Bahrain began its highly-anticipated National Dialogue this week in an effort to restore confidence both domestically and internationally that the Kingdom is committed to working through issues that sparked unrest within its borders in mid-February.
The Dialogue has been described as a bold bid to re-forge consensus within the community and to chart a path forward for the regional financial hub.
After uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Bahrain took to the streets with a wide range of demands including some calls for an end to the Sunni Monarchy as well as a new constitution, a more representative government, the release of political prisoners, and an end to discrimination.
Unrest ended when King Hamad declared a three-month state of National Safety in mid-March and GCC troops came in to help the Bahraini Defense Force restore order.
Bahrain’s main opposition group the Islamic National Accord Association (Al Wefaq) initially decided not to participate in the Dialogue but then changed its stance and came to the table at the last minute.
“The International community accuses us of not responding to the Crown Prince's call for a Dialogue although we had met with him," Khalil Al Marzooq, a former First Deputy Speaker of Bahrain's Parliament and Political Assistant for the Secretary General of Al Wefaq, said.
"We don't want to have a scenario again where people say that the opposition is resisting in trying to find a political solution," Al Marzooq added.
Hopes of Bridging Divides
The talks, which officially began last Tuesday, have brought together approximately 300 groups, hoping to represent a wide range of the Bahraini community, including: political societies, NGOs, academics, religious scholars, human rights activists, journalists, economists and business leaders.
“All the participants are actively debating the issues and talks are taking place in a very positive atmosphere. The process hopes to bridge the present divides, enhance the reform process and define our shared vision,” said Isa Abdul Rahman, Spokesperson for the National Dialogue.
The Spokesman described the Dialogue procedure in an interview with CNBC, explaining that talks will run three nights a week with no definite end date, to ensure that all parties are heard and that the Dialogue's goals are achieved. But Al Wefaq still remains skeptical of the dialogue.
“The dialogue is intentionally structured in a way that will only lead to more contention," Al Marzooq said. "So our fear is that this type of dialogue and environment and process is not going to help us and it will ignite even more sectarianism in the country. They are not serious. If they were serious, they would not do it this way.”
“We need to talk about articles in the Constitution so we're not talking about principles, as in the National Charter. We want very specific articles, given to the people to vote on them in a national referendum. You might need some reshuffling of the system, but this is the solution that we think will bring stability to Bahrain,” he added.
Political reform in Bahrain is a key issue impacting the Kingdom’s economic stability, which has seen a negative impact from the unrest. The IMF reduced its growth targets for Bahrain from 4.5 percent to 3.1 percent in April and the Kingdom had also been downgraded by the major credit agencies.
'The Country Is Burning'
In addition it has suffered the loss of the Formula 1 Grand Prix Race, which was expected to contribute about $500 million in direct and indirect revenues, or about 2.5 percent of Bahrain's gross domestic product.
Other economic concerns in the Kingdom include capital flight and the relocation of established businesses to neighboring GCC countries that present less political risk. The GCC offered Bahrain a $10 billion aid package during the unrest, but that might not be delivered until next year.
“I don't think the economy will survive the next few months," said Al Marzooq. "Some analysts say if there is no solution by October or the end of the year, the economy will be demolished. It will take ages to convince companies that things are stable and that their headquarters should be moved from neighboring countries like Qatar and Saudi to Bahrain."
Meantime, Bahrain’s Crown Prince, who first announced the Dialogue during the unrest, hasn’t taken an active role in the proceedings.
“We believe in the Crown Prince as he is one of the reformers in Bahrain and he has demonstrated leadership," Al Marzooq said.
"But the country is burning, although now it is a little less than in March, but it's still burning. And the whole community has fears. It requires some wise reformers to come and play their role. Any delay, any observation that takes too long might sink the country, might burn the country. So I believe all the reformers and moderates must jump in immediately, before it's too late,” he added.