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Thursday, January 5, 2012

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 Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak three days earlier, began a political crisis that remains largely unresolved. The unrest demonstrates that Shiite grievances over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by the efforts since 1999 to increase the role of the Shiite majority in governance. Reflecting increasing polarization, many Sunnis in Bahrain believe the Shiite majority want 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 and pro-opposition health care workers. Although the state of emergency ended on June 1, the continued imprisonment of dissidents contributed to a an opposition boycott of and the resulting failure of a “national dialogue” held in July 2011. The dialogue reached consensus on a few political reform recommendations but which 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. The government has implemented some of the Commission’s recommendations, but the stalemate on any new major political reforms has contributed to the resumption of some renewed violent demonstrations and dashed hopes that a solution is in sight.

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 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.

A major U.S. policy considerations is that 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. 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. Factoring into the U.S. position is a perception that Iran might seek to take advantage of Shiite unrest in Bahrain to reduce U.S. influence and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. 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.

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: December 2
9, 2011
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