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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The uprising that began in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, following the revolt that overthrew Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak three days earlier and numerous earlier periods of unrest in Bahrain, began a political crisis that appears to defy resolution. The ongoing unrest demonstrates that the grievances of the Shiite majority over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by the efforts instituted during 1999-2010, or by any reform measures announced since the uprising began. The bulk of the Shiite majority in Bahrain says it demands a constitutional monarchy in which an elected parliament produces the government, but the Sunni minority believes the Shiites want nothing less than outright rule.

In March 2011, Bahrain’s government rejected 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, 2011, a “national dialogue,” held in July 2011 reached consensus on only a few modest political reforms. Hopes for resolution were raised by a pivotal report by a government-appointed “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI) on the unrest, released November 23, 2011, which 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 asserts it has implemented many of the BICI recommendations—an assertion largely corroborated on March 20, 2012, by a national commission appointed to oversee implementation—and says it will institute the remainder. However, stalemate on more substantial political reforms has stoked continued demonstrations and dashed hopes that a solution is in sight. A proposed closer union with Saudi Arabia, announced May 14, 2012, would strengthen the Saudi ability to limit any Bahrain government compromise with Bahrain’s Shiites.

The Obama Administration has not called for a change of the Al Khalifa regime and has to some extent concurred with the Bahrain government view that Iran might take advantage of the Bahrain unrest, but the Administration has criticized the regime’s use of force against protesters and urged further political reform. The U.S. position on Bahrain has been criticized by those who believe the United States is downplaying regime abuses because the U.S. security relationship with the Al Khalifa regime is critical to U.S. efforts to secure the Persian Gulf. 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 for U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond the naval facility, the United States signed a formal defense pact with Bahrain in 1991 and has designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally,” entitling it to sales of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems. Partly to address criticism from human rights advocates and some Members of Congress, the Administration put on hold a proposed sale of armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons. However, in mid-May 2012 the Administration announced a resumption of sales to Bahrain of arms that it can use to protect itself against Iran and support U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf. Consumed by its own crisis, Bahrain has joined with but deferred to other GCC powers to resolve 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. 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 has further strained Bahrain’s economy.

Date of Report: June 21, 2012
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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