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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Protests that erupted in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, following the uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak three days earlier, set off months of political crisis that remains unresolved. The unrest demonstrates that Shiite grievances over the distribution of power and economic opportunities remain unsatisfied by the limited efforts since 1999 to include the Shiite majority in governance. Reflecting increasing polarization, many 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 bucked U.S. advice by inviting direct security assistance from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, declaring a state of emergency, forcefully suppressing demonstrations, and arresting dissident leaders. Although the state of emergency 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 in July 2011. The dialogue, harmed by a pullout of the main opposition political society, reached consensus on a few recommendations that did not satisfy the bulk of the Shiite opposition. The main opposition organization also boycotted special parliamentary elections on September 24, 2011. A pivotal report by a government-appointed “Independent Commission of Inquiry” on the unrest, released November 23, 2011, was critical of the government’s actions against the unrest as well as the opposition’s responses to government proposals early in the crisis, and produced U.S. hope that full implementation of the report’s recommendations could offer a solution to the political crisis.

Partly 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. The Administration has criticized governmental use of force and widescale arrests of peaceful protesters and urged further reform, but these criticisms have been insufficient to satisfy those who believe the United States is treating Bahrain differently than it has other Middle East cases in 2011. Factoring into the U.S. position is a perception that Iran seeks to take advantage of Shiite unrest in Bahrain to reduce U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S.-Bahrain security relationship is deep and long-standing. 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. U.S. officials are concerned that the instability in Bahrain could render U.S. use of the naval headquarters facilities untenable, but there are no evident moves to relocate it. 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 also receives small amounts of U.S. security assistance. New U.S. sales and aid are coming under criticism from human rights and other groups and, in response, the Administration put on hold a major new proposed sale of armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons. Consumed by its own crisis, Bahrain has joined with but deferred to other GCC powers in GCC initiatives to resolve regional issues such as uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the Arab-Israeli dispute.

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: November 29, 2011
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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