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Friday, April 30, 2010

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

After instability during the late 1990s, Bahrain undertook substantial political reforms that include the Shiite majority in governance. However, unrest among Bahraini Shiites continues to simmer over the Sunni-led government's perceived manipulation of citizenship and election laws and regulations to maintain its grip on power. In late 2008, the power struggle manifested as large demonstrations and some arrests of Shiite opposition leaders. Smaller but frequent incidents of violence continue to date, often resulting in Bahraini civilian injuries or occasional deaths. These tensions are increasing in the run up to the next parliamentary elections, planned for November 2010, in which most Bahraini Shiites perceive they will again be deprived of election victory. 

Underlying the unrest are lingering Bahraini government fears that Iran is supporting Shiite opposition movements, possibly in an effort to install a Shiite led, pro-Iranian government on the island. These fears are occasionally reinforced by comments from Iranian editorialists and political leaders that Bahrain should never have become formally independent of Iran. 

Bahrain has few external security options other than relying on some degree of U.S. security guarantee. Bahrain has tried to earn that guarantee by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years and by providing facilities and small numbers of personnel for U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has designated Bahrain as a "Major Non- NATO Ally," and it provides small amounts of security assistance to Bahrain. These security agreements have caused some public criticism of successive U.S. Administrations for muting criticism of Bahrain's human rights record in the interests of ensuring Bahrain's cooperation on these major security issues. 

However, because a U.S. security commitment is not formal or explicit, Bahrain's rulers have sought to avoid inviting Iranian aggression, in part by signing energy agreements with Iran and by allowing Iranian banks and businesses to operate there. Bahrain has also sought to dissuade Bahraini journalists and officials from publicly criticizing Iran. On other regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain has tended to defer to Saudi Arabia or other powers to take the lead in formulating proposals or representing the position of the Persian Gulf states, collectively. 

In September 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169).

Date of Report: April 26, 2010
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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