TSG IntelBrief: Bahrain: Risks to U.S. Interests and Few Easy Solutions
June 5, 2012
As of early June 2012, Bahrain’s uprising is continuing after over one year of demonstrations by the country’s Shiite Muslim majority. Shiites constitute about 65% of the population, but have achieved little political power in a system dominated by the Sunni Muslim community and the ruling Al Khalifa family. Shiites also have virtually no role in Bahrain’s security forces, which are instead augmented by South Asian and Arab expatriate personnel working on contract.
Since the accession of the current King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in 1999, Bahrain’s Shiites have benefited from modest reforms, such as greater inclusion in the cabinet, winning nearly half the seats in the 40-seat elected lower house of parliament, and gaining strong representation in the 40-seat appointed upper house of parliament. Still, these reforms have been considered insufficient by the vast majority of the Bahraini Shiite community, arguing in particular that the lower house of parliament has few formal powers. This resentment was inflamed in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, as the Arab spring erupted in other parts of the Middle East.
From its inception, the uprising in Bahrain has presented U.S. decision-makers with numerous intersecting dilemmas, and also exposed significant contradictions in American foreign policy. Foremost among these is the fact that, despite the Sunni minority-imposed political repression of the Shiite majority outlined above, Bahrain’s ruling family has been a close ally of the United States. The gulf state has hosted the U.S. naval headquarters in the Persian Gulf region for over 60 years, allowed U.S. access to other facilities to include an air base, purchased U.S. weapons, and provided small but symbolic deployments in support of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, Bahrain has been designated by the United States as a “Major Non-NATO Ally,” a distinction bestowed upon only the closest of U.S. regional allies.
This alliance with Bahrain makes the small monarchy a linchpin for U.S. efforts to defend the Persian Gulf from potential Iranian aggression. Further, the relationship with the Bahraini government — and the U.S. policy that seeks to isolate Iran and compel it to renounce much of its nuclear program — has led Washington to give some credence to the regime’s view that Shiite Iran is supporting the domestic Shiite uprising in Bahrain. However, this commonality of views caused problems for the United States when the November 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry — a body established by Royal Order to study the factors driving the unrest — found virtually no concrete links between Iran and the mainstream Shiite political factions leading the uprising.
Perhaps the most significant difficulty for U.S. policy has been the exposure of contradictions in the U.S. reaction to the Arab uprisings over the last year. In the face of unrest, Washington has called for several other Arab leaders to step down, including longtime ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, partner against terrorism Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and brutal dictators Muammar Qadhafi of Libya and Bashar Al Assad of Syria. These demands stemmed from America’s longstanding role as an advocate of democracy and human rights, as well as in the interests of stabilizing or preventing civil conflict that can spill over into neighboring countries.
In the case of Bahrain, however, because of the complex security considerations described above, the U.S. has not called for the ouster of the Al Khalifa family, an apparent shift that has alienated the Shiite opposition from Washington. In explaining its position, the Obama Administration has distinguished Bahrain from the other cases by noting that King Hamad has instituted substantial reforms for over 10 years and has exercised security force restraint that has kept the number of protester deaths below 100 since the uprising began. Still, these arguments have failed to sway members of regional and international organizations promoting human rights and democratic reform who view U.S. policy as fostering an unjust double standard.
The unrest in Bahrain has also created tensions in the crucial U.S.-Saudi relationship — a security alliance considered pivotal to containing Iranian ambitions in the Gulf and to ensuring maximum effectiveness of international sanctions against Iran. The U.S. has sought to mediate the difficult situation in Bahrain and coax the royal family into ever more significant reforms and dialogue with the Shiite opposition. It has also sought to bolster the fortunes of reform-minded members of the regime, such as Crown Prince Salman. During the Crown Prince’s visit to Washington in early May, he met with Vice President Biden as well as with Secretary of State Clinton, who “affirmed the long-standing commitment of the United States to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain.” At the conclusion of this visit, the Obama Administration announced a resumption of some arms sales to Bahrain, a clear effort to support Crown Prince Salman his reformist agenda.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia, the lead country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has taken exactly the opposite approach to that of the United States. At the height of the Bahrain uprising in March 2011 — and against U.S. advice — Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 military personnel in armored vehicles, along with 500 police and paramilitary personnel from the United Arab Emirates, to assist the beleaguered Bahraini security forces in suppressing the uprising. The armed intervention, which lasted three months, represented a clear Saudi line in the sand: Bahrain’s Shiites, no matter how well organized or numerous, would not be allowed to threaten the Al Khalifa regime’s grip on power.
To Saudi Arabia, a successful Shiite uprising in Bahrain would embolden the Kingdom’s own Shiite majority to rise up, and would represent a major Iranian encroachment on the integrity and unity of the six GCC states. The Saudis further pressed this view by agreeing with Bahrain in May 2012 to a political “union” — an idea intended to extend to all GCC states, but which was rebuffed at a GCC leadership meeting on May 14. The Saudis, in a move that runs counter to the American agenda, have sought to boost hardliner, anti-compromise factions in Bahrain’s regime, led by the 81-year old Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the uncle of King Hamad.
The differences between the U.S. and Saudi approaches have left the situation in Bahrain bereft of clear solutions that have universal appeal. The Saudi backing of hardliners in the regime prevents offering more significant compromises with the Shiite opposition, and will weaken the influence of pro-compromise factions in the opposition (such as the Wifaq political society). In turn, U.S. policy, which seeks to continue the close security relations with Bahrain and with Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to undertake significant new steps to compel the regime to introduce more sweeping reforms.
With the unrest at lower levels than in 2011, and with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the de-facto support of the U.S., the Al Khalifa regime is attempting to claim that Bahrain has “returned to normal.” It used the hosting of a Formula One race in April 2012 to bolster that argument, although the opposition simultaneously used the occasion of the race to undertake some of its largest demonstrations in the past year.
Just as with an automobile race, where even the faster drivers end up where they began, the competing interests of Bahrain’s royal family, the country’s Shiite majority, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran are likely to lead in the short run to a political end state that looks very much like where they began.
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