Search Penny Hill Press

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

After experiencing serious unrest during the late 1990s, Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim-dominated government undertook several steps to enhance the inclusion of the Shiite majority in governance. However, protests erupting following the uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, demonstrate that Shiite grievances over the distribution of power and economic opportunities remain unsatisfied. The continuing unrest—in which opposition factions have escalated their demands in response to the use of force by the government—comes four months after the October 23, 2010, parliamentary election. That election, no matter the outcome, would not have unseated the ruling Al Khalifa family from power, but the Shiite population was hoping that winning a majority in the elected lower house could give it greater authority. In advance of the elections, the government launched a wave of arrests intended to try to discredit some of the hard-line Shiite leadership as tools of Iran. 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 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 intensity of contacts between Iran and the opposition in order 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.

The 2011 unrest, which was met by an initial violent government crackdown on February 17, 2011, directly affects U.S. national security interests. Bahrain, in exchange for a tacit U.S. security guarantee, has provided key support for U.S. interests 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. Bahraini facilities have been pivotal to U.S. strategy to deter any Iranian aggression as well as to interdict the movement of terrorists and weapons-related technology on Gulf waterways. 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 led to 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. Amid concerns that a rise to power of the Shiite opposition could jeopardize the U.S. military cooperation with Bahrain, the Obama Administration has criticized the use of violence by the government in the February 2011 unrest but has not sided with the mostly Shiite demonstrators by endorsing specific opposition demands for a new political structure.

Fueling Shiite unrest is the fact that 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: March 2, 2011
Number of Pages: 23
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.