Search Penny Hill Press

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

After experiencing serious unrest during the late 1990s, Bahrain undertook several steps to enhance the inclusion of the Shiite majority in governance. However, the Sunni-led government’s efforts to maintain its tight grip on power stirred new unrest among Bahraini Shiites in advance of October 23, 2010, parliamentary elections. That election, no matter the outcome, would not have produced a new executive, but the Shiite population was hoping that winning a majority in the elected lower house could give it greater authority with which to challenge the ruling Al Khalifa family. In advance of the elections, the government launched a wave of arrests intended to try to discredit some of the hardline Shiite leadership as tools of Iran. The crackdown contributed to increasing Shiite popular protests in advance of the elections. The main Shiite faction, an Islamist group called “Wifaq” (Accord), won one more seat than it did in the 2006 election but still ended up short of a majority (18 out of the 40 seats) in the elected lower house.

Underlying the unrest are Bahraini leadership concerns 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. On the other hand, Bahrain’s Shiite oppositionists accuse the government of inflating the Iran threat, and the contacts between Iran and the opposition, to discredit the opposition politically. Bahrain’s rulers have tried 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 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. 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. These areas of strong U.S.-Bahrain cooperation have caused some public criticism of successive U.S. Administrations, including by some in Congress, for muting criticism of Bahrain’s treatment of its Shiite majority in the interests of ensuring Bahrain’s cooperation on security issues.

Bahrain is generally poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, in large part because Bahrain has largely run out of crude oil reserves. It has tried to compensate through diversification, particularly in the banking sector and some manufacturing. 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: January 5, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.