Monday, April 10, 2017

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

The uprising against Bahrain’s Al Khalifa ruling family that began on February 14, 2011, has diminished in intensity, but continued incarceration of dissident leaders, opposition boycotts of elections, and small demonstrations counter government assertions that Bahrain has “returned to normal.” The mostly Shiite opposition has not achieved its goal of establishing a constitutional monarchy, but the unrest has compelled the ruling family to undertake some modest reforms. Reflecting some radicalization of the opposition, underground factions have claimed responsibility for bombings and other attacks primarily against security officials.

The Bahrain government’s use of repression against the dissent has presented a policy dilemma for the Obama Administration because Bahrain is a longtime ally that is pivotal to maintaining Persian Gulf security. The country has hosted the U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf region since 1946; the United States and Bahrain have had a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) since 1991; and Bahrain was designated by the United States as a “major non-NATO ally” in 2002. There are over 8,000 U.S. forces in Bahrain, mostly located at the continually expanding naval headquarters site. Apparently to address the use of force against the uprising, the Obama Administration limited new weapons sales to Bahrain to only those weapons systems that are tailored for external defense, and sharply curtailed U.S. assistance to Bahrain’s internal security organizations led by the Ministry of Interior. Bahrain’s opposition asserts that the United States is downplaying regime abuses in order to protect the security relationship.

The Trump Administration’s stance on Iran comports closely with that of Bahrain’s leadership. Bahrain’s leaders have repeatedly asserted, with corroboration from some U.S. official reports, that Iran is providing material support to violent opposition factions, although the vast bulk of the Bahrain opposition has deep roots in Bahrain and no external backing. Bahrain expressed the same concerns about the Iran nuclear agreement (“Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” JCPOA) that most of the other Gulf states have—that sanctions relief has enabled Iran to expand its regional influence. However, as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consensus, Bahraini leaders have publicly expressed support for the JCPOA as precluding Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Obama Administration made the sale of additional F-16 aircraft to Bahrain contingent on human rights improvements in the country, but the Trump Administration—perhaps as part of its articulated policy to counter Iran’s regional influence—reportedly will drop that condition and complete the sale soon.

Elsewhere within the region, Bahrain has supported a Saudi concept of increased political unity among the GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) and has joined Saudi Arabia-led military action to try to restore the government of Yemen that was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Bahrain has flown strikes against the Islamic State organization in Syria, but not in Iraq. Bahrain has not provided material support to groups fighting President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

Bahrain has fewer financial resources than do most of the other GCC states and has always had difficulty improving the living standards of the Shiite majority. The unrest has, in turn, further strained Bahrain’s economy by driving away potential foreign investment in Bahrain—an effect compounded by the fall in oil prices since mid-2014. Bahrain’s small oil exports emanate primarily from an oil field in Saudi Arabia that the Saudi government has set aside for Bahrain’s use. 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). Some U.S. labor organizations assert that Bahrain’s arrests of dissenting workers should void the FTA.

Purchase at Amazon                                                            Purchase at eStore