January 15, 2014

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The future king of Bahrain met with top Shiite opposition leaders on Wednesday for the first time in nearly three years, the last time being shortly after Arab Spring protests broke out in the Gulf Arab nation.

The meeting also comes just one week after reconciliation talks were suspended. Bahrain’s state television broadcast images of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa meeting with members of the country’s Shiite opposition, including its main al-Wefaq bloc.

Al -Wefaq and four other opposition groups released a joint statement after the face-to-face with the crown prince saying that they hoped the meeting would result in concrete steps. “The opposition believes any positive outcomes from this meeting will depend on the coming steps toward real power sharing,” it said.

The opposition groups said the meeting, which took place at the crown prince’s palace upon his invitation, focused on parameters for reconciliation talks that aim to produce “a new political agreement” for a permanent solution leading to “equality and transition to a democratic monarchy.”

The tiny island nation of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. The country’s majority Shiites began protesting in early 2011 to seek greater political rights from the country’s rulers. More than 65 people have died in the unrest, but rights groups and others place the death toll higher.

The two sides have not held high-level talks since neighboring Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, sent troops to Bahrain to help quell the Shiite-led uprising. Repeated rounds of political talks have failed to significantly close the rifts between the two sides and the opposition is demanding amnesty for what they claim are more than 3,000 political prisoners held in Bahraini prisons. The most recent reconciliation talks were suspended after the head of al-Wefaq was banned from traveling abroad, forcing the government to call off the dialogue.

The government released a statement to journalists saying the meeting explored means of overcoming the challenges faced by attempts at dialogue recently. It said participants agreed to embark on a new phase of dialogue.

Al-Wefaq spokesman Abdul Jalil Khalil, who also attended Wednesday’s talks with the crown prince, told The Associated Press that his group was very direct and clear with their demands in the meeting. “We said Bahrain needs complete citizenship, meaning full rights… political and civil rights,” he said, adding that they also want a member of the ruling family to take part in reconciliation talks and not just government officials.

“It is not clear until now how far the government is willing to go with the opposition, but today’s meeting is considered a positive step,” Khalil said.