MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s crown prince met the Shi‘ite Muslim opposition leader on Wednesday in search of a way out of a three-year political deadlock, a week after reconciliation talks were suspended in a setback for efforts to stabilize the U.S.-allied Gulf state.
The breakdown in the reconciliation process raised jitters in the tiny Gulf Arab island monarchy in the middle of a regional tussle for influence between Shi‘ite Iran and Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
The meeting between Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa and opposition chief Sheikh Ali Salman was the first since shortly after major unrest among majority Shi‘ites demanding democratic reforms and a bigger say in government broke out in early 2011.
“The meeting was especially frank and very transparent,” the Shi‘ite opposition bloc al Wefaq said in a statement signed by the five main parties in it.
Al Wefaq said the meeting was held on the crown prince’s initiative to “study ways (to have) a serious dialogue that would result in a new political framework that shapes a comprehensive solution”.
Neither side elaborated on the substance or result of the meeting.
Crown Prince Salman, who was named first deputy prime minister last year, had pushed for the reconciliation talks and is seen to be spearheading a more reformist line within the Bahraini ruling family.
The crown prince’s court confirmed the meeting on its Twitter account, posting a photo of the prince talking to al Wefaq leader with other Bahrainis looking on.
Prince Salman also met other independent political figures, members of parliament and the country’s consultative Shura council, according to his Twitter account.
Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has been in political limbo since February 2011 when the Sunni-led government quelled mass protests led by Shi‘ites.
Against the backdrop of frequent small-scale civil unrest, the opposing sides began talks last year on a new blueprint to run the country of 1.3 million people. But the dialogue unraveled after the opposition boycotted meetings in September in protest at the arrest of one of its senior leaders.
Bahraini Shi‘ites complain of discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority in jobs, housing and education - an accusation the Manama government denies.
Shi‘ites are demanding a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within an elected parliament.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich