discrimination.

Mr Marzook added: "They (the royal family) have the mindset of playing games rather than solving problems. It is time wasting and it is not in the interests of the country."

Frustration

Part of the opposition's frustration has to do with the refusal of the government to enter directly into negotiations aimed at ending an impasse that has severely damaged the economy and polarized the country.

In response to a question from the BBC about what role the government would play, a spokesperson replied: "Representatives of the government's ministries will be present at the dialogue to oversee and make suggestions if needed, but will not be there to take part in the dialogue itself."

But that statement and others like it have left observers, the opposition and even some government insiders scratching their heads.

Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen is an expert on Gulf politics and a research fellow at the London School of Economics. He believes that unless the government sits down and is prepared to work with the opposition on moving toward compromise, the talks will fail.

The opposition has called for Crown Prince Salman to join talks aimed at ending nearly two years of unrest

"Given the fact that the government is effectively an outgrowth of the ruling family in Bahrain, any dialogue without their involvement will be meaningless fiddling around the edges."

Reformers and hardliners

The leader of al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman had called for the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa to attend the talks but that is not likely to happen.

The crown prince is seen as a reformist in a court divided on how to respond to opposition demands.

Hardliners - centred around the appointed Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been in his post since 1971 - are said to be opposed to the dialogue.

They fear that any concessions will only serve to encourage more demands from opposition leaders they deeply distrust.

On Wednesday against a backdrop of mutual suspicion, Sheik Salman flys to Moscow at the invitation of the Russian foreign ministry in a bid to bring pressure to bear on the ruling family.

"We are encouraging the international community to urge the al Khalifas to bring credibility, not more manoeuvres to the dialogue process," Mr Marzook told the BBC.

The move, which caught some observers by surprise, may be part of a wider Russian initiative to improve an image that has been damaged by its stand on the Syria crisis.

"We've been asking for a meeting [with Russian officials] since July of last year," Mr Marzook said, "but we just got the invitation on Sunday."

This was the same day the Bahraini justice minister offered to renew a dialogue with the opposition.