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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Protests that erupted in Bahrain 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 were not satisfied by relatively limited efforts to include the Shiite majority in governance. Most Sunnis in Bahrain believe the Shiite majority will be satisfied with nothing less than outright rule. As protests escalated in March 2011, Bahrain’s government, contrary to the advice of the Obama Administration, invited security assistance from other neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council countries, declared a state of emergency, and moved to forcefully end large demonstrations and arrest dissident leaders. Although the state of emergency was ended on June 1, some believe that continued arrests of dissidents have reduced prospects for a negotiated political solution in Bahrain. Others are optimistic that a national dialogue, which began on July 2, 2011, will produce a negotiated solution and that the challenge to the pro-U.S. regime will abate. Possibly because of concern that a rise to power of the Shiite opposition could jeopardize the extensive U.S. military cooperation with Bahrain, the Obama Administration has not called for a change of the Al Khalifa regime and continues to meet regime leaders at high levels, although it has criticized governmental use of force against, and widescale arrests of, peaceful protesters and activists.

The 2011 demonstrations are the latest manifestation of periodic unrest that has taken place since the mid-1990s. Since March 2011, some opposition factions have escalated their demands in response to the initial use of force by the government, which began 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 Shiite activists believed 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 proteges of Iran - a refrain revived by the government during the recent unrest. Bahrain’s Shiite opposition, and many outside experts, accuse the government of exaggerating the relationship between Iran and the opposition in order to justify the use of force.

Unrest in Bahrain directly affects U.S. national security interests; the Administration response has thus been more restrained than the response to some of the other regional uprisings in 2011. 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. Because of the instability in Bahrain, there is concern that U.S. use of the naval headquarters facilities might become untenable. This facility has 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.

Fueling Shiite unrest is the fact that Bahrain, having largely run out of crude oil reserves, is poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies. The country has tried to compensate through diversification, particularly with banking 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). The unrest in 2011 has further strained Bahrain’s economy.

Date of Report: July 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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