U.S. efforts to stabilize Bahrain, another key Arab ally roiled in popular uprising, is being threatened on several fronts—including apparent splits in Bahrain’s royal family and a sense of disengagement by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest power.
Whether the U.S. can halt the unrest in Bahrain is viewed as critical to stabilizing the Persian Gulf and checking Iran’s influence. But there is growing uncertainty in Washington over who in the tiny Middle East sheikdom’s royal family ordered the use of increasing force against unarmed protesters, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy.
Successive U.S. administrations have cultivated closed relations with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his son, the crown prince, both of whom are viewed as modernizers. But the island-state’s security forces are under control of the king’s uncle, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who also serves as prime minister.
Previous U.S. administrations have sought to convince King Hamad to remove his 76-year-old relative, according to former U.S. officials, following charges of corruption and his opposition to political liberalization. These officials said there is a growing likelihood Prince Khalifa is overseeing the crackdown, with the king and crown prince relegated to the sidelines.
“Our influence is largely with one part of the ruling family, and not with the prime minister,” said an American official in close contact with Bahrain’s government.
The situation in Bahrain is complicated by U.S. uncertainty over Saudi Arabia’s position on the growing regional turmoil. Riyadh has enormous influence over Bahrain’s royal family due to the financial and energy aid it provides. Riyadh has in the past sent its own security forces into Bahrain to quell unrest, concerned that Bahrain’s Shiite majority could fuel instability inside Saudi Arabia.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and many of his closest advisers have been in Morocco in recent weeks as the Saudi monarch recovers from surgery. That has been seen as limiting the ability of other Saudi royals to make decisions. Other leading members of the Saudi royal family are also said to be in decline physically, particularly the second-in-line, Crown Prince Sultan, who is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Saudi officials voiced disapproval of the Obama administration’s handling of Egypt, in particular its decision to pull its support for President Hosni Mubarak, according to Arab diplomats. There has been little high-level contact between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, U.S. officials said.
“There’s a leadership vacuum in Saudi Arabia, which is clouding the decision-making process,” said Simon Henderson, who tracks Saudi politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Washington’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia has faltered in other theaters in the Middle East as well this year.
Last month, the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah overthrew the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government in Beirut, greatly enhancing Iran’s and Syria’s influence in the Mediterranean nation. Successive U.S. administrations had since 2005 worked with Riyadh to try and bolster former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s backers in Tehran and Damascus. But Saudi Arabia ultimately pulled out of mediating efforts on behalf of Mr. Hariri, as Hezbollah threatened to sow unrest.
The fate of Bahrain, as Egypt before it, is crucial to U.S. strategic interests, and the unrest is showing up the administration’s inability to influence the course of events. Bahrain has been a crucial partner in Washington’s efforts to combat nearby Iran as well as al Qaeda. It sits in a key strategic position in the Persian Gulf and hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet—a home to 3,000 military personnel who oversee the 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors.
“If the U.S. loses Bahrain, they risk losing the Persian Gulf,” said a senior Arab diplomat Friday.
President Barack Obama made his strongest call Friday for an end to the violence in Bahrain, urging the government “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”
King Khalifa announced Friday he had appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to engage in a dialogue with the opposition once calm had returned. U.S. officials in Washington acknowledged this likely wouldn’t quell the protesters.
Officials wouldn’t comment on whether the Obama administration was directly seeking the removal of Prime Minister Khalifa. But the official said the prime minister “is hated by the majority in Bahrain.”
The prime minister, on his website, says he has supported the king’s reforms, specifically his press reforms.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of a Senate panel that oversees foreign aid, has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review whether units of the Bahrain’s security forces used lethal force against civilians in violation of U.S. law, a finding that could prompt the U.S. to freeze assistance to those units.
The law, known as the Leahy Amendment, requires the U.S. to cut off aid to foreign security forces that are found to have committed gross human rights violations, and could provide a point of leverage for the Obama administration.