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Wednesday, November 20, 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 toppled Bahrain’s regime or achieved the goals of the mostly Shiite opposition to establish a constitutional monarchy. However, unrest has continued as Bahrain’s Shiites seek to bring outside pressure to bear on the Sunni-dominated government to institute reforms that give the Shiites increased political influence and rights. The government asserts that radical opposition factions are gaining strength, using bombings and other violent tactics against security officials. 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 reforms 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 made little concrete progress, by all accounts, and the opposition has boycotted the dialogue since mid-September 2013.

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 compromise with the opposition. The U.S. criticism has angered some Al Khalifa officials but it has also dissatisfied the opposition, which asserts that the United States is downplaying regime abuses in order to protect its extensive security relationship with Bahrain. The country has provided key support for U.S. interests by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Persian Gulf for over 60 years. The United States signed a formal defense pact with Bahrain in 1991 and has designated it a “major non-NATO ally.” The designation qualifies Bahrain for sales of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems but, partly to address criticism from human rights advocates and some Members of Congress, since 2011 the Administration has held up sales of armored vehicles, anti-tank weapons, and some small arms and light weapons that could potentially be used against protesters. In May 2012 the Administration announced that it would proceed with the sale to Bahrain of other arms that can be used only 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: November 6, 2013
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: 95-1013
Price: $29.95

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