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Monday, August 5, 2013

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

Kenneth Katzman Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The uprising against Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royal family that began in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, amidst other regional uprisings, has not come close to changing Bahrain’s regime. However, the mostly Shiite opposition shows no signs of ending its campaign to achieve its stated goal of establishing a constitutional monarchy or, at the very least, winning greatly increased political influence and rights. The crisis has demonstrated that the grievances of the Shiite majority over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by the modest reform efforts instituted during 1999-2010.

The government has held dialogue with the opposition to try to address its grievances. A “national dialogue” held in July 2011 reached consensus on a few modest political reforms. Hopes for resolution were elevated further by a pivotal report by a government-appointed “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI), released November 23, 2011, which was critical of the government’s actions against the unrest. The government asserts it implemented most of the 26 BICI recommendations, but outside human rights groups assessed that overall implementation has been modest. After more than one year of impasse, both sides resumed a dialogue in February 2013, but it has made little concrete progress, by all accounts.

The Obama Administration has not called for an end to the Al Khalifa regime, but it has criticized its human rights abuses and urged it to undertake more substantial political reform. The U.S. criticism has angered some Al Khalifa officials but it has also dissatisfied human rights activists who assert that the United States is downplaying regime abuses because of U.S. dependence on the security relationship with Bahrain. Bahrain has provided key support for U.S. interests— particularly the containment of Iran—by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years. The United States signed a formal defense pact with Bahrain in 1991 and has designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally,” that entitled it to sales of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems. Partly to address criticism from human rights advocates and some Members of Congress, in 2011 the Administration put on hold a proposed sale of armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons. Since 2012, the State Department has held up some sales of small arms and light weapons that could poentially be used against protesters. In mid-May 2012 the Administration announced that it would proceed with the sale of other arms sales to Bahrain that it can only use for external defense.

Consumed by its own crisis, Bahrain has joined with but deferred to other GCC powers to resolve political crises in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Bahrain has strongly criticized the entry of the Iranbacked Shiite group Lebanese Hezbollah into the Syria conflict on the side of President Bashar Al Assad.

Fueling Shiite unrest is the fact that Bahrain is poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies and therefore lacks ample resources to significantly improve Shiite standards of living. In 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, although not crippled, Bahrain’s economy. 

Date of Report: July 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 41
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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