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Wednesday, September 7, 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, the continued arrests of dissidents reduced prospects for a negotiated political solution to be achieved in the course of a national dialogue, which began on July 2, 2011 and concluded in mid-August. The dialogue, harmed by a pullout of the main opposition political society shortly after it began, issued numerous recommendations which, for the most part, did not satisfy the bulk of the Shiite opposition. The main opposition organization has also announced it will boycott special parliamentary elections on September 24, 2011.

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. Factoring into the U.S. position is a perception in the United States and in the Bahraini government that Iran seeks to take advantage of Shiite unrest in Bahrain to bring a friendly regime to power and reduce U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf. The Administration has criticized governmental use of force and widescale arrests of peaceful protesters.

The U.S.-Bahrain security relationship is deep and longstanding. In exchange for a tacit security guarantee against Iran or other aggressors, Bahrain 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, but there are no evident moves to relocate it. 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. Beyond the naval facility, the United States signed a formal defense pact with Bahrain in 1991 and has designated Bahrain as a “major non- NATO ally,” entitling it to sales of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems. Bahrain receives small amounts of U.S. security assistance. On 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: August 31, 2011
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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